MSN reported last week that an arms maker in Florida is now marketing a Christian-themed gun. [1] The “Cruzado” is inscribed with the cross of the Knights Templar, a religious order that fought in the Crusades, along with an Old Testament psalm. A company spokesman reported that the company sold out of the rifles in the first 72 hours, and that there is now a backlog of orders of several weeks. Which brings one to question – how can it be that the message of Jesus is the driving force behind the rush to inflict bodily harm or death upon one’s neighbor? Here is a book which addresses that issue.

copyright James E. Atwood

In the 2012 America and Its Guns – A Theological Expose, Presbyterian pastor James E. Atwood undertakes a compelling examination of the American Christian attitude toward guns[2]. Viewed against the backdrop of Christian American culture,   America and Its Guns exposes the artificially created alliance between American gun culture and Christian teaching[3].

The book’s central premise is that America’s passive acceptance of more than 30,000 gun deaths annually can only be attributed to the fact that guns have risen to the status of idol. The NRA has successfully sold a packaged ideology to America, complete with symbols, slogans, language and demons. Originating as a hunting and sporting club, the NRA has grown since the 1970’s to an elite apparatus representing the interests of the gun manufacturing elite.   In doing so, it has appropriated the trappings of Christianity and has, for some, become a quasi-religion. This influence has become so pervasive and common that it is barely noticeable, but for the tragic consequences for its victims.

James Atwood proposes that a gun becomes an idol when the following three conditions prevail: 1) An owner believes there are no circumstances when a regulation or restriction for public safety should be placed upon it; 2) An owner believes that guns don’t kill; they only save lives; 3) An owner has no doubt that guns preserve America’s most cherished values[4]

According to Atwood, America has reached the point at which these three criteria are satisfied. The NRA elite strenuously oppose any and all effort to regulate guns for the sake of safety. The phrase “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” is voiced by gun rights activists, and repeated without question by the public. Most importantly, the NRA uses the rhetoric of freedom, liberty and God to convince society that guns are sacred to Americans. As an “idol,” the “Gun Empire” (the combination of gun manufacturers, distributors, dealers and vocal extremists) insists on being part of an established order; and it gains power as it appropriates the American culture’s personality, character and its value systems, as well as its its religious texts and cherished images.

   America and Its Guns very convincingly exposes and refutes the gun lobby myth. While the “Gun Empire” uses imagery of liberty and freedom, it plays upon fear and prejudice for its own financial gain. Instead of fostering freedom and individual liberty, the “Gun Empire” seeks a world in which “might makes right,” and in which the threat of violence intimidates opposing voices. It feeds upon the illusion of control, and in some instances creates an ideology of insurrection. The “Gun Empire” is pervasive and its language has become acceptable in both journalism and politics, as communities struggle to “heal” after each mass shooting, no longer considering the remedy to the epidemic at all.

Applied in the context of Catholic social teaching, there can be a Catholic corollary to Atwood’s profound insights. The vision of Pope Francis for the new evangelization of the Church is rooted in concern for the needs of the vulnerable. In reaching out to the weak and the poor, we are to reject the inequalities of society which contribute to violence:

           “ No to the Inequality Which Spawns Violence

                           Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples is reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence…

Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. Weapons and violence, rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. It serves only to offer false hopes to those clamoring for heightened security, even though nowadays we know that weapons and violence, rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts. [5]

Pope Francis connects the idolatry of money and that of violence, and in doing so, teaches that poverty and violence are inextricably linked. In allowing inequalities to go unchecked, Americans allow violence to thrive because they feel increasingly threatened, and as a result, they insist upon an ever increasing yet illusory sense of security. In placing great emphasis on money, society has created new idols. [6] James Atwood adds the love of guns to the love of money as a particularly American trait, because of our predilection for gun rights and our intolerance for any limitation on the Second Amendment. Hearing the thoughts of Pope Francis, it is difficult to argue that he would view the issue differently.

During a trip through the Middle East in the spring of 2014, Pope Francis deviated from his prepared speech to criticize arms dealers, praying to God to

“ convert those who seek war, those who make and sell weapons… We all want peace, but looking at the tragedy of war, looking at the wounded, seeing so many people who left their homeland who were forced to go away, I ask, ‘ Who sells weapons to these people to make war?’ he asked. ‘This is the root of evil, the hatred, the love of money.” [7]

America and Its Guns is an excellent resource for anyone who would like to learn more about gun violence in American society and the role of religious faith. Its analysis is clear and supported by authoritative sources, and its conclusions are concise. America arguably has reached a point at which the idolatry of money and the idolatry of guns are combined to form the perfect storm of tragedy for those most vulnerable. This book is an excellent catalyst for discussion of this pressing issue.

[1], September 15, 2015, “US arms maker markets Christian-themed assault rifle.”

[2] James E. Atwood is Pastor Emeritus of the Trinity Presbyterian Church of Arlington, Virginia and the Chairperson of Heeding God’s Call of Greater Washington, a faith-based ecumenical movement that encourages gun shops to adopt a code of conduct that deters illegal purchasing and the trafficking of handguns.

[3] America and Its Guns – A Theological Expose, 2012 Cascade Books

[4] Atwood, America and Its Guns, p. 21

[5] Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel §59-60

[6] Evangelii Guadium, §55

[7] MSN News, May 24, 2014 “Pope Blasts Arms Dealers at Start of Mideast Trip”