The Presidential Election of 2016 unveiled the growing divide of American culture. We are the most divided we have been since the Civil War. Lincoln saw the problem then and gave his famous House Divided Speech in 1858: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it.” Lincoln knew that the Union could not continue to be half slave and half free, because the two sides no longer shared a common vision for the good of the nation and could no longer work together. “In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.” Lincoln was right. War ensued.
Frédéric le Play, a 19th century French sociologist, noted that the formation of diametrically opposed groups leads to disintegration of society: “Formidable vice that heralds the fall of empires is the antagonism that divides our society into different enemy camps. . . . This antagonism rages both in private and public life. It has developed to the point where persons attached to the same enterprises in industry and commerce believe themselves to have diametrically opposed interests, while others, who might be in a position to devote themselves to the common good, refuse to cooperate, even unofficially, with a government that lacks their sympathy (“Social Reform in France,” in Christopher Blum, Critics of the Enlightenment, 198-99). With such an ideological divide, people see other countrymen and their own government as an enemy.
A perfect example of what Le Play describes can be found in the Spanish Civil War. The Republicans embraced a socialist vision of society with no room for Catholicism, leading (even before the War) to the destruction of churches and countless martyrdoms. Neither side could countenance rule by the other. After Republican rule in the early 1930s, the conservative CEDA coalition came to power in the mid 1930s with a violent reaction in many parts of the country, followed by a return to Republican rule in 1936. So devastating was this election to conservatives that they staged a military coup, with limited success, but which led to three years of gruesome conflict. The conservative Nationalists under Franco won only by resorting to inhumane violence and the purging of opponents.
Politics must avoid these stark divisions at all costs.
St. Thomas Aquinas, writing on kingship, argued that governments are “directed towards securing . . . welfare.” He then defines this welfare and security as the “preservation of its unity, which is called peace” (De Regno, 17). Although he writes that one ruler can bring about unity better that many, we can at least affirm today that there must be a common principle of unity drawing people together. Where there is no unity within the ruling group, cities are torn apart by dissension. A good king causes a city to “enjoy peace, flourish in justice, and delight in prosperity.” Aristotle agrees on the necessity of unity, stating that “the best community is as unified as possible (Politics II chapter 3, 1262a1).
Aquinas describes the need for agreement further:
Furthermore, it is evident that several persons could by no means preserve the stability of the community if they totally disagreed. For union is necessary among them if they are to rule at all: several men, for instance, could not pull a ship in one direction unless joined together in some fashion. Now several are said to be united according as they come closer to being one (De Regno, 18).
Although America was not founded on religious unity, but precisely as a way of preserving unity for those divided by religious confession, it nonetheless could draw upon a common Christian and moral vision to preserve cooperation and peace. The necessity of this religious and moral foundation for society was advocated by Washington and Adams, among others. It is clear now that we have lost such a foundation and are falling into ideological camps.
Peter Beinart rightly, I believe, pointed out that the rapid secularization of America (with the rise of the nones) has not helped, but exacerbated the divide of our country. In an article, Breaking Faith, he points out:
Maybe it’s the values of hierarchy, authority, and tradition that churches instill. Maybe religion builds habits and networks that help people better weather national traumas, and thus retain their faith that the system works. For whatever reason, secularization isn’t easing political conflict. It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum.
The Alt-right and Black Lives Matters are examples of secular extremism on both sides.
Christopher Dawson recognizes that the deepest unity for society comes from a common religious vision and therefore says we must do everything we can to instill a spiritual vision into society to overcome the dominance of the technological control of the Mass State (see Understanding Europe, 244). We have our work cut off for us, but it is necessary that we reevangelize society to preserve its life and unity. Dawson quotes Proverbs 29:18: “Without a vision, the people perish.” If we don’t supply this vision, who will? It is not a vision of one side that must triumph over the other, but a vision of God’s love, which is good for all. It is a vision that requires sacrifice and service for the good of all, including our enemies. If we don’t spread this vision, our house will grow more divided until it can no longer stand.