Gun culture and the end of American Christianity

Christopher Hays ponders where we can find hope in a worsening situation.

Photo by Jay Rembert on Unsplash

“Where do you see hope?” the interviewer asked me.

Since the 2021 publication of God and Guns: The Bible Against American Gun Culture – co-edited by C. L. Crouch and me – I have talked with a lot of people on podcasts, in interviews and at various churches. I have been struck by people’s longing for light at the end of the tunnel of gun violence. Often that longing takes the form of asking what people can do, at which point we talk about education and political action.

But where does hope lie? That question has lingered in my mind.

Jason Micheli, pastor of Annandale United Methodist Church in Annandale, Virginia, asked this question that prompted this reflection. Darren Pollock, pastor of Panorama Presbyterian Church in Panorama City, California, invited Crouch and me to speak at his education series titled “Can’t Hide Behind Not Being Controversial.” This essay is dedicated to them and to all faith leaders working on this issue.

The question of hope hit me hard because I felt convicted. Often, I simply do not see hope — at least, not for the country. The epidemic of gun violence has only gotten worse. In fact, it has accelerated. More isolated and afraid during the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans bought more guns than ever before.

Updated numbers compel us to face the problem. Incredibly, according to the FBI, monthly gun sales almost doubled in 2020. At the same time, The New York Times writes, background checks for gun purchases rose from 8.5 million in 2000 to 38.9 million in 2021.

The results were predictable because guns are a tool for killing. More guns led to more deaths. In October 2022, The New York Times reported on separate studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. The data included the following findings:

  • Overall gun deaths rose from 39,707 in 2019 to 48,832 in 2021.
  • From 2019 to 2021, the number of gun-related homicides increased by 45%, while other kinds of murder increased by only 6%.
  • Gun-related suicides increased by 10% from 2019 to 2021. Suicides using other means decreased by about 8%.
  • The gun epidemic disproportionately affects different populations in different ways. In 2021, Black Americans were 13.7 times as likely to die in a gun homicide as White people, and Hispanic/Latino Americans were 2.4 times as likely.
  • More than 80% of firearms suicides occurred among White Americans in 2021. Those age 45 and older had the highest gun suicide rates. Older White men are particularly prone to committing suicide with a firearm.

In May 2022, NBC News reported on FBI findings:

  • More than 2,200 children died from gun-related causes in 2020. That was the first time in two decades that figure had exceeded 2,000. Moreover, in 2020, firearms were the leading cause of death for children and teens in the United States.
  • The number of active shooter incidents (defined as mass shootings in a populated area) reached new highs: 61 in 2021, up from 40 in 2020, which was itself a record.

Looking at these numbers, I am struck by something: Although the problem has gotten significantly worse, it has also seemed to fade from the news cycle. One does still see stories about shootings, especially public ones. But the anguish and outrage on social media seems considerably muted. As a nation, we seem inured to the situation.

Whole societies become different with and without guns in our hands. And clearly, we are living in a society whose collective mind is increasingly poisoned by guns.

Once it seemed possible for national sentiment to crystallize around real limitations on guns, as happened in Australia in 1996 after the Port Arthur shootings. The outcomes were straightforward, as reported by scholars in a 2006 article in the journal Injury Prevention: “Australia’s 1996 gun law reforms were followed by more than a decade free of fatal mass shootings, and accelerated declines in firearm deaths, particularly suicides. Total homicide rates followed the same pattern.” In addition, the researchers observed no evidence to suggest that people were using other means to commit suicide or homicide. That is, removing guns from Australian society made it less murderous and less suicidal. This striking finding confirms Bruno Latour’s observation (quoted in God and Guns), “You are different with a gun in your hand.” Clearly, whole societies become different with and without guns in our hands. And clearly, we are living in a society whose collective mind is increasingly poisoned by guns.

So even though some states enacted modest new laws related to guns over the past few years, I have difficulty finding hope in the public and political spheres. The gun industry’s marketing has been too effective and continues to work the same angles that we discussed in God and Guns: it continues to capitalize on fear.

The New York Times in June 2022 published a feature on gun marketing that is well worth reading, because its incredible compendium of concrete examples is too extensive to adequately quote here. The industry’s marketing efforts constitute a relentless drumbeat of messaging aimed at vulnerable minds, intended to convince them that they are under threat and that guns are a solution. The Times article quoted Josh Sugarmann, an industry observer: “If you look back, it hasn’t just revolved around mass shootings. They tailored their marketing to Katrina, Y2k, 9/11, pretty much everything. … Their goal is basically to induce a Pavlovian response: ‘If there’s a crisis, you must go get a gun.’”

The desire for personal protection overwhelmingly drives gun sales, especially among women — whose rate of gun purchasing has risen particularly fast. Of course, in some contexts, the idea that danger is increasing might be true; but that is because guns create the problems that they purport to solve. By keeping a gun in their homes, women not only put their families at greater risk of gun-related suicide or accidental death, but they put themselves at higher risk of being killed in a domestic violence incident.

To buy a handgun ostensibly for protection is to prepare, in one’s mind, to kill a fellow human being to solve a problem.

And the issues run even deeper than safety concerns. To buy a handgun ostensibly for protection is to prepare, in one’s mind, to kill a fellow human being to solve a problem. As David Lincicum pointed out in his excellent chapter in God and Guns, tools and powers actually shape the people who have them.

Envisioning killing another human is an un-Christian response to fear. Jesus, an innocent who was unjustly persecuted and executed, voluntarily gave up his life rather than resist (Matthew 26:42; see also Matthew 4). The fact that he willingly submitted to death at the hands of the state is something for “patriots” who fear the government to reflect on.

One of the most consistent messages of the Bible is this: “Do not be afraid.” As I wrote in my God and Guns essay: “‘Do not be afraid’ is God’s message from the beginning to the end: God’s message to Abraham (Genesis 15:1); to Hagar (Genesis 21:17); to Isaac (Genesis 26:24); to Hezekiah (Isaiah 37:6); to Joseph (Matthew 1:20); to Mary (Luke 1:30); to the shepherds (Luke 2:10); to Paul (Acts 18:9; 27:24); and to John of Patmos (Revelation 1:17). It was God’s message to the Israelites fleeing Egypt (Exodus 14:13; 20:20); to the people suffering in exile (Jeremiah 40:9) and longing to return home (Isaiah 41:10; Zechariah 8:13). It is God’s message to all believers (Luke 12:7, 32).”

The minute parsing of Bible verses about swords misses the forest for the trees: Jesus was not a violent revolutionary, and his disciples continued to die for their faith. They were not famed for their martial skills, nor did they lead squads of fighters.

But what is the relationship now between a faith that was originally not violent and a culture that is increasingly violent and is continually habituating itself to more violence? A significant media narrative associates Christians – especially White, evangelical Christians – with support for more access to guns. Some evidence appears to support this whenever pollsters ask respondents about their own religious identity and their views about guns.

However, in my earlier essay, I pointed to social-scientific research indicating that the correlation between Christianity and gun ideology breaks down when respondents are polled about their actual participation in religious communities. Christians who are active in their churches are less likely to see guns as a solution to problems than are self-identified Christians who are not active in a congregation.

More recent research has continued to analyze this phenomenon, which has been dubbed “unchurched Christian nationalism.” Scholars have identified two aspects of this phenomenon that seem crucial to the issue of guns. In a 2021 article published in Sociological Forum, researchers identified the first aspect: “the belief that America was founded as a Christian nation and enjoys a special covenantal relationship with God.” The notion of American exceptionalism means that the solutions that worked for other nations (such as Australia) are irrelevant to the United States, and that special divine favor means that the rules that apply elsewhere do not apply here.

The second crucial aspect is the belief in supernatural evil, as described in a 2021 metastudy (of previous studies) published in Social Science Research. The authors found that those who believe “a cosmic battle between good and evil is being waged” at both social and spiritual levels are prone to be “especially fearful and vigilant.” They tend to believe that spiritual evil is unlikely to be restrained by laws and social norms, and that daily life is therefore “unpredictable, risky, and potentially quite threatening.” And all of these beliefs have implications for their views of gun laws: “Individuals who are animated by evil are not likely to obey [gun control] laws. … In fact, laws that expand gun rights are fundamentally grounded in the belief that the institutions meant to protect us are unable to do so.” Because the government supposedly “fails to keep us safe from crime and other ‘evils,’ many individuals seek to protect themselves and their families. In the face of potentially unlimited viciousness and destructiveness, access to the most powerful defensive means possible may seem like an essential risk-reduction strategy.”

We recently saw this attitude in the wake of the school shooting at the Christian Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee. Bill Lee, governor of Tennessee, advocated increasing access to guns, not decreasing them, arguing that stricter gun control laws would not deter wrongdoers. “We can’t control what they do,” he said, as quoted in the Washington Post.

This argument is false. Gun control does reduce harm and death. But the belief that only killing can stop killing, accompanied by a nearly hysterical fear and distrust, is part of a recognizable voter profile. As Darrell Miller of the Duke University Center for Firearms Law observed in The New York Times, “Gun rights advocates are reaping the benefits of a history of asymmetric intensity and political mobilization.” That is, people are fired up about owning guns, but not about protecting children from them.

The poet William Butler Yeats put it better: “The best lack all conviction / while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” And so:

Things fall apart;
the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed
upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide
is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence
is drowned.

Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” in late 1920, at the tail end of the Spanish flu pandemic, which itself followed on the heels of the enormous human losses of World War I. In other words, the poem was inspired by times not unlike our own.

I would say this to pastors and parishioners: The church – your church – does not have the luxury of pretending that a war is not going on. Andy Warhol said that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes; so too, in the future, we all are likely to be terrorized by guns for 15 minutes. Silence will not save us.

With my God and Guns co-editor, I recently led a session in an ongoing education series titled “Can’t Hide Behind Not Being Controversial,” which I think is a great theme. One of the greatest sins a church can commit is being boring and irrelevant — because doing so makes a lie out of a Gospel that is anything but boring and irrelevant. To represent the Gospel, the church has to recognize and take a stand on the ethical issues of its times, or else what is it for? Guns are one of them.

Working for peace and love and putting our lives on the line for these values — these are not pet issues or side debates. They form the core of the Christian Gospel about a God who “so loved the world.” That is the end, the goal, of the Christian church. Perhaps we need a more concise term than “unchurched Christian nationalism” for the more specific phenomenon that we are called to confront. Call it “gun Christianity”: a form of religion that makes people willing to kill for their faith but not die for it. The church can save individuals and families from gun Christianity, house by house and neighborhood by neighborhood. The church can inform people that having guns in their homes actually puts them and their families at greater risk.

I confess again, in closing, that I struggle to have faith, especially in the church. The church is just the sum of us all, and I feel powerless in the face of escalating violence and the tidal waves of fear and anger that characterize the country.

If hope can be found, it lies in the energized activism of those who have mobilized in the face of the violence epidemic and said, “This cannot be.” In December 2022, The Washington Post reported that 140 volunteers for the anti-gun group Moms Demand Action had won public office in recent months. Now that makes a hopeful statement.

The church must become a strong, visible part of this movement. I fear that if we do not fulfill the proper end of the church, then it will be the end of the church. Stanley Hauerwas, who wrote the preface to God and Guns, famously (or infamously) once said that “God is killing mainline Protestantism in America, and we goddamn well deserve it,” as reported in a 1993 issue of Newsweek. The implicit idea that evangelicals would be an exception now seems quaint.

That statement may seem blasphemous: Would God actually kill the church? But far from promoting national exceptionalism, the Bible repeatedly emphasizes that God’s purposes are larger than a single group of people, and that God humbles proud and unjust nations in the most terrible ways, from Assyria (Isaiah 10, Ezekiel 31) to Babylon (Isaiah 47) to Rome (Revelation 18). God makes no exception even for God’s own chosen people (Isaiah 1).

The first empire humbled in the Bible is Egypt, and the story of Exodus bears comparison with the current situation in the United States. Insecure about his and his nation’s status, Pharaoh countenances the mass death of children (Exodus 1:16), and he eventually pays the price. His actions begin an escalation in which God announces to Pharaoh, “Now I will kill your firstborn son” (4:23). In the end, all the firstborn of the nation are dead (chapters 11 and 12). Egypt brings death on itself through killing. Violence does not solve problems; it leads to more violence.

It is the goal of empires to seem permanent, but we know they are not. In the moment, to predict the end of a great empire sounds ridiculous. But the arc of the moral universe is long, and real faith means believing that it bends toward justice. That is where our hope belongs, and not in our country or even our church.

For more of Christopher Hayes’ thoughts on gun culture and its relationship to religion, check out his book.