In the wake of the El Paso and Dayton shootings, conservative evangelicals are offering lots of thoughts and prayers. Many of them are saying that we need to solve the problem of mass shootings through a spiritual reformation. The real problem, they preach, is the moral degradation of our culture. Guns don’t kill people, mentally disturbed and sinful people kill people.
Here are a few recent tweets:
R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things magazine, says that the problem is not guns, but marijuana, out-of-wedlock births, relativism, multiculturalism, progressivism, and a general “cultural collapse.” In a strange turn in his piece, he randomly defends the late Southern Baptist segregationalist W.A. Criswell.
In some ways, these conservative pundits are correct. We do live in a coarse culture. I imagine future historians, if they are good, will see the rise of violent video-games, toxic social media, unprecedented access to unhealthy material online, intense political partisanship, and the presidency of Donald Trump as contributing to a culture that might lead to mass shootings. David Brooks is correct when he says that we have a culture problem. And let’s not forget that the renewal of white supremacy and racism is also part of this cultural decline, something that Reno and most court evangelicals do not mention.
I agree that prayers are important. We Christians have a spiritual responsibility to pray for those suffering in the wake of these horrendous shootings in El Paso and Dayton. I am not entirely sure that calls for prayer and spiritual renewal will bring deep change in the culture (I am with James Davison Hunter on this point), but I do think that these things are important and our churches and pastors should be encouraging them. I am enough of an evangelical to believe that anything is possible with God.
But I also worry that appeals to thoughts, prayers, and spiritual revival are often an excuse for not doing anything real and practical about guns in America.
Many Christian nationalists like to claim that our rights come from God. They jump from Thomas Jefferson’s line in the Declaration of Independence about our rights coming from our “Creator” (1776) straight to the Bill of Rights (1791). They assume that because Jefferson said it, it must be true for both founding documents. But does the Bible really affirm a “right” to bear assault style rifles? Did James Madison write the Second Amendment to reflect some kind of biblical mandate about self-defense, or was it written in the context of the colonial militia system practiced in eighteenth-century America, as historian Saul Cornell has argued? (For the record, it is the latter).
The idea that the Constitution is a sacred document, ordained by God and informed by biblical principles, is popular among many American evangelicals. As a result, sensible reforms in the area of gun control pose a threat to what is affirmed in a document that, for many God and country patriots, carries a level of cultural authority that is barely one notch below the Bible. We can’t let those liberals take our guns! Our right to bear arms comes from God and we must defend the document that makes us a Christian nation! (See Carol Kuruvilla’s recent piece at HuffPost. I was happy to contribute to it).
So we offer thoughts and prayers and calls for spiritual awakenings. The problem is not guns, it is the people who use them. Legislation will not solve the problem, so why bother with it? Let a thousand assault rifles bloom. It is our right to have them. What did Charlton Heston say about his “cold, dead hands?”
I think most Christian nationalists would say that human life is valuable. If this is true, then mass shootings are a “life issue.” Christians of all stripes believe that life is precious because God created us in His image. This idea is at the heart of the anti-abortion crusade in America, but it has not gained any traction in the area of gun control. When babies are aborted the Christian Right rarely talks about praying for the mothers who have the abortion or the families who have suffered through the decision. Instead, they seek to solve the problem of abortion by trying to legislate morality through political organization, proposing bills, and voting for the right political candidates who will appoint the right justices who share their sacred (and borderline idolatrous) view of the Constitution. (I have critiqued some of this approach in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump).
In other words, when it comes to abortion, conservative evangelicals act. But when it comes to gun control, we just get thoughts, prayers, and calls for revival.
Over 600,000 babies were aborted in 2015. What if evangelicals took the same approach to this large number of abortions that they do with mass shootings? If they took this route they would cease thinking creatively (and perhaps even legislatively) about this moral problem and retire to their prayer closets. Why take the fight for the dignity of human life to the public square when you can just ask God to send another Great Awakening?
As Christians we must pray for God’s presence in our lives and culture. May He heal our land and give us a glimpse of a coming Kingdom defined by love, peace, and justice. But American history teaches us that reform usually happens when Christians act. The two are not mutually exclusive. Let’s pass sensible gun laws.
ADDENDUM: A shorter version of this post appeared, with a different title, on August 7, 2019 at The Washington Post.