Ever since “red states” and “blue states” entered our popular lexicon in the weeks following the 2000 election, Americans have understood that our country’s citizens have taken two divergent paths at the fork in the road. Twenty years later, the possibility that those paths will converge one day seems more and more remote. That is why a word that has long been forbidden in American discourse has gained traction in recent years: secession.
In most Americans’ minds, “secession” conjures up images of the Civil War, slavery, and racism. It represents the darkest and bloodiest hour of our nation’s history, when families were divided and brother fought against brother. Because the term is linked in our minds to a long and nearly crippling war, we naturally recoil at the idea of secession. Additionally, the mythology subconsciously espoused by many Americans that our country is divinely ordained to extend freedom throughout the world makes the suggestion that America could decrease in size unfathomable to most of us.
Yet, people are now talking seriously about the possibility of secession. The proximate cause is the shenanigans associated with the most recent presidential election. A large number of Americans believe that the candidate likely to be sworn in on January 20, 2021 was the beneficiary of fraud on a large scale. If this is the case, then the political system is fundamentally broken; an increasing number of Americans are questioning the efficacy of continuing the charade of a united country.
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So, can a Catholic support the idea of secession?
Let’s take a step back first. Is secession legal? One of the greatest American Catholic legal minds, Antonin Scalia, argued that it is not. “If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War,” he wrote, “it is that there is no right to secede.” With all due respect to the late Justice Scalia, and with a little trepidation about contradicting him, this makes no sense. When one political body secedes from another, the seceding body is rejecting the authority of the first. In other words, all laws in effect in the original nation are no longer applicable to the seceding nation, since it is no longer part of that original nation. Asking if secession is legal, then, is actually nonsensical, for the people seceding do not recognize the laws of the original country.
But even if it’s “legal,” is it moral? Because Americans equate secession with a bloody civil war, many argue that if you support secession, you support needless bloodshed. But bloodshed is not a foregone conclusion. In the early 1990s, fifteen Soviet republics seceded from the Soviet Union without a civil war. In 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia without sparking a violent conflict. Other examples are littered throughout history, particularly recent history. Secession can be peaceful, and it is peaceful secession that I am considering here.
From a Catholic point of view, the benefits of secession include new opportunities for legal protection of the unborn, reduced cultural and political conflict, and more robust subsidiarity.
Secession would provide better prospects for legal protection of the unborn. Some Catholics argue that abandoning the union would be abandoning the unborn in the new leftist/socialist nation-states that would be formed. If California, for example, were to leave the union, it’s unlikely it would ever restrict abortion in any way.
However, the frank reality is that pro-lifers have been working to restrict abortion at the federal level for almost fifty years with no success. What’s more, the successes pro-lifers do eke out at the state level are often nullified at the federal level. The biggest enemy of the unborn in this country is the federal machinery that keeps abortion legal in all fifty states. However, if a state like Texas (for instance) were an independent nation, there would be nothing stopping it from outlawing abortion.
Yes, abortion would still be legal in California, just as it is in our current fifty-state union. But at least some babies would be protected instead of none.
Secession could also lead to less overall cultural and political conflict. Religious freedom has been disappearing over the years, but a new nation-state could restore that freedom without fear that the justices in D.C. would override it. Gay “marriage” could be outlawed without significant controversy in many new, independent nation-states. Most of our public discourse today consists of one side trying to force its views on the other when two views are irreconcilable. The worldview of a Coastal elite is simply incompatible with the worldview of a Midwestern religious believer. A peaceful separation would allow individual groups to live and govern as they believe is best, instead of what we are experiencing now, which is essentially an oligarchy enforcing its ideology on us all.
Finally, the past century has seen a dramatic rise in the power of the federal government over the lives of ordinary citizens. Everyone, from the farmer in Iowa to the actor in Hollywood, must conform to what the elites and their bureaucratic armies in Washington tell them to do. That makes for an inherently unjust system, and one that is contrary to the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. Catholic political thought recognizes that those closer to a situation are often better equipped to handle it. The rise of various nation-states out of the massive United States would result in a significant boost to subsidiarity, increasing the likelihood of more just laws in many of those new nation-states.
Of course, secession would also raise a whole host of challenges. Many of the new nation-states might quickly become far more anti-Catholic than the United States currently is. It’s easy to imagine an independent New York trampling over the rights of Catholics if there is no pesky Constitution to worry about.
Yet if we’ve learned anything over the past 50 years, it is that the Constitution is merely a speed bump, not a roadblock, to the progressive agenda.
There is also the practical challenge of how exactly to divide the nation. Although we like to talk about red states and blue states, the reality is that America is mostly divided in a rural/urban split, with the suburbs going either way depending on their history. How would the land be physically divided in such a scenario?
Most likely, any division would involve some people moving to other areas in order to be in a new country that best represents their views. Undoubtedly, though, the divisions would not neatly follow current state lines. For example, it’s unlikely that eastern Washington or eastern Oregon would want to remain aligned with the coastal regions of their respective states.
Foreign policy presents another challenge for an American secession movement. Secession opponents fear weakening American hegemony across the world. Would a divided America result in greater global influence for China or Russia? Would it lead to a possible invasion by those countries?
It’s impossible to say for sure, but there is no reason that a divided America could not remain a confederation of allies when it comes to military defense. An attack on any one new American nation-state could be considered an attack on all nation-states.
Further, decades of being the world’s policeman has led to an array of needless foreign excursions and conflicts. A divided America would be less likely to be involved in an unending, mission-less conflict in Afghanistan, for example. It’s clear that most of these conflicts in recent years have been contrary to the Catholic “just war” theory—not to mention unconstitutional. The “American values” we export through our military might and cultural influence are increasingly antithetical to Catholic morality.
Is American secession realistic? Or is it just the wishful thinking of a few deluded individuals? There’s no question a secession movement would face many difficult obstacles. However, as our country drives itself further and further away from its historic Judeo-Christian values, Catholics should be seriously thinking about how to peacefully overcome those obstacles if we want to preserve religious freedom and justice at least in some places on this continent.
If secession is inevitable, then the longer it is put off, the more likely it becomes that violent conflict will be the only remaining option. Secession might well be the most peaceful means to move forward, when the alternative is using the force of the state to keep people together who want to go their separate ways.
[Ryan M. Kelly/AFP via Getty Images]