Just as ancient Greek and Roman propagandists insisted, the Carthaginians did kill their own infant children, burying them with sacrificed animals and ritual inscriptions in special cemeteries to give thanks for favours from the gods, according to a new study.
—The Guardian, 21 January 2014.
Just after the last body fell, at three seconds after 9:40 on the morning of 14 December, the debate began: it was about, as it always is, whether Americans ought to follow sensible rules about guns—or whether they ought to be easier to obtain than, say, the right to pull fish out of the nearby Housatonic River. There’s been a lot of words written about the Sandy Hook killings since the day that Adam Lanza—the last body to fall—killed 20 children and six adults at the elementary school he once attended, but few of them have examined the culpability of some of the very last people one might expect with regard to the killings: the denizens of the nation’s universities. After all, it’s difficult to accuse people who themselves are largely in favor of gun control of aiding and abetting the National Rifle Association—Pew Research reported, in 2011, that more than half of people with more than a college degree favored gun control. And yet, over the past several generations a doctrine has gained ground that, I think, has not only allowed academics to absolve themselves of engaging in debate on the subject of gun control, but has actively harmed the possibility of accomplishing it.
Having said that, of course, it is important to acknowledge that virtually all academics—even those who consider themselves “conservative” politically—are in favor of gun control: when for example Texas passed a law legalizing carrying guns on college campus recently Daniel S. Hamermesh, a University of Texas emeritus professor of economics (not exactly a discipline known for its radicalism), resigned his position, citing a fear for his own and his students’ safety. That’s not likely accidental, because not only do many academics oppose guns in their capacities as citizens, but academics have a special concern when it comes to guns: as Firmin DeBrabander, a professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art argued in the pages of Inside Higher Ed last year, against laws similar to Texas’, “guns stand opposed” to the “pedagogical goals of the classroom” because while in the classroom “individuals learn to talk to people of different backgrounds and perspectives,” guns “announce, and transmit, suspicion and hostility.” If anyone has a particular interest in controlling arms, in other words, it’s academics, being as their work is particularly designed to foster what DeBrabander calls “open and transformative exchange” that may air “ideas [that] are offensive.” So to think that academics may in fact be an obstacle towards achieving sensible policies regarding guns might appear ridiculous on the surface.
Yet there’s actually good reason to think that academic liberals bear some responsibility for the United States’ inability to regulate guns like every other industrialized—I nearly said, “civilized”—nation on earth. That’s because changing gun laws would require a specific demands for action, and as political science professor Adolph Reed, Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania put the point not long ago in Harper’s, these days the “left has no particular place it wants to go.” That is, to many on campus and off, making specific demands of the political sphere is itself a kind of concession—or in other words, as journalist Thomas Frank remarked a few years ago about the Occupy Wall Street movement, today’s academic left teaches that “demands [are] a fetish object of literal-minded media types who stupidly crave hierarchy and chains of command.” Demanding changes to gun laws is, after all, a specific demand, and to make specific demands is, from this sophisticated perspective, a kind of “sell out.”
Still, how did the idea of making specific demands become a derided form of politics? After all, the labor movement (the eight-hour day), the suffragette movement (women’s right to vote) or the civil rights movement (an end to Jim Crow) all made specific demands. How then has American politics arrived at the diffuse and essentially inarticulable argument of the Occupy movement—a movement within which, Elizabeth Jacobs claimed in a report for the Brookings Institute while the camp in Zuccotti Park still existed, “the lack of demands is a point of pride?” I’d suggest that one possible way the trick was turned was through a 1967 article written by one Robert Bellah, of Harvard: an article that described American politics, and its political system, as a “civil religion.” By describing American politics in religious rather than secular terms, Bellah opened the way towards what some have termed the “non-politics” of Occupy and other social movements—and incidentally, allow children like Adam Lanza’s victims to die.
In “Civil Religion in America,” Bellah—who received his bachelor’s from Harvard in 1950, and then taught at Harvard until moving to the University of California at Berkeley in 1967, where he continued until the end of his illustrious career—argued that “few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.” This “national cult,” as Bellah terms it, has its own holidays: Thanksgiving Day, Bellah says, “serves to integrate the family into the civil religion,” while “Memorial Day has acted to integrate the local community into the national cult.” Bellah also remarks that the “public school system serves as a particularly important context for the cultic celebration of the civil rituals” (a remark that, incidentally, perhaps has played no little role in the attacks on public education over the past several decades). Bellah also argues that various speeches by American presidents like Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy are also examples of this “civil religion” in action: Bellah spends particular time with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which he notes that poet Robert Lowell observed is filled with Christian imagery, and constitutes “a symbolic and sacramental act.” In saying so, Bellah is merely following a longstanding tradition regarding both Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address—a tradition that, however, that does not have the political valence that Bellah, or his literal spiritual followers, might think it does.
“Some think, to this day,” wrote Garry Wills of Northwestern University in his magisterial Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, “that Lincoln did not really have arguments for union, just a kind of mystical attachment to it.” It’s a tradition that Wills says “was the charge of Southerners” against Lincoln at the time: after the war, Wills notes, Alexander Stephens—the only vice president the Confederate States ever had—argued that the “Union, with him [Lincoln], in sentiment rose to the sublimity of a religious mysticism.” Still, it’s also true that others felt similarly: Wills points out that the poet Walt Whitman wrote that “the only thing like passion or infatuation” in Lincoln “was the passion for the Union of these states.” Nevertheless, it’s a dispute that might have fallen by the historical wayside if it weren’t for the work of literary critic Edmund Wilson, who called his essay on Lincoln (collected in a relatively famous book Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War) “The Union as Religious Mysticism.” That book, published in 1962, seems to have at least influenced Lowell—the two were, if not friends, at least part of the same New York City literary scene—and through Lowell Bellah, seems plausible.
Even if there was no direct route from Wilson to Bellah, however, it seems indisputable that the notion—taken from Southerners—concerning the religious nature of Lincoln’s arguments for the American Union became widely transmitted through American culture. Richard Nixon’s speechwriter, William Safire—since a longtime columnist for the New York Times—was familiar with Wilson’s ideas: as Mark Neely observed in his The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil Liberties, on two occasions in Safire’s novel Freedom, “characters comment on the curiously ‘mystical’ nature of Lincoln’s attachment to the Union.” In 1964, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr published an essay entitled “The Religion of Abraham Lincoln,” while in 1963 William J. Wolfe of the Episcopal Theological School of Cambridge, Massachusetts claimed that “Lincoln is one of the greatest theologians in America,” in the sense “of seeing the hand of God intimately in the affairs of nations.” Sometime in the early 1960s and afterwards, in other words, the idea took root among some literary intellectuals that the United States was a religious society—not one based on an entirely secular philosophy.
At least when it comes to Lincoln, at any rate, there’s good reason to doubt this story: far from being a religious person, Lincoln has often been described as non-religious or even an atheist. His longtime friend Jesse Fell—so close to Lincoln that it was he who first suggested what became the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates—for instance once remarked that Lincoln “held opinions utterly at variance with what are usually taught in the church,” and Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon—who was an early fan of Charles Darwin’s—said that the president also was “a warm advocate of the new doctrine.” Being committed to the theory of evolution—if Lincoln was—doesn’t mean, of course, that the president was therefore anti-religious, but it does mean that the notion of Lincoln as religious mystic has some accounting to do: if he was, it apparently was in no very simple way.
Still, as mentioned the view of Lincoln as a kind of prophet did achieve at least some success within American letters—but, as Wills argues in Lincoln at Gettysburg, that success has in turn obscured what Lincoln really argued concerning the structure of American politics. As Wills remarks for instance, “Lincoln drew much of his defense of the Union from the speeches of [Daniel] Webster, and few if any have considered Webster a mystic.” Webster’s views, in turn, descend from a line of American thought that goes back to the Revolution itself—though its most significant moment was at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
Most especially, to one James Wilson, a Scottish emigrant, delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and later one of the first justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. If Lincoln got his notions of the Union from Webster, then Webster got his from Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: as Wills notes, Theodore Parker, the Boston abolitionist minister, once remarked that “Mr. Justice Story was the Jupiter Pluvius [Raingod] from whom Mr. Webster often sought to elicit peculiar thunder for his speeches and private rain for his own public tanks of law.” Story, for his part, got his notion from Wilson: as Linda Przybyscewski notes in passing in her book, The Republic According to John Marshall Harlan (a later justice), Wilson was “a source for Joseph Story’s constitutional nationalism.” And Wilson’s arguments concerning the constitution—which he had a strong hand in making—were hardly religious.
At the constitutional convention, one of the most difficult topics to confront the delegates was the issue of representation: one of the motivations for the convention itself, after all, was the fact that under the previous terms of government, the Articles of Confederation, each state, rather than each member of the Continental Congress, possessed a vote. Wilson had already, in 1768, attacked the problem of representation as being one of the foremost reasons for the Revolution itself—the American colonies were supposed, by British law, to be fully as much British subjects as a Londoner or Mancunian, but yet had no representation in Parliament: “Is British freedom,” Wilson therefore asked in his Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament, “denominated from the soil, or from the people, of Britain?” That question was very much the predecessor of the question Wilson would ask at the convention: “For whom do we make a constitution? Is it for men, or is it for imaginary beings called states?” To Wilson, the answer was clear: constitutions are for people, not for tracts of land.
Wilson also made an argument that would later be echoed by Lincoln: he drew attention to the disparities of population between the several states. At the time of the convention, Pennsylvania—just as it is today—was a much more populous state than New Jersey was, a difference that made no difference under the Articles of Confederation, under which all states had the same number of votes: one. “Are not the citizens of Pennsylvania,” Wilson therefore asked the Convention, “equal to those of New Jersey? Does it require 150 of the former to balance 50 of the latter?” This argument would later be echoed by Lincoln, who, in order to illustrate the differences between free states and slave states, would—in October of 1854, at Peoria, in the speech that would mark his political comeback—note that
South Carolina has six representatives, and so has Maine; South Carolina has eight presidential electors, and so has Maine. This is precise equality so far; and, of course they are equal in Senators, each having two. Thus in the control of the government, the two States are equals precisely. But how are they in the number of their white people? Maine has 581,813—while South Carolina has 274,567. Maine has twice as many as South Carolina, and 32,679 over. Thus each white man in South Carolina is more than the double of any man in Maine.
The point of attack for both men, in other words, was precisely the same: the matter of representation in terms of what would later be called a “one man, one vote” standard. It’s an argument that hardly appears “mystical” in nature: since the matter turns, if anything, upon ratios of numbers to each other, it seems more aposit to describe the point of view adopted here as, if anything, “scientific”—if it weren’t for the fact that even the word “scientific” seems too dramatic a word for a matter that appears to be far more elemental.
Were Lincoln or Wilson alive today, then, it seems that the first point they might make about the gun control debate is that it is a matter about which the Congress is greatly at variance with public opinion: as Carl Bialik reported for FiveThirtyEight this past January, whenever Americans are polled “at least 70 percent of Americans [say] they favor background checks,” and furthermore that an October 2015 poll by CBS News and the New York Times “found that 92 percent of Americans—including 87 percent of Republicans—favor background checks for all gun buyers.” Yet, as virtually all Americans are aware, it has become essentially impossible to pass any sort of sensible legislation through Congress: a fact dramatized this spring by a “sit-down strike” in Congress by congressmen and congresswomen. What Lincoln and Wilson might further say about the point is that the trouble can’t be solved by such a “religious” approach: instead, what they presumably would recommend is that what needs to change is a system that inadequately represents the people. That isn’t the answer that’s on offer from academics and others on the American left, however. Which is to say that, soon enough, there will be another Adam Lanza to bewail—another of the sacrifices, one presumes, that the American left demands Americans must make to what one can only call their god.