For me, the rifle is sacred.
Some of you will readily accept that statement; maybe it’s sacred for you, too. Some may think that “sacred” is pushing things too far. Some of you will recoil (sorry) in disgust.
We all have our sacred objects, whether we pin that loaded term on them or not. Really, they are not sacred in and of themselves, they are sacred symbols; they represent values and life ways that have profound meaning to us. To me, the rifle represents challenge; skill; delightful hours spent teaching my daughter; the power to defend.
For those in whom the same object conjures deep revulsion, the rifle represents something very different — an engine of destruction; perhaps a relic of atavistic male aggression. The rifle is profane; calling it “sacred” is prima facie evidence that one is a “gun nut.”
It’s difficult to bridge divides and find common ground when your sacred is my profane, or when what I deeply value disgusts you. Our politics today is loaded with symbols, a minefield richly sown with the sacred and the profane: Race; guns; abortion; gender; immigration.
In this world, a border wall isn’t just a border wall, it’s a symbol, a container that holds whatever meaning we can to pack into it. There’s no actual debate on immigration policy, because “the wall” isn’t even really about immigration anymore. It’s about national and personal identity and a referendum on the character of Donald Trump and … and…
Political operatives call such matters “wedge issues” for a reason — they drive people apart. Constructive debate and compromise become difficult if not impossible, for who is willing to compromise on the sacred in favor of the profane?
Because these issues scrape agonizingly across the nerves of the sacred and the profane, large swaths of the body politic regard those who disagree with them with disgust. The conservative commentator’s voice drips with gleeful loathing as intones the word “liberal”; the “progressive” relishes the scorn in describing the “deplorables.”
For decades, materialist social scientists, economists and historians have been driven nuts by the supposedly irrational behavior of voters, who consistently seem to vote against their own economic interests. Materialists err in assuming that economic interests are the only interests that do or should matter. In fact, people are generally quite a bit less passionate about their economic interests than they are about the symbols that represent for them a worthy and meaningful life.
As columnist Jonah Goldberg notes:
“Nowhere in the world, at any time, in any place, in any culture, has economics been the only consideration in political life. Fighting for the ‘Glory of Rome’ is not an economic rallying cry. The split between Sunni and Shia may have economic components, but only a fool would argue it is fundamentally about economics.”
The tangle gets knottier when we assume that our outlook is rational and those who disagree with us are being irrational. Yet it becomes ever more evident that most of our ideas come out of a complex of intuitions — gut responses — that we later dress up with a gloss of rationalization. In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt note that:
“We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive our strategic reasoning. This makes it difficult — but not impossible — to connect with those who live in other matrices, which are often built on different configurations of the available moral foundations.”
Whatever consensus ever existed in the United States about what is sacred has broken down. We have allowed or participated in the abridgement and effective abrogation of many of the fundamental tenets encoded in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, which in a Republic such as ours should be held sacred by all — if anything is.
Free speech is to be shouted down or banned if it is perceived to wound sensibilities on campus; the right to keep and bear arms is called a relic of the 18th century by those determined to infringe upon it; we have all acquiesced in a profound level of intrusiveness into our lives in the name of safety and security.
It’s hard to discern a path forward. Perhaps there isn’t one — maybe we are, as some believe, locked in a cultural Cold Civil War — in which case a lot of us have a big problem because we don’t fit on a “side.”
Or maybe we can just take a long step back and leave each other the hell alone, each to his or her own conception of the sacred. I’m game for that. Truly. But I have an abiding suspicion that the zealots who are determined that their sacred must be exalted and their version of the profane must be thrown down will never be content to live and let live or, as the popular bumper-sticker appeal has it,
In the interest of providing prescription for the diagnosis, I propose we define for ourselves what we truly hold sacred and what we are willing to do to defend our sacred. What hills are we willing to die on? Where do we draw lines and say “no farther”? I am not inclined by nature to seek out monsters to slay — I have no desire to create opportunities to tilt with the profane. But nor do I want to allow that which disgusts me to intrude into my life. How to build an effective shield against the profane?
The answers to these questions are surely already embedded in these pages. I reckon that any of us can map our own Sacred Realm in a matter of minutes. So the real question is one of tactics. How do we defend it?