After the mass killings that took place within 24 hours of each other in El Paso and Dayton, the political class and US media honored their longstanding ritual of debating the causes and possible solutions to reduce the damage of gun culture before resolving to get back to business and wait for the next slaughter.
US President Donald Trump played his usual game of expressing perfunctory sympathy and even hinting that he might even push for the radical measure of universal background checks on gun sales. It looked like a possible religious conversion. But a series of conversations with Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive of the National Rifle Association (NRA), saved him from the temptation of appeasing Democrats.
The Atlantic recounts the typically entertaining sequence of hyperreal events in which Trump’s concern for image-building and pleasing his base led him to declare, as reported by The New York Times: “A lot of the people that put me where I am are strong believers in the Second Amendment, and I am also.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A person who claims to support an idea or a text considered sacred but uses the notion of belief to refuse critical or historical analysis with the aim of endorsing a superficial, tendentious and demonstrably false interpretation that undermines the meaning of that concept or text
Many Americans think of the US Constitution as a sacred text dictated to the founders by a Christian God. The same God had, for 18 centuries, remained curiously silent but was suddenly moved to add another chapter to scripture as an act of mentoring the brave patriots who broke with the English crown in 1776 to realize their noble intention of inventing the world’s first democratic republic. In other words, the US government for such people is the equivalent of a super-church, or the church of all churches. Its legal texts are meant not just to be obeyed but must be the object of belief.
With his understanding of the state of mind of the average American, Trump sees himself not just as the commander-in-chief but also as “defender of the faith,” the title given to English kings. This would be a natural borrowing by the republic of an element from the English tradition of monarchic rule similar to the Star-Spangled Banner’s tune being plagiarized from an 18th-century English drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Not only is Trump the defender of the faith, but he now claims to be “King of Israel” and the “second coming of God.”
The Second Amendment — which is usually written in uppercase to underline its sacred status — belongs to a credo of American exceptionalism that also contains the idea that the First Amendment was designed to protect sincere people (conservatives with strong opinions) from being criticized in the media by other people (hypocritical liberals).
So long as good citizens believe they need not feel concerned about the meaning of what they believe. The NRA, for example, wants people to believe that the Second Amendment is a gloss on the traditional proverb, “A man’s home is his castle.” The owner of a castle in feudal times had an army to defend the castle. Ergo, today’s citizens should be free to constitute their own armed defense of their property. Of course, that isn’t what the text of the Second Amendment says. Historians have been at pains to point out the fact that the amendment itself was a concession to Southern states that insisted on having the right to mobilize armed citizens essentially for slave patrols. It wasn’t about defending freedom, but enforcing slavery.
Trump expanded on his concern that the sacred text may be challenged or even repealed when he stated, “[W]e have to be very careful about that. You know, they call it the ‘slippery slope,’ and all of a sudden, everything gets taken away. We’re not going to let that happen.” As to what gets taken away, he’s clearly referring to the stock of AR-15s and AK-47s that the founding fathers insisted were required in everyone’s home to ensure that each state will have a “well-regulated militia.” The only problem the founders may not have anticipated is that when some people — possibly with mental health problems — go out for target practice, they mistakenly choose unarmed humans as targets. Which, of course, is why the NRA and Fox News host Sean Hannity believe strongly that the targets themselves should be armed to produce an even playing field.
The United States came into existence as a secular nation distancing itself from the English mother country that had established its national Anglican Church. The founders were influenced by Enlightenment rationalism and John Locke’s notion of a “social contract” as the model for government. The whole point of a contract is that its negotiated terms are agreed between the parties, who vow to respect them. In no way does it imply belief.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson invoked the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” This line of reasoning lies outside any form of theology. “Nature’s God” is the opposite of a deity who dictates scripture and demands unconditional belief. The Bible itself invites humans to dominate the nature God created but not to substitute themselves for the creator. In some sense, the system of belief Trump adheres to does both: It seeks to dominate nature and impose its own will in place of divine will. Oddly, US fundamentalists have never seen this as a contradiction. But that’s precisely because they prefer to believe rather than think.
Although the US avoided identifying with any particular religion, most of the early settlers in colonial times were Protestants of various denominations. The fact that they were of different denominations forced them to be tolerant in the interest of coexistence. However, it didn’t necessarily oblige them to be tolerant of non-Christian and non-Protestant religions, including Catholicism. Trump has perpetuated this tradition with his anti-Islam policies.
The Reformation in Europe had established the idea that the text of the Bible should be everyone’s guideline. This opened an avenue for privileging personal belief over philosophical reasoning, seen to be the corrupting vice of the Catholic Church. Faith alone — rather than works — determined the road to personal salvation. This means that everyone is free to decide what scripture means, a doctrine known as “the priesthood of all believers.”
In such a historical context, it can seem reasonable to the average American to assert, as Trump does, that they believe in the Second Amendment. But a law, especially one with a historically ambiguous formulation, should not be regarded as an object of belief and whatever an individual believes — including the president of the United States — should, in a democratic republic, have no impact on the meaning of the law.
One of the clearest indications of the degradation of US system of checks and balances put in place by the founders, a system that looks so logical on paper, is the fact that the Supreme Court, when faced with questions such as the meaning of the Second Amendment, has adopted the standard of belief rather than contradictory assessment and the need to respect systemic and historical logic. This was in some ways inevitable because no interpretation of any particular text can be considered definitive. But the history of interpreting the Second Amendment shows that belief has, in recent decades, dominated historical assessment.
And here is where democracy has gone completely off the rails. The current reasoning accepts without seriously protesting that if one group’s belief gets higher ratings than another’s, then it must be accepted as true. That is how the media treats such questions because that is the way the media treats all questions.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.