I recently received a thoughtful question from a reader that I decided should be best addressed in a separate post. The question was generated by my exchange with Thabiti some months back, and there is no real point in trying to resurrect an old comment thread. So here we are.
The question goes like this. I had asked Thabiti why the abortion carnage was not sufficient grounds for another civil war, wondering why the “moral question” trumps all constitutional matters in the 19th century, but not in the 21st.
My questioner wanted to know what I would do if the tables were turned on me. When would I allow the moral question to trump my federalism? Suppose the War Between the States had never happened, and that today some pro-abortion blue states wanted to secede in order to establish abortion rights. How strong would my commitment to states’ rights federalism be then?
I think it is a great question, and the answer is that you cannot build a federal system when the component parts belong to different civilizations. Neither can you do it when the component parts were once part of the same civilization but have been headed in different directions. But I am running ahead.
My commitment to federalism is pretty strong, but nothing in that category outranks the laws of God. So this means that and so I would want to use the federalism to manage the crack-up. Depending on the circumstances, my inclination would be to let them go. There might be times when fighting with a departing state would be morally necessary, but that would have nothing to do with states’ rights — the same circumstances would require war with a neighboring sovereign state. If you could go to war with Canada over it, then you could go to war with a departing Massachusetts. If not, then not.
The question of secession goes right to the heart of an incipient idolatry of ours that is found in the word indivisible. Only God is indivisible, and all others are pretenders. If the idea of a state going its own way is “unthinkable,” then it would perhaps be a good idea to inquire into why it is unthinkable. Only God is indivisible.
Right next door to the question of secession — a right that the Founders should have made more explicit than they did — is the equally challenging matter of expulsion. There needs to be a mechanism for frog marching somebody to the curb. But enough about California.
A states’ right approach is not the same thing as saying that states know best how to govern themselves. A number of them clearly do not — Illinois springs immediately to mind. States can become tyrannical, and so my questioner asks what would I say about my precious states’ rights when a state was being tyrannical on a significant issue like the right to life, and was (in our thought experiment) at odds with the federal government, which on this matter was in the right. Take the example of New York State liberalizing their abortion laws before Roe v. Wade. During that brief time, a state was running ahead of the central government in this wickedness.
Should pro-life Christians abandon their federalism, and demand that the federal government intervene and do something? Suppose New York wanted to secede rather than give up their abortion?
Quite apart from the inversion of the Bill of Rights after the Civil War, there can be legitimate, constitutional, and necessary restrictions on what a state can and cannot do. A state cannot set up a monarchical form of government for example (Art. 4/Sec 4).
But what happens if they do? I don’t believe the federal government should come in to fix it — that would turn the state into a province. I say this despite the fact that the Constitution says the United States shall “guarantee” each state a republican form of government. It says that, but we don’t have a mechanism for it, and we plainly need one.
I believe that the Constitution should have a provision that would enable the rest of the country to deal with something like this. That provision should allow (say) the Feds to process things in much the same way that we would impeach a president. The House would indict the culprit state, and the Senate would hear the case. If the state is found guilty, they would have three options. The first would be to accept the judgment and fix the problem — the king of South Dakota would return to being a simple governor again. The second option would be for the state to peacefully secede. The third option would be for the Senate to vote to expel that state from the Union.
Such a process would ensure that something like this could be done in an orderly way. What it would not do is create the possibility of “two Americas” developing. That would have already been accomplished by a state adopting a cultural stand at radical variance from many or most of the others. The recent culture war flash points like abortion and homosexual marriage are a case in point.
I can get gumbo and grits more easily in New Orleans than I can in Manchester, New Hampshire. The same goes for hearing live zydeco. These represent variations in a common culture. A farmer with a pickup truck in Wisconsin listens to music all the time that sings about red, Georgia clay, and this, despite the fact that he has never seen any. This is part of the texture of a common culture, and a big part of what makes it so enjoyable to live in a country as big as ours.
But abortion represents an alien civilization. It is ancient Molech worship redivivus. The same sex marriage mirage is same kind of thing. This is not making the same dish with a slightly different recipe. Neither is this gumbo or goulash. It represents an alien civilization, one with a radically different idea of what it means to be human. How could it not be radically different? Mothers cultivate childlessness, wives are male, and husbands are female. Other than that, everything is the same as it was.
This is not making an omelet with three eggs instead of two. It is making an omelet with with three rocks instead of two eggs. And the average diner will not be able to get it down, no matter how many tolerance seminars you make him attend.
The remnants of Christendom and the rising acceptance of the Molech state cannot coexist. One will devour the other. One must give way to the other. The apostles of the aspiring Molech worship know this better than the Christians do. It is a striking fact that the religion of secularism does not have a R2K contingent.
There is a wonderful passage in The Everlasting Man where Chesterton compares the decent (but still lost) pagans of Rome and the dark pagans of Carthage. I think it was because the Carthaginians had what Van Til would later call epistemological self-consciousness. They saw their damnation and doubled down.
So bringing it back to the original question, these two civilizations — secularism and Christianity — cannot be cobbled together, however stout the ropes. I believe that self-government in a federal and decentralized republic is the strongest and best form of civil government. But it is a form of government that has to presuppose a particular kind of civilization. It grows nowhere else.
Which is why . . . Carthago delenda est.