Wednesday, September 27, 2023 Sep 27, 2023
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Civilization, guns and prime-time religion
By Lee Cullum |

WHENEVER I’M in New York, I always go to the Pierpont Morgan Library. It’s an early 20th-century house with neoclassical lines and a stately bearing that recalls a time when a wealthy man could presume to house all the important knowledge of the world under one roof. Now a public museum, the Morgan Library usually displays a show of prints or drawings in the gallery near the entrance hall.

The exhibitions are lovely, but they’re not what draws me to the Morgan. It’s the two rooms at the back of the house that are compelling. One was J.P. Morgan’s study. As grand as you might imagine, with rich, dark paneling adorned with glorious European paintings from three centuries, this was the alchemical chamber where one of the most ruthless men of American business sought redemption through beauty and learning.

The other room was Morgan’s library, and today it symbolizes the magic of the house. Within its opulent recesses rise row upon row of leather-bound books, all stamped in gold with the great names of the human adventure. Only a few weeks ago, I stood in this room and said to myself: “Here’s what we’re fighting for; here is civilization.” But, I thought further, it’s going to be hard work to civilize our own city. Of course, that’s true of every city, so what else is new?

Morgan was a collector of medieval illuminated manuscripts. As I looked again at the translucent blue and gold leaf of those delicate pages that depict biblical scenes (how did we ever believe that TV’s prime-time religion could replace all this?), I wondered if Carl Jung might have been right when he wrote of the “catastrophe of the Reformation.” Just that morning, I had called D and had heard the amazing news that Longview Christian Academy had canceled its basketball schedule with Dallas’ Cistercian Preparatory School because officials at Longview had discovered that Cistercian was a Catholic school. How is this possible?

It reminded me of a time years ago when a public relations man told me that while he was doing some research on Adlai Stevenson’s Unitarian faith for Eisenhower’s 1952 election campaign, he found what he believed to be a reservoir of material to use against Stevenson. Eisenhower carried Texas (and I’m glad he did), but I hope it wasn’t because of this religious war. Eight years later, when Kennedy won this state, we thought that it once and for all affirmed for us the promise of the First Amendment.

But nothing is ever accomplished once and for all. Things come loose, even (or perhaps especially) when we think we’ve nailed them down for good. Other things change, and that can cause confusion and deep division in our sense of values. Consider the Second Amendment to the Constitution: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

What does this mean today? Understood in the context of the late 1780s, the concern of the Founding Fathers was clearly for the right of each state to maintain a militia of citizen/soldiers for the defense of that state, not for the right of each individual to bear arms against his fellow citizens (and in too many instances in modern America, against his own friends and family).

Times now are dramatically different from what they were 200 years ago. Where leaders of the young Republic fretted about a standing army even as they felt the need for some sort of rudimentary defense, today’s mature America is financing a huge military complex. Where early America had no cache of arms to speak of, today’s Pentagon is hardly undersupplied.

The point is this: When President Reagan decided to invade Grenada, he didn’t have to call up state militias and tell each soldier to bring a gun from home. This is what the Founding Fathers were contemplating when they wrote the Second Amendment.

Aside from the constitutional question, there’s the matter of a company’s economic right to manufacture and distribute a product that some members of the public clearly want. This is a powerful argument, but it loses force when you consider that many handguns, especially the cheap Saturday Night Specials, are manufactured outside the United States. The 1968 Gun Control Act prohibited the import of foreign handguns, but not their parts. Consequently, the parts are imported, reassembled and sold throughout this country. It’s not the economic rights of our own citizens that we’re protecting at all; many manufacturers of cheap handguns live in other nations. American distributors can just as easily use their own storefronts and sales teams to push other, less destructive products.

But the pro-gun lobby will have none of it. As things stand today, the National Rifle Association is so strong that few politicians dare endorse even the most moderate measures to require licensing of gun owners or to ban Saturday Night Specials. Such actions would not hamper sportsmen in the slightest, but, taken together, they offer a reasonable compromise of an emotional issue and some hope of reducing the number of firearms in the land-and, therefore, the number of senseless deaths.

Is there any need to argue that handguns are destructive? How about the young woman who was driving home from a trip and was shot dead in her car by a stranger? Or the parents of a 15-year-old boy who returned to their home from church only to be gunned down by their highly agitated son? Could control of handguns have extended to these people-now dead-the freedom to go on living? Surely the Founding Fathers would have wished it so.

Which brings me back to the Morgan Library and civilization-a fragile commodity for which we must fight every day. If wepermit ourselves to be a gun-toting people,veined with prejudice, venting our creaturedistress in rampant vulgarity, we will havein Dallas the worst of all worlds. The spiritof our times-like the spirit of all time-isalarmingly anti-humane, anti-urbane andbarbaric. The Visigoths are howling at thegate. Sometimes we even discover themwithin ourselves. But with vigilance, visionand courage, we can hold them at bay andachieve an occasional shared sense of lightwrested from the darkness.