According to the startling results of a survey released last week by the Public Religion Research Institute, 57 percent of white evangelicals live in homes where someone owns a gun (compared, for example, with 31 percent of Catholics.) And more startling, even after 20 first-graders were slaughtered in Connecticut at the hands of a madman with an assault rifle, 59 percent of white evangelicals continue to oppose tighter restrictions on gun laws.
An obvious question occurs in light of these results: How do such Christians reconcile their stalwart commitment to the Second Amendment with their belief in a gospel that preaches nonviolence? The Christian Lord allowed himself to be crucified rather than fight the injustice of the death sentence imposed on him. “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” he says, in the Gospel of Matthew. The Bible is mute on the matter of guns, of course, but it is impossible to imagine that Jesus would find anything good to say about them.
With the Newtown tragedy so fresh and its victims so innocent, conservative Christian leaders are not falling over themselves to proclaim in public their pro-gun theologies. Neverthless, such arguments do exist. I will address some of them, moving generally from unpersuasive credos to more-convincing assertions of individual rights and responsibilities.
The Second Amendment is approved by God. This, at least, appears to be the argument on the home page of the Christian Gun Owner Web site. It goes like this: The authors of the Constitution were acting under the guidance of God, therefore the Constitution is itself inspired by God. This argument is a subset of the bigger “American exceptionalism” worldview. God has special things in store for this country, and its founding documents bear the imprint of that specialness.
Only prayer can conquer gun violence. This is Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s view. Evil is the source of violence in America, not guns. “Laws, the only redoubt of secularism, will not suffice,” Perry has said. “Let us all return to our places of worship and pray for help.” This couldn’t be called an argument, really. It’s more like a hope.
Don’t blame guns, blame a corrupt society. In this version, conservative Christians blame increasing gun violence on what they call “secular values,” which is to say the legalization of abortion, the growth of single-parent families, same-sex marriage and so on. These values — legal abortion in particular — have led mainstream culture to devalue life. “I pray that [the Newtown] tragedy will cause the nation’s cultural gatekeepers to turn to God again as our only hope!” wrote Joseph Mattera, presiding bishop of the Christ Covenant Coalition, in Charisma magazine. But in the absence of that revival, carrying a gun is every citizen’s right.
Curbing gun ownership is the gateway to curbing other rights. “There’s a suspicion of a too-powerful state,” Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told me. “Sometimes one will hear that if the government has too much power over guns, it will also have too much power over freedom of speech, freedom of religion.” The minute the state starts dictating the kinds of guns a citizen can own, this argument continues, it has gone over the line. Moore himself is not opposed to universal background checks and emphasizes that on the matter of gun control, believing Christians can disagree.
Self-defense and love (and defense) of neighbor are biblical values. This is how former Southern Baptist Convention official Richard Land, in an interview on National Public Radio in December, defended his support of arming teachers. A similar argument was put forth by David French, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, in an article in Patheos several months ago. Going back to Noah, through Exodus and the prophets, French builds his case, and he concludes with the moral philosopher John Locke, who called the right of self-defense “a fundamental law of nature.” “The defense of self, the defense of others is not only biblically authorized but, in certain circumstances, is a moral imperative,” French told me. “Turn the other cheek does not mean turn your wife’s cheek or turn your children’s cheek.” Gun control, he wrote in Patheos, is the state’s effort to deprive humans of their God-given right to self-defense.
Provocative, but unconvincing. Jesus identified with the weak, not the strong; with the victims, not the shooters (or the people with the guns). More than 500 children were killed in accidental gun deaths in 2011. As the Rev. Gary Hall preached at Washington National Cathedral last week, “If we want to stand with Jesus and Martin Luther King, we’ve also got to stand with those who, like them, die by means of violence. . . . That may sound like a hard truth, but for a Christian, there’s no way around it.”
For Lisa Miller’s previous columns, go to www.washingtonpost.com/onfaith.