How to step back from an “irrepressible conflict” Skip to content

How to step back from an “irrepressible conflict”

A speaker before the Civil War said the nation was moving toward an “irrepressible conflict.” It seems to be happening again – but Ken Wolf calls for a different approach.

3 min read
Photo by Hasan Almasi / Unsplash

When people in Murray, Mayfield, Benton or other small to medium-sized towns in the west Kentucky section of the Jackson Purchase need to go to a larger hospital nearby, we often go to one of the two hospitals in Paducah: Mercy Health (once called Lourdes) or Baptist Health (once called Western Baptist).

A few years after our family moved to Murray, Lourdes opened a new facility near exit 7 of the new Interstate 24 in 1973. Some years after that, Western Baptist expanded its facilities along Broadway.

One of the most interesting examples of the cooperation between these two religiously-affiliated institutions occurred in the 1970s when we learned of a wise moral accommodation made by Baptist and Lourdes officials.

Since Catholics who operated Lourdes were strongly opposed to abortion and most forms of birth control, Baptist agreed to treat all Ob/Gyn patients needing care in Paducah, and Lourdes agreed to handle all of the city and region’s mental health patients.

Of course, this agreement came in the days before Reagan and the Moral Majority decided to make abortion a major political issue. In the 1970s, many people still saw abortion as a personal, medical issue. Republicans and Democrats then could allow individuals to make moral choices, and dividing the departments in this fashion protected religious freedom for the Catholic hospital who, in turn, treated mental and emotional illnesses.

I saw this win-win or “both-and” approach to staffing as a great way to address both resources and an ethical and political issue.

My point in telling this story is not to condone or condemn abortions, but to show how humans, even Republican and Democratic humans, can find ways to get things done while respecting each other’s differences – and in this case, protecting religious values and religious freedom.

Can we even imagine a such a cooperative and tolerant arrangement being made between our political parties today on issues such as abortion, immigration, or even federal protection of voting rights today? I really doubt it.

In my most pessimistic moments, I fear a civil war, this time fought with digital bits and bytes as well as bullets. In October, 1858, William Henry Seward of New York, who later became Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, gave a speech in which he referred to the dispute between the slave and free states as leading to an “irrepressible conflict.”

Are the current issues polarizing our nation leading to another “irrepressible conflict?”

If so, this time the battle would be between those trying to allow voters to bring change through open and fair elections, and those who want a state in which decisions are made only by the very wealthy, supported by a narrow minority base of people with judgmental views of what is moral and what is not.

The choice would be between real representative democracy and dictatorship by wealthy oligarchs, to use the current term for rich people with power.

Conflicts, however, only become irrepressible or inevitable if the combatants make the battle a moral one, a test of good against evil. That is becoming the case between liberals and conservatives today as both sides increasingly see social and political issues as “a battle between the forces of truth and justice on one side and those of ignorance and bigotry on the other,” to quote centrist Republican New York Times columnist David Brooks.

I highly recommend reading David Brook’s column, which considers the respective strengths and weaknesses of two moral philosophies, and shows Democrats how to get back into the game.

Brook’s essay is also a modern version of what philosophers going back to Plato have called the debate between “the one and the many,” or how to balance the freedom of the individual with the welfare of the community.

We should all think about the importance of balancing the rights of individuals and the needs of a cohesive community—sooner rather than later.


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Ken Wolf

Ken Wolf spent 40 years teaching European and World History, punctuated by several administrative chores, at Murray State University, retiring in 2008. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)