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Why carrying a gun is an immoral act, according to Marilynne Robinson

“It’s a recipe for a completely deranged society.”

American author Marilynne Robinson poses while in Paris to promote her book on October 29, 2007.
Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

“I am too old to mince words,” Marilynne Robinson writes at the outset of her extraordinary new essay collection What Are We Doing Here?. In a conversation, the 74-year-old novelist and Pulitzer winner doesn’t pull punches either, particularly when it comes to guns.

“The reason I wouldn’t carry a gun is because it is an immoral act walking around imagining you’re going to kill someone,” she told me. “It’s a recipe for a completely deranged society. It’s grotesque.”

Robinson — a cherished thinker on American identity, Christianity, and rural life in the US — is perhaps best known as the author of the Gilead novels, a trilogy that focuses on the family of a Congregationalist pastor named John Ames. Among the novels’ fans is Barack Obama — who called Ames one of his “favorite characters in fiction.”

The genesis of most of the pieces in What Are We Doing Here? began as lectures she’s given over the past few years at universities, seminaries, and churches. In the collection, she offers a wide-ranging and clear-headed polemic claiming that Americans all too often surrender thought to ideology, whether that system be capitalism or Darwinism. As she sees it, both the political left and right in this country “share false assumptions and flawed conclusions that are never effectively examined because they are indeed shared.”

An antidote to all this, according to Robinson — who taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for more than 25 years before retiring in 2016 — is the “poetry, eloquence, wit, imagination, depth of thought” found within a humanities education.

I recently called Robinson at her Iowa City home to talk about her new collection, among other things. Our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, appears below.

Eric Allen Been

One essay you wrote for the New York Review of Books in 2013, about how this fear drives gun ownership, feels particularly relevant in light of the Parkland mass shooting. Have your thoughts on American gun culture changed since you wrote that piece?

Marilynne Robinson

In this individual case, this young Nikolas Cruz fellow, he was clearly in some particular state of mind that was special to him. He might’ve had some general fear — he clearly was a lonely creature at that point. I think sometimes people go over the edge because they can’t imagine any sort of decent future life for themselves. He had just lost everybody. I don’t know how it would feel to be as young as he was and fear life itself.

I do pity him. Society did him harm by allowing him to destroy every good aspect of his life in such a hideous way. But the thing that bothers me is that people like him are people who nourish this idea of living in a hostile world, of collecting guns because they feel as if they are somehow at odds with American society as it has developed. They fear the socialist takeover that’s supposed to come any minute or whatever — these fantastic exaggerations of things that are fictional to begin with.

All these narratives do is make gun selling profitable and make sure there are plenty of guns in the environment for people to use for suicide or shootings.

Eric Allen Been

It’s probably some magical thinking here, but I’m starting to get the feeling that we’re finally hitting a breaking point when it comes to guns in this country.

Marilynne Robinson

It’s uplifting to see how articulate these young people are. They are so incisive in their thinking and passion. All we’ve been hearing about is how schools are failing and the rest of it. But I don’t think we’ve ever had young people that were more beautiful specimens of ideals and insightfulness. It’s beautiful.

Eric Allen Been

What are your thoughts about the [National Rifle Association’s] proposal, which Trump endorsed, to have armed teachers in school?

Marilynne Robinson

Normalizing the idea that we should all go around capable of a lethal act at any moment is completely corrupt and crazy. I wouldn’t carry a gun. The reason I wouldn’t carry a gun is because it is an immoral act walking around imagining you’re going to kill someone. It’s a recipe for a completely deranged society. It’s grotesque.

I acknowledge the intimate difficulties that seem to be involved in this thing, but if guns were banned, it would not hurt my feelings. But that’s impossible to imagine. As a practical matter, they will be around forever, probably in enormous numbers. But if they weren’t, I’d be happy.

Eric Allen Been

You write in one of the book’s essays that we are “not successful at defining what is deepest in us.” Some have argued that Trump tapped into the psyche of the downtrodden — that he was saying things they couldn’t express. Do you find that sentiment accurate?

Marilynne Robinson

The whole category of “downtrodden” makes me nervous. I think there are people who are not paid fairly for the work they do, and I think there’s a lot of them in America. I think they’re more appropriately thought of as being the victims of other people’s greed or dishonestly than being people who are downtrodden. We have to be loyal to a broader sense of social justice than we have attempted for a long time now. We have this idea that if we crank up the economy, it will lift all boats.

But the economy is not designed to lift all boats. It’s become more and more exploitative of low-wage labor. Some people are so mad that they’re just throwing rocks. But a lot of people are not downtrodden. They are simply appealed to by the offer of big tax cuts and all the rest.

I don’t know what the demographics worked out to be in this recent election, but a lot of college-educated people, a lot of white suburbanites, a lot of people who are not the downtrodden loved Trump and continue to love him. It’s an escape to say that he’s the creature of the downtrodden. He sided with the people who created and maintained him.

Eric Allen Been

In the ‘60s, a lot of religious groups became supporters of social reform — specifically, I’m thinking about the civil rights movement at that time. Today, it can feel sometimes like that has flipped in a lot of cases.

Marilynne Robinson

When people identify as groups, they look after their own self-interest as a group. They idealize the norms of their own group behavior. They have leaders that articulate the norms of the group, so they do not, themselves, reflect over what their religion actually says. It’s inevitable, and it’s good, that people think about social issues on the basis of religion. But as soon as it becomes a group or movement, it has a very great capacity for being corrupted.

Eric Allen Been

You write that “one is expected to bemoan the present time, to say something about decline and the loss of values,” but that you “ … find a great deal to respect.” What do you respect in our present moment?

Marilynne Robinson

We were just talking about the young people in Florida, and young people all over the country. My experience, day to day, with people I deal with is that they are fair, they are charming and courteous people. I have virtually never had any moments of unpleasantness with a student of mine, for example.

I really do believe that you could stop 300 people on the street and you would have a better House of Representatives than we do now. We filter out people who are, perhaps, the most humane, the most rational, the most uncorrupted, in the process of electing so many of our politicians.

Eric Allen Been

You’ve had your quarrels with the Harvard professor Steven Pinker about his views on religion. But in his new book Enlightenment Now, one of the arguments he makes is that the media often presents an inaccurately negative view of the world. That seems to be somewhat in line with what you just said.

Marilynne Robinson

I don’t know. I was talking to an audience about gun violence the other night. And only in America does this happen in this way, of course, and for obvious reasons — because of all these guns. But I said at the same time, it’s also true we have a low and declining violent crime rate. If you’re going to talk about the situations and nature of the society as a whole at this moment, you need to take both of these pieces of information into account. And this was not met with approval.

There is this way if you say something like this, people can treat you like you’re glossing something over. But we know about this lowering of the crime rate because of the media — we have no other source for information like that. I think that people that receive this type of information tend to shrug it off. I’ve had the experience of people shrugging it off in real time.

Eric Allen Been

You have great admiration for Obama, and he is a friend. You write that those who opposed him did so because they “knew how remarkable of a leader he could be.” What do you mean by that?

Marilynne Robinson

I feel very privileged that I’ve had some direct contact with him and corresponded with him to some extent. He’s a brilliant man, you know. A well-meaning, enormously courteous man. I think that if he came through in an unmediated way with the Republicans and if they were not slanging him all the time, he would have had great potential to not only be a charismatic leader but [be] one of great substance. He is a constitutional scholar. He knows what a great American president should know.

Eric Allen Been

What do you think of those on the left — the intellectual Cornel West comes to mind — who have accused Obama of outright war crimes because he carried out so many drone strikes?

Marilynne Robinson

Well, I’ve never talked with Obama about things like that. You have to think people have a certain range of options. If you were trying to keep casualties to a minimum, I can see why you would think that drone strikes were much more effective than an invasion force. It’s not a good choice. I’m sure that he would not have done it happily, but given the range of possibilities that they are, if the objective is to maintain a lower rate of casualties, for both sides, I can see how you might, as president, be forced into a situation like that.

One of the things that bothers me about liberals is that they don’t feel obligated to come up with a better choice. Originally, Obama talked about taking prisoners out of Guantanamo and putting them in the Supermax prison in Colorado. He didn’t end up doing that, but I read about the Supermax and it’s an absolute atrocity — it should be torn down to the ground.

Obama couldn’t do anything more normal with them, because that would not have been politically possible. But the Supermax is horrible. Destroying it should be a cause in itself, and it doesn’t need more people living in it.

Eric Allen Been

You write that our country needs to regain its direction, to recover the memory of the best it’s done and try to do better. How can we do that?

Marilynne Robinson

Well, the great things that have been done for the general welfare of our country are things like public schools and universities. The infrastructure that was created at such an enormous rate in the ‘50s. Also, the Marshall Plan, for instance. We are now locked into such an adversarial situation when it comes to the allies of America, you know.

Eric Allen Been

Robert Reich, the former labor secretary for President Bill Clinton, argues in his new book The Common Good that the US presidency has to have a moral authority. What do you see as the president’s moral role, and how should we judge it?

Marilynne Robinson

I think we’re getting a very elaborate instruction in that whole issue now. I think that there’s been a strong feeling in America, traditionally, that people’s character is of one kind. That is, if you will cheat in a small part of your life, you will cheat in the large, significant part of your life. If you will be faithful in small things, you will be faithful in great things.

I think we’re watching now a presidency that has no idea of the types of restraints that honorable people place on themselves, and that we’re seeing institutions that are very seriously threatened that have never been threatened before. It is so novel for us to have a president that is so deficient in that respect.

Eric Allen Been is a freelance writer who has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, Vice, Playboy, the New Republic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and TheAtlantic.com.