Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the NRA, made several key claims at February’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference which reflect the mindset that keeps the country from taking effective action to prevent mass shootings in our schools. First, he claimed: “There is no greater personal individual freedom than the right to keep and bear arms.” If you scratch your head at that statement and wonder in which John Wayne movie LaPierre is living, wait for the next line that tells you that this freedom reduced to a gun is “not bestowed by man but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright.” [See minutes 34:36-35:05 in this video of the speech]
To translate the message of the NRA pointedly: God wants you to have a gun. Only the NRA, America’s pimp for the gun industry, could come up with that blasphemous idea. The narrative that only guns guarantee freedom is what keeps lawmakers from passing sensible gun laws that effectively prevent school shootings.
As a father of school age children and as a seminary professor, I have a responsibility to debunk this harmful worship of guns. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against gun ownership or the 2nd Amendment. The NRA wants us to believe that the debate about preventing school shootings is about taking all guns away. It is not. Forbidding gun ownership would only feed into the very paranoid fears of government takeover the NRA bases its power on. The NRA argues as if we were still living at the brink of dictatorship where the only recourse is vigilante justice. We are not. Our citizens have access to an independent judiciary; effective democratic checks and balances through the division of power of the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of government; and strong nongovernmental advocacy groups and watchdogs spanning the gamut of the political spectrum that protect citizen’s rights to free speech and expression. The right to bear weapons is not under attack. But making sure that this right is exercised responsibly without anti-democratic narcissistic and psychopathic overreach is just as important as requiring a license to operate a vehicle and compliance with traffic laws for all. That is the function of sensible gun regulations. What I am against is thus not the right to bear arms but the harmful ideology that guns are elevated to god-like guarantors of freedom.
The NRA does not, of course, worship “God.” The NRA worships fear as god. If we take apart LaPierre’s conflation of God and guns, we see that he worships the fear of threat. As the key representative of the American gun lobby, he believes freedom is based on defending yourself against threats by threatening the death of another person, group or nation. Whosoever can spread the most fear wins. This is the same strategy we currently hear coming out of the White House. It is at the heart of bully politics as well as domestic violence. And it provides the rationale for the NRA’s solution that only more guns will fix gun violence. If we as a people continue to buy into the idea that threats and violence secure freedom, we collude with this idolatry of fear and inadvertently continue to sacrifice our children at the altar of the god of fear.
You may wonder why the NRA would feel the need to invoke God as the guarantor of the right to guns? It does so because it wants to provide the mantle of absoluteness to its agenda of fear. You can simply substitute for its use of the word “God” the phrase “we claim absolutely.” In effect, it sets itself in the place of “God.” The NRA employs a cunning strategy: first it tells you through paranoid tunnel vision that your freedom is in absolute danger from (Democratic) government overreach (it whips up your fear to absolute levels); secondly, it tells you that only an absolute threat, a gun, can protect your freedom from that absolute danger; and, thirdly, the NRA now poses as the sole god-like savior and defender of your freedom.
In all of this, the NRA eerily resembles very much the serpent in the familiar symbolic story on the first pages of the Bible: the serpent, too, whips up absolute fears by suggesting, incorrectly, that God supposedly forbid Adam and Eve to eat from any of the trees of the garden (similarly, the NRA says, incorrectly: the government wants to take all your guns away); secondly, the serpent suggests that only the poisonous fruit from the one tree – which makes humans feel absolutely ashamed and afraid of each other and thus turns the world into a desolate place – would guarantee their freedom against overreach by a withholding “God” (similarly, the NRA says: only the right to bear guns will keep you free from government control); and, thirdly, the serpent now poses as the defender of the freedom to eat from any of the trees (similarly, the NRA says: only we, the god-like NRA, protect your individual freedom, which it has reduced to the right to bear any weapon you want). In the biblical story, it is only after humans have eaten from the poisonous fruit that they realize that their freedom has been lost due to fear and that, as a result, their world has turned into misery. This is equivalent to the NRA’s plan to turn schools into prison-like places filled with guns, fences and metal detectors.
The “freedom” the NRA promises based on gun worship is no freedom at all. Instead, it turns the world further into a place controlled by fear and threats. True freedom is not born from fear or gun ownership. True freedom is born from the cultivation of trusting relationships. It requires that assault weapons, the means to slaughter the innocent and to destroy the places of trust in our communities, such as schools, are effectively kept out of the hands of potential school shooters. Let us not believe the cunning whisper of the NRA and instead put in place sensible gun laws that protect the sacredness of the life of our children and of our places of learning. Let us resist the worship of fear and guns.
Matthias Beier, M.Div., Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Mental Health Counseling at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, Indiana. A Desmond Tutu Center Faculty Fellow, he is a commentator on subjects related to psychology, politics, and religion, and has authored three books, including A Violent God-Image.