With so provocative a title, this piece better deliver, even if the question mark does give me an out. I might need an out. Or maybe not.
In January 2020 I penned an article, “The Second American Civil War,” about how Uncle Sam’s progeny have become so enraged, divided, bitter and frustrated that one of the nation’s most respected magazines, Atlantic Monthly, had warned about civil war.
“I remember,” I wrote, “the rancor, the division (even the Weathermen bombings here in the United States), over the Vietnam War. In 1972, at 16 years old, I got my first taste of tear gas at an antiwar protest. (I wasn’t even protesting!) Yet even at the height of the incandescence, such as after Kent State, I never remember . . . anyone talking about civil war.
“But now one of this nation’s oldest and most respected magazines puts out an issue titled ‘How to Stop a Civil War’ as if expecting one unless we find a way to stop it?”
Notice when I wrote those words: January 2020—just two months before the world collapsed into the surreal, science-fiction-like interregnum of COVID-19, which, instead of uniting us (as you might expect from a common threat), only divided us more.
And now, in 2022, Americans have endured two oppressive COVID-19-infected years—locked down, masked, vaccinated (or not)—in which to stew over the things that have us at each other’s throats. (The invasion of Ukraine seems to be one issue that we all agree on, but it’s obviously not enough to make us sing kumbayas together.)
Something new, unknown, and ugly has descended upon the country. Whether on the left, the right, the middle (if there’s anyone there now)—who can’t sense it? “Those many cultural critics,” wrote David French, “who look at the United States of America and declare that ‘something is wrong’ are exactly right. Something is wrong. We all feel it. We all experience it. We all see the results.” And among the results are two different Americas, red and blue (if you will) inhabiting the same country, the same states, the same cities, the same towns, and (in some cases) the same homes. Political, social, racial, and economic divides have always wracked this nation. But now, from sea to shining sea, and across the fruited plains, these divisions seethe in a toxic brew of hatred.
The only thing uniting us is, it seems, this common loathing for the other side. I have seen political Laodiceans mutate into partisan zealots, with little inclination toward compromise or reconciliation. The animosity is so deep that people are talking secession. The nation tried that once before. It was called the American Civil War.
What frightens people, and rightly so, is the loss of trust in our institutions, catastrophic for a liberal democracy that exists only on the consent of the governed. And just now, the governed appear less and less consenting. Whether the Russians stole the election for Trump in 2016 or if corrupt voting officials did for Biden in 2020—it doesn’t matter. What matters is that people on each side believe, even passionately, that the elections were stolen, and belief, not facts, are all that seem to matter anymore—beliefs stoked, fueled, and inflamed by social media. We’re way past facts mattering in American political and cultural discourse.
In a recent article in the Atlantic, Jonathan Haidt wrote about how destructive social media has become to American democracy, including how it has eroded trust in the nation’s institutions. “But when citizens lose trust,” he wrote, “in elected leaders, health authorities, the courts, the police, universities, and the integrity of elections, then every decision becomes contested; every election becomes a life-and-death struggle to save the country from the other side.”
After the 2024 election, regardless of who wins, the losing side is going to incorrigibly declare malfeasance, and social media will enable them to spread their accusations in ways that the mainstream media—possibly the most distrusted institution in America—never could. If things are as frail as many now believe, 2024 could be the last free election in our democracy, at least as we now recognize that democracy.
But isn’t something like this inevitable, considering end-time events? The second beast of Revelation 13, though having “two horns like a lamb,” soon speaks like “a dragon” (Rev. 13:11), and it gets worse from there. For the next six verses (Rev. 13:12-18) the beast symbolizing the United States is depicted as a malevolent power that enforces, through economics and the threat of death, the false worship that Scripture warns about in the third angel’s message (Rev. 14:9-11).
How, possibly, could this happen? Only after radical changes in our form of government, in the very nature of the United States itself. And what’s fascinating is that others who know zilch about the three angels’ messages see America, at least the America that most of us have known, as finished.
“One way or another,” wrote Stephen March in The Next Civil War, “the United States is coming to an end. The divisions have become intractable. The political parties are irreconcilable. The capacity for government to make policy is diminishing. The icons of national unity are losing their power to represent. The threat multipliers from economic and environmental sources are driving an underlying tribalism that is shredding the ability of the political order to respond to threats against its own stability. The Constitution is becoming incoherent.”
And, surely, when our democracy fails, whatever replaces it isn’t going to be sweetness and light, especially if the America that arises next causes “as many as would not worship the image of the beast” to be killed (Rev. 13:15). You don’t need a prophet to see which side of the divide is more likely to do that.
And there’s another important prophetic factor: the rapprochement between “Protestant” America and Roman Catholicism. When Adventists first predicted that this would happen, such a change seemed almost as likely Hamas and Israel kissing and making up. But now this stunning fulfillment of prophecy is so commonplace and accepted that it’s barely talked about.
Christian writer Lee Strobel, the author of the famous The Case for Christ, recently wrote a new book. Strobel’s The Case for Heaven is another example of how, despite our best evangelistic efforts, almost the whole Christian world—not understanding the truth that the dead sleep until the resurrection (first or second)—is ripe for every deception that this error leaves them open to.
Finally, here is Stephen Marche again. “The next civil war in America won’t look like a civil war in a smaller country. The United States is fragile but enormous. Its military might remains unparalleled. Its economy determines the health of the global economy. If the American Republic falls, democracy as the leading political system in the world falls. If democracy falls, the peace and security of the global order falls.”
When Adventists, in the mid-1800s, identified the second beast of Revelation 13 as the United States, the government was still fighting battles with the indigenous population here. And this was the nation that would enforce the mark of the beast on the world?
Spiritualism; Protestants and Catholics united; and a superpower America potentially on the brink of radical transformation, and not for the good, either. As never before, and despite the unknowns, our end-time prophetic scenario seems frighteningly in focus.
Could 2024 be the last free election in America? I hope not, but for the reasons above, I have my fears.
Clifford Goldstein is the editor of the Adult Bible Study Guides at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and a long-time columnist for the Adventist Review.
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