David Segal: My brother’s keeper? Rights and responsibilities
Aspen, CO, Colorado
In his Jan. 24 “Inalienable Rights” column in this paper, writing after the Sandy Hook school massacre, Charlie Leonard raises several important questions that ought to be considered in our national debate about gun violence. I offer this column as a continuation of the important conversation Leonard started.
One of the questions he posed touches on my pet theme of religion in society: “What do these violent acts say about society’s embrace of secularism?” Leonard then goes on to decry the loss of moral guidance that religion used to provide.
A less thoughtful version of this view came from several conservative commentators in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. Mike Huckabee said, “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”
And Newt Gingrich blamed the violence on the “anti-religious, secular bureaucracy and secular judiciary seeking to drive God out of public life.”
There is an important irony when religious people use the word “secular” as a bad word, as if it’s a synonym for godless, pagan and sinful. Let me be on record as a religious leader who says without irony: I’m grateful that we live in a secular society – that is, a “faith-neutral” society. Perhaps, as a Jew, I’m particularly attuned to this, being descended from ancestors who have known all too well the danger of state-sponsored religion. Secular society has no monopoly on sinfulness.
Furthermore, secular government is the foundation of religious freedom in the U.S. And it is precisely this secularism that enables America’s unique religious diversity, including the flourishing of those religious groups which, ironically, scorn the secular.
I agree substantially with Leonard and bemoan with him the breakdown of community. And certainly I believe that religion – well, some religion – can be a powerful force for character development, spiritual purpose and moral guidance. But it’s worth considering that, in addition to the influence of “secularism,” some of religion’s decline surely results from the arrogant and hate-filled hackery that passes for religious leadership today.
Which brings me to Leonard’s suggestion that we all have “a moral responsibility to be ‘our brother’s keeper.'” I wholeheartedly support this response to the Sandy Hook shooting, that we should do a better job of looking out for one another, for one person’s struggles really can become everyone’s problem. But we should take Leonard’s idea even further. Affirming our responsibility for one another should be at the heart of our political dialogue.
This question was front and center during the past election cycle but not always for the good. As a case in point, I am still haunted by a particular moment during one of the 2012 Republican primary debates. Wolf Blitzer, the moderator, was pressing Ron Paul on who should pay for a hypothetical uninsured young man who suddenly needs medical care. Paul was making an abstract but compelling case that we are all responsible for our health care decisions and their consequences, when Blitzer asked more bluntly: “Are you saying that society should just let him die?” To Paul’s credit, he replied “no” and explained how his former medical practice never turned anyone away. But it was the audience reaction that caught my attention: Several people shouted “Yeah!” apparently in response to the suggestion that we should let the hypothetical patient die.
To be fair, a few rowdy debate-goers don’t speak for an entire party or society. But this outburst speaks to a tension within the Republican Party. The party that statistically comprises more religious people is also the party that idolizes rugged individualism and self-reliance. Leonard’s complaint about secularism assumes that religious people are more committed to collective responsibility as their “brother’s keeper,” but this impulse is often overpowered by an opposing force that says, “You’re on your own.”
We ignore this tension at our peril. How we balance these two goods, individualism and collectivism, is vital to our nation’s future. Can we at least agree that it’s possible to uphold our responsibility to one another without sacrificing our cherished individualism?
Our nation’s philosophical struggle always has been balancing individual rights with collective responsibilities. The Articles of Confederation tilted too far in one direction, so the Constitution replaced them. The Bill of Rights and subsequent Amendments sought to recalibrate the scale. And so the debate should continue, in the halls of Congress and in every courthouse, schoolhouse, place of worship and family. We lose our way when we forget that committing to the American ideal means affirming two conflicting ideas: that we have inalienable rights as individuals and that we have unavoidable responsibilities to our fellow citizens.
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