The day after the shooting spree in Odessa, the junior senator from that state, Ted Cruz, was on Twitter laying out the case to actress Alyssa Milano that passages in the Bible support the rights of gun owners.
“Can someone cite which passage of the Bible God states it is a god-given right to own a gun?,” Milano asked on Twitter.
Cruz responded: “An excellent Q, worth considering carefully w/o the snark of Twitter. It is of course not the right to a modern-day firearm that is God-given but rather the right to Life & the right to Liberty. Essential to that right to life is the right to DEFEND your life & your family.”
There’s a lot going on there. Cruz’s argument sums up a somewhat prevalent one in conservative Christian circles — that gun ownership as laid out in the Second Amendment is a God-given right. It’s an argument we’ve seen publicly in the wake of recent mass shootings. Religious conservatives have argued many times before that supporting legislation to put limits on gun ownership would go against their deeply held spiritual convictions.
Here’s how we wound up in this discussion this time.
Response to Saturday’s deadly shooting in Odessa followed a by-now familiar pattern. It came less than a month after mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton and prompted calls for tighter gun restrictions from many Democrats. These were followed by rebuttals from gun-rights supporters arguing that gun laws wouldn’t deter shootings.
Matt Schaefer, a Texas state representative from Tyler, posted a tweet thread explaining that incidents like the Odessa shooting wouldn’t lead him to embrace stricter gun laws.
“I am NOT going to use the evil acts of a handful of people to diminish the God-given rights of my fellow Texans. Period,” he tweeted. “None of these so-called gun-control solutions will work to stop a person with evil intent.”
In addition to expressing his opposition to universal background checks and bans on certain guns, Schaefer tweeted a few things he’d eagerly affirm. “What can we do? YES to praying for victims. YES to praying for protection. YES to praying that God would transform the hearts of people with evil intent. YES to fathers not leaving their wives and children. YES to discipline in the homes.”
His tweets went viral and attracted the attention and disdain of liberals and gun-control activists. That’s when Milano chimed in.
And that’s where Cruz picked up the baton. He explained why some religious conservatives are considering the culture war over gun rights a threat to religious liberty and argued that the Bible supports people having the liberty to defend themselves and their families from those who commit crimes.
He tweeted: “The right to self-defense is recognized repeatedly in the Bible, eg Exodus 22:2: “If a thief is caught breaking in at night & is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed.” (Note, though, verse 3 says that it is murder if during daylight (i.e., not self-defense).
And he connected the language of the Declaration of Independence to that interpretation of scripture.
“The Declaration of Independence acknowledges our rights thusly: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ “
Milano and Cruz discussed the possibility of meeting in Washington to discuss guns, the Bible and other issues.
“If we can have a civil & positive conversation — in the spirit of 1 Peter 4:8 as you suggest — despite our political differences, that might help resolve the discord in our Nation,” Cruz tweeted.
What are the biblical roots of this argument?
Support for guns, among other things, is a manifestation of social conservatives’ embrace of “family values” — a political worldview that looks at issues through the lens of its impact on traditional nuclear families. Historian Neil Young teaches about the intersection of faith and politics and wrote about the reasons for evangelicals’ opposition to gun control last month for The Week:
“While no personal arsenal is likely to turn back the federal government’s forces, many religious conservatives, especially white evangelical men, worry that any limitation on gun rights will infringe on their ability to protect their loved ones. If defending the traditional family has been a largely metaphorical concern for the Religious Right when it comes to abortion and gay rights, it’s very much literal when it comes to guns.”
And the left’s inability to grasp this or flat-out dismissal of this worldview makes finding common ground difficult.
After a 2017 shooting at a Southern Baptist Church in Texas, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, told The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey: “I think gun control proponents are misguided in trying to persuade others of their position in the way they usually go about it. There are not two sides here about whether shootings should be stopped, laws enforced and criminality punished, but rather two sides about whether gun control is a prudent way to carry out those common goals.”
There are other biblical passages that conservative Christians cite to support gun ownership. Gun Owners of America, a group that positions itself to the right of the NRA on gun rights, offers detailed explanations on its website on topics like “Self Defense Versus Vengeance,” “Self Defense in the New Testament” and “Did Christ Teach Pacifism?”
There is data that supports Young’s conclusion suggesting that Cruz and Schaefer are not alone. More than 40 percent of white evangelicals own a gun, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, making the group more likely than members of any other faith group to own a gun.
Of course, there are theological arguments that are used to support gun control laws, too. Christian author Shane Claiborne and Michael Martin, executive director of RAWtools, an organization that turns guns into garden tools, wrote about them in their book “Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence.”
“I grew up talking about being pro-life,” Claiborn told the Los Angeles Times in April. “But I began to see how narrowly we’ve defined that, especially in Christianity, where you can be pro-life as long as you’re against abortion. You could still be pro-death penalty, pro-war and call yourself pro-life, as long as you’re antiabortion.
“So I really wanted to be more consistently an advocate for life. And when it comes to guns, we evangelical Christians, white evangelicals, own guns at a higher rate than the general public. That became really troubling to me, that the folks that are worshiping the Prince of Peace are packing heat.”
Gun ownership is like any culture war issue: Different people interpret the Bible differently and yield those interpretations to advocate for the policies they prefer. And while there are conservative Christians like Cruz and Schaefer who look to Scripture to justify their views, there are left-leaning Christians who disagree with their interpretation. And this alone could make it difficult, if not impossible, for both sides to find common ground.