Guns in the Hands of Entitled Men

Dear Joel,

I’ve been thinking about those 47 guns that Stephen Paddock legally purchased prior to his massacre of concert-goers in Las Vegas last week. In our search for “red flags,” that is a powerful one.

When I was a child, we had a rule at our house that might seem mean or silly but that serves us well: We didn’t collect things. This made sense for our family. We were poor and lived in tight quarters. We didn’t have money or room for stacks of baseball or (for my younger siblings) Pokemon cards, Beanie Babies or My Little Ponies. (The exception to this was books–I don’t think my parents ever said no to a Scholastic Book Order request, even when I chose junky titles.) With this rule in place, we had a good defense against advertising and competitive consumption, and I never felt the urge to go buy something because it had just come out or would complete my collection. More importantly, we also appreciated our fewer things, and there is real peace that comes from that–from knowing how to be content with enough.

Which might be why, even today, there are few things that I own 47 or more of. Books and music, and that’s it, and I definitely get pleasure out of them proportionate to their space and cost. But nothing else. I don’t have 47 pairs of shoes or 47 shirts or scarves. I don’t have 47 pieces of kitchen gear (which I could easily do if I didn’t practice being content with enough) or pieces of flatware, though we like to host dinner.

So 47 guns–ranging from $5,000-$10,000 each–doesn’t make sense to me. Even if you like a thing–like I like kitchen knives or spices–you can’t make use of 47 of them. They either duplicate each other in function or don’t perform with distinctions that are meaningful in most circumstances.

Perhaps the same reason that prompts a person to own four houses and two planes?

When gun rights opponents try to find reasons why we shouldn’t regulate gun ownership more carefully, they point to “evil”: evil individuals or a “godless” culture. They don’t point, though, to the entitlement of shooters, tied up in their masculinity, of the sense that the world owes them something (usually women but also money and fame).

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Above, a screenshot from the website of Dixie GunWorkx, in St. George, Utah, where Paddock was a customer. The copy next to the picture of a gun says, “Why get a suppressor [silencer]? Because you can!” 

I think that 47 guns is a sign of a dangerous entitlement. That makes it a warning sign and something worth noting in the first place.


Kansas Mennonite challenges state law demanding she sign a statement refusing to boycott Israel


Some breaking news we’re going to be talking a lot about, I suspect: A Kansas Mennonite is suing the state over her right to participate in a boycott of Israeli goods.

The issue is complex, but here is the quick version: Kansas law, like laws in twenty-other states, prohibits the state from entering into contracts with individuals or companies that participate in the boycott of Israel. Koontz, who is a friend of mine and someone I respect very much, is an outstanding public school teacher in Wichita who also works as a teacher trainer. When she recently went to sign her contract to serve as a teacher trainer, she was confronted with a requirement that she sign off on a statement that she’s not participating in a boycott of Israel.


Above, Esther Koontz, who is bringing a case against the state of Kansas for its demand that she sign a pledge that she won’t participate in a boycott of Israel. 

Esther Koontz can’t in good conscience do it. She’s a member of a Mennonite church, and her husband is a pastor. MCUSA decided at this summer’s convention to sell its assets in contested areas of Israel-Palestine. The United Church of Christ has made a similar move.

But the issue isn’t just Mennonites’ interest in peace and human rights. There is also the issue of free speech, which is the ACLU’s angle. Shares Esther:

“You don’t need to share my beliefs or agree with my decisions to understand that this law violates my free speech rights. The state should not be telling people what causes they can or can’t support….I’m disappointed that I can’t be a math trainer for the state of Kansas because of my political views about human rights across the globe.”

The central argument here is that the state can’t use its power to mandate that we engage in particular kinds of speech–or punish us for participating in others. It’s not hard to understand. We have the right to use our voices–and our voice includes our political support for BDS–without losing our ability to work for the state. We don’t have to sign loyalty oaths to the US–and certainly not to a foreign country.

The case, Koontz v. Watson, was reported in the Washington Postand it will likely earn Esther–as well as her church–hate mail and accusations of anti-Semitism that will hurt them.  I’d encourage our readers who support the right of individuals to exercise their religious conscience even through economic boycotts to write to your state representatives (especially if you are in Kansas); donate to the ACLU, which has taken up this case; and keep Esther, her family, her co-workers, and her church in your prayers.

And if you are in a similar position as Esther, consider how else you might be able to show solidarity with her.


PS. Kansas used to require that state employees sign a loyalty oath to the state, too. It was a bad idea then–and the courts called it unconstitutional. I’m hopeful we’ll see a similar outcome here.

Listen to women

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Today’s big (not-so-shocking) story at The New Yorker.

Dear Rebecca:

Given the title of this post, I’ll keep it brief.

Most guys couldn’t live in the world that women do. The world that men create for them.

That world is not confined to Hollywood. Most women I know have a story.

I pray I’m raising my son to be a man who treats women with respect. But we’re swimming against a terrible, terrible cultural tide.

And oh yeah, guys: Listen to women.

Mournfully, Joel

Handbook of the Bible in America now available

Dear Readers,

If there is any chance that some of you want to read MORE of me writing about the Religious Right, you can find it in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America. No spoilers, but you’ll get to read about David Barton, Christian Dominianism, Ted Cruz, and the origins of Thanksgiving–plus essays by top scholars in American religious studies. It’s a hefty 728 pages, but editor Paul Gutjahr has given us a readable, engaging guide to understanding how Americans have taken up the Bible across our history.


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When does the cost of heterosexual sex become too high for women?

Dear Joel,

One of the loudest complaints of conservatives about feminism is that it undermines families.  The right to vote, women in the workforce, contraception–it all adds up to women rejecting their God-mandated roles as “weaker vessels” and their dependency on men.  Pat Robertson’s version of feminism goes this way:

“The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

Sure, Robertson is a kook, but his thinking appears in less extremist versions, like Mark Regnerus’ Cheap Sex (which I’ve criticized before). The controversial sociologist argues that we’ve made sex too easy. Without consequences, men have little reason to marry, and that’s undermining families. (Yes, Regnerus blames WOMEN’S increased willingness* to have sex outside of marriage for MEN’S failure to become decent husbands.)


The thesis of Mark Regnerus’ Cheap Sex: “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” 

For forty years, it’s been conservative “pro-family” consensus that women are ruining marriage and that feminism is turning us into queer witches.

If you think that “cheap sex” is destroying marriages/family/America, then it only makes sense that you’d reverse the beloved ACA contraception mandate, ban most abortions after 20 weeks, and allow federally-funded health care for poor children to expire. You make sex costlier so that women become more selective about their partners. (Men don’t have to worry about being selective, because they can escape the consequences of sex much more easily, not being the ones who get pregnant, after all.) They withhold sex until marriage, driving men into legally-binding relationships that will force them to grow up. Unwanted pregnancies, deadbeat dads, men who refuse to enter the workforce, gangs, crime–we address them all through the panacea that is marriage! Women go back to using their strongest asset–their vaginas–to inspire men to grow up. Instead of just having casual sex with adultescent losers, we can marry them! Why the hell did we even need the 19th Amendment when we could just cross our legs to make men do what we want!

But have Republicans considered how hard it’s going to be sell high-risk sex to women? If we have to choose between sex that puts us at increased risk of pregnancy, with less access to abortion and no support for pregnancy, babies, or children….

Maybe we’ll choose sex with women instead.



I’m mostly joking when I suggest that Republicans like Paul Ryan can turn women into lesbians, but they can sure make sex with men an unattractive option. 

It might not be for all of us, but I encourage my women friends who would otherwise be having sex Republican men to at least consider it.


*Regnerus’ claim that we have more noncommittal sex is not supported by evidence. Compared to previous generations, young people today are delaying the onset of sex and will likely have fewer partners, on average, than previous generations.



Re: Survival Bias (Or: Can you be ‘woke’ and have hope?)


Dear Rebecca:

You’re right. 

You’re right that “finding solace in history is a temptation that, ultimately, I think, is a privilege of survivors.” You’re right that “when we say ‘We survived worse,’ we’re engaging in survival bias.” You’re right about every awful example you use to back up that statement.

And I’m a little bit torn on how to respond.

Because I think hope is important. Because I don’t know how to fight for justice — as opposed to burrow in my bed — without at least a sliver of it. Because the alternative is despair, and despair robs us of our power.

On the other hand, I found this moment oddly embarrassing this week:

“You’ve had a hard time in some interviews expressing a sense of hope in this country,” Colbert said toward the end of the interview. “Do you have any hope tonight for the people out there, about how we could be a better country, we could have better race relations, we could have better politics?”

“No,” Coates said, to scattered laughter. “But I’m not the person you should go to for that. You should go to your pastor. Your pastor provides you hope. Your friends provide you hope.”

“I’m not asking you to make shit up,” Colbert interjected. “I’m asking if you personally see any evidence for change in America.”

“But I would have to make shit up to actually answer that question in a satisfying way,” Coates explained.

Colbert took a second to sigh, in frustration or in sadness. “I hope you’re wrong,” he said.

It was definitely a tone deaf moment on Colbert’s part – having all the appearance of a white guy seeking collective absolution from a smart black guy for all the bad things that have happened and are happening in this country. Yuck.

So maybe I’m every bit as tone deaf in finding solace in humanity’s collective ability to overcome the especially reactionary moments of our recent history.

But let me be clear:

I don’t think that victories are won without sacrifice. I think that too often, the people who make the sacrifice never get to see evidence that their pains bore any kind of positive fruit.

I don’t think we should treat our history as an ever-uplifting march toward progress.

I’m not sure the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. I think our history – humanity’s history – is often one calamitous injustice after another.

I live on land effectively stolen from Native Americans. I wear clothes made by underpaid people. I drive a car that pollutes the air and contributes to climate processes that will take their heaviest toll on the people who can least afford it. All of this is horrible. There have been times in my life when I thought that knowledge could effectively paralyze me.

Is it unjust to leap from that knowledge to hope? Is it wrong to jump from a realization of your complicity in injustice to solace?

Maybe. Probably.

But I do think being alive means being complicit to some degree; it is not a condition we can shake through all the being “woke” in the world. Maybe we can minimize it. For me: The best I can do is to go through the world understanding that the world is broken, that I benefit from that brokenness, that I’m sometimes blind to all the ways that’s true … but also to hope that maybe, just maybe, things can get a little better and maybe, just maybe, I can have a small hand in that.

Collectively, politically, we have a related problem: Part of the Trumpian backlash is that there’s a whole lot of people out there who do not want to hear about their complicity, who rebel against the notion, and who will never, ever ally themselves with folks who tell them about it. Unfair? But politically, folks on the left have a reputation for being grim, joyless know-it-alls. It is difficult to hector humans into progress; some folks need to be inspired. I’m not sure we’re always great at that, because – for all the reasons you mention – it’s hard to be honest and inspirational when there’s so much crappy stuff happening in the world.

It’s possible that the more we embrace our righteousness, the more difficult we make it to achieve even a rough approximation of justice. Life is full of such paradoxes, of messy-ness.

So you’re right. It’s not fair to take solace from history. But I must, even if that solace is tempered, haunted by history’s ghosts. Otherwise, despair wins. And that makes justice that much more difficult to achieve.

Trying to be better than I am,


Survival Bias in the Time of Trumpism

Dear Joel,

I’m glad you are finding some solace in Rick Perlstein’s new history of American conservatism. I’ve argued before that Perlstein’s surprise at how nasty Trumpism is raises suspicions that he doesn’t pay much attention to those of us who have been concerned for years about the Republican party’s hate. Still, I’d love to see more historians come to terms with the ways that racism, in particular, has informed conservative politics for ages.

I appreciate the impulse to find some assurance in history. We’ve been through worse. We’ve done this before. The nativism and racism and selfishness at the heart of Trumpism isn’t new. As stirring as it might feel to say This isn’t America. We’re better than this, Trumpism isn’t an anomaly but part of a historical pattern. As history shows us, this is exactly America. We’re a nation founded on slavery and indigenous “removal,” through murderous violence and genocide, by guns and smallpox and now drones and nuclear warheads. We were a colony, and we are a colonizer. Puerto Rico shows us that we’re post-colonial like Barack Obama showed us that we were post-racial. That is, we’re not. Many white Americans, including those in government, are rooting for Puerto Ricans to die so that rich whites have a new, warm place to retire cheaply.

It can feel wrenching that we’ve not come any farther, but, then again, why should we have? Our political system was designed to move slowly, and the winners in our system have been practicing this for half a millennium now. They’re pretty good at it.

And I like looking at historical patterns (and sociological trends) for assurance. There is a relief in being in, on average, average. I’m like most Americans in lots of ways: disgusted by Trump, supportive of a wide range of policies to reduce gun violence, a believer in climate change.  It’s nice knowing I’m not alone. Social media hasn’t so much been a bubble for me as a connection to others who think that open carry, partisan gerrymandering, and the Jones Act are anti-democratic. Facebook lets me rest, for a moment, knowing that I’m not alone, and that keeps me calling my members of Congress to let them know that we’re out here, wanting better governance.

But finding solace in history is a temptation that, ultimately, I think, is a privilege of survivors. And we should resist it.

When we say “We survived worse,” we’re engaging in survival bias. Columbus’ arrival to the New World brought with it death for many people, from the indigenous people who quickly succumbed to new diseases to the enslaved Africans, 40% of whom died on route between Africa and their planned destination. Historians disagree as to how many people were here—hundreds of nations, surely, and perhaps as many as 12 million people—but we know that many didn’t survive. During the Civil War, 750,000 soldiers died due to Southern defense of slavery. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, Louis Allen, Willie Brewster, James Early Chaney, Johnnie Mae Chappell, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Henry Hezekiah Dee, Cpl. Roman Duckworth, Jr., Medgar Evers, Rev. Willie Edwards, Jr., Andrew Goodman, Paul Guihard, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Rev. Bruce Klunder, George Lee, Herbert Lee, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, Charles Eddie Moore, Oneal Moore, William Lewis Moore, Mack Charles Parker, Lt. Col Lemuel Penn, Rev. James Reeb, John Earl Reese, Michael Henry Schwerner, Lamar Smith, Emmett Till, Virgil Lamar Ware, Samuel Leamon Younge, Jr., Martin Luther King, Jr., and thousands of others didn’t survive Jim Crow or the fight for Civil Rights. In the 1980s, AIDS was an epidemic for gay men; many of them died. Every day, nearly three American women don’t survive domestic violence; very often, their children are killed with them, as just happened in your town. On Monday, 59 people didn’t survive our nation’s armed crisis of white masculinity.


Above, a stained glass window from Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church, where four African American girls were killed in a 1963 bombing. The people of Wales provided the church with this window, designed by Jeff Petts, during the renovation. It’s central image is a Black Christ, crucified. The words say “You do it to me”–an invocation of Matthew 25:45, when Jesus tells that whoever feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, offers hospitality to the homeless, cares for the ill, visits the imprisoned, or provides drink for the thirty. But we also hear in the words Jesus’ rejection of those who fails to care for the vulnerable–those who leave the poor hungry, cold, sick, lonely, and thirsty. Neglect and rejection are actions we do, too. 

And those are the wounds we self-inflict. Abroad, even more people don’t survive our mistakes. As terrible as Trump is, it’s possible we’ll escape his presidency without the hundreds of thousands dead that George W. Bush is responsible for.

Can we learn from history? Of course. And I think that America is strong; indeed, some parts of our system (like the electoral college) are too resilient. Though we will be damaged for a long time, our nation will likely survive this. Perhaps we will hit an anti-democratic low that inspires true patriots to fight for the right of each person to be represented fairly in government. Two recent elections in which the popular winner lost the presidency, Russian interference, voter suppression, the vast power of big money donors, and the Trump children’s bribing their way out of federal charges hasn’t brought it yet, but maybe. Maybe it will even come from the right, led by people like Evan McMillan. Hell, maybe Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

More practically, I think things will get better through sheer demographic attrition. While, as the alt-right shows us, there are terrible people of every generation, the sheer size of the Baby Boom cohort amplifies how “deplorable” many of them are. Literally, their political (and economic and environmental) choices are killing us.

Many people aren’t surviving. The less powerful die as the rest of us wait for history to pass. We shouldn’t get comfortable with that.