The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world. ~ Reinhold Niebuhr
Reinhold Niebuhr is President Barack Obama's favorite theologian—favorite philosopher, he has told the press, because "theologian" is a suspect category, as I know better than most. In his Nobel Prize speech, Mr. Obama channeled Mr. Niebuhr's philosophy that politics was about taking action, however imperfect that action might be. But in the face of one of the most powerful political organizations in America, the National Rifle Association, he and his presidential opponent Mitt Romney have become suddenly mute in the face of the problem of easy access to guns, ammo, and magazines that have made the violent rampages of many recent mass-murderers possible.
Although they have the chance to speak out for justice and to save the lives of future victims of mass shootings, although both have previously supported what Mr. Obama calls "common-sense restrictions" on people's ability to kill, apparently neither of our presidential candidates will now speak hard political words about guns into this sinful world.
As Joe Klein noted in TIME's cover story "How the Gun Won," President Obama responded to a horrific shooting spree a year and a half ago with a call for reform:
"We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence," President Barack Obama said in January 2011, after a deranged gunman shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others, killing six. "We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future." He called for a "national conversation" about "everything from the merits of gun-safety laws to the adequacy of our mental-health system," and he asked that it be conducted with civility. It was a terrific speech, perhaps the best of his presidency. And then . . . nothing.
As TIME notes, we're still not having a public debate about gun safety, about whether guns, ammo, and drum magazines like the one the alleged Aurora shooter James Holmes employed in that movie theater are a good thing or a bad thing. For the most part, except for partisans on the far side of each issue, we're not talking about guns at all.
The National Rifle Association is arguing that in the wake of this anomalous shooting, gun ownership is more at risk than ever, and people throughout the country have been snapping up guns in the past week, not to protect themselves against the next James Holmes, but, as the Christian Science Monitor reports, because the NRA's rhetoric convinces them that the government will use this tragedy and the next one as an excuse to clamp down on gun ownership.
President Obama has been sold to conservative voters as the most anti-gun president in history, despite the fact that he shows no inclination to push for gun and ammo restrictions, and has actually loosened laws restricting guns in national parks and elsewhere. Fox News reports that the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence has given President Obama an "F" "for failing to push even the gun restrictions he supported while campaigning." As David Horsey points out, there is actually no correlation between the Obama Administration's policies and their vilification by the NRA, but it certainly helps the gun lobby solidify their position and raise funds.
I wonder about the fact that we don't even have the conversation about who ought to have guns, what kinds of guns they ought to have, and if there is truly any need for anyone to have weapons and ammo delivery systems that seem to have no practical use except to shoot a lot of people in a short amount of time.
Why don't we talk about guns?
Part of the problem is that whenever we start to speak, our arguments are couched in freedom language, the favorite form of American discourse: "I have rights and freedoms." But as I argue throughout Faithful Citizenship, American Christians who primarily use rights and freedoms language when they make political arguments are neglecting to argue from the core of their faith. While God has made human beings free to make choices, and that has implications in how we live and how we govern ourselves, Christianity is not simply—or even primarily—about freedom.