How A Nationalistic Strain Of Christianity Is Subtly Shaping America’s Gun Debate

As some activists began the all-too-familiar call for stricter gun control measures following back-to-back massacres in Texas and Ohio this weekend, Texas’ Republican lieutenant governor Dan Patrick offered up his own analysis of American gun violence.

During a Sunday appearance on “Fox & Friends,” Patrick suggested that the shootings that left over 30 people dead in El Paso and Dayton were moral failings, rather than byproducts of the widespread availability of military-style rifles.

Along with violent video games, Patrick said he believes one of the main reasons for mass shootings is the lack of prayer in public schools.

“On Sunday morning, most of your viewers right now, half of the country, are getting ready to go to church and yet tomorrow, we won’t let our kids even pray in our schools,” Patrick told the Fox News hosts. “There’s many factors that go into these shootings. It’s not a time to politicize, it’s time to look deep inside at who we are as a country.” 

Patrick’s take on gun violence is a “perfect example” of how Christian nationalism — an increasingly prominent ideology within American Christianity — influences people’s attitudes towards the gun control debate, according to Clemson University sociologist Andrew Whitehead.

“For Patrick and many others, these mass casualty shootings have little if anything to do with guns, and everything to do with whether our culture is, in their view, aligning with Christianity and privileging it in the public sphere,” Whitehead told HuffPost.

President Donald Trump speaks about the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, at the White House on Monday.

ASSOCIATED PRESS President Donald Trump speaks about the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, at the White House on Monday.

Christian nationalism hinges on the narrative that the United States has a special covenant with the Christian God. People who subscribe to Christian nationalist ideas are more likely than others to say that the federal government should declare the U.S. to be a Christian nation; to advocate for Christian values; to push for prayer in public schools; or to allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces. They also tend to believe that America’s success is part of God’s plan.

Whitehead and his colleagues have argued that Christian nationalism is a unique phenomenon that transcends traditional religious denominations, and can act as a predictor for other social stances. Last January, Whitehead and other researchers published a study suggesting that Americans who believe in key tenets of Christian nationalism were more likely to vote for President Donald Trump.

In a paper published in July 2018, Whitehead and his co-authors learned that Christian nationalism was also a good predictor of where people stand on gun control. Since Christian nationalists believe the Constitution (and the Second Amendment) was inspired by the Christian God, they see the right to bear arms as something that is God-given. As a result, any attempt to restrict this right could be interpreted as an attack on God’s wisdom.

After analyzing data from the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey (the most recent and reliable national survey on this issue), the researchers found that those who agreed with Christian nationalist ideals were significantly less likely to agree that gun control is a viable answer to the problem of gun violence. This was true even after the researchers accounted for other factors, such as religious identity, age, gender, education, and even race.

This means that while Christian nationalist ideals are most common among white American evangelicals, the ideology isn’t necessarily limited to that religious group. The researchers found that evangelicals who don’t subscribe to Christian nationalism are actually more supportive of gun control than Christian nationalist Catholics, for example. In addition, Black Americans who embraced Christian nationalism were more likely to oppose gun control than Black Americans who rejected Christian nationalism.

Gloria Garces kneels in front of crosses at a makeshift memorial near the scene of the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.

ASSOCIATED PRESS Gloria Garces kneels in front of crosses at a makeshift memorial near the scene of the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.

Whitehead said the paper’s findings seem particularly timely this week, in light of the recent mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. He suggested that Christian nationalism could help explain some Christians’ responses to the massacres.

Many evangelical Christians believe that in addition to the physical world, there is a spiritual, supernatural dimension to reality, and that in that realm, there is an ongoing battle between the forces of good and evil. As a result, these Christians view many social problems in the world, including gun violence, as having spiritual roots.

What distinguishes Christian nationalists from other Christians is that they tend to believe that these spiritual crises can only be solved by privileging “traditional Christian values” in the public sphere. From this perspective, it’s almost foolish to try to end gun violence through legislation, without addressing perceived ruptures in America’s moral fabric first.

“For Christian nationalists, human attempts to fix social problems (like gun control legislation) without addressing the underlying ‘moral decline’ of the nation are misguided and an affront to the Christian God,” Whitehead said. 

John Fea, a historian at Messiah College who studies Christian nationalism, said that this belief is evident in how some of Trump’s top evangelical advisors responded to the recent mass shootings. 

Pastor Greg Laurie, who leads the evangelical Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif., and Pastor Jack Graham, of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, taped an Instagram video on Sunday where they talked about how “something bigger” was at play: Rather than blame the availability of guns, the pastors claim that what happened in Dayton and El Paso was the result of a “spiritual battle.”

“The Bible tells us that the final hours of human history, that perilous times will come, difficult, dangerous times will come,” Graham said in the video. “Not to minimize what’s happened, because it’s a tragedy … But we need to remember that ultimately, it’s a spiritual solution. We can’t politicize this.” 

“Many evangelicals, not just Christian nationalists, indeed believe that the *real* problem is a spiritual one. In order to solve the gun problem in America we must evangelize more,” Fea told HuffPost in an email. “By saying that ‘we can’t politicize’ this, [Laurie] and Graham are sending a message to their followers that gun control will not help these problems.”

Ultimately, Whitehead and his fellow researchers suggest that because Christian nationalists believe the Second Amendment is a sacred, God-given right, they won’t be convinced by gun control advocates’ appeals to public safety or by statistics about how the U.S. experiences more firearm-releated deaths than other high-income countries. For Christian nationalists, the gun violence epidemic is a spiritual crisis that requires spiritual solutions ― and returning America to its perceived Christian roots.

In order to find common ground, it’s important for people to acknowledge how religious beliefs impact political stances, Whitehead said. “Our research clearly demonstrates that if we as a nation are to chart a way forward, we have to be aware of how different cultural frameworks can lead groups to basically talk past one another.”

He hypothesized that activists that would like to get more Christian nationalists on the side of gun control should acknowledge what is undergirding their fellow Americans’ opposition to gun control, even though they may disagree with those assumptions.

“This might help them establish some common ground and shared language,” Whitehead said. “These groups might then be able to encourage a discussion around what steps might be taken that aren’t focused on overturning the [Second] Amendment and by extension insulting the wisdom and providence of the Christian God, something that many who embrace Christian nationalism might believe.”

Fea, however, is more skeptical.

“I cannot think of anything that would make them open to gun control measures,” he wrote. Christian nationalists believe “these are rights that are ENSHRINED in the Constitution by God.”

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