Monday, July 19, 2010
Ultimately, it is inexpedient to faith and injurious to religion for one to claim to know the will or plan of God in partisan politics. As it always seems to turn out, it’s not all that good for politics either.
I will confess that I am uneasy when I hear someone talking about an event they participated in or an experience they had or a circumstance that has occurred in their life, and then somewhere in the remarks, they say something like “this is God’s will for my life” or “this is part of God’s plan for me.”
I don’t use that kind of language to describe either my own spirituality or my experience in life, and maybe that’s the reason why I’m uneasy when I hear it from others. It seems somehow pretentious, a bit gnostic, to lay claim to knowing even a fragment of the divine purpose that is not otherwise disclosed to others of like religious faith. It also seems too individualistic for my comfort, and I imagine what others might think or feel when they hear the certitude of one so confident in their role in the divine plan.
This brings us to Sharron Angle, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate from Nevada. During the weekend of July 10-11, 2010, she was interviewed by Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, and now founder and chairman of Faith and Freedom Coalition. When asked by Reed how she might explain her sudden political rise on the national stage, she answered, “I believe that God has been in this from the beginning and because of that when he has a plan and a purpose for your life and you fit into that, what he calls you to, he always equipped you for.”
Earlier in June, Angle was interviewed by Bill Manders, a radio talk-show host on KOH in Reno, Nevada. He pressed Angle, who opposes abortion in any circumstance, to say whether there was any reason for abortion, including the circumstance of rape or incest. Angle replied by saying, “You know, I'm a Christian and I believe that God has a plan and a purpose for each one of our lives and that he can intercede in all kinds of situations and we need to have a little faith in many things.”
Some days following this, Angle was interviewed by radio news host Alan Stock of KXNT in Las Vegas. When Stock asked her to clarify her position as she expressed it earlier in her interview with Manders, Angle said, “There is a plan and a purpose, a value to every life no matter what its location, age, gender or disability.” When pressed further on whether she would hold on to her stated view, even in the case where a young girl was raped by her father and found to be pregnant by him, Angle declared, “I think that two wrongs don't make a right. And I have been in the situation of counseling young girls, not 13 but 15, who have had very at risk, difficult pregnancies. And my counsel was to look for some alternatives, which they did. And they found that they had made what was really a lemon situation into lemonade.”
Now this is not the place to take up a critical discussion on the strengths and liabilities of the varying theological views of divine predestination, though there seems to be some forms of determinism lurking here. Nor do I want to argue against the idea that there is a place for religious faith and moral conviction in the public sphere and in public debate.
Rather, as persons of faith in the public sphere, we need to remind ourselves that no society, culture, nation or political party or system can legitimately claim to be closer or truer to God than another, or more reflective of, or imbued with, God’s truth. The attempt to mix, separate, or identify religious values and cultural-political values is one fraught with peril.
Consider Angle’s statement about God’s role in her candicacy. When a statement like this is put in a particular social and political context, it begs questions like these: If it was God’s plan that Angle win the Republican nomination, does that also mean that it was God’s plan that her competitors lose? If her political rise is God’s plan, does that not also require that the political fall of her rivals be equally included in the divine plan?
The problem with this individualistic talk about God’s plan is that it leaves out the unspoken but nonetheless present implications or effects of this divine will for others. In themselves, such statements may seem to be innocuous, innocent expressions of personal piety or even inadvertent vocalizations of civil religion. But they are also readings and interpretations of circumstances that extend beyond the immediate and involve the lives of others.
When the sole survivor of a fatal auto crash remarks that it was God’s will that he survive, the implication is that the survival of the deceased was not, or that their death was God’s will. When a young girl is pregnant as a result of incestuous rape, bringing the fetus to term as part of the divine plan also entails that the intercourse itself was part of the same plan. Advocating from such access to God’s purpose and plan, in the final analysis, reveals a rather arbitrary and capricious deity.
Was it God's will that Barack Obama win the presidential election in 2008? If so, how can that be known and why are so many religious conservatives decrying his election, effectively contesting the divine plan? If it was not God's will, how can this be known, and doesn't his election signify the possibility that God's plan can be successfully thwarted? On what basis can one claim that a particular political outcome is in the purpose of God, for good or ill? More importantly, how can one person (or many persons) justify the claim that a candidacy is God's plan and purpose, and do so with credibility, without the appearance of pandering or idolatrous self-promotion?
What people of faith want to know is that God is sovereign, in control, with a purpose and a plan. Theistic religions of many types seek generally to affirm this, and it does merit full and frank discussion. But as the politicization of God’s will shows, this is profoundly problematic when such religious sensibility and interpretation are brought into the larger mundane arena of our social and political circumstances. When diverse moral communities encounter or collide with each other in the public sphere, both the civic order and the religious worlds are needlessly impaled on indefensible rhetoric, regardless of the political ideology from which it comes.
Rather than co-opt God into our partisan politics, it would be better that we let Lincoln be our guide, as he remarked in his second inaugural address in 1865: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right” … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations” (emphasis mine).
Monday, July 5, 2010
I understand that slightly more than half of the members of the U.S. Supreme Court believe that the Second Amendment right to own a firearm in this country is inviolable. They have now made that clear in their 5-4 decision on McDonald v. City of Chicago, striking down the Chicago’s 30-year old handgun ban and extending to all the states the protections of the amendment. Okay, I get that.
What I don’t understand is why that unassailable right to “keep and bear arms” trumps the right to public safety. And I really can’t grasp how expanding the number of guns and the people who have them will reduce the volume of gun violence in this country. Is this an individualized version of the policy of mutually-assured destruction (MAD)? Is there any evidence to suggest that this court decision will not result in the increase in the sale of firearms? It appears that one result of the court’s decision is a way of life in society where deterrence is the desired effect, rather than the promotion of the common good.
I don’t know what the odds are that my home will be invaded, or that I will be mugged on the street. My guess is that neither of these is likely to happen, or at least I hope not. What is interesting to me, however, is that many of the commentators happy about the court’s decision are now saying that there will be less crime because criminals will be mindful that their intended victims are more likely to be packing heat. Instances of breaking-and-entering, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault will decline because perpetrators can no longer assume that their targets will be unarmed. Indeed, the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action is quick to point out that there is less violent crime in those states where it is lawful to carry a gun.
So we are launching out into a brave new world. The near-universal right to own a firearm is not yet exceeded by the number of venues where it can be permissibly carried, but we can be fairly certain that gun enthusiasts and their lobbyists will continue to contest every effort to reign in the proliferation of firearms. For the moment, the court has made it very clear that the right to own firearms for the purpose of providing a militia is no longer in play. What we have, now, as a reason to guard the right to own a gun is self-defense in one’s home.
It would seem to me, however, that the number and type of circumstances where a firearm could be used as a means of self-defense are much more likely to occur outside the home, so one way or another, we are looking at further relaxation of state laws that guarantee the right to bear one’s arm in public. According to the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, currently 40 of the 50 states grant right-to-carry permits to persons who meet state-established standards. A handful of others have minimal restrictions (Connecticut and Alabama), or no restrictions (Alaska, Arizona, and Vermont). Another handful have very high restrictions and two, (Illinois and Wisconsin) do not allow persons to carry firearms, or, as the NRA-ILA says, this “right” to carry a weapon in these two states is “infringed.”
Now I’m all for self-defense, and I certainly see the logic of the idea that one can more effectively defend oneself if one has lethal force at one’s disposal. Does anyone really doubt that if one is carrying a weapon and suddenly finds oneself threatened with bodily harm, that one would chose not to use it in self-defense? Of course not. Brandish it, but not fire it? Hardly. In fact, what has happened in this scenario is that the likelihood of gun violence has only increased.
Police officers in Chicago, whose handgun ban has now been overturned, told reporters for the Chicago Tribune that “crime rates are lower in the city than they were in the 1990s,” and that “most murders involving handguns take place on the street. At least half are gang-related, and the majority of both victims and offenders have criminal records.” With only a modicum of despair, one office noted, “Half of our day is spent protecting criminals from other criminals.” Precisely the ones who (a) cannot lawfully own a firearm let alone carry one or use one, and thus (b) are not affected by the court’s decision.
The people at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, using data provided by the CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, report that in one year, 30,896 people died from gun violence and 78,622 people survived gun injuries. By comparison, during all the Vietnam War, 58,226 military personnel lost their lives and 153,303 were wounded. Each year, by comparison, approximately 43,000 are killed in automobile accidents. So far, as of June 27, 2010, the number of persons who have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stands at 5,521.
Again, according to the Brady Campaign, gun death rates are higher in those states where there are higher rates of household gun ownership. When states with the highest levels of ownership are compared to states with the lowest, the highest states have 114% higher gun-related homicide rates. Indeed, according to one study by researchers at the Center for Injury Control at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, “guns kept in homes are more likely to be involved in a fatal or nonfatal accidental shooting, criminal assault, or suicide attempt than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense.” So much for the court’s argument on self-defense.
What is missing in the court’s decision and all the glee among its supporters is recognition that this ruling accentuates and legitimizes and further establishes our violent character as a nation. Its premise is that violence is best met with and countered by violence, that the best way to fend off a violent attack is to practice violence in turn, including lethal violence. It clearly supposes that the way to reduce violence is to increase the capacity and means to inflict it. Moreover, it authorizes the privatization of state-sanctioned violence; each can now be given the requisite permission to own and carry—and in certain circumstances, use—a firearm to injure or take the life of another.
It might be unreasonable to expect the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the principles of non-violence and the sacredness of all life in struggling to find a way to validate the Second Amendment. Unfortunately, these were not enshrined in the Constitution. Nonetheless, it certainly isn’t reasonable—or moral—to put at risk the right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and natural law and biblical ethics, by the vagaries of a court majority that believes everyone has the right to pull the trigger.