Mass shootings have become so common in the USA that there seems to be a predictable script we follow in the heartrending aftermath of each one. There is the search for a motive. The pleas for unity and vague statements denouncing hate by our elected officials. And of course, reasonable questions are once again raised about why guns must be so easily obtained. There is one specific part of this sad ritual that, despite how often we go through these motions, never fails to astonish me. When a victim’s family members ask about the ubiquity of guns, especially the weapons designed to kill with maximum efficiency, they are told that nothing can be done which wouldn’t encroach on our collective freedom to bear arms. Especially jarring is how regularly it is Christians who express this deadly reticence.
In Taking American Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry write that Christian nationalism “is a cultural framework that blurs distinctions between Christian identity and American identity, viewing the two as closely related and seeking to enhance and preserve their union.” When Christians privilege the individual right to easily purchase weapons above the countless lives lost to firearms, we’ve encountered one expression of Christian nationalism.
Applied directly to gun control, Whitehead and Perry point out two characteristics of Christian nationalism which makes firearms legislation so intolerable. First, Christian nationalism view the nation’s founding documents as near-sacred, second only to Scripture. Any supposed threat to the Second Amendment must be defeated with holy vigor. Second, this ideology views the world through a good and evil binary. Decadence and violence are inevitable in a society which has, as the Christian nationalist believes, forsaken its God. “Consequently, the preferred solution to gun violence is to protect the gun rights of American citizens and encourage the reintroduction of Christian values into the public sphere.”
Culture-war battles over things like gun control have become so heated that it can be easy to forget that our Christian faith offers wisdom even on such lightning rod issues. To take just one example from the New Testament, in Galatians 5:13-14 Paul writes, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Given how appeals to personal liberty are used in this country to justify mass murder, Paul’s focus on freedom should make us curious.
First, we might notice that we don’t free ourselves from previous forms of captivity. Rescue from the dominion of sin is accomplished for us; we were called to be free. Second, Paul acknowledges the human tendency to use our newfound freedom selfishly. Resisting assault weapons bans, background checks, and red flag laws are a manifestation of our propensity to subject freedom to our self-indulgent fears and desires. Third, in these verses we find Christians are to use our freedom to love others, including our neighbors. For Christians, our freedom is for love.
Now, we might wonder about the similarities and differences between the freedoms granted to us by Christ and those given as rights by the nation. But for the Christian nationalist, this distinction is irrelevant; it is the perceived union between faith and citizenship which is so important.
Holding the Christian vision for freedom against that of the Christian nationalist reveals a disturbingly wide gap. While the former understands the purpose of freedom as sacrificial and vulnerable love for our neighbors, the latter defends freedom to preserve power and order. As Whitehead and Perry note, about 20% of those who identify with Christian nationalist ideology are deeply entrenched and, barring a miracle, we are unlikely to effectively uncover these inconsistencies. However, this leaves more than 30% of Christian nationalists who are much more open to growing beyond the toxic mix of Christianity and nationalism.
To reach the Christian nationalist with the gospel, we can begin by showing how the freedom won for us by Christ is stronger than the weak version which requires constant protection and defensiveness. Because many of those who’ve conflated American exceptionalism with discipleship to Jesus are not especially biblically literate, lifting up passages like Galatians 5 can be an opportunity to display what real freedom looks like and what it is for.
It’s important to note, in closing, that because most Christian nationalists are white, those of us who are white ought to especially see these women and men as our mission field. We should hear the call to bring the gospel to those held captive to an ideology which elevates the personal right to kill over a neighbor’s freedom to live. May God use our witness to replace such a costly commitment with the freedom to love.
By Pastor David Swanson