The Downfall of Adam and Eve and their Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. (Photo: Sebastian Bergmann)

The searing political and social divides in our country encourage a search for the magic key. We want a Big Idea that will explain why we disagree so passionately—on gun control, abortion, taxes and lots of other things—and also why we seem to loathe those whose beliefs diverge from our own.

A few weeks ago, Robert Leonard, a radio news director in Knoxville, Iowa, took a thoughtful crack at exploring why Americans in rural areas so often differ with their urban fellow citizens on gun control. Writing in the New York Times, Leonard argued that their differences came down to radically opposed understandings of human nature, about as sweeping an explanation as you’ll get.

Leonard cited a 2015 Iowa speech by former Republican Congressman J. C. Watts. “Mr. Watts said Democrats think people were born basically good, so when good people did bad things, something in society (in this case, guns) needed to be controlled,“ Leonard wrote. “Republicans think the fault lies with the person—the perpetrator of the evil. Bad choices result in bad things being done, in part because the perpetrator lacks the moral guidance the Christian faith provides.“

“The reaction to mass shootings highlights this difference,” Leonard continued. “Liberals blame the guns and want to debate gun control. For conservatives, the blame lies with the shooter, not the gun.”

This is certainly a good description of the “guns don’t kill people” rhetoric of those opposed to taking action against guns. Here’s the problem, and perhaps this might help us talk to each other about these matters: Extreme optimism about human nature is not, in fact, central to the liberal creed. On the contrary, especially since the 1930s and 1940s, liberals have been acutely aware of our fallen nature and our capacity for evil. The Holocaust, the Gulag, the destructiveness of nuclear weapons and the staggering death toll of World War II made thoroughly sunny perspectives about human goodness obsolete. The horrors in this period gave birth to a different kind of liberalism, distilled in the thinking of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

The Holocaust, the Gulag, the destructiveness of nuclear weapons and the staggering death toll of World War II made thoroughly sunny perspectives about human goodness obsolete.

As the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in honoring one of his heroes, Niebuhr’s reflections on the contemporary meaning of the Christian concept of original sin taught liberals and everyone else about “the mixed and ambivalent character of human nature—creative impulses matched by destructive impulses, regard for others overruled by excessive self-regard, the will to power, the individual under constant temptation to play God to history.“

As an Original Sin Liberal myself, I agree with Leonard’s friends and neighbors that human beings can do terrible things and that accountability is part of justice.

But I’d argue in turn that law exists precisely to “tame the savageness of man,“ a phrase Robert Kennedy drew from classical sources. The human capacity for sin and evil requires us to consider that denying someone the right to own an AR-15 may enhance the right to life of far more people than those restrained by such a restriction. Background checks are based on the view that if we can keep weapons out of the hands of those who have a record of perpetrating violence (as well as those with psychiatric problems), we can reduce the number of evil acts that people are, indeed, quite capable of performing.

An Original Sin Liberal might go on to challenge conservatives who claim to be very conscious of human fallibility and our capacity for selfishness. Why do they so often oppose laws reducing the likelihood that individuals and companies will despoil the environment or take advantage of their employees?

A noble but guarded attitude toward human nature is prominent in James Madison’s thinking, leading him to see the politics of a democratic republic as entailing an ongoing search for balance.

On the one hand, we need to pass laws because we know that men and women are not angels. But this also means that we should be wary of placing too much power in government, since it is run by flawed human beings who can be guilty of overreach. Many of our arguments involve not irreconcilable values but different assessments of where this balance should tilt at a given time on a given issue.

I don’t pretend that any of this will persuade Leonard’s skeptical friends and neighbors to support gun control. But I would ask them to ponder the possibility that our convictions about humanity and our flaws may not be as different as they might imagine.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected]. Twitter: @EJDionne.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a contributing writer for Commonweal. His most recent book is Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite To Save Our Country (Macmillan, 2020).

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.