We had only been in Canada a matter of weeks when a deranged gunman massacred innocent children at Sandy Hook elementary school.
Our family stayed transfixed and bewildered by what we were seeing. We were sure that now, finally, Americans would take action on gun control. We were wrong.
As an Australian, and particularly a Tasmanian, the repeated suggestion that introducing tighter gun control would have no impact on tragedies like this seems wilfully, and perhaps culpably ignorant.
We had a sickening tragedy here. Our then Prime Minister bravely stood in the face of opposition and changed the law.
I distinctly remember his decision to stand in front of an angry crowd to answer for his decision with the outline of a bullet proof vest filling out his jacket in a way that signaled the risk he believed he was taking. There were lots of things I disagreed with John Howard about, but I will be forever grateful that in a moment of tragedy he demonstrated what leadership looks like.
The reason an American leader hasn’t taken the same path (although clearly Obama wanted to), is that the United States is slightly less aware of a fact that most of us forget most of the time: we are shaped by our environments much more than any of us want to acknowledge.
We want to believe that success or failure, winning or losing, good or evil behaviour is always a product of our free choice. It’s not. And the fact it’s not is a huge problem for a country that prizes free choice above everything.
We all need to understand that nations are much more than a collection of individuals, and their choices. Nations are complex systems that are shaped both intentionally and unintentionally by the conscious and unconscious agreements their constituents make about how they live together. The same is true for families, churches and organisations. Those agreements then, in turn, shape the constituents. …
As I wrote in July, at the very foundation of the American dream, the seeds of this tension were sown. The American declaration of independence established core values that shape American consciousness more than the bible does, and it is the clash of these extra-biblical values that we see being worked out today.
The core American value is individualism and captured in the “inalienable rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Christians and non-Christian Americans seem to assume that these words have an authority that is unquestionable.
These sentiments, however, run directly counter to the gospel.
The idea that all men have a right to life is intuitively true. We are all created in the image of a creator, and murder is wrong, however the core image at the heart of our faith is that death leads to life. In fact, seeking first your own life is the biblical recipe for death. ( I wrote a little bit about this back in March).
Probably the biggest heresy at the heart of the American ethos is the second inalienable right of “liberty.” America and freedom are almost synonymous words. For Americans Freedom and Personal Autonomy are one and the same thing. For the Apostle Paul, freedom is not about you at all. He writes:
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14)
If personal autonomy is your goal, then it will be impossible to love. In fact, unless you are prepared to sacrifice your personal freedom, you will not achieve much in life at all. (I wrote about this back in 2010).
The final “inalienable right” is the “pursuit of happiness.” This is possibly the most dangerous of the three American myths, because it leads to short term thinking on the basis of emotion. As Victor Frankl pointed out:
“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”
By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.
It turns out Jesus might have been on to something when he declared we were to seek first the Kingdom of God. (Matthew 6:33)
Toss into the mix a statement in the declaration of independence that says that if the Government interferes with these inalienable rights, then “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it”, an organisation that promotes gun ownership as part of the remedy, and you have the seeds of the current political climate.
People divide on issues where they perceive “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” are being violated. For Democrats, we see this myth in hot button issues like abortion (it is about a woman’s right to liberty) and marriage equality (people’s right to happiness). For Republicans it is gun control (liberty and lack of trust in the government), immigration (people taking away my opportunities) and taxes (government making my decisions for me). Neither party wants too look too closely at what the bible says.
It is true that it is almost impossible to justify abortion and gay marriage from the bible (although some have tried), and so some Christians have grabbed hold of these issues as the litmus test of who they will vote for.
Because of Trump’s promise to promote pro-life justices to the supreme court, people like James Dobson continue to support him despite his bewildering lack of a moral compass. In fact White evangelicals are one of his strongest power bases. Check out this graph:
On the other side of the coin though, it is also impossible to justify the love of guns (I wrote about that on July 22) and hate of the outsider from the bible. In these things Democrats generally are much more in line with the heart of the gospel.
An American Christian who wants to be true to the gospel and still vote is left with a real challenge. Because life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the dominant values as opposed to the bible, they are having to choose which biblical values to overlook.
People like Ben Carson, Jerry Falwell Jr., James Dobson or Tony Campolo are not telling the truth when they make comments that the choice of who to vote for is simple. It’s not. All of these issues are real, and they all matter. These leaders lose their moral authority when they ignore the moral reality.
Americans need to stop pretending that America is a Christian nation or was founded on Christian principles.
American Christians need to open their eyes to the difference between their founding values and the values of the bible… and if they can do that then perhaps the best of America might be free to emerge.