Judging figures from history by the customs and conventions of today is problematic. There can be little doubt that much of Thomas Jefferson’s unenlightened assessment of the “Negro” stemmed from a craven rationale in defense of – or perhaps even in defiance of – his ownership of slaves, a thing he simply couldn’t square with his vaunted expositions of the “rights of man” without first surgically removing manhood from the African. But that he could get away with it at all had much to do with the times in which he lived, the peculiar sociological pond in which he dog-paddled, so to speak.
For example, I cannot say with certainty that had I been born in Germany around the turn of the previous century that I wouldn’t have become a goose-stepping Nazi, once incubating and then coming of age in the “roaring twenties,” when antisemitism was considered both fashionable and fascistic, and the latter had yet to become freighted with its present-day repulsive connotations. I can only comfort myself with the knowledge that I didn’t succumb to it at this time and in this particular pond, and Thomas Jefferson’s counterexample notwithstanding, maybe that’s good enough. But I’m a little uneasy about the fact that I have Jefferson and the Nazis from whom I can learn and make better choices. So too (and here’s the rub) does everyone else. So maybe we don’t exactly have the same excuses for our moral failures that they did.
I do know this much, that there are plenty of people who, though they do not participate in the monstrous evils going on around us, are just fine with them. They are redolent of the factory glue that kept the Nazi regime cohesive for twelve and a quarter years. But forgetting even them, in a world smugly dismissive of the likes of, say, Neville Chamberlain, a world full of the moral certainty that “we would have done better had we been there,” there is a shocking absence of heroes today. I simply cannot believe that not a single prominent Republican (not retired, not on their way out, but currently engaged in government) can find it in himself or herself to stand up, rip off his or her MAGA armband and shout, “Enough of this!” I always suspected that cowardice was fairly commonplace, I simply didn’t know it was suffocatingly endemic.
But that may all play into the disturbing ideas that Republicans have surrounding the notion of death. Never mind their fierce and NRA-underwritten declamations about the Second Amendment, what about the First? Particularly, what about that part of the First Amendment that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion?” If not the letter (and let’s face it, probably the letter, too) then certainly the spirit of that part of the First Amendment has been repeatedly violated by Republican Congresses, so much so as to render the whole thing moot, if not impotent. And it is from this de facto, if not de jure, state-sponsored religion, evangelical Christianity, from whence comes this oddball notion of death and what it means to the average Republican, and casts the present day political attitudes in an unprecedented new light, possibly a brand new sociological pond in which the human species has never before dog paddled.
When death is seen not as an end, but a beginning, not as an escape from or a miscarriage of justice, but the only ultimate dispensation of justice that matters, its interpretation in this way renders it a lethal expression of tyranny. For me and for many of us, life itself is a kind of miracle, the gift of a brief glimpse into this incomprehensible thing called the universe, and the baffling majesty of this thing we call reality, “our little lives rounded by a sleep,” and not a dress rehearsal for someone else’s idea of the Real Thing. For the evangelical Christian, life is a proving ground, part of a ritual, an unpleasant trial for our ultimate destiny beyond the grave. To the evangelical, the earth is ultimately disposable, and it’s only the human soul that is significant, a thing that is eternal and therefore requiring nothing so silly as a planet upon which to live.
To such people, sending sick children back to the countries they were so desperate to flee so they may die in misery and persecution is nothing. If those children are righteous in God’s eyes then their immortal existence in paradise is assured. To such people, mass shootings are not so tragic as you may think. We will all be united again in heaven, or we will wind up in hell, either way, the sooner the better. To such people climate change is a trifle, and, if true, a simple proof that the Lord is returning.
This is the madness that we face. It is intractable and ineradicable in our lifetimes. The people who think that way are all but lost to the sanity of reason, and we must forget them and press on with the real task before us: making the planet habitable again, educating future generations not to fall into the same trap we did, and finding a way once and for all time to eradicate the tyranny of religious nationalism from the face of the earth.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.