The Deep Breath Before the Plunge

Thoughts from the precipice of profound political conflict.

I’m writing this newsletter in the middle of what we call the “dog days” of summer. It’s the moment in the calendar where—everywhere but Twitter—things seem to slow down. Families are on vacation. Americans are focused on a uniquely perilous and stressful school year. Web traffic tends to dip. Podcasts audiences slack off a bit. But then, soon enough, will come the rush. We are on the verge of one of the most intense political seasons in living memory, one that will strain our nation’s “bonds of affection.”

I’m reminded of a memorable scene in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s Return of the King. Pippin stands at the ramparts of Minas Tirith and stares at the coming storm. “It’s so quiet,” he says. Gandalf replies, “It’s the deep breath before the plunge.” You can watch that moment below:

Readers know that I often write against alarmism, against the “Flight 93” fear-mongering that teaches us that each election represents nothing more than a battle for the very existence of the nation itself. I’m not alone. There are many Americans who are alarmed by alarmism. Yet Flight 93-ism endures. It thrives. Last week, for example, the president of the United States told radio host Hugh Hewitt that if he loses, “China will own the United States.” 

“You’re gonna have to learn to speak Chinese,” he added.

Three days later, he endorsed the view that if he loses, then “America is gone forever.” 

There are two things I believe at once. First, there is nothing about the policies of either the Biden/Harris ticket or the Trump administration that will end America. Bad policy can damage a nation, certainly. The Trump administration’s multiple failures in responding to coronavirus have done great harm. But history has demonstrated that America can absorb dreadful political mistakes, recover, and emerge stronger from the trial.

Second, however, it is absolutely true that hate, fear, dishonesty, and corruption can represent an existential threat to our continued existence as a united republic. Flight 93-ism itself presents a danger. As I outlined in a recent Dispatch Podcast, there is an easily foreseeable potential constitutional crisis that could strain this nation to the breaking point—suppose that Trump again loses the popular vote yet narrowly wins an Electoral College majority while potentially hundreds of thousands (if not millions)of mail-in ballots are disqualified. 

There would be enormous pressure on multiple blue-state governors to reject the results and resist federal authority. As I said in the podcast, this danger is so plain that it’s like we’re on the deck of the Titanic yelling, “Iceberg, iceberg, iceberg!” and no one is listening.

I’m not the only one concerned that the chief threat to America doesn’t come from a foreign foe or a policy proposal, but rather through our deep polarization. Writing in The Atlantic, former secretary of defense, James Mattis, one of our nation’s greatest living generals, sounded a clear alarm. Hearkening back to Abraham Lincoln’s prescient warnings before the Civil War, Mattis said this:

Lincoln warned that the greatest danger to the nation came from within. All the armies of the world could not crush us, he maintained, but we could still “die by suicide”

And now, today, we look around. Our politics are paralyzing the country. We practice suspicion or contempt where trust is needed, imposing a sentence of anger and loneliness on others and ourselves. We scorch our opponents with language that precludes compromise. We brush aside the possibility that a person with whom we disagree might be right. We talk about what divides us and seldom acknowledge what unites us.

He added that our dangers are not in our differences. Indeed, differences are inevitable. Instead, our dangers are in “the tone—the snarl, the scorn, the lacerating despair.”

While I was doing research for my new book, Divided We Fall, I looked again at the timing and causes of the Civil War. No, I was not trying to outline any kind of alternative history. You won’t find “Lost Cause” mythology in my pages. The ultimate cause of the Civil War was the South’s desire to preserve (and even expand) slavery. Just read the secession documents. The Confederates didn’t hide their motives. 

But I had a different question, why did an institution that had already existed in the colonies and the American nation for 232 continuous years suddenly then spark the most vicious and deadly armed conflict the United States has experienced, before or since? One of the answers is immediately relevant to us today—irrational hate and fear. 

Not only were Southerners unwilling to accept the results of a free and fair election, they were also consumed with the idea that the North hated the South, even to the point of believing that the North endorsed deadly violence against the South.

John Brown’s raid, for example, combined with Northern celebration of Brown as a martyr, had an extraordinary effect on the South. I’ll quote a bit from my book, which draws from James McPherson’s seminal one-volume history of the war, Battle Cry of Freedom

[M]ost of Brown’s eulogists drew a contrast between his “errors of judgment” and the “nobleness of his aims”—even to the point of calling his raid on Harpers Ferry “insane.” Horace Greeley called it “the work of a madman.” But this “distinction between act and motive was lost on southern whites.” They were cast into an “unreasoning fury.” They perceived “only that millions of Yankees seemed to approve of a murderer who had tried to set the slaves at their throats.” The resulting public reaction to northern approval of Brown “provoked a paroxysm of anger more intense than the original reaction to the raid.”

Here's McPherson:

The North “has sanctioned and applauded theft, murder, treason,” cried De Bow’s Review. Could the South afford any longer “to live under a government, the majority of whose subjects or citizens regard John Brown as a martyr and a Christian hero?” asked a Baltimore newspaper. No! echoed from every corner of the South.

The lesson from history is clear. Profound divisions create the kindling for conflict, yet it takes hate and fear to provide the spark that ignites the flame. Thankfully, we face neither the level of profound division (the differences between red and blue are not as stark as the differences between slave and free) or yet the same level of deadly enmity. But the trends are not good, especially when so many politically engaged Americans seem set on exaggerating our divisions and creating the perception that each election has existential stakes. 

And if you think important American voices aren’t trying to stoke an extraordinary amount of fear, think again. Remember Tucker Carlson’s warnings—at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests? “This may be a lot of things, this moment we are living through, but it is definitely not about black lives and remember that when they come for you, and at this rate, they will.”

“When they come for you.” Those words are a spark, but thankfully the kindling is not yet ready for the flame. 

In the clip at the beginning of this newsletter, Pippin says,“I don't want to be in a battle. But waiting on the edge of one I can't escape is even worse.” That’s the position of countless Christians—of countless citizens of all faiths and world views—as we stand on the precipice of profound political conflict. 

Or, to repeat a scene from Fellowship of the Ring, the first Lord of the Rings movie, Frodo laments to Gandalf, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” And Gandalf responds, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Scripture guides our decision, and as it does so many times, scripture presents us with a difficult task—seek justice, but also be at peace. Fear not, for God is sovereign. In fact, even as our anxieties can reach a fever pitch, the words of the prophet Isaiah should echo in our minds and hearts:

Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
    and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
    behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.

And who takes care of God’s people? Hint—it’s not the rulers of this world:

He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead those that are with young

How sovereign is God over the affairs of this earth? Christ himself answered: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” As the Apostle Paul told the men of Athens, God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” 

Given that we know who controls the destiny of our nation and the fate of its people, do we not more fully understand Paul’s admonition in 2 Timothy 1:7—“for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”

Understanding God’s sovereignty is not to surrender fatalism. We have our role to play in God’s plan, and seeking justice is the eternal command for every living generation. But understanding God’s sovereignty should be an antidote to fear—just as God’s commands to love our enemies and to bless those who persecute us should be an antidote to fury and hate. 

And so we must ask ourselves. In the coming weeks, which voice will we hear the loudest, the one who says “they” are coming for you? Or the one who reminds us that the Good Shepherd takes care of his sheep?  

Yes, we are in the midst of the “deep breath before the plunge.” And when the plunge occurs, followers of Christ should be the American community that is both among the most active in the pursuit of true justice and the least fearful and most kind as we face the future. Otherwise, as history teaches us, our own rage may help bring about the very calamities we fear the most.

One more thing…

Next week, I’m going to end with some new music, but I got such a positive response from readers after last week’s song by Brooke Ligertwood, I thought I’d go back to the well one more time—with a song that virtually every Evangelical has heard. It’s a comforting reminder of who ultimately defines who we are. Thank God it’s not us: