Detail of a holstered firearm of Matt Marshall, leader of the Washington 3%, attend the right-wing 'Liberty or Death - Rally Against Left Wing Violence' outside Seattle City Hall on August 18, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. Credit - Karen Ducey—Getty Images
Sometimes calls for America to return to God are couched in the language of consolation. Especially after a mass shooting. When 19 children were killed at school in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Republican from Colorado, tweeted that “It is in times like these that we should, as individuals, communities, and as a nation, turn to God for comfort and healing.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia followed deflection — “Our nation needs to take a serious look at the state of mental health today” – with denial: “We don’t need more gun control We need to return to God.”
There’s a reason we always hear calls for Christian nationalism rather than for common sense gun legislation from the right. As we have shown in our research, guns are practically an element of worship in the church of white Christian nationalism. Gun rights thus must be defended at all costs.
Along with “thoughts and prayers”—a response so hollow it has become a meme for contempt — Christian nationalist calls like Greene’s are often accompanied by warnings not to “politicize the deaths,” as worship leader and MAGA advocate Sean Feucht put it in his own tweet: “We need to call on God. We need him back in schools. We need him to heal our country. He is our only hope.” Evangelical Christian and Lieutenant Gov. of Texas Dan Patrick went on the Tucker Carlson show hours after the massacre to say “We gotta unify in prayer. We have to unify in faith…This was a country founded on faith, Tucker. And that’s why together we have to come together as a people. Don’t politicize it. Don’t point fingers.”
It’s a Christian nationalist mantra because political action after a mass shooting might well imperil unlimited access to guns. My colleague and I conducted a representative survey of over 1,600 Americans in February 2020. We found that among white Americans who strongly agreed that “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation,” over two-thirds rejected the idea that “The federal government should enact stricter gun laws.” Those laws had the support of over 55% of Americans in general.
Why is Christian nationalism opposed to stricter gun laws? Religions generally regard sacred objects as untouchable. And within the religion of white Christian nationalism, guns are as much a part of our identity as Christianity. Wednesday morning, Rep. Brian Babin, a Texas Republican, told a Newsmax interviewer “The United States of America has always had guns. It’s our history. We were built on the Judeo-Christian foundation and with guns.”
And because guns are essential to America’s core identity for the right, gun rights are held sacred above every other right. That’s not hyperbole. We conducted another representative survey of over 1,000 Americans in August 2021, giving respondents a list of rights provided in the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution – the Bill of Rights. Among whites who said America should be a Christian nation, more than 4 in 10 named the right to keep and bear arms as the most important right. Not freedom of speech. Not even freedom of religion. Gun rights.
In fact, some on the Christian Right would enthusiastically put gun rights over the right to vote itself. Christian right provocateur Matt Walsh tweeted just after a mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado that killed 10 people in March of last year, “Gun ownership is a more important right than voting. Voting is not really a human right at all but a privilege that should be reserved for those who are qualified to do it properly. It should be easier to buy a gun than vote.”
There is a logic at work here. As we show in our recent book The Flag and the Cross, white Christian nationalism is ultimately about controlling who gets access to cultural and political power, and thus is fundamentally anti-democratic. Access to guns is about protecting the freedoms of white conservatives to suppress disorder. This is why, among white Americans who believe the United States should be a Christian nation, 82% believe “The best way to stop bad guys with guns is to have good guys with guns.” The goal isn’t to rid the world of gun violence. The goal is to suppress “bad guy violence” with righteous violence—our violence. And that requires guns.
In the wake devastating school shootings like Uvalde, research shows politicians have a window of about three days to act. The efforts of President Biden and Congressional Democrats to pass common sense gun legislation—which is supported by the majority of Americans—will face dogged opposition not only in the form of Republican obstinacy. Beneath that, opposition will come from the religious zeal of the right that hallows guns and holds as sacred white Americans’ unfettered access to them.
What’s needed is a coalition of American politicians and citizens—secular and religious—who value the protection of innocent human life above power. Without that, the ritual will continue: Horrific deaths, followed by thoughts and prayers, calls to return to God, and no change.