Though of course the remark was uttered in a moment of pain and trauma, the sentiment behind it is widely shared by millions of Americans who lay the blame for such attacks on our diseased society, rather than access to weapons technology. It reflects a deeply held religious belief in human evil and society’s degeneration—one that doesn’t register progress in the world.
Our current historical moment, for all its faults, is profoundly safer and healthier than any other time in history. As Steven Pinker pointed out in his (imperfect) 2011 bestseller The Better Angels of Our Nature, the years since World War II have been the most peaceful, as a purely statistical matter, in recorded history—all the wars, crimes, and acts of violence notwithstanding.
None of this is to minimize the horrors of the past century, only to say that there is less violence, per capita, than at any time we know if in the past—especially if you count domestic violence, which you should.
And misdiagnosing the problem means failing to treat it. The problem is that that same percentage of humans who have always been predisposed to violent crime can now buy semi-automatic weapons and the various accessories the Las Vegas murderer possessed. If the shooter had a bunch of 18th century muskets, he would’ve killed two or three people at most.
Our world is no sicker than it has ever been. It is better armed.
Now, if you listen to most liberals, the reason that conservatives misdiagnose the problem is either that they are gun-toting fanatics or that they have been deceived by the NRA. Like many liberal descriptions of conservatives, this is as unhelpful as it is condescending.
In fact, many conservatives think the world is sick because thinking so is a religious belief, reinforced by culture, media, and theology. Moreover, they have been thinking this way for centuries—even millennia. It’s not a response to Obama, the Tea Party, or even the 1960s. It’s the Bible.
In approximately 760 B.C.E, for example, the prophet Amos condemned his contemporary society for abandoning God’s law, being led astray by lies, and allowing their culture to decay. Sound familiar?
Other prophets had similar messages. Jeremiah inveighed against his society’s turning away from God, prophesying catastrophe like a latter-day end-timer Isaiah begins his prophecy by wailing against the “sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil-doers, children that deal corruptly; they have forsaken God.” This world is sick, indeed.
And then, the revolution of the New Testament shifted focus from communal unrighteousness to individual sinfulness. In the New Testament, evil persists not because society is idolatrous and unethical, but because individuals are sinful, corrupt, and predisposed toward evil. Even God’s law can’t help us, because we’re doomed to transgress it. Humans are such wretches that only the grace of God can save us.
For two thousand years, it has been five minutes to midnight, morally speaking. Contemporary society, be it St. Augustine’s or Jonathan Edwards’ or Pat Robertson’s, has always been fallen and corrupt—reflecting our fallen human nature. Things are never as good as they used to be, whether in the Great Awakening of the 1730s or the great evangelical revivals of the early 1900s. Society is always on the brink of collapse. This is how conservative Western religion is. This is how it sees the world.
To say “this world is sick” isn’t to offer a factual analysis of current events. It’s to state a timeless truth about human nature.
It’s also why religious conservatives insist on the objective truth of “Judeo-Christian” moral teaching. Among conservative Catholics, it’s understood that without these objective moral truths, we’d degenerate into the animals that we are, rudderless and amoral. Among conservative Protestants, it’s understood that while conscience is to be our guide, it is conscience shaped by the absolute truths of biblical morality.
And, finally, it’s why religious conservatives—like Roy Moore, likely the next U.S. senator from Alabama—see biblical morality as the bedrock of American law. “Traditional marriage,” for example, is God’s plan; an essential curb on men’s voracious sexual appetites; reflective of the gender hierarchy set forth in Genesis and reiterated by Paul, who abjured women to obey their husbands.
Never mind that actual biblical marriage included polygamy, concubinage, and “marriage” to the women of tribes who had been conquered by the Israelites. Never mind the overwhelming and conclusive evidence that the Bible was assembled by multiple human writers and editors. The point is that these objective moral verities are the only things saving human beings from the abyss.
Go to a conservative megachurch. Listen to what the preacher says. Listen to the stories of sin and salvation. Understand that inside each one of us, there is the voice of God telling us to do good—and our own evil voice telling us to sin. Consider what that view of human nature means for politics—including guns.
Of course, there are many other factors in play too. How white men are deemed “lone gunmen” while people of color are “terrorists” or “criminals.” How the Second Amendment has been deliberately misread and idolized. The way the NRA—which can count only 19 percent of gun owners as members—has captured the Republican Party, and subverted an array of values like individual freedom into a form of right-wing resistance against a supposedly tyrannical government.
The NRA-GOP explanation for America’s truly exceptional gun violence plays so well on the right because it is part of an overall worldview that says that people are bad and the world is getting worse.
Many liberals now see offering “thoughts and prayers” after a tragedy like Las Vegas as a conservative cliché. The writer Gary Shteyngart tweeted that “Thoughts and Prayers” should be the name of the NRA house band.
But if you believe that human depravity—rather than, say, automated weapons technology—is responsible for mass shootings, then “thoughts and prayers” are the most appropriate response. Gun laws won’t keep evil people from doing evil—not according to this religious ideology. No laws can. Thoughts and prayers are the best defense we’ve got.