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Steve Nelson: Conservatives Prefer to Do Battle With Straw Men

“Send someone to take away my guns, and you’ll see just exactly how ‘worth defending’ the Second Amendment is. And yes, that means exactly what you think it does.”

This alarmingly clear comment was one of many similar sentiments in response to a Huffington Post piece I recently wrote about gun violence.

On Facebook this week, someone posted a colorful image objecting to the phrase “Happy Holidays,” declaring it political correctness run amok. The poster aggressively argued that the word “Christmas” didn’t start with “Christ” for nothing. The Facebook banter back and forth included several assertions about the Christian foundation of North America (the poster is Canadian).

So it appears that Barack Obama’s “guns and religion” comment in the 2008 campaign wasn’t far off the mark. Some folks get pretty testy when their God or their gun is involved. Anytime I write about either I can be assured of a slew of pretty angry emails. It doesn’t seem to matter how gently I raise issues of separation of church and state or gun control. It seems to trigger a reaction every time. I’m guessing this column will continue the streak.

I’m going to gently characterize a number of viewpoints as conservative, just for the sake of advancing my argument. I know that not all conservatives hold all these views: objection to abortion; firm resistance to gun controls; fervent belief in the Christian foundation of America and the unfettered right to express religion in public spaces.

These points of view are not crazy, although I don’t share them. But the arguments emanating from the political right in support of these positions almost always require a straw man.

Because here’s what is too seldom brought into the discussion: Neither I nor any political progressive I know actually wants to limit the ability of any conservative person to live in accordance with these beliefs.

As to abortion, good people certainly disagree about the ethical implications of abortion. I have great respect for those who believe there is a “right to life” due to religious or ethical reasons. I know no person who is pro-abortion. That’s the straw man of this issue. First of all, men, who are the most vociferous right-to-life lobbyists, really don’t have standing to opine on women’s health choices. But that aside, I know many women who are pro-life and pro-choice. They would not have an abortion, but they don’t wish to dictate the complex personal choices of other women. As the bumpersticker says, “If you’re opposed to abortion, don’t have one.”

The gun debate is even more skewed by the straw man. There isn’t and never has been a progressive proposal to confiscate guns. The dramatic increase in gun sales following Obama’s wins in 2008 and 2012 were inspired by a baseless fear that the president wants to take away weapons. He has been, sadly, gun-neutral throughout his political career.

I don’t have a gun, don’t want a gun and don’t hunt. But I respect responsible hunters and have no secret plan to lobby for gun confiscation. But when I wrote about the recent killings in Minnesota and Florida (in both cases, teenagers were killed by armed men whose “self-defense” claims are highly questionable), comments like the one at the top of this piece immediately emerged. Reasonable gun controls would have virtually no consequences for responsible gun owners. I think easy access to semi-automatic weapons is frightening, and I worry deeply about the trends that produce more concealed weapons, including on college campuses and public streets. But no one has suggested we round up all the guns.

And religion is the granddaddy of straw men. To listen to the proponents of public prayer, Ten Commandments in public buildings and Pledges of Allegiance to God in schools, you’d think they were being locked out of their places of worship and being persecuted. No progressive I know has ever suggested anything as ridiculous as a restriction on anyone’s practice of religion on private property, at home or virtually anywhere. There is boundless time and limitless space in which any American can freely practice his or her religion.

So conservatives who hold these views are not being asked to give up anything at all.

No pro-choice person wants to force any woman to have an abortion against her belief. We just want women to have the dignity of controlling their own bodies.

No gun control advocate wants to take everybody’s gun away. We just want to live in a society where we don’t have to worry about whether the guy in the next car is carrying a concealed weapon or an assault rifle and is inclined to use it if he gets angry. And we want our sons and granddaughters to grow up in a gentle society, not one that’s armed to the teeth.

I say Happy Holidays because I don’t want to intentionally or unintentionally create a community that feels welcoming only to those who are Christian. For the life of me, I don’t know how a cheerful “Happy Holidays” diminishes the seasonal spirit for one who is a deeply committed Christian. Unless, of course, that person thinks everyone must be a deeply committed Christian in order to be American.

So, in that spirit ... Happy Holidays to all!

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.


Letter: Basis of Conservatives’ Fears

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

To the Editor: Steve Nelson writes about conservatives (“Conservatives Prefer to Battle Straw Men,” Dec. 9) but misleads when he characterizes progressives like himself. Nelson writes that neither he nor any political progressive he knows wants to limit the ability of conservatives to live in accordance with their beliefs. But of course he does, and thereby he treads upon the …