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Monday, 30 October 2006 21:00

Arming God's Nation - An Excerpt from Joan Burbick's "Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy"

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by Joan Burbick, author of "Gun Show Nation"

"Arming God's Nation," Chapter 11 of "Gun Show Nation"

I once asked a gun-rights organizer if he spent much time trying to include fundamentalist Christians in his efforts to win over adherents to his conservative political causes.(1) He basically told me that he didn't think "gun rights did well in the Christian Right if you look at various mailing lists." But that "didn't matter." He "had the Christian Right anyway." What became clearer the more we talked was that the gun-rights movement to him was only one of several ways to create and sustain social and political change in the United States. Guns, God, anti-abortion and anti-gay organizations, tax reform, and a laissez-faire belief in capitalism were catalysts that energized a shared conservative vision for America. They were the revolutionary means to defeat what was labeled as liberalism.

The gun-rights organizer's ideas became clearer to me I interviewed and talked with Christians who equated gun ownership with political freedom. The journalist David A. Neiwert and others have followed how these ideological strands merge into what is called the "Patriot Movement," mixing racist beliefs, Christian identity, and an armed, militant, and paranoid politics that most Americans would find "repellent."(2) These " crackpot" right-wing groups that Neiwert tracked in the Pacific Northwest have often been the bane of conservative causes in the United States. The Young Americans for Freedom in the 1960s and '70s consistently tried to distinguish their organization from the John Birch Society and several violent and racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.(3)

Today, some groups like the Montana Human Rights Watch would insist that the crackpots have found a voice in mainstream politics, and that extremists now advise mainstream politicians, particularly in relationship to gun rights. One example was the 2003 Liberty Summit in Missoula, Montana, that brought together Republican Party members, the gun lobby, and the Patriot Movement with such speakers as John Trochmann, Gary Marbut, and Frank McGee. (4)

But as I talked with religious gun owners, I often found ordinary Americans trying to make sense of what they believed was a decadent and dying society.(5) To them, America needed change, and evangelical religion was a potent and necessary force for a renewal of core American values. To the resurgent religious Right, the ecumenical impulse of the 1960s-which opened American-style Christianity to other faiths and religious expressions-had betrayed the true faith of the American nation. (6) Martin Luther King, Jr., traveling to India in search of Gandhi, personified a dangerous religious attitude that looked beyond American shores for faith that should be anchored in a national Christian mission. Buddhism, New Age, and paganism only hastened America's transformation into a spiritual wasteland, where foreign gods tempted the true believer.

Further, some conservative Christians turned to national politics and gun rights to promote what they believed was the religious foundation of the nation. The Second Amendment was a call to arms to sustain the fundamental vision of the United States as God's nation. The gun protected the freedoms of the citizen in a sacred society. Guns became the anointed means to guarantee and uphold the core beliefs of this Christian country. Not merely a clever campaign tactic for conservative Republican organizers out to beat their opponents in state and federal elections, gun rights were the righteous proof of God's revelations to man throughout history.

One person that I interviewed, who did not belong to any militia organization or to the Patriot Movement, expressed this fusion with passion. He had merely spent much time thinking about why his right to own guns was ordained by God. A teacher in a private school, Gregory insisted that "Gun ownership is not a belief. It is a God-given right." There was a "difference in liking arms and the right to own. Liking is a hobby, a personal taste." What was more important was to understand that gun rights came directly from God. "The right is to protect the self, not given by government, not given by the Constitution, a Godgiven right, my concept of God. If I don't believe in God, then I don't believe in rights given by God, then they are only given by a benevolent dictator." He believed in "God and Christ and the God of the Bible."

Gregory's vision was utterly nationalistic. In its purest form, the United States was the country that affirmed his belief that rights "are not given by man." And the United States as the land of the free had a special relationship to the Biblical Ten Commandments: The "First Commandment is the first commandment of liberty." God commanded man to worship and obey no other gods, and through this obedience came liberty and gun rights. "God," Gregory argued, "is either the author of liberty or the author of slavery." All other religions "practice a certain amount of servitude," bowing to the "gods of the slave masters." Only in Christianity can you "see the truth and the truth shall make you free."

My afternoon with Gregory convinced me of the enduring power of nationalism to create both identity and meaning, af- firmed by a mandate given by God. Modern national states have often based their origin stories or births on premodern tribal roots that privilege a specific ethnic group, such as the founding fathers.(7) Citizens are granted rights by descent from this group. There is often tension between civil rights and these ethnic identities that guarantee citizens the protection of law through secular and written constitutions. Citizens have been granted rights through social contracts, compacts, and covenants. Belonging to a nation does not come about through the most visceral feelings-those of blood identity-but through human constructions written on paper that arrange governments to represent the people in ways that often seek to control the dark sides of human nature: greed, violence, abuse.

But some nations push the religious origins of their society with a vengeance, privileging a specific creed as the spiritual soul of the nation. In the United States, a providential history of our founding as a nation was often located within the colonial past of the English Puritans with their interest in covenants, but these religious roots were often exclusionary and punitive to those who did not share that faith. Some historians argue that when John Winthrop preached his Puritan sermon to the small group of believers on board the Arabella in 1630, the religious mission of the United States was born.

Other historians find that the Massachusetts Bay Colony became a "city upon a hill" for fellow Englishmen back home to imitate. They were super-patriots not of a new nation but of the old. The Puritans were suspicious of evangelicals and deeply suspicious of people who claimed to have direct access to the words of God. After all, they could be lying, deluded, or even in the clutches of Satan. And they could cause trouble for the church leaders.

With evangelicals like the Baptists and Methodists came religious enthusiasm, and evangelistic religions found fertile ground in the frontier communities of New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies. The Great Awakening of the eighteenth century, the burned-over districts of the nineteenth century, the itinerant preachers in small towns, and the small groups of prophets whose revelations led to such religions as Christian Science, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Mormons were hardly anomalies in American history. Many believed in millennialism and mapped out a geographical area of the United States in which to live and practice their particular brand of utopian beliefs.(8)

As a settler society, the United States has engaged in massive rhetorical justifications for its right to possess its lands in the Western Hemisphere. Religion helped the cause, raising the church steeple, the flag, and the fort as it moved progressively westward. There is a strain of thought in the United States that positions this nation as the purest expression of God in history. God gave the country's citizens inalienable rights, and with the light of God, the United States had not only accepted these inalienable rights but also wrote a Bill of Rights that was likened to the Ten Commandments. Each man had the responsibility to guarantee that these rights were upheld and enforced.

Since the renewed interest in the Second Amendment during the 1970s, a conservative religious language has arisen to justify gun ownership. The Second Amendment not only guaranteed the right to gun ownership; more important, it provided the "teeth" that individual citizens could use to enforce these rights. Each citizen should accept this responsibility of enforcement. Neither the police nor the military were entirely trustworthy or reliable. The light shone directly from God to the people. The sanctified gun owner directly enforced the Bill of Rights. He was an armed citizen granted direct access to political truth, and he could bypass the messy and conflicting interpretations made by lawyers, politicians, and the courts. He was not only an activist for Christ, but also an enforcer of the rights given by God directly to the nation's worthy citizens.

What I find distinct in Gregory's expression was the way in which the gun had become a necessary element in his political Scripture. Not that the gun wasn't sitting comfortably behind the actions of many of our early religious savants. "Onward, Christian soldiers" is an old refrain. The history of Brigham Young and his use of militias in Utah and Nevada demonstrates the militant and violent actions that can be used by religious sects. But for Gregory, the gun and the issue of gun rights had melded perfectly with a militant piety that fused the Ten Commandments with the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. Gun rights and God had found a perfect rhetorical alignment in his imagination. The psychic investment in guns had a sacred legitimation.

In Gregory's world, the gun and the rights associated with gun ownership renewed the original vision of God and the founding fathers, making the world orderly and free again. In many ways, conservatives in the twenty-first century needed gun rights as part of their political movement precisely because in the last fifty years they have been challenged directly by social movements that question the basic tenets of their political and religious positions. Their vision of the nation was at risk.(9)

Over the last half of the twentieth century, the social gospel of Christianity, mass nonviolent Christian activism, liberation theology, and myriad religious thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gustavo Gutiérrez have all leveled scathing critiques against the social, economic, and legal injustices under United States capitalism, racism, and imperialism. These have coincided with secular challenges from civil-rights, feminist, and gay and lesbian activists to the traditional alignment of power in the community, the family, and marriage. Millions of Americans reacted to these movements with dismay, fearing not only that their country was under assault by liberal subversives, but also that their souls were in jeopardy.

In the spring of 2004, I attended my second Christian prayer breakfast at the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association. Two years earlier I had sat at a round table of respectful listeners and learned how the carnage of 9/11 had sent shock waves through the conservative Christian community. That year I listened to Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell describe the trauma of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon that left his body burnt but his soul embraced by Christ. In often-halting words, he spoke of his ordeal and the strength that his faith gave him to survive the searing pain of his burns. He held steadfast and healed, with a deep, abiding love of God and country. His wife moved the breakfast audience to tears when, in simple, vivid words, she described her husband's intense physical suffering. In their shared grief, his escape from death was "a miracle of God," the saving of a " soldier of Christ."

This first breakfast had been sponsored by the Christian Sportsmen's Fellowship, a group that sustained the Teddy Roosevelt tradition of ethics, conservation, and hunting, and infused them with a strong dose of Christian witnessing, piety, and patriotism. Steve Bartkowski, a former quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, was a popular spokesman for the organization, as was General Joe Foss, marine, war ace, governor of South Dakota, first commissioner of the American Football League, president of the NRA, and leader of the Campus Crusade for Christ. At the breakfast, I was given a prayer pamphlet and an opportunity to receive a free New Testament covered in camou- flage.

Two years later, the prayer breakfast had even more participants and was becoming a popular event at the annual meeting of the NRA. In the long line to get into the banquet hall, people traded stories about how difficult it was to get a concealedweapons permit in their state. One man couldn't believe how easy it was to get the magic slip of paper in my home state of Washington. A police officer, he thought there should be at least some mandatory training or shooting on a gun range with a qualified instructor. Safety checks on guns might be a good idea too. He was a reasonable voice in a sea of extreme rhetoric about freedom. I wondered how he felt about the religious scene at the NRA, but the line started moving ahead, and we parted ways.

God and patriotism were great slogan sources for politicians and the NRA; the details about statutes, ordinances, and laws were another matter. I had to remind myself that rhetoric might move the group, but individuals mucked up the neat and tidy categories that politicians and lobbyists used to promote their causes.

This year, the breakfast was sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christian Businessmen, who call themselves "men of destiny" who are "disturbed by the deterioration of Godly principles once considered absolutes in our system and society and feel responsible, as Christians and professional men, to bring forth change."(10) The banquet hall was a lively scene of men and women ready for a moment of worship before the rounds of meetings, conferences, and walks through the massive gun show. We gave thanks at the breakfast for the NRA and Jesus Christ and heard that the NRA was made up of " purpose-driven people."

Peter Enns, writer of patriotic songs, hymns, and poems, was present to talk and to sell his CD, Majestic Eagle, with songs entitled, "We Are A People of Faith," "Our America Is Blessed," "America! One Nation United," and "The Prayer of Our Nation." The songs were played loudly over the PA system, and the lyrics cheered about what was right with America. The attack on 9/11 was a wake-up call to those who had become prosperous and complacent. 9/11 brought them back to God. Songs like "Keep America Strong" evoked the old-fashioned jeremiad that saw catastrophe as a warning to backsliders. In " Prayer of Our Nation," freedom also rested on the "men and women taking a stand to keep evil forces out of our land." The messages were direct: renew the faith or you and your nation will be destroyed.

The keynote speaker on this morning was the former Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke. He pleaded that the United States become-or, as he would have it, return to its original state as- a Christian theocracy. An Air Force colonel, he had not been given peace by his voyage aboard Apollo 16. Only later, when he went through the ordeal of his wife's depression and his disintegrating marriage, did he hear the call of Jesus. At a Bible-study weekend, he began to ask, "Who is this man, Jesus?" He finally felt "free will," and he chose to believe. "I knew that I knew that I knew it was the truth." And then began an "insatiable desire to read the Bible."

He spoke with humor and charisma about his conversion and urged the audience to find freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. He referenced the Pilgrims, the New England Primer, the Declaration of Independence, Patrick Henry, and George Washington. The United States would somehow be perfect if "one nation under God" meant that Jesus had come into the hearts and souls of everyone from the president to the Congress, to the governors, to the states, to the schools, and to each individual in the United States. The nation under Jesus, at every level of government and education, became an ideal. He added the caveat that other Christians and nonbelievers would be granted "asylum" in his reborn United States.

Charlie Duke's address offered a spiritual vision for the pragmatic political organizing at the meetings held later in the day. At those, I heard the usual alarms about people trying to take guns away from law-abiding citizens, followed by "the fight for our rights is part of the eternal struggle of good and evil," requiring courage and endurance. There was celebration that the gun-rights movement was "part of mainstream America." NRA members were told that Congress is "scared of you." They were the "ground troops" for voter recruitment and identification. They needed to "instill in kids" the need to register to vote. Their mission in registering people to vote was "not charity." It was "not altruistic." It was "patriotic" to protect the Second Amendment and the goals of the National Rifle Association. Each person was urged to register five people, five "freedom-loving brethren." The world was divided between the gun-grabber and the patriotic American gun owner.

At the prayer breakfast, the topic of guns had not even come up. It didn't need to. The mix of armed conservatism with a strong dose of fundamental Christian doctrine sanctified the gun. Both speakers I had heard at the NRA prayer breakfasts came from a group of born-again military preachers, retired or active, who ministered to the needs of patriotic Americans in both the armed forces and the civilian world. Tested in the fires of 9/11, the outer reaches of space, or the battlegrounds of World War II or Vietnam or one of the two wars in Iraq, they never questioned the military destiny of the United States, its sublime technology, or its ultimate religious destiny. The gun in the hand of the private citizen was not only a backup weapon for this militant millennial vision; the gun in the hand of the private citizen was a vast reserve army of patriots ready to defend God and country.


Joan Burbick was born in Chicago and has lived for the last thirty years in the rural West. She received her B. A. from Boston College, an M. A. and Ph. D. from Brandeis University and a second M. A. from Wesleyan University. She has written four books, including "Gun Show Nation," and numerous articles and reviews on nineteenth and twentieth-century American literature and culture.

© 2006 by Joan Burbick. This piece originally appears in Joan Burbick’s Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy (The New Press, October 17, 2006). Published with the permission of The New Press and available at good book stores everywhere.