In America, for many, there is no God more powerful than the gun.
The power of the gun is attested by the 41,000 firearm deaths in the United States so far in 2021. At Oxford High School in Michigan, the shooting deaths of four teenagers are a recent example. The shooting death of a 71-year-old man outside of a Chicago elementary school is woefully another.
Whoever pulls the trigger, the gun extracts its sacrifice, and its victims give their lives so that others may continue to enjoy the security it alleges to provide. The word to describe this practice of worship is Idolatry.
The U.S. is not a secular nation, whatever the Constitution may say about religious freedom. Nor, contrary to the claims of the religious right, is America a Christian nation, even though gun worship is often covered in a thick froth of Christian cant and jargon.
For many, the national god is the gun. Its temple may be the firing range, but like most gods, it seeks to expand its territory to every corner of the world.
It is now legal to carry a loaded semi-automatic weapon, with no license or training, in 40 states. Gun advocates claim that they should be able to openly carry their weapons in public buildings, stores, and restaurants, on suburban streets, in schools and churches, and in the middle of protests. As
Texas State Senator and open carry advocate Charles Schwertner (R-20) has said, “If you possess a firearm, you should be able to carry a firearm.”
The recent acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse on all charges after he killed two people and maimed a third shows how deeply in thrall many are about their guns. In a sense, he was merely exercising his constitutional rights, not under the Second Amendment, but under the First.
It was a manifestation of what Kristen Kobes du Metz, author of the 2020 book, refers to as the “evangelical embrace of militant masculinity,” in which Christian faith is indistinguishable from an embrace of violence.
It’s unsurprising perhaps to some that a Christian fund-raising site single-handedly raised over $500,000 for Rittenhouse’s defense. Nothing good can come from this cult of the gun or its absorption into conservative Christianity.
The gun is a god of death, and like all death gods, it offers nothing but destruction, devastation, and sorrow. It is incompatible with faith in the Prince of Peace.
Over the past several decades, the rhetoric of gun advocates has become more and more strident, more and more absolute, cross-pollinating with conspiracy theories, anti-government radicalism, and right-wing terrorism.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the words and actions of Congresswoman Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Col), who has endorsed the Q-Anon conspiracy, and whose response to a shooting in her home state of Colorado was, rather than sympathy for the victims, to declare, “Hell no! You won’t take our guns!”
Rather than seeing a tragic evil, many gun advocates have come to see violence as a positive good.
“An armed society is a polite society,” author Robert A Heinlein wrote in his 1948 book (reissued in 2002), Beyond This Horizon.
Many gun advocates embrace this logic that maintains the constant threat of violence at the hands of a “good guy with a gun” serves to keep everyone on their best behavior.
But the facts belie this. Gun violence proliferates in direct proportion to the number of guns available.
States with fewer guns have lower rates of gun crime. Alaska, for example, has both the highest gun ownership rate in the United States, and the highest per capita rate of gun crime, while Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey, among the states with the lowest gun ownership rates, also have the lowest rates of gun crime.
Countries with stricter gun laws have lower gun homicide rates. Germany has one-sixteenth the rate of gun homicide of the United States. Australia’s is 4% of U.S. rates, while Switzerland, with significantly more guns, still has a rate only 25% of the U.S.
As Harvard’s School of Public Health has documented, “Where there are more guns, there is more homicide.” If the presence of guns served to preserve the peace, there would be no more peaceful place on earth than a war zone.
Perhaps this is what gun advocates in the United States want – to turn the country into a war zone, protected not by well-trained police but by teenagers with AR-15s.
But in that world, who actually knows who the “good guy with a gun” is?
Had Rittenhouse not fired first, his third victim, Gaige Grosskreutz, who was also armed, would have had ample reason to claim that title, viewing Rittenhouse as an active shooter who had already killed two people.
None of this rhetoric is accidental; it is the product of an authoritarian right-wing Christian nationalism in the United States that has become indistinguishable from gun culture.
As Andrew Whitehead, author of Taking Back America for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, has said, “Christian nationalism doesn’t cause a love of guns but these two things are intertwined.”
About the Author:
Scott Paeth is a Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.