On Monday, November 6, Robert Jeffress, the senior minister of First Baptist Dallas, told the hosts of “Fox and Friends” that a mass shooting such as the one that had taken place the day before in Sutherland Springs, Texas, would not likely happen on the premises of his 130 million-dollar church campus downtown. “I’d say a quarter to a half of our members are concealed carry, they have guns, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.” Jeffress agreed with co-host Ainsley Earhardt’s remark that carrying guns to church makes you feel safer, and added, “I think if somebody tries that in our church, they may get one shot off or two shots off, but that’s it, and that’s the last thing they’ll ever do in this life.”
Jeffress’s response to the Sutherland Springs massacre comes straight from the gun lobby’s playbook. A week after the mass killing of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, declared in a nationally televised press statement, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” A safer nation lies in the hope of every good guy being armed. All the time. So bring your guns to church.
In the February 2018 issue of Guns magazine, a full-page advertisement by Crossbreed Holster reflects the gun industry’s recognition of the new market. A thirty-something man in a tweed jacket and dress jeans holds a little girl’s hand—a blue bow has been neatly tied in her long auburn hair—as the two walk to church. The red-brick sanctuary and its white spire appear in the short distance ahead. At first glance everything about the scene looks normal, until you notice the position of the man’s/father’s free hand. A magnified cutaway highlights the new Crossbreed Supertuck, a handsome handcrafted holster inside the waistband, which encases a Springfield XD-S handgun. “Proud to be on your side,” a banner reads. The father’s freehand is positioned for a quick retrieval of the weapon. Though there are no signs of visible danger, we know that evil lurks everywhere, evil men with guns. “This is the world we’re living in,” Pastor Jeffress said. And “we need to do everything we can” to protect ourselves, our families and our churches. Even if it means—as in the Supertuck ad—that carrying our guns to church requires leaving our Bibles behind.
The call to an armed laity is beset with problems. First, there’s the practical. Empirical accounts of active shooting environments present a starkly different picture than the simplistic good guy kills bad guy hypotheticals promulgated by the gun lobby. A recent study at the University of Pennsylvania found that a person who owns a gun is “4.46 times more likely to be shot in an assault.” The sight of a man openly carrying a firearm in public rarely ensures the security that the gun lobby promises. Despite his heroic efforts and NRA training, the armed civilian, who arrived at First Baptist Sutherland Springs after hearing rapid gun shots coming from the church, was not able to prevent a single one of the 26 homicides; and police officers would arrive on the scene moments later. Army veteran Charles Clymer explained in a column for NBC that “the psychological strength required to act quickly and effectively in a mass shooting comes from the kind of monotonous training that over several years builds up muscle memory.” How does one know whether the guy with a gun is a bad guy shooter or another good guy defender? States with “shall-issue” concealed-carry licensing standards have homicide rates 6.5 percent higher than states with “may-issue” standards. The National Bureau of Economic Research, in a study on the effects of concealed-carry laws on crime, “found that violent crime rates increased with each additional year such a statute was in place, presumably as more people were carrying guns. By 10 years after the adoption of a right-to-carry law, violent crime rates were 13 to 15 percent higher than predicted had such laws not been in place,” according to gun policy researchers writing for the Washington Post. The good-guy-with-the-gun thesis is further complicated by the NRA’s successful opposition to any basic training requirements for gun ownership.
Jeffress’s views on guns and gun ownership represent the most widely shared view among white evangelicals. According to 2017 Pew Research Center data analyzed by Christianity Today, white evangelicals “are more likely than members of other faith groups or the average citizen to own a gun”; forty-one percent are gun owners, compared to 30 percent of the general population. Sixty-five percent of white evangelicals who own a handgun carry the gun with them in public (compared to 57 percent of all gun owners); white evangelicals are in turn more likely than other gun owners to hold the view that “most places should allow citizens to carry guns.”
Then there are the theological problems. Suffice it to say, the call to an armed laity puts the evangelical gun loyalist in an exceedingly awkward relation to the teachings of Jesus. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus tells Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Everyone who uses a sword will be killed by a sword.” This is not to say that the Christian tradition is, or ought to be, uniformly pacifist; still, the religion of Jesus clusters undeniably around the practices of forgiveness, reconciliation, and the preferential option for nonviolence. “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer,” wrote one of the fourth-century authors of Christian orthodoxy, Athanasius of Alexandria. An armed church is a church without martyrs.
As a former Southern Baptist with abiding family ties to the conservative evangelical subculture, I have heard gun loyalists describe the experience of holding and carrying a firearm as one approximating inward strength, heightened discernment, and qualities often associated with Christian spiritual growth—guns mark me as a man freed from bondage. I have also heard gun loyalists speak of the possession of a gun in terms of control over others, a quality often associated with God—with a gun, I gain power over people who may want to harm me or my family. Social psychologists speak of “psychic numbing” caused by the trauma of repeated mass shootings and gun violence: But should we also ask of the “spiritual uplift” that comes through trust in the gun? “A gun may be only a thing but it is a thing with a spirit that hungers to be in control,” the Presbyterian minister James Atwood wrote in his helpful book Gundamentalism and Where It is Taking America.
Some gun proponents go even further in suggesting what gun ownership provides. Charlton Heston, during his tenure as the NRA president, once said at a conference: “Sacred stuff resides in that wooden stock and blued steel.”
Or consider the extraordinary declaration by J. Warren Cassidy, former executive vice president of the NRA, in a 2001 interview with Time magazine. “You would get a far better understanding if you approached us as if you were approaching one of the great religions of the world.” This bold religious claim should scare the hell out of every believer who blithely presumes that allegiance to the gun fits neatly with Christian faith and practice.
Speaking on the issue of gun control in the context of evangelical social ethics, Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has tried to strike a measured tone. Moore has emerged in the national spotlight as an irenic and generous fundamentalist, a Never-Trump conservative who speaks eloquently of the Kingdom of God as an antidote to Christian Reconstructionism and the theocratic aspirations of the Rushdoony movement. “To embrace the kingdom of Jesus, we must embrace an entirely new set of principles that guide our thoughts,” says Moore, standing in the good company of such Baptist visionaries as Martin Luther King Jr., Clarence Jordan, Lottie Moon, and Walter Rauschenbusch in reclaiming the doctrine of the Kingdom as the theological framework of the church’s mission in the world. (As far as I can tell, Moore never mentions Clarence Jordan, even though no Southern Baptist has served the Kingdom of God more faithfully, vividly and sacrificially than this New Testament scholar from Talbotton, Georgia. In 1942, Jordan purchased 440 acres near the town of Americus, and there amidst briars, dusty fields, and withering heat, launched a “demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God”—which at the time meant reading the Bible against the brutalities of Jim Crow.) From a Kingdom perspective, Moore says, thinking about guns, like most challenging social issues, means being informed “by my conscience as a Christian,” “shaped by Scripture and the church.”
It is disappointing then that Moore does not then proceed to examine the gun issue on the basis of Scripture and the church. For Moore has all the skills to build bridges between conservatives and gun safety organizations such as the Brady Campaign (founded by Reagan Republicans), Mom’s Demand Action for Gun Sense in America (formed by mothers in the wake of the Newtown school massacre), or the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (created in 1974 as a non-profit ministry of the United Methodist Church). Instead he calls gun control proponents “misguided” and proposals for new gun regulations “naïve and ineffective.” He criticizes even those who argue that the question about Christians and gun violence should be framed as a pro-life issue. (See for example, James Mumford’s “What’s Pro-Life About an AR-15?” in The American Conservative.) Moore thinks that the question involves “a very different conversation” than one shaped by applications of the seamless garment of life. Debates about gun safety and violence should not be formulated as “gospel arguments,” he says, but as “prudential arguments about whether gun control works and what the Constitution guarantees,” as he writes in his book, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel. Bereft of theological analysis, however, Moore’s position remains aligned with the NRA and the gun-loyalists of his denomination.
Whether you’re Republican, Democrat, or independent, whether you think the NRA is democracy’s best friend, a necessary evil in a mean world, or “the Darth Vader of special-interest groups,” casting light on Christian peculiarity in the context of public policy—on Christianity’s distinctive truth claims and attendant social practices—is a necessary task.
How might members of the body of Christ think more faithfully about guns and gun violence in light of Christian peculiarity and the doctrine of the Kingdom of God?
Healing thoughts and prayers are an altogether fitting response to any tragedy. Christians ask God to comfort the victim’s families and loved ones, for perseverance in suffering and for safer communities; but “thoughts and prayers” alone are not what the Lord requires. And evangelicals, it should be noted, are well equipped to do more than pray. In recent decades, evangelicals have prayed and studied and mounted campaigns to break the cycles of injustice—especially in such areas as sex trafficking, global poverty and AIDS in Africa—employing legal advocacy, public policy, and political organizing. A 2004 statement issued by the National Association of Evangelicals, entitled “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” challenged “our leaders to change the patterns of trade that harm the poor and to make the reduction of global poverty a central concern of American foreign policy.” It is often forgotten that Habitat for Humanity grew out of Clarence Jordan’s experiment in New Testament community known as Koinonia Farm. Such robust engagement in the social order has not gone unnoticed by many outside observers. In an often-cited essay, The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof chided his fellow liberals for failing to appreciate the breadth of the evangelical movement and the work it “quietly does on issues ranging from prison reform to human trafficking to fighting poverty.”
Evil cannot be completely eradicated; gun violence cannot be reduced to zero. The world is fallen; all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Yet there are reasonable measures that would decrease the number of gun deaths and mass shootings: universal background checks, limits on the size of magazines, closing the private sale and gun show loopholes, and empowering federal agencies and the CDC to share critical information and compile data on gun violence in public health are all sensible measures that save lives.
On issues related to gun violence, safety, and regulation, evangelicals clearly need, and deserve, a more theologically robust discussion. A good start might be formulating questions for reflection and study, such as: Are there aspects of American gun culture that contradict or confuse the message of the Gospel? (If so, let’s name them.) Have evangelicals sought to understand gun violence in America under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and with prayerful discernment of practical solutions? How can followers of Jesus preserve the distinctive speech and practices of Christian witness from the religion of the NRA, whose distinctive speech and practices cluster around the promise of overwhelming force? Under what conditions, if any, should the Christian lay down his or her arms? Does the support of the American gun lobby bring glory to God?
My father is a conservative Southern Baptist minister who for 40 years served parishes in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. In his theological and social convictions and most other respects, he would be called a Russell Moore evangelical. The one major exception is guns. On this issue, my father’s deep loyalty to the global ecumenical church and his experiences in missions through evangelical congregations in Europe and Africa have time and again brought him into conversations with people for whom the American gun loyalty remains a stumbling block to faith. Though he is very much a social conservative, my father believes that a Christian’s commitment to the Gospel must chasten the person’s cultural and political preferences—and for this reason, he admires the counter-cultural ecumenism of Baptists like Clarence Jordan and Carlyle Marney.
In a letter written in the spring of 2007 after the mass killing of 33 people at Virginia Tech, my father spoke of the tragic alliance of evangelicals and guns and its effects on Christian conviction. “Church people in the United States are getting their signals from political ideology and the NRA lobbyists,” he said. “There is no rational connection between the 2nd Amendment and stock piling of semiautomatic rifles and ammunition. What should the church’s role be? Teach the people to take seriously the teachings of Jesus. When He talked about refusing to be people of violence, that is what He meant. If I want what is best for my fellow beings, if I really desire to see a society of order, security, and freedom, then I should have no problem in seeing the connection between GUNS FOR ALL and the prevailing tragedies of war and mass killing that follow. The prophets had a vision of the kingdom where swords would be beaten into plows. I hope and I pray, that we in the church will capture that vision.”
Since December of 2012, when a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and shot 20 children and six educators, there have been at least 1,500 mass shootings in the United States. A mass shooting is defined most generally as four or more persons shot and/or killed in a single event, at the same general time and location. Every day in the United States, 315 people are shot in murders, assaults, suicides, suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, and police intervention; and every day 93 people die from gun violence. Every year in the United States, nearly 115,000 people in America are shot in murders, assaults, suicides, suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, or by police intervention; and each year more than 33,000 people die from gun violence, 2,600 of whom are children. Among the 22 most high-income countries, the United States accounts for more than 90 percent of all gun deaths of children under the age of 15. Sixty-five percent of all gun deaths are suicides. On average, 50 women are shot to death each month by intimate partners. Since 1968, more than 1.5 million Americans have died in gun-related incidents; this is a higher death count than Americans killed in all U.S. wars combined. Not to be forgotten are the staggering economic cost of American gun violence: A recent John Hopkins study of 704,000 people admitted to emergency rooms for treatment of firearm-related injuries over a nine-year period found that emergency room and inpatient charges alone accounted for $2.8 billion each year. This all adds up to a crisis of human life on an epic scale.
It is of course the right of every law-abiding citizen to own a gun and of institutions, including churches, to think diligently about public safety and effective policing practices. Such matters have been heavy on the minds of my colleagues and compatriots in Charlottesville, Virginia, as we’ve tried to understand why our university and town were overrun by gun-wielding white supremacists on August 11 and 12 of last summer, with precious few interventions by university, local, and state police. But it is the responsibility of every person baptized into “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (II Corinthians 13:14) to engage the world with new habits of thought, speech, and behavior. Our reckoning as Christians with the “costs of discipleship” may not lead to the judgment that an armed church or gun ownership is behavior displeasing to God. But it must disrupt the easy alliance that currently prevails between the NRA and American evangelicals.
What real significance can the Gospel have if its ambassadors so readily gamble with human life? If we become accomplices in the NRA’s assault on the miracle and mystery of Christian conviction? Is it any wonder that amid the violent convulsions of the most heavily armed nation on earth—if not soon the most heavily armed churches—the watching world turns away in disgust?
Charles Marsh teaches in the department of religious studies at the University of Virginia, where he also directs the Project on Lived Theology. He is a member of the National Advisory Board of the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, which publishes this journal. He is author of seven books, including Wayward Christians Soldiers: Against the Political Captivity of the Gospel.