An uncanny number of people are imagining the looming collapse of the United States.
Some speak openly of preparing for “civil war,” while others crow about the need for a “national divorce” between red and blue states. Most, though, whisper these thoughts. They look at a country seemingly at the breaking point and begin to wonder whether we may indeed be heading for a national conflict of some kind.
To answer such questions, perhaps even the most secular Americans should look to a religious phenomenon that has proven in years past to be a leading indicator of our nation’s future: church splits.
In the Baptist tradition, the year 1845 was key—we learned about it in church history alongside other momentous years like 325 (the Council of Nicaea) and 1517 (the start of the Protestant Reformation). In 1845, the denominational structure I grew up in—the Southern Baptist Convention—was formed.
We always spoke of our founding as having been spurred by a passion for world missions and evangelization. And yet most of us knew that 1845 wasn’t really a “founding” at all; it was a split. Yes, there was a dispute between northern and southern Baptists over the nature of missions—but the real debate was over whether to appoint slaveholders as missionaries.
What’s relevant about this split is, first, that it happened alongside similar splits in almost every other American Protestant denomination, most notably the Methodists and the Presbyterians. What’s also noteworthy is the timeframe: These splits happened well before the actual onset of civil war—the Baptists’ split took place a full 16 years before.
If people had wondered then whether the country would hold together, they could have seen an eerie omen in the fact that its churches seemed to be tearing apart.
In those years, our churches and denominations were splitting not over the deity of Christ or the right way to baptize but over the exact same issue dividing the country as a whole: whether to perpetuate human slavery and proliferate white supremacy. And the religious divisions happened just as the political ones did—roughly along the Mason-Dixon Line.
Several years ago, I asked an older, lifelong Missourian minister in my tradition why so much fighting seemed to happen in the Missouri Baptist Convention. Sure, there was fighting everywhere, but Missouri seemed even more on edge than most places.
“It’s because we were a border state in the Civil War,” he said. “Nobody could be sure back then whose side anybody was on, so there was a kind of mistrust that just became a habit. That’s affected the churches till this day.”
I’m not sure whether his diagnosis is accurate, but we cannot deny that many clashes linger, sometimes for generations—long after everyone has forgotten what the fight was about in the first place.
Most places split neatly along regional and political lines. If one went to church in Massachusetts, that church—whether it was white or Black—was probably abolitionist. And if one went to a white church in Alabama—almost regardless of denomination—that church was probably pro-slavery.
The churches split before the country did, but for all the same reasons. The only difference was that once the country came back together—following the victory of the Union and the emancipation of enslaved people—the churches remained apart. Some of them are still split more than 150 years later.
This came to mind as I started paying attention to the fact that almost every church tradition in this country seems to be splintering right now. Yet this fragmentation seems quite different from the kind we saw back in the 19th century.
The United Methodist Church, for instance, is undergoing a formal split into at least two different churches over the presenting issue of human sexuality. The more “progressive” forces are staying within the existing structure, while the more “conservative” ones are joining with Methodists around the world—especially in the Global South—to form the Global Methodist Church.
This split makes sense to me. After all, most people would agree that the division is about more than just sex. For those who, like me, are more conservative, the issue is about the authority of Scripture. Those who are more progressive view it as a question of basic human rights and inclusivity. Both groups agree that the stakes, although different for each faction, are equally high—and there’s no way to meet in the middle.
When it comes to the future of American democracy, though, the most interesting point is not why but how the split is happening.
I asked a pastor of a large Methodist congregation what took the churches in the denomination so long to figure out that they must go in different directions. He responded, “You are looking at this wrong, and a lot of people do. People think there are conservative churches and progressive churches and we just put the one group in one denomination and the other in another and then we’re all happy. You’re wrong.”
“Most congregations are not ‘blue’ or ‘red,’ if you want to use the partisan political analogy,” he said. “Most of the conservative congregations are 30 percent progressive, and most of the progressive congregations are 30 percent conservative. We’re not talking about a dividing line going down the middle of a denomination but a dividing line going down the middle of almost every individual church.”
After that conversation, I started asking different questions of my Methodist friends. I asked one group of pastors, “When the Methodist Church splits, where is your congregation going?” One answered, “Thirty percent of my church wants to stay put, 30 percent wants to leave, and 30 percent just want everybody to get along. Ten percent don’t know that anything’s going on.” Many others nodded.
I then asked, “So what are y’all going to do?” One of the pastors quipped, “Take early retirement,” and the others laughed and said “Amen!” I’m not sure they were joking.
Yet their situation tracks with the state of the country—perhaps not in the reason for the division but in how it is playing out.
As many have pointed out, the idea of blue states and red states is not really accurate. California is blue, but what about Bakersfield? Texas is red, but what about Austin? Washington is blue, but what about Spokane? Louisiana is red, but what about New Orleans? And that reality is not just about urban areas in primarily rural states or the reverse. Even in the reddest part of America, at least a third of the people are blue, and vice versa.
This is why those who study civil wars and national breakdowns are warning us that a “national divorce” could indeed happen but that it won’t look like the firing on Fort Sumter. Instead, many of them say it could look much more like Northern Ireland of years past—with violent outbreaks and insurgencies and the sort of division that can’t be charted on a map.
In that sense, maybe the warning for our future is not in the split-up of the United Methodist Church—even with all its local complexities. Maybe the warning is what’s happening in almost every other denomination.
In many denominations and churches, the ones who are fueling the division don’t necessarily want to “win” or govern anything; they simply wish to channel their rage at existing institutions and express contempt at the real or imagined “elites.” Unlike the debates over sexual morality or biblical inerrancy, these insurgencies are usually about not theology or mission but the very secular forces fracturing the country.
For more conservative and evangelical churches or denominations, such insurgencies are often composed of ethnonationalist alt-right identity politics—and/or resentment of the norms and institutions that have held the groups together. How well these groups navigate the situation is determined largely by the way their leaders react.
In some church groups, leaders recognize that they must distinguish between those who dissent from some aspect of church life—an objection that should be respected and protected—and those who are, in reporter Amanda Ripley’s memorable words, “conflict entrepreneurs.”
In churches or denominations where leaders prioritize their positions or pensions—as is the case in much of the country’s civil arena—such insurgents will be appeased. This is especially true for leaders who are nihilistic since they will do and say anything.
Churches and denominations that will overcome all this are those that believe there is a higher accountability: the judgment seat of Christ and the authority of Scripture. For them, what matters is not just who wins or loses but what sorts of personal character and integrity mark those who win or lose.
I fully expect that the United States is resilient enough to overcome its present divisions and to conserve democracy for generations to come. But it won’t happen by pretending this will just occur on its own—or that some imagined superheroes will rescue us. Such a feat will take, as it has before, citizens who are willing to stand up for the norms and rules and institutions that have kept the country together thus far.
In the meantime, if we want to know where the country is heading, perhaps we should pay attention not just to the fact that our churches are splitting but to how they are splitting.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.
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