From the Intern Desk: It’s Not Just a Gun Problem

In the wake of tragic and preventable mass violence in Tulsa, Uvalde, Laguna Woods, Buffalo, and countless other American towns and cities, the religious right has offered their “thoughts and prayers” and cried for their opponents not to politicize these tragedies with talk of gun control.


This call for decorum was seemingly lost on Texas Representative Louie Gohmert, who said that “more prayers,” not gun control, is the solution to gun violence.


In their quest to blame anything but virtually unchecked access to firearms across the country for gun violence, the religious right has settled into their familiar habit of targeting atheists and the nonreligious by blaming mass violence on the removal of the Christian god from the public sphere.


Speaking at the NRA convention just days after nineteen children were killed in Uvalde in his home state, Texas Senator Ted Cruz blamed “declining church attendance” (among other things) for the violence. Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted that not gun control but a “return to God” is the solution. Arizona State Senator Rick Gray said that when we teach students about evolution and “survival of the fittest,” we shouldn’t be surprised “when they act that out.” Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, in an appearance on Fox News, said that Christians needed to “take hold of our country…through prayer.”


This posturing is nothing new for Christian nationalists, who have committed themselves to a revisionist narrative of American history where the rise of “secularism” and the supposed degradation of society go hand-in-hand. The former causes the latter, and only a return to Christianity can fix our country.


These assertions are demonstrably false. Countries with high rates of secularism, including Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, and Sweden, are regularly found to have the lowest homicide rates, while highly religious countries are often the most violent.


Even within the United States, there is a strong correlation between religiosity and violence that directly undermines these Christian nationalist talking points. The states with the lowest rates of firearm mortality include Hawaii (3.4 deaths per 100,000), Massachusetts (3.7), New Jersey (5), Rhode Island (5.1), New York (5.3), and Connecticut (6). In all of these states, less than 50% of the population consider themselves “highly religious” and all but Rhode Island are among the ten least religious states in the country, with Massachusetts tied for least religious state in the country.


Meanwhile, the states with the highest rates of firearm mortality, including Mississippi (28.6), Louisiana (26.3), Wyoming (25.9), Missouri (23.9), and Alabama (23.6), are regularly found to be the most religious in the country, with Alabama and Mississippi even tied for the two most religious states in the country.


If these pundits and politicians were correct, we should expect the most religious states to be the least violent. If the remedy for our perennial gun violence were indeed a “return to God,” then Massachusetts would not have the lowest rates of gun violence and Mississippi would not have the highest. 


None of this is to argue that atheists are inherently less violent or more peaceful people than the religious. There is at least no easy straight line to draw between Mississippi’s high religiosity and its high rates of gun violence, or between Massachusetts’s low religiosity and its low rates of gun violence. The real reason is that Massachusetts has some of the most comprehensive gun control laws in the nation, while Mississippi has some of the least.


Why, then, would figures like Ted Cruz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Rick Gray, and Dan Patrick all assert that an increasingly secular society is to blame for gun violence, when the evidence so clearly refutes both that claim and the claim that gun control is ineffective? What’s more, why do the religious right’s most common “solutions” to gun violence, including arming teachers and increasing police presence in schools, glamorize violence even more?


The now-trite (and repeatedly debunked) claim that “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” is quite literally a proposition to fight fire with fire. But it also hints at a much deeper trend within the religious fringe that creeps ever further into the mainstream: Righteous violence is necessary, even holy, as a means of defending Christian nationalism and its perception of American identity.


This claim may seem to be extremist fearmongering, but the reality of the present moment is that gun culture has become so intricately intertwined with Christian nationalist politics that the two cannot be reasonably separated. Texas Representative Brian Babin made this painfully clear in an interview with Newsmax, saying that “We were built on the Judeo-Christian foundation and with guns.” Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania Doug Mastriano has called gun ownership a “God-given right.” The religious right’s extremist interpretation of the Second Amendment has taken on a religious fervor.


And this is not merely an instance of extremist individuals spouting extremist rhetoric. Among white Christians who believe “the federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation,” more than 82% agreed that the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, and more than 40% listed the right to bear arms as their “most important right,” topping both the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech.


Guns have become religious symbols to the Christian right, and violence has become a religious act. While religious groups like Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon’s AR-15-worshiping “Rod of Iron” church may seem fringe at first, their events have drawn the presence of prominent right-wing figures such as Steve Bannon and, unsurprisingly, Doug Mastriano.


And gun manufacturers are playing into these demands for weapons of righteous violence, as historian Thomas Lecaque has described. In 2010, Trijicon, a Michigan gun manufacturer, inscribed Bible verses onto rifle sights used by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Spike’s Tactical, a Florida company, sells a rifle branded as the “Crusader” and inscribed with a Biblical passage. Daniel Defense in Texas tweeted, then deleted, a picture of a child holding a rifle and the verse “[t]rain up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”


Salvador Ramos, responsible for the Uvalde massacre, bought his weapon legally from Daniel Defense.


It should be abundantly clear that however fringe or extreme their movement may be, the gun-worshiping religious right has captured their pocket of the mainstream. And while Ted Cruz and Marjorie Taylor Greene and Rick Gray and Dan Patrick are not calling for a holy war or decking themselves in crowns of bullets, their rhetoric is aiding and abetting the extremist cause. The fervor with which they defend gun ownership and the consistency with which they blame secularism for mass violence drive their bases toward a common conclusion: My religious, gun-owning way of life is under attack, and I should be justified in defending it by any means necessary.


The United States is the most heavily armed country in the world, with more than twice as many guns per capita as second-place Yemen. But as countries like Switzerland show, gun ownership is not, in and of itself, the problem. The fundamental problem of the United States is that our gun culture prevents meaningful gun control from being established, and that our gun culture is so intimately blended with religious culture. The gun is treated as a symbol of religious fervor, not so much a weapon as a means of demonstrating piety, a mechanism of physical and spiritual protection.


I believe that this is far from the majority view. But it is the view held by a critical minority of Christian nationalists in the political and military spheres of the United States, and we therefore have a responsibility to take them seriously, and when they tell us who they are, we have a responsibility to take them at their word.


Acknowledging this dangerous confluence is the first step. The United States has a religious fascination with guns, and it is at least in part responsible for our obscenely high rate of firearm mortality. The solution, however, remains the same: common sense gun control on a federal level. States like Massachusetts and New Jersey have proven that it is possible, and lackluster federal action has given us a wide array of state policies from which to learn best practices. Additionally, policies like assault rifle buyback programs can help rein in the number of guns in circulation to curtail the illegal gun market.


So while we may not be able to draw a perfectly straight line between religiosity and firearm violence in Mississippi and Massachusetts, the two are not completely unrelated. 


America has a gun problem, but it’s not just a gun problem. At its core, America has a Christian nationalism problem. No amount of politicians using avoidable tragedies as an excuse to scapegoat the nonreligious community will change the facts of the matter. I believe that we have an imperative to act to end gun violence as human beings, but I also believe that there is a special onus for the nonreligious to act, as rising tides of religious extremism threaten marginalized communities across our country.


The time to act is now. We have no time to waste.


Note: This is the first in a new, irregular series “From the Intern Desk,” in which college interns for the Secular Coalition for America produce topical editorials on the issues that impact our daily lives. This piece was contributed by Aidan Scully.


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