On Marriage Licenses

“It’s about time somebody stood up for religious freedom,” Mr. Bates said. “That one clerk in Kentucky is a true American hero.”

Mr. Magundi looked thoughtful. “No one respects religious principles more than I do,” he said, “and I would certainly admire a woman who would resign from her job if the job required her to do something against her religious principles.

“But why did that point not come long ago? Are there no Catholics in that part of Kentucky? To an evangelical Protestant who believes that the Pope is the Antichrist, surely it must be the greatest of all sins to be a Catholic; and to provide marriage licenses to Catholics is nothing short of abetting their satanic rituals.

“Or what if the clerk is Catholic? How much worse the situation is then! A Catholic believes that marriage is a sacrament. No marriage outside the Church is a marriage at all. Every Baptist or Hindu or Unitarian couple that comes in for a marriage license is demanding a license to live in mortal sin. How could a Catholic clerk issue those licenses with a clear conscience?

“Here we run against an absurdity buried so deep in the American political consciousness that we never even see it as an absurdity at all. We are permitted to work ourselves into a foamy lather of righteous outrage over inconsequential things like government spending or immigration or sex, but the principle of ‘freedom of religion’ is embedded so deeply in our minds that the really important things, the fundamental differences of opinion on the nature of truth and the eternal destination of every human being, leave us blandly indifferent. A county clerk who broke through that wall of indifference and realized that she was, according to her own most deeply held beliefs, paving the way to hell for countless couples who held the wrong beliefs about the things that affect immortality would fall on her knees and beg Jesus, or Kukulkan, or Guanyin, or Allah, for forgiveness. And then she would immediately resign her job, which is what this woman in Kentucky should do. If she cannot reconcile herself to the absurdity that government as such must be indifferent to the very things to which no sane human being can be indifferent, then good for her. She is a splendid and consistent human being. But the job requires that indifference; if she is above that indifference, she cannot do the job, and the government needs someone who can do the job.”

On International Tolerance

“But instead of democracy,” I was saying, “what they got is just more oppression.”

“Or perhaps they just got too much democracy,” Mr Magundi responded. “We have a strange notion that democracy and tolerance go together. But they don’t. Our Constitution has a Bill of Rights precisely because democracy is naturally intolerant. If we allowed the majority to impose its will, it would crush minority opinion, minority religion, minority skin color with an iron boot.

“So when we see oppression of minorities or intolerance of dissent in other countries, we have to remind ourselves that those things are often expressions of pure democracy: that they are the will of the majority carried out in a perfectly logical fashion. And if we are to have peace with those countries, then we must tolerate their democracy. We must say to the nations around us what we say to our individual neighbors: ‘I think your religion is malarkey and your opinions are offensive, but you have a right to them as long as you don’t force them on me.’

“We will have to tolerate nations that say that women are inferior to men. We will have to tolerate nations that imprison homosexuals. We will have to tolerate nations that refuse religious freedom to Christians because the great majority are bigotedly Buddhist or Muslim or Unitarian, or refuse religious freedom to Buddhists or Muslims or Unitarians because the vast majority of citizens are bigotedly Christian. That is the only price at which we can buy peace.

“And I won’t like it. I’ll hear the tales of injustice and oppression, and my heart will bleed. And I won’t be able to say anything but this: ‘Come to America, you who are more enlightened than your neighbors. If you yearn to breathe free, we have room for you here. We’re hardly even using Wyoming. Come to America and teach us your great traditions, and by the way bring your favorite recipes, and leave the small-minded bigots to wallow in their hatred.’”

On School

“You can’t deny that technology has made big changes in education,” I insisted.

“Every day,” Mr. Magundi said, “we see the children walking past us on their way to the elementary school on Breckenridge Avenue. And what are they doing? Carrying things. They’re carrying more things than ever before. They are pulling their backpacks around on wheels. Why? Because schools are utterly blind to the really useful aspects of technology.

“Brielle has every book Mark Twain ever wrote on her cell phone. Mr. Bates never carries a thing to work—it’s all in the cloud, so he can work on it at home or in the office. As for you, I still have no idea what you do, but it obviously doesn’t involve carrying things. In the real world, the single greatest thing technology has done for us is to relieve us of the responsibility of carrying piles of things when we want to get intellectual work done. We just go where we need to go, and the things we need are in computer-cloud land, waiting for us when we get there.

“So if our schools have embraced technology with such fervor, why are our children carrying anything at all? Why isn’t their homework already waiting for their teacher when she gets to the classroom? Why aren’t all their schoolbooks waiting on the iPad for them when they get home? Why are they breaking their backs carrying their own weight in textbooks and binders? I say that technology in school has put shiny new siding on a rickety old structure, and that it has made no really interesting changes in education at all. It has not done the one thing technology should be really good at doing, which is to free the body of useless and irrelevant burdens so that the mind may flourish.”

On Atheism

“But your Internet friends aren’t really atheists at all,” Mr. Magundi told Brielle. “They say they’re atheists, the way they might say they’re Steelers fans, but they don’t believe what they say. When they insist that the Bible, alone among ancient texts, is without literary merit—when they insist on spelling ‘God’ with a lower-case g, though they still capitalize ‘Woden’ and ‘Kukulkan’—then I know that they’re not atheists at all, but believers in a state of desperate rebellion. An atheist would judge the various books of the Bible the way he judges Gilgamesh or the Bhagavad Gita; he would treat the Christian God the way he treats the Greek Apollo. He would not insult a being he did not believe in. Your friends are desperately trying to convince themselves that God does not exist the way a five-year-old desperately tries to convince himself that Santa Claus does exist. There are thoroughgoing atheists in the world who exhibit none of these peculiarities; they do not rebel against God any more than they rebel against the Easter Bunny. The so-called atheist who is in a state of constant rebellion actually clings to belief in God with more tenacity than a revival preacher.”

On Politics in General

“I suppose that’s why you shouldn’t discuss politics in mixed company,” Mrs. Bowman said.

“But there is one political discussion you can always have without risk of giving offense,” Mr. Magundi remarked. “We can always say that all politicians are venal liars, that they are all looking out only for themselves, that they don’t care about their constituents at all. You will get nothing but agreement from everyone in the room, whatever other political beliefs and fanaticisms may divide them. It is as neutral as saying that the weather is rainy today, or that the leaves are beginning to turn.

“And isn’t that a dreadful calamity? Why are we so thoroughly convinced that the representatives we have chosen for ourselves are bad choices? Aren’t we reflecting very poorly on our own performance at the voting booth? Why do we not automatically leap to the defense of the men and women we ourselves have elected? I myself will start the conversation: I believe that the city councilwoman from our district is industrious, intelligent, and incorruptible, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.”

On Driving

“I think it should be harder to get a license,” I was saying. “There are too many bad drivers on the road. Driving is a privilege, not a right.”

“That is the legal theory under which our licensing system operates,” Mr. Magundi responded, “but as a moral principle it is completely wrong. You and I are among the fortunate few who live within an easy stroll of public transit. If everyone had that choice, your principle would be sound. But in fact most Americans live in places where it is simply impossible to get to work without a car. As long as our economic system demands that everyone must be gainfully employed; as long as we build suburbs with zoning laws that actually prohibit businesses within walking distance of residences; as long as we refuse to provide transportation for those who cannot or will not drive—while these things are true, driving is a necessary prerequisite to making a living. And making a living is a necessary prerequisite to living at all. If one cannot live without driving, then, morally speaking, driving is a right, not a privilege, and no legal theory can supersede that moral truth.”

On Left and Right

“So why is it so hard to tell whether you’re on the left or on the right, Magundi?” Mr. Bates asked, for once with no sign of hostility.

“Because I’m not—and that, incidentally, makes me one of the privileged and powerful among us ordinary citizens.

“I will tell you what the difference between the left and the right is. The right believes that the golden age is in the past—that we can solve our current problems only by returning to the wise principles and moral behavior of days gone by. The left believes that the golden age is in the future—that we can solve our problems only by moving away from the darkness and superstition of the past and forward to a society based on enlightenment and benevolence.

“Nature has somehow provided that there will always be roughly equal numbers of people who believe in the golden age of the past and the golden age of the future, and these people will reliably vote for the parties that represent their prejudices. But there is also a third group—those of us who believe that, in this fallen world, there never was a golden age, and there never will be a golden age. We are free to decide that this policy or that policy is likely to be to our advantage, however temporarily; and so we may swing wildly from left to right, according to the conditions we see in the world, or according to the personalities of the politicians, or according to what we ate for breakfast. As voters, therefore, we are the ones who actually choose the leaders for the rest of you.

“So if you are a politician on the left or the right, my advice to you, since I am a member of the only group of voters who can actually decide the election, is to give me a splendid pancake breakfast, with the best sausage, none of that frozen stuff, and fresh strawberries for the pancakes.”