What Newtown Taught us About Faith


As the Irish might put it, the weekend after the Newtown massacre was when we cried down a river. During Sunday's memorial service, President Obama summoned the nation to do better, urging that our tragic and recurring past never again become prologue. There were corresponding calls to strengthen our control of dangerous weapons, a reasonable but only a preliminary step.

So are the mechanics of gun control the most important lesson we must learn from the Newtown massacre? Or is it finally time to address the far more difficult challenges of faith, belief and culture?

As an Army officer who ran arms-rooms and rifle ranges for a generation, strict weapons accountability was the natural rhythm of military life; careers would suffer if your troops ever lost one. As a political scientist, I question your innate Constitutional right to assault rifles, thirty-round banana clips or hollow-point, cop-killing bullets. And as a military historian, I can also demonstrate how the proliferation of gunpowder weapons - automatic, accurate and ubiquitous - has turned battlefields and whole societies into far deadlier places. From the Thirty Years War to the Nuclear Age, as weapons proliferate the chances of dying rise exponentially.

Understanding those lessons is the beginning of wisdom - but only the beginning: The really hard part is remembering what Newtown should have taught us about faith. For one thing, prayer returned to the Newtown Elementary School as soon as evil incarnate arrived and the deadly rampage began. No Supreme Court reconsideration was required nor the filing of a brilliantly conceived amicus brief. Just hearts confronting the worst of all terrors and facing the sudden reality of Eternity. No atheists in foxholes, either on the battlefield or in a classroom sheltering frightened students.

But just before those shots rang out, the nation was busily engaged in its annual War on Christmas. A minor skirmish in that war just took place in neighboring Rhode Island. Led by Governor Lincoln Chafee, a man of inter-changeable names and few fixed principles, the lighting of the state Christmas tree took place in a covert ceremony. Stealth prevented protests by those easily offended by any public celebration of Christmas, even one carefully sterilized to avoid religious overtones.

Contrast his example with Governor Daniel Malloy of Connecticut, who lent the full weight of his office while embracing the remarkable outpouring of faith after the Newtown shootings. The inter-faith memorial service began with prayers recited in both Arabic and Hebrew. Ministers from many denominations, walking arm-in-arm, read from the 23rd Psalm and Saint Paul's letter to the Romans. An audience left sobbing as Mr. Obama read the names of the lost children, next heard Paul's ringing affirmation that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God's love.

Unless of course we ask Him to: Because modern Americans typically consider religion a battlefield to be avoided rather than the essential Common Ground of a culture founded on the freedom to worship. Governor Mike Huckabee made the sensible point that a nation which ejects God from the public square, as well as the public schools, should hardly be surprised when that exclusion inevitably debases the culture. If you have no core beliefs about anything greater than yourself, then where do altruism and self-restraint come from? Can secular humanism supply the moral backbone that our Founders considered a pre-condition of American democracy? 

Readers of The Huffington Post obviously thought it could. One blogger wrote, "Mr. Huckabee, your god (NB: small g!)...does not belong in OUR public schools...period!"  However offensive, that is precisely where the debate has stood for a generation, even as the consequences continue piling up.

More than a decade ago, Harvard's Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone, his classic diagnosis of an increasingly atomized American society, an isolated place where neighbors never get to know each other. Putnam didn't even mention the draft or military service, once reliable social engines for teaching that the defense of American democracy was not a spectator sport. Since then, we have fought a decade of war with Other People's Kids, only one percent of Americans ever serving in uniform. Meanwhile, we have become a nation of ear-buds, I-Pads and gated communities

Until we suddenly re-discover that we need each other, that religious faith can be the Common Ground otherwise missing from a deeply divided society. That gun control is only part of the answer for a culture routinely entertained by death and dysfunction, from Hollywood movies to video games. And that the courage and caring of a New England town dealing with unimaginable grief unexpectedly gave the nation a much-needed lesson about faith in the public square. And maybe even a timely reminder of who we really are.

Colonel Ken Allard is a widely known commentator on foreign policy and security issues. For more than a decade, he was a featured military analyst on NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC. That experience provided the backdrop for his most recent book, Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War. 

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