Many of you have read Jared Diamond’s GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL of a few years back which won the Pulitzer Prize. As you may recall, the author attempted to identify crucial factors that help explain why history progressed differently for peoples from various geographical regions.
For some reason, this title came to mind as I was sifting through prominent politically contentious issues that have dominated our public life over the past few months. These include the fierce gun debate following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, taxes that were at the core of the political fight to avert the “fiscal cliff,” and the role that women’s rights played in the recent presidential campaign.
I would argue that strong biases – for or against guns, taxes, and women – are rooted deep in our culture and history and help explain why our country has developed the way it has. It also helps explain why we are still stuck politically, struggling with issues that common sense would argue we should have put to rest a long time ago.
First, let’s turn to taxes and guns. Just think of our American Revolution to help bring those two issues into sharper focus. In 1773, we dumped tea into the Boston Harbor as a political protest against the “tax” policy of the British government and the East India Company that controlled all the tea imported into the colonies. Then, when the British tried to quell this impertinent uprising, we “took up arms” and declared our independence.
So resistance to taxes and reliance on the right to own guns are deeply imbedded in our history and culture from their very beginning. Fast forward, raising income taxes, for example, didn’t take effect until the 16th amendment was passed in 1913, just a hundred years ago. And, with respect to guns and the right to bear arms which was enshrined in the 2nd Amendment, the conservative Supreme Court in 1998 sunk those roots even deeper in our history when it ruled that the 2nd Amendment applies to individual as well as state militias. And now, course, we have gun advocates, supported by the NRA, one of the most influential and most well-financed lobbying groups in the country, arguing that even semi-automatic weapons fall under that right to bear arms and should not be outlawed.
Now let’s turn to the women’s rights issue. The front page of today’s Washington Post features a group photo of the 61 female members of the Democratic Caucus in the House of Representatives with an article titled “113th Congress Displays Its Diversity.” Yet, the New York Times reports that the total number of female lawmakers in the new 113th Congress still only numbers “101 across both chambers, counting three nonvoting members.” That comes to 20 in the 100-member Senate and 81 in the 535-member House of Representatives.
Clearly, women’s representation in this new Congress is better than it was, but is it anything to celebrate? Do the math: With women constituting 51 percent of the population, does less than one-sixth of their representation in the Congress strike anyone as being fair and equitable?
But, when you consider the historical prejudice against women’s rights and equality throughout the world – in civil and religious life going all the way back to Adam and Eve – it puts things in a different perspective. Let’s not forget that women didn’t get the right to vote until 1918 and we had to amend the Constitution to make that possible. And, despite gains in the public and private sectors, women still have glass ceilings to break through to achieve parity with men. We have not achieved equality in the workplace, by any stretch of the imagination, despite high-profile appointments and promotions of women to high positions in the last few years.
So, is there any hope in bringing common sense to issues so deeply entrenched in our history and culture? Like so many national and international issues, there are no silver bullets, of course. Otherwise, we might have solved the issues decades ago. But, ironically, I think the beginning of an answer lies with the seemingly most intractable issue of the three: increasing the rights and representation of women in our society, both in our churches and in our political life.
I am not suggesting that women are THE answer to these problems, but I think they are an important and now missing part of the answer. Let’s be honest: They bring special qualities to the table that we men simply do not possess. I have no doubt, for example, that dealing with the gun problem would be further along if we had more women representatives in our national and state legislatures. Nor do I doubt that we would have better, fairer tax laws if women had more of a say in crafting tax legislation.
Pie in the sky, you might argue. Maybe so. But, I am not expecting this to happen any time soon and you shouldn’t hold your breath either. Still, hope springs eternal. It’s the only way to live. As Emily Dickinson wrote: “Hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul,/and sings the tune--without the words, /and never stops at all.”
Happy New Year,