I share two recent personal experiences this week and seek to make sense of them in light of broader trends in our politics. I found each episode at once unsettling, concerning and frustrating.
- I live in a small city with a population of roughly 30,000 whose crime rate is extremely low. Indeed, the local police deal primarily with traffic violations, misdemeanors and larceny of various stripes. Reports of felony violent crimes are rare. I was therefore more than surprised while riding my bicycle in a neighborhood of beautifully kept homes and high property values in my community to see on successive days a middle-aged man carrying a handgun quite visibly on his hip as he undertook what I perceived to be his daily constitutional. Assuming he has a permit for the weapon, Virginia law certainly allows him to carry the firearm in public. Nevertheless, to say this picture was incongruous is to understate the reality. Accordingly, I found myself wondering what might motivate such behavior. Why would someone carry a deadly weapon while walking along a quiet residential street in an upscale neighborhood in the afternoon in a very safe city? Indeed, I cannot think of any area of my community where such would be dubbed necessary against any criteria of which I can conceive.
- I recently attended services with my eldest son and listened to his minister explain to the assembled congregation that the bishops of their church had called on all parish pastors to preach on that and the following Sunday about the perceived assault on religious liberty of that denomination’s faithful by the United States government. Church leaders announced this “Fortnight for Religious Freedom” to bring attention to an alleged attack on the faith community’s liberty to believe what they wished. While the pastor was strident in his claims concerning the government’s supposed suppression of his conscience and that of his flock, I was baffled by his remarks as I knew of no evidence that the federal government had taken steps to prevent any believer from believing what he or she wished. And indeed, the minister did not present any. Rather, he simply asserted generally and darkly that dreadful things were occurring. However, so far as I am aware, we are not living through a government-sponsored persecution of any faith or sect in this nation; a Kristallknacht is certainly not underway in the United States, nor is the government using Stalinesque tactics to stifle and undermine America’s churches. So, why the purple rhetoric from the pulpit about how the nation is working to take away these believers’ freedom of conscience?
I cannot know why the gentleman in my city felt compelled to carry a firearm in a very safe environment, but seeing him brought to mind the fact that the National Rifle Association (NRA) has for some years now told Americans in multi-million dollar ad campaigns that any regulation of gun purchases (of almost any sort) constitutes a wholesale abrogation of their right to bear arms. In short, that advocacy group has argued that one amendment to the Constitution is unconditional in character and has contended that anything less than an individual’s unfettered capacity to buy and use virtually any sort of weapon constitutes a terrible deprivation of their rights and freedom. With each mass shooting tragedy in recent years, the NRA and the gun manufacturing industry have argued that these attacks highlight the need for more armed citizens, rather than any additional regulation of weapons. In this view, individuals with firearms need not fear anyone since they can defend themselves or, put less politely, shoot the individual they fear or perceive as an aggressor. It is obvious, but should still be noted, how self-serving this claim is for the industry’s sales and how fundamentally misleading the central tenet of the NRA’s stance is since the federal government has never embraced anything like a complete removal of Americans’ right to bear arms, nor even considered adopting such a stance.
Likewise, the kerfuffle that occasioned this church’s call on its ministers to preach to their flocks that their freedom of conscience was under attack had nothing to do with such occurring. Rather, it was the product of that institution’s American bishops’ decision to reject a negotiated agreement with the national government concerning how to handle insurance and service provision at that denomination’s hospitals under the nation’s new health care framework in a way that could recognize that faith’s beliefs. While many analysts thought the compromise the government offered reasoned and reasonable, the bishops rejected it. In short, the disagreement was not really about disallowing beliefs or worse, but about the church’s institutional role and power. But those in the pews were instead urged to believe that the government was not merely disagreeing with their church hierarchy on a regulatory matter well within its purview, but undermining their individual freedom of conscience. However justified by those who pressed it, this claim, like that offered by the NRA, was not simply factually incorrect, it was fundamentally misleading.
In sum, my two personal experiences have given me pause to reflect on current U.S. advocacy and mobilization politics and three major trends stand out for me. First, both the NRA and the church have recently offered unqualified and grotesquely simplified claims and sought to galvanize their adherents around those far-reaching assertions, rather than acknowledge the rather more banal and complex facts actually at play. At the same time, both advocacy efforts defined compromise as perilous and unfaithful. Second, in each instance, advocates made the government into a sort of boogeyman in business simply to target and take away the rights of those beset. Each mobilization narrative set up the government as responsible for alleged actions that in fact had not occurred. Finally, the supposition among advocates seems to be that one should never use a lesser strategy when the equivalent of a “nuclear option” is available. The NRA has sought to play on citizen fears of crime and of rights deprivation, and has shrilly and repeatedly characterized the national government (and some states’) as anxious to deprive citizens of their constitutional rights and wantonly expose them to terrible possibilities in so doing. The conclusion these advocates press is that one should therefore fear the government most and blame it, too, for one’s other anxieties, which situation can only truly be assuaged by more and easier availability of weapons. Similarly, church officials chose not to accept an agreement with the government and then set out to tell their faithful that they did so because of attacks on their flock’s freedom of conscience. As with the NRA, the hierarchy launched a national campaign to cry wolf in an unconditional way. And like the Rifle Association’s claims, too, nothing resembling the posited scenario had or was occurring.
All of this is more than worrisome. We appear increasingly to have an advocacy politics of mobilization that scapegoats governments for actions never undertaken, that very often appeals deliberately to deep-seated emotions to spur action even as it misleads citizens concerning the issues in play by presenting them in the starkest and most negative possible light while dubbing any compromise or alternate stance a travesty. All of these trends present difficult challenges to securing anything like deliberative democratic governance in our heterogeneous society.