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We don't need to 'explain' people who believe differently

April 20, 2008

It's always entertaining to hear people try to explain groups of people whom they don't understand. The very fact that they don't understand these groups should probably disqualify them from "explaining" same, but forget that for the moment.

If someone doesn't think the way you think, there must be a reason, right? Some organic flaw, some psychological scar, some educational failing that prevents them from seeing the truth.

Of small-town America (and that's us, if you're keeping score at home), Barack Obama says that bitterness and disillusion sends the country folk scurrying to the twin comforts of religions and munitions.

That's a rather big swing and a miss from a respectable presidential candidate, in my view - and any stimulus that prompts Hillary Clinton to tell the tale of how her father taught her to shoot out back of the ole tractor shed needs to be categorically condemned - but it does raise some interesting "us versus them" issues for discussion.

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It dates back to the old, "Some of my best friends are - fill in the blank. We know, at some level, that writing off entire groups of people as total zeros is wrong, so we resort to mitigation. In Obama's case, this would translate to "Some of my best friends are Old Testament crazed, pistols firing in the air Yosemite Sam-style, yee-haw wack jobs."

But this is impolitic when you're seeking high office, so the mitigation must be more cerebral. Hence the theory that there is no logical reason for deep emotional ties to religion or guns, unless one factors bitterness and disillusion into the equation.

True, there is nothing like bitterness to make me want to grab my gun - although usually this bitterness is directed toward some lawless groundhog, not the Federal Reserve. But does this mean if no one were bitter no one would care about guns? To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a thirty-ought-six is just a thirty-ought-six.

Religion is more interesting. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I believe it's harder to be a good Christian when things are going well. Why pray when there's nothing to pray for? Kids who studied the night before do not need prayer the day of the test. And I think many of us would admit, when things are humming along smoothly, the Almighty is usually the first to be sent to the back of the bus. So I'll spot Obama the premise that people are more prone to fall back on religion when they fall on hard times. My quibble would be with the implication that this is a bad thing.

Anymore, your own personal faith, spirituality or beliefs are one of the few things over which you maintain total control.

They can take your job. They can raise your taxes. They can foreclose on your home. But they have absolutely no sway over that little corner of your mind that governs your core set of beliefs.

And that's cause for celebration, not concern.

Taken clinically, Obama's comments are correct. Many people are bitter and many lives have fallen short of expectations. And when the world around us seems to be spinning out of control, the natural inclination is to take comfort in, and tighten our grip on, the things we can control - which basically amounts to our own minds.

Obama admits to forming his words clumsily. I would like to think what he meant was this: Yes, you can celebrate your religion, yes you can take joy from your firearms - but just because you hold these to be dear does not mean that you should not also have the reasonable expectation of something more.

Gun ownership and religion are not at odds with a stable job, a good home, a clean environment and a government that is secure enough with itself to admit when it has made a mistake and plot a new course.

And people do not need to be odds with other people just because they share dissimilar beliefs. Truth be told, it would behoove us all to seek out the person with whom we disagree the most and shake his hand. Because the fact that he is free to hold his beliefs means that we are free to hold ours.

We don't need to explain people who have faith or own guns any more than we need to find an explanation for people who do not have faith or do not own guns. In fact, it's the difference between the two that make life interesting.

I might even say that some of my best friends are people with whom I do not agree. Yes, we should always be mindful of ways in which we can change the world for the better and convince others to do the same.

But sometimes the best thing you can do for people who disagree with you is to pleasantly and unprejudicially let them.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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