This year, the 4th of July, our “Independence Day,” felt a little different. It felt less celebratory. There are certainly many contributing reasons for this. But one of them is certainly an awareness of how entrenched our divisions are. Despite occasional pronouncements to the contrary by leading national political figures, their pious affirmations of the essential unity of all Americans, political opponents in the current era treat each other as threats and enemies much more than contending interlocutors within a civil society. And so, I found myself sidling up to a friend at a holiday gathering and asking something like: So, how are you doing now that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court stabbed Freedom in the genitals, hiked up his august judicial robes and shat directly into the hearts of our founders, and jabbed his middle finger into the eye of Divine Providence itself? And as he laughed, it was clear to both of us that my satiric hyperbole was likely less extreme in expression than the sincere expostulations and scribblings of many of our fellow citizens.
How do we engage with Americans who see us as enemies of Freedom itself, as a conspiracy to undo what they understand to be the work of our founders? How do we pursue better policies and civic harmony, and do we reform our political processes when we are viewed as demonic opponents of their Church of ‘Freedom’? Just as innumerable people throughout history have branded others as radical evil in the name of Christ and Christian love without consideration of the foundational teachings they supposedly champion, we now face a party dominated by a constituency that brands us as radical evil in the name of America and American freedom without any real consideration of their history and functions. In both cases, communities have lost sight of the fact that their institutions and ideologies are the means and not the ends, conflating them in terrifying self-justification. One says: “If you disagree with me, you oppose Christ, Love, humanity and its salvation.” The other says: “If you disagree with me, you oppose America, Freedom, humanity and its salvation.”
Nothing could bring this home more than the response to the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Affordable Care Act. Their candidate, Mitt Romney, responded immediately with his commitment to repeal the legislation as his highest priority, while citing central features of the legislation that he supports. Apparently, the principal disagreements between Republicans and Democrats do not actually involve its benefits, but its funding mechanism and institutional apparatus. In spite of the “let ’em die” calls, no one actually thinks our country requires a particular number of people to be without health care. But instead of proposing alternatives to restructure funding and the institutional apparatus for the newly insured, Republicans are committing legislative time and political capital to pursuing an unlikely repeal and likely disingenuous replacement of the legislation. Of course, they are sort of stuck as the current legislation already employs their funding mechanism and organizational apparatus, which they developed as a private sector alternative to the left’s preferred public system. In seeking to adopt their system as a pragmatic if imperfect policy compromise, we have taken away their substantive opposition. They cannot declare victory without giving the evil others a victory. They cannot work to improve their policy further with subsequent legislation, for that policy is now enshrined in a piece of legislation that is as fetishistic an anathema to their core identity as the image of Satan has been to Christians, as vernacular Bibles originally were to the Catholic episcopacy, as the concept of “pre-destination” was to the Jacobean Church of England or the wearing of a shirt called a surplice by an Anglican cleric was to Calvinist dissenters.
Just as the Catholic Church has had its Savanarolas, so the American right has its Allen Wests and its Michelle Bachmanns. Chief Justice John Roberts didn’t just disappoint his coreligionists, he violated current conservative doctrine and betrayed Freedom, for indeed the two have become inseparable in the minds of right wing activists. One cannot value freedom and support the Affordable Care Act any more than one could understand “love” and follow Christ without obeying the chosen church or sect, its doctrine and its leaders.
At some point, the political winds may cool. Many who currently rail against the Federal Government as no less tyrannical than the British government against which our founders rebelled would refuse to engage in “second amendment solutions,” at least I both hope and believe that. The challenge for us in this era is to win political and policy battles without capitulating by mirroring back the zealotry, inflexibility, demonization, and violent rhetoric of those who have branded us their enemies. In the long run, flexible institutions that respect diversity prove more durable than fanatical cults, which almost always ossify, become brittle, and break in the swirling winds of history.