Talking about faith, politics and gun control with David Cox

David Cox (@dcox21) was one of the people that taught me how to teach, i.e. he was a blogger about math teaching in 2010. I still remember trying one of his lessons in my algebra class — it worked like a charm, and I’ve enjoyed his writing immensely. Online, David often tweets about politics, and just as often he ends up tangling with liberals over any number of issues. I asked David if he wanted to dig deeper into his politics, and I was thrilled that he agreed. We ended up talking about faith (mostly Christianity) applied to politics, obligation, coercion, self-sacrifice and (content warning:) guns. 


So, gun control. The position I’ve seen you take is that reducing the number of guns won’t reduce the number of mass shootings in the US. But there are other reasons why we might want to reduce the number of guns — to reduce the number of accidental deaths and injuries, for instance.

Is there a kind of gun control that you could get behind?

I tend to think that gun control is a Trojan Horse for people control.  In other words, the current conversation is around the AR-15, but the Virginia Tech shooting involved only hand guns.  If we begin to say that the AR-15 can be banned, then the conversation will shift to other firearms that can act like the AR-15.  Which, by the way, most hunting rifles can do the same damage as the current firearm under debate.

As for background checks, I think they are important and anyone with a record of violence should have their rights to weapons limited.  To what extent, I’m not sure because so much of this falls under a slippery slope argument.

What about mental health?  Well, obviously we don’t want people with certain mental health issues to have access to weapons.  However, we then have the problem of determining what constitutes a mental health issue and who’s making the determination.  I heard a story the other day where a woman sought help at one point in her life for an eating disorder. She was later flagged when she applied for a concealed carry permit because that disorder was considered a mental health issue.  

I realize that this ends up a big tangled web that ultimately results in me saying, “I don’t know.” What’s your opinion on this?

“I don’t know” sounds like where I’m at too. When look at the arguments it gets hard quickly, in the same way that all policy questions gets hard when you think about them.

I think if I turn off my rationality and just go with my emotions, I end up favoring strict restrictions on guns. Like, guns are weapons, right? They’re designed to either very badly hurt or kill something that’s alive. What do we gain by having so many guns around? I get that a lot of people hunt…but maybe people shouldn’t kill animals for fun. There are other ways to spend time, you know?\

But then again — injecting just a bit of rationality — guns aren’t really part of my life or culture. I don’t really know anybody who owns a gun, hunts, or shoots for fun. (Come to think of it, I did fire an M-16 and a Desert Eagle in Israel on a high school class trip. Haven’t we all?)

Is this intellectual for you, or are guns part of where you come from?

It’s both intellectual and cultural.  I live in a rural part of California. My more progressive friends in the Bay Area call this part of California, “Western Nevada.”  We’re basically that part you drive through to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco if you want to avoid the bad traffic along the coast line.  Oh, and we grow all of your food.

But anyway, guns are definitely part of the culture here even though my household doesn’t have guns.  I had a BB gun as a kid and have fired .22 caliber rifles and handguns, mostly to shoot at squirrels that were bothering the almond trees.  So, we have a lot of hunters around here and I’d guess more of my neighbors have a gun in their home than don’t.

So, I suppose for me personally, this is more of an intellectual exercise. I don’t want kids to die in mass shootings.  I don’t want gang members to die in Los Angeles, Chicago or Baltimore. I don’t want people shooting each other. However, I still can’t find a way around the fact that people tend to be safer if they have a way to defend themselves.  

I’m not sure what I think is more cool, firing a crazy powerful weapon or taking a class trip to Israel.

It was definitely a weird trip.

One thing I don’t get is what exactly you want guns to keep people safe from. Guns don’t address any of my safety fears, and I’m scared of a lot of things. I think about terrorism too much. I worry about getting hit by a car. I’m scared of mass shootings. But I can’t see how my having a firearm could help me much in any of the things that I’m scared of.

You say guns tend to make people safer, but safer from what? What sorts of things are you afraid of, that a gun in the house could help with?

I feel safer in my neighborhood just knowing that my neighbors may have guns.  The very idea that a homeowner may be armed is a deterrent for potential break-ins and a thief has to weigh that threat against the possible gain of breaking into my home.

Just to test your intuitions: do you think you’d feel safer walking around in NYC, where I live, knowing that lots of people have guns at hand?

Isn’t NYC, like, a city? No, I don’t do cities. Seriously though, that’s a tough question.

What do you think is going on here? Why does NYC feel different?

Honestly, my first thought was that large percentage of those carrying guns in a city would be more likely to be doing so illegally. That’s a tremendous bias on my part. If you told me that the same percentage of gun carriers were doing so legally as in my community, I’d actually feel safer.

I know that you think that you aren’t, like, anybody should be able to get a gun whenever they want one, and that’s consistent with the distinction you’re making here.

One thing that I’m really interested in is how your faith influences your political views, on guns and other issues.

For example, I read people like Elizabeth Bruenig who see Jesus’ legacy as supporting leftist politics and a democratic socialism. They share your faith, but end up at a really different place politically. Is there a version of your own Jesus and Christianity that you can recognize in someone like Bruenig?

Ok, I’m sure I don’t have a total handle on Bruenig’s worldview except to say that she believes that Christianity should be radical and revolutionary.  I agree with this sentiment 100%. I think where we may diverge is in how this may show itself in the world.

It seems like she believes that since Christianity is always concerned with the poor, vulnerable and oppressed then our governmental systems should reflect this.  Again, I don’t disagree, but I’d imagine we’d disagree on what this may look like. She states in this piece that true love can’t be coerced.  So, the question is this: How do we care for the poor, vulnerable and oppressed?  Do we see the government as the most efficient and effective way to care for those who need it? If her answer is socialism, then I’d wonder how that squares with free will and love–assuming we define love as willing the good of the other.

I don’t quite get this. Where is the tension between socialism and love?

If socialism is instituted by a government, then it takes the choice away from the individual.  If an individual lacks free will, then any action is no longer an act of love, but an act of coercion.

Surely an act of coercion can also be an act of love, no? I think of teaching, or even parenting. Isn’t it an act of love when I keep my son from running into the street? Is there any reason why gun control couldn’t be an act of love too?

Yes, you can use coercion to keep your son from running into the street and it would be an act of love.  But is your son acting out of love when he does’t run into the street for fear or Dad’s consequence? I’d say not.

Along the same lines, if I choose to sell all of my belongings, give to the poor and join a commune, then that’d be a tremendous act of love and my new community would have many socialist characteristics.  However, it was done by choice not by force.

So the government might be acting out of love if they were to coerce me to share more of my income, or to keep me from having easy access to a gun. But then the government would be making it impossible for me to then give away my income or refrain from guns out of love, myself. Once the government steps in I can only act out of obligation, not out of love.

It’s really interesting to me the way you, and even Bruenig, can draw such a straight line between religious values and politics. It’s something that feels somewhat foreign to the way I relate my Judaism to politics.

For a lot of Jews, we identify as minorities. I think that’s especially true for traditionally observant Jews. And so even if I think that something like modesty is a Jewish value, there’s room for me to hold back from asking that everyone adhere to my values. I have my values, but I don’t necessarily feel like my religious values are always relevant for talking about policy. Though there’s inevitably some part of my religion that influences my worldview anyway…

But do you feel any of that distance between yourself and the world? Do you ever feel, when talking about guns or anything else, that you reach a point where you say: this is what I believe and what my religion calls for, but I don’t expect anyone outside my community to care about that?

I feel that distance all the time.  It’s quite a tension, actually. When I discuss politics, I try to use language that all parties can agree upon.  In other words, even though my religious beliefs form my worldview, I can’t impose that on others. So, when talking about politics, I try to keep my arguments to rule of law, logic, science, etc. because those ideas are common.

You mentioned guns specifically, so I’ll say that I don’t personally want to have a gun in my home.  However, I don’t believe that point of view should be imposed upon others — that would go against the second amendment and any other local/state laws.  I do believe people have an inherent right to self-defense, so my point of view will be formed by that reality.

However, this idea of self-defense creates a tension internally since my faith (and I’d imagine yours as well) is founded on self-sacrifice.  So, I have to wrestle with this idea of what I’d do with what I could reasonably expect from others.

Does that make sense?

I think your faith is founded on self-sacrifice in a way that mine is not. I think if Judaism can really be said to be founded on any one thing at all, it would have to be something like the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and that’s a story about God and Jews cutting a deal — you’ll be my special people, but with special responsibilities — which isn’t really all about self-sacrifice. More of a win-win for both parties.

Here’s what I’m hearing, though. You’re saying that there’s a tension between (a) people should have the right to defend themselves and (b) but maybe people need to accept the possibility of being defenseless, for the sake of some greater good. Is that right?

Yes.  That’s exactly right.  

But to your contrast between Judaism and Christianity, aren’t those special responsibilities sort of a self-sacrifice?  I mean that in the sense of sacrifice now for blessings to come?

I don’t think that’s quite how the notions of responsibility work in Judaism. There is a notion of heaven and a reward in the world to come (don’t mean to entirely downplay that) but people just talk a lot about your obligations, your mitzvot, in this world. I don’t think self-sacrifice is something I feel a lot in my life. It’s more that it’s a way of life that we and our community adhere to completely.

Your point of view actually reminds me of a really sharp piece by David Foster Wallace after 9/11 titled “Just Asking.” Here’s a juicy quote:

“…what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?”  

I can see how Bruenig, or someone like her, could take those feelings of self-sacrifice and end up with a religiously inspired socialism. Shouldn’t we be willing to make tremendous sacrifices for the greater good of protecting the poor, creating a just world, the sort that constitutes the ultimate vision of Christianity? And maybe someone like David Foster Wallace, a sort of religious secularist, is preaching from a similarly Christian set of values.

Anyway, I like that way of thinking that you describe: that there’s a difference between what you feel obligated in versus what you can reasonably ask of other people.

I can appreciate the DFW quote.

He says, ‘what if we decided…’  I often wonder who the “we” is in the context of “we decided”.  It’s one thing for an individual or group to choose sacrifice for the greater good and it’s another to impose the sacrifice on others.  People will often cite Acts 2:44-45 as the context for Christian-based socialism.

And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need

But this isn’t coerced; it’s a choice.

Is democracy coercion, though? Like, is all taxation a coercion? Are police and safety coercion? I would say “yes and no” and so socialism would seem the same to me. If the country democratically decided to adopt socialistic policies I have a hard time seeing how it’s different than any other law or government function.

I think at this point, we’d probably have to define socialism.  I mean, do we consider higher tax rates for higher earners to be socialist in that it is a form of wealth distribution?  I think for me, it really comes down to the 10th amendment. The constitution outlines very limited powers for the federal government and the rest of those powers should go to the states.  California could be considered a fairly socialist state compared to, say, Texas. I’m ok with that. I choose to stay in CA.

Now, if you’re asking me if I want to live in Venezuela, then no thanks…hard pass.

I wonder: do you find yourself at odds, ever, with people who share your religion? When you’re in dialogue with people in your community, or internet-people who are Christian, do you ever have a chance to use your particularly Christian language? Does that help you understand each other, or is it just another set of words to use that feel more natural but ultimately can be just as confusing and difficult to hear each other with?

Yes, I think there are times when I’m at odds with people who share my religion.  When it comes to matter of faith and morals, though, we have the Magisterium of the Church  to formally define things. So, basically as long as I’m in line with the teaching of the Church any disagreement isn’t with me but with the Magisterium. However, there is still some place for personal interpretation.  Take this for instance:

2425 The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modern times with “communism” or “socialism.” She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of “capitalism,” individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor. Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds; regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice, for “there are many human needs which cannot be satisfied by the market.” Reasonable regulation of the marketplace and economic initiatives, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and a view to the common good, is to be commended.

Complete socialism is to be rejected but so is unfettered capitalism.  There’s probably a pretty broad gap between the two that we can discuss.

We started down this path by thinking about socialism and Jesus, and the distinction between a society trying to decide on radically communitarian policies versus Jesus and his followers voluntarily making the decision to eliminate personal ownership.

It’s a pretty cool distinction you’re making, and one that I think completely changes the emotions of the discussion. When I think e.g. about the Tea Party, I think of a sort of bumper-sticker-morality that is all about individual possession and a sort of worship of freedom of movement, unrestricted by the government or anything else.

What’s cool about what you’re saying, if I get you, is that actually personally you reject that individualist ethos. It’s not a healthy way to live, and it’s not living in the model of Jesus. At the same time, it’s not necessarily a great idea for the government to impose this way of living on everybody…

Does this sound right? If you think it does, I wonder how you think this relates to the different denominations in Christianity. Do you think that your take is a particularly Catholic one? I admit near-total ignorance on intra-Christian issues, but I know that there are holy orders in Catholicism and that various protestant groups are said to have more individualistic perspectives on faith and society.

Yes, I think you’ve nailed my point of view quite well. I think the Tea Party is an interesting example.  I’ve gone back and forth with the same “worship of freedom” sentiment. Maybe my indecisiveness has to do with my backstory…

I wasn’t raised Catholic.  I grew up in a conservative family and my early Christian experiences were more evangelical non-denominational.  From that perspective, the Christian’s relationship with Jesus is wholly personal. This is likely where the worship of freedom comes from.  After all, any evangelical non-denominational fellowship will have it’s roots in Protestantism. And what are they protesting? The Catholic Church.

So on one hand, I have a history of believing that my relationship with Jesus is entirely personal and rooted in my own individual understanding and on the other, I have this newer belief in the teaching authority of the Church.

So, I think for the Catholic and non-Catholic Christian the goal is still to submit to God.  For the Catholic this submission is both within the context of the Church and individually but for the non-Catholic the submission is based on individual understanding.

3 thoughts on “Talking about faith, politics and gun control with David Cox

  1. Beautiful. Im protestant and feel almost exactly the same way. Politically, may of us are quiet (for several reasons), so the mainstream doesn’t realize how many of us feel and think this way. I am thankful for this respectful interchange.


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