God, Guns, Secularism, and Religion

Should we rely on thoughts and prayers or laws and policies?

Posted Mar 25, 2019

“Every semi-automatic weapon used in the terrorist attack on Friday will be banned in this country.”

Thus declared New Zealand Prime Minister Jaconda Ardern last week, in the immediate wake of the murder of 50 Muslim men, women, and children in a mosque in Christchurch on March 16, 2019.

Ardern, it should be noted, is a secular, non-religious woman. Though raised Mormon, she now identifies as agnostic. Why is her secular identity of note? Because her secularity—and the moral action she initiated in response to the terrorist shooting—contrasts sharply with how strongly religious political leaders here in the United States react to similar shootings. For them, the only response is “thoughts and prayers.”

In the wake of seventeen teenagers shot to death at a high school in Parkland, Florida, and twelve people killed at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California in 2018, our pious leaders do nothing other than offer their “thoughts and prayers.” After ten people – eight of them students – were shot to death at Santa Fe high school, and eleven Jews were shot to death in a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018—“thoughts and prayers.” In response to the slaughter of fifty-eight people at a country music festival in Las Vegas and twenty-six Christian worshippers killed in a church in Southerland Spring, Texas, in 2017—“thoughts and prayers.” After forty-nine people were shot at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016—“thoughts and prayers.” When fourteen people were shot to death at a community center in San Bernardino, California, and nine people were shot to death at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon, in 2015 —“thoughts and prayers.” When six college kids were killed in Isle Vista, California in 2014—“thoughts and prayers.” When twelve movie-goers were killed in Aurora, Colorado, and twenty-seven people—mostly young children—were shot to death at an elementary school in Newton, Connecticut, in 2012—“thoughts and prayers.”

And so it goes. Our religious leaders invoke faith, prayer, and God in the wake of human tragedy and suffering—but take no legal action and institute no actual policies that could effectively safeguard our communities. Despite the fact that there have been nearly three hundred school shootings in the USA since 2009, and even though American teenagers are now eighty-two times more likely to be shot to death than teenagers living in the rest of the developed world, and even though approximately 13,000 Americans are killed by guns every year, those who could do something do nothing.

Thoughts and prayers may certainly help individuals in times of personal suffering. Thoughts and prayers definitely provide a sense of comfort. But they do not stop bullets. They do not reduce violence. To do that, sound social policy and rigorous legal action are essential.

Jesus was clear: “Live by the sword, die by the sword.” In other words, those who use technologies of violence will, most likely, meet a violent end themselves. That’s because, for Jesus, violence only begets violence. The Christian ideals to strive for are non-violence, peace, and love. And as many Christian denominations understand—such as the Brethren, the Quakers, and Mennonites—Jesus called his followers to lay down their weapons, to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies. It is a holy ideal few can live up to, indeed.

And yet, what is troublingly strange—and a massive case of cognitive dissonance—is that those political leaders who know Jesus’s teachings the best—those Evangelicals who study their Bibles the hardest, who attend church the most frequently, who partake in prayer groups with the most vigor, and who claim to have the strongest personal relationship with Jesus—these are the very same people who most strongly defend guns. They advocate for the greater proliferation of guns in our society, they aid and abet companies that manufacture ever more lethal guns, they take money from gun industries, and they do everything in their power to constantly thwart any and every attempt to institute any type of sane limits on guns.

People often equate religion with morality. They often insist that if you don’t believe in God you can’t be moral. But when it comes to this scourge of gun violence, it is the most secular democracies on earth—places like New Zealand, Japan, and Sweden—that have the most restrictive and moral gun laws, while it is the most religious democracies, such as America, that have the most lax and immoral gun laws.

Go figure.