Staff Writer Elijah Knodell attended a panel hosted Thursday by the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life that delved into the intersection of Christian nationalism and American gun culture.

Psalm-inscribed firearms. Rosaries fashioned from bullets. Worshipers brandishing AR-15s during service and donning bullet crowns. These images and more are conspicuous traces of a wave of American nationalism that has been growing in intensity in recent years—that is, a chauvinist movement that sees the gun as an instrument of God’s will and a tool to maintain Christian hegemony in an America that is under growing “threats” of secularization and globalization.

A panel hosted Thursday by Columbia’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life brought together experts of American gun culture to address this troubling topic and to explore the ways that Christianity, guns, and right-wing fervor shape and develop each other. The conversation featured Professor Thomas Lecaque of Grand View University, a historian who studies the intersection of “apocalyptic religion and political violence” through the medieval period to the present. Professor Lecaque was joined by Professor Jennifer Carlson of Arizona, a sociologist whose work explores the politics of America’s gun culture. The conversation was mediated by Columbia Law Professor Jeffrey Fagan.

The discussion was wide-ranging, exploring topics from the marketing tactics employed by gun manufacturers who utilize Christian iconography to sell their firearms to the centering of firearm imagery in niche religious services. The central theme of the conversation (as well as the scholarship of both Lecaque and Carlson) sought to understand the oft-posed question:“Why here?” Why is this phenomenon so particularly American?

Lecaque noted that the weapon-as-sacred-object is not a novel idea, but one that has been present throughout the history of Christianity. He pointed to the Holy Lance—the spear that pierced Christ during the crucifixion—as an early iteration of sacred weaponry. The idea has also permeated throughout literary history, Lecaque citing the weapon Durendal wielded by Roland in La Chanson de Roland and Arthur’s Excalibur as other primary examples that have held places in the public fascination for centuries.

The notion of a “tangible physical weapon… with divine blessing” has been significantly resonant with militant branches of the American ultra-right who see themselves as the modern inheritors of the medieval Crusades, wielding the AR-15 as a 21st-century Holy Lance, according to Lecaque.

Gun manufacturers have accordingly seized on this fascination, using advertisements rich in religious iconography and even sometimes embellishing their weapons with scripture passages. Lecaque showed an example in the “Crusader” gun sold by manufacturer Spike’s Tactical, which is engraved with the text of Psalm 144:

“Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle,” the text reads.

Lecaque also noted the Islamaphobic sentiments driving such inscriptions, as these gun manufacturers believe that biblical inscriptions would dissuade Muslims from using their weapons—preventing these ‘Holy Lances’ from ‘falling into the wrong hands.’

Professor Carlson, who has conducted ethnographic research on gun sellers, spoke on the ways in which their attitudes have shifted or even radicalized in just the last decade. Carlson said that, by 2020, gun sellers had become increasingly cynical to the world around them and anxious about perceived “existential threats” to the United States—namely liberals and the scientific establishment. 

According to Carlson, the COVID-19 pandemic has played a role generally in bringing long-standing anxieties in the American right to the surface, pushing distrust in national media and science to a boiling point. This is, in part, a contributing factor to the growingly antagonistic world-views of gun sellers.

Both Lecaque and Carlson spoke about the ways that this religious fanaticism about guns is not entirely novel, but has really operated beneath the surface of the American mythos since the country’s founding. The idea of manifest destiny in the 19th century, of claiming land for God and for the state, has shaped the ways Americans think about our borders for centuries. That is, to the American settler, the mission to expand the country’s territory was one of religious zeal, the settler seeing himself as a “religious servant of God” seizing land of Indigenous, non-Western “others.” The gun thus was a means of achieving this end. Like the Crusades, American gun culture sees itself as a modern inheritor of this cause. 

Both Lecaque and Carlson noted how this history has influenced American popular culture, for example, in the proliferation of Western films and the creation of the archetypical “Cowboy as knight-errant” who wields a gun to right wrongs, to fight crimes, and to exercise self-defense. Lecaque argues that this cultural archetype is latent in the modern “good guy with a gun,” saying that fictional media has contributed to America’s use of the gun as a tool to solve problems.

In all of these examples, fear is a primary motivator. Fears of immigration, secularization, and political destabilization have driven American militant religiosity according to the panelists. Likewise, as the gun has been constructed as a problem solving tool, as a divinely granted weapon, and as a core part of the American mythos, it is unsurprising that guns would proliferate as right-wing media and politicians continue to insist to their followers that America is under threat.

Of course, after asking the question why here?, we will logically ask how can this change? When guns have become such an immutable part of the American social fabric, how can activists look to make incremental changes to slow the onslaught of mass shootings and make gun ownership safer?

According to Carlson, the task is made even more difficult by the “slippery slope” fallacy, in which any gun legislation, no matter the breadth or scope, is disavowed by gun owners as part of a covert effort towards repealing the Second Amendment (which, as Carlson notes, many gun owners view as a “God-given right”). Gun reform then is seen as an affront to religious sensibilities.

Carlson said that part of the solution could be found in the recent trends of diversifying gun ownership. More women and people of color are buying guns, and for different motivations than that of the traditional gun-owning demographic. Carlson explained that this sector of gun owners—who are purchasing guns exactly to protect themselves from growing fanaticism in the U.S.—could help to bridge the divide in a politically divisive America.

As all members of the discussion noted, active scholarship and close attention to the rapidly-shifting online discourse will be necessary to more deeply understand the interplay between nationalism, religion, and guns in the U.S. But as with all systems of violence that form the fabric of American society, the mass shooting phenomenon is incredibly complex and will be immensely challenging to end. 

A list of upcoming IRCPL events can be found here.

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