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Why so many guns on Christmas cards? Because Jesus was ‘manly and virile.’

Muscular Christianity — with scriptural interpretations that can favor ‘stand your ground’ over ‘turn the other cheek’ — has a long tradition in the United States

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) in a Christmas photo of his family he posted to Twitter on Dec. 4. (@repthomasmassie/Reuters)

When two members of Congress recently shared images of their well-armed families gathered in front of Christmas trees, many assumed it was merely an act of provocation, a loaded gesture designed to exasperate opponents and excite supporters. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), responding to the photographs posted by Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), asked on Twitter, “Tell me again where Christ said ‘use the commemoration of my birth to flex violent weapons for personal political gain’?”

Others, however, saw in the photos something worth emulating. A week into the controversy, the Republican mayor of Maury County, Tenn., Andy Ogles, posted his own fortified family portrait to Facebook, commenting with a line often (dubiously) credited to George Washington: “The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference — they deserve a place of honor with all that’s good.”

No matter their intended effect, the photos represent a tradition far older than our current penchant for political trolling — one that, like it or not, is part of widely held interpretations of the upcoming holiday and the beliefs of many who observe it. That is the tradition of Muscular Christianity.

At the heart of both the outrage and the delight inspired by these Yuletide pictures was not just a surprising display of firepower but a common aspect of American religion that is unsettling to outsiders. These photos represent a shift in attitudes among some evangelical Christians that may have broader implications, as the previously subtle influences of firearms on faith become impossible to ignore.

The photographs themselves draw on a trend that stretches back at least a decade. Nevada politician Michele Fiore shared a similar image in 2015, and even then it was hardly an outlier. Starting in 2010, the Scottsdale Gun Club in Arizona invited patrons “looking for a fun and safe way to express their holiday spirit and passion for firearms” to pose for holiday photos with an arsenal that included pistols, AK-47s and grenade launchers. The “Santa and Machine Guns” event drew crowds and national media attention, resulting in hundreds of Christmas-card-ready tableaux that caused a stir when they appeared online.

In the years since, the marketplace has become crowded with products suggesting that guns are, for many, at least part of the reason for the season. Amazon and Etsy offer hundreds of ornaments and decorations in the shape of revolvers, rifles, bullets and shell casings, as well as camouflage “tactical stockings” for Second Amendment enthusiasts to hang by the chimney with care. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Like most such merchandise, the Scottsdale photo promotion was decidedly nonreligious, but some condemned it in theological terms even so. “To involve machine guns and Santa in a celebration in the birth of Jesus Christ is the worst kind of heresy I can imagine,” Democratic state Rep. Steve Farley told the Associated Press in 2011. “I would suggest that the people who created this read some of the New Testament.”

Looking for biblical contradictions in these activities is missing the point, though. Religious traditions have never been limited to what texts say but rather are continually transformed by what people do.

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For more than a century, American Protestantism has been shaped by the movement known as Muscular Christianity, which arose to combat expressions of the faith that critics of the time claimed had become bookish, soft, sedentary and — as they judged it then — excessively feminine. Popular publications such as 1912’s “The Masculine Power of Christ; or, Christ Measured as a Man” argued that Jesus was “distinctly manly and virile,” and it was the task of the Christian to be so as well.

Muscular Christianity, born in England in the mid-19th century, had humble origins that seem far removed from the excesses of American gun culture. Its most notable expression early on was the Young Men’s Christian Association, more commonly known as the YMCA, which by the 1850s was a global youth movement combining social ministries with wholesome recreation.

“We believe in muscular Christianity,” one advocate of this form of the faith said in 1860. “We believe that the minister of muscle will fight a more valiant and stronger battle with the passions and prejudices of men … and that saints’ bodies as well as sinners’ are none the worse for an hour at the dumb bells or weights.”

A somewhat more macho approach found particularly fertile ground in the expanding United States, where it meshed with myths of the frontier yielding to self-reliance and Manifest Destiny. Theodore Roosevelt was among its most prominent proponents. In 1903, the year he took a tour of 25 Western states, he declared, “I do not want to see Christianity professed only by weaklings; I want to see it a moving spirit among men of strength.”

As it traveled, Muscular Christianity broadened to include not only the kind of fitness fostered by the YMCA but even greater displays of force. Legends of pistol-packing preachers who trekked through the West with, as one of them said, “Bible in pocket, gun in hand” permanently joined evangelism to the six-shooter in some corners of the American imagination.

From time to time this metaphoric connection has been taken literally. Since the 1970s, the spread of “Cowboy Churches” has taken an approach to worship that began at rodeos and made it available across the country to evangelicals who have never sat atop a horse but are drawn to a Marlboro Man aesthetic. As with guns on Christmas cards, the line between sincerity and performance in such spaces is not always obvious, though it is often clear that their interpretations of scripture favor “stand your ground” over “turn the other cheek.” Their facilities often include shooting ranges along with room to rope and ride.

As the scholar Kristin Du Mez chronicles in her recent book, “Jesus and John Wayne,” the overlap of places to worship and places to shoot is no accident. “Writers on evangelical masculinity have long celebrated the role guns play in forging Christian manhood,” Du Mez writes. “From toy guns in childhood to real firearms gifted in initiation ceremonies, guns are seen to cultivate authentic, God-given masculinity.”

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More than 40 percent of White evangelicals own firearms, far outpacing other religious groups and the general population, according to a Pew Research Center study. In a sense, American evangelical culture is a significant part of American gun culture, and vice versa. Neither would be the same without the other. Their entwined influence can be seen in scriptural arguments for bringing firearms to church, as well as on hoodies extolling the trinity of “God, Guns and Trump” worn at the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

All of this might seem far removed from holiday cards, until one recalls that it is Jesus himself who has been proposed as the exemplar of the “manly and virile” faith found at the root of Christmas trees festooned with ammunition.

Long implicit in evangelical understandings of scripture and tradition, the connection between God and guns has lately been finding more visible expression. On Dec. 25, Christians around the world will remember the birth of an infant often called the Prince of Peace. Some will also celebrate a man they’re certain would know how to handle an AR-15, and in this they see no contradiction.