The NRA’s Thoughts & Prayers - Word&Way

The NRA’s Thoughts & Prayers

“I’m not going to talk about basketball.”

Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors, had a different topic on his mind than the NBA playoffs when he sat down for his pregame press conference on Tuesday (May 24).

“When are we going to do something?” he asked angrily before turning his ire to Sen. Mitch McConnell and other U.S. Senators opposed to legislation to reduce gun violence. “Are you going to put your own desire for power ahead of the lives of our children, and our elderly, and our churchgoers? Because that’s what it looks like.”

In Dallas for a game with the Mavericks, the mass killing of 19 children and two teachers at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school earlier that day prompted Kerr’s outrage. The murderous rampage by an 18-year-old using legally-purchased guns was the worst school shooting since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Esmeralda Bravo sheds tears while holding a photo of her granddaughter, Nevaeh, one of the Robb Elementary School shooting victims, during a prayer vigil in Uvalde, Texas, on May 25, 2022. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

As Kerr noted, the Texas massacre did not occur in isolation. It came just days after a racist shooting spree in a Buffalo, New York, grocery store by another 18-year-old that left 10 people dead. The White shooter targeted a Black community and cited as justification the “great replacement theory” (a White Supremacist idea once on the fringe but now espoused by right-wing media figures and conservative political leaders).

Kerr’s diatribe also followed a shooting at the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California, where a man motivated by political hatred opened fire into a large crowd, killing one and wounding others before attendees subdued him.

While each event contains unique horrors, the frequency of such occurrences risks a collective acceptance of these episodes as an inevitable, even normal, part of life. As Kerr cautioned, “We can’t get numb to this.”

Many on social media rightfully denounce the blithe offerings of “thoughts and prayers” by elected officials as excusing inaction. Yet, even after years of criticism about that phrase — and years of politicians doing nothing to lessen gun violence — many politicians use the phrase and then do nothing. The book of James reminds us that “faith without works is dead,” but there’s actually something worse than prayers without action. Some offer prayers of support for the very groups contributing to the deadly inaction.

In this edition of A Public Witness, we look at the principalities and powers preventing us from doing something about gun violence, along with the Christian leaders aiding and abetting their cause. Then we denounce the idolatry that demands we sacrifice our children.

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Switching Off the Safety

More restrictive gun laws that would make our communities safer are wildly popular with Americans. A 2021 poll by Pew and Gallup found 85% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats believed that those with mental illness shouldn’t be allowed to purchase firearms. In that same survey, 70% of Republicans and 92% of Democrats supported requiring background checks as part of a gun sale. With so much obvious common ground to be found, what’s stopping policymakers from acting?

Any answer to that question must begin with the National Rifle Association, which actively lobbies against background checks and undermines efforts to keep firearms away from those with mental illness. Over the last 25 years, the organization has spent hundreds of millions of dollars influencing elections, legislation, and regulations to advance its pro-gun agenda. (And it also finds itself under legal investigation for financial misconduct and corruption.)

The NRA wasn’t always this way. Originally formed after the Civil War to improve marksmanship among northerners (who, apparently, had worse aim than their southern counterparts — but still won) and promote firearms safety, the organization spent much of the early 20th century lobbying for gun control. Testifying before Congress in 1939, the organization’s president told lawmakers, “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”

A protester holds a sign outside the NRA’s headquarters during a vigil for recent victims of gun violence on Aug. 5, 2019, in Fairfax, Virginia. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

Even as recently as the late 1980s, the NRA accepted a ban on fully-automatic weapons as a compromise in advancing its other priorities through Congress. That moment hints at two forces today pressuring the NRA towards a less conciliatory approach. The first is pressure from the NRA’s most extreme members. Indeed, more extreme gun rights groups use any perceived display of weakness by the NRA in response to mass shootings to steal members. This threat creates an incentive for the NRA to oppose any restriction on gun ownership.

The second force is the financial support provided by the gun industry itself. The Violence Policy Center extensively documented how gun manufacturers, sellers, and other “corporate partners” help underwrite the NRA’s operational and legislative activities. These entities have a vested interest in loosening and preventing restrictions on gun sales.

“Today’s National Rifle Association is essentially a de facto trade association masquerading as a shooting sports foundation,” VPC Executive Director Josh Sugarmann told NPR in 2018. “So, it’s very important to understand the political battle in terms of the interests of the industry and in terms of marketing.”

Sugarmann added that instead of acknowledging their cynical motivations, the NRA portrays its efforts “in terms of freedom and history and, you know, sort of the sacred nature of firearms.”

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Blessing the NRA

In a macabre coincidence, the NRA will hold its annual convention this weekend in Houston, just hours from Uvalde. While some politicians may decide not to participate and more protesters than normal might gather outside, the show will go on. The festivities include a prayer breakfast, an annual part of meetings for more than two decades.

For $45, one can attend the prayer breakfast sponsored by Trijicon (an arms manufacturer that sparked controversy in 2010 for putting Bible verse references on gun sights sold to the U.S. military), Kel-Tec (a gun manufacturer whose products include semi-automatic guns), and Universal Coin & Bullion (that sells silver coins honoring the NRA and Donald Trump). The featured speakers will be Baptist evangelist Tim Lee and North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.

Lee, who serves as chair of the board of trustees at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, describes himself on Twitter as “Christian, Husband, Father, Papaw, Evangelist, Marine, NRA, ProLife, Patriot, VietVet, #PurpleHeart.” After Tuesday’s deadly shooting, he tweeted that the “heartbreaking” shooting occurred because our society allows abortion: “When kids hear adults say that it’s ok to kill babies (abortion) then all respect for human lives is gone. #Ulvade #PrayersForUvalde”

Robinson, who is already running for governor in 2024, garnered national attention last year for anti-LGBTQ comments he made at a Baptist church. His political career launched with a 2018 speech made before a city council meeting against canceling a gun show after the deadly shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 14 students and three staff were killed. Now his campaign website lists his top two issues as “2nd Amendment” and “Pro-Life.”

National Rifle Association members hold hands during the opening prayer at the annual meeting of members at the NRA convention on April 11, 2015, in Nashville, Tennessee. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)

Over the years, several significant Christian figures have also given their blessing — and claimed to bestow God’s as well — on this annual celebration of killing machines. So, we looked through the records to find those who, since 2008, participated in an event to, as the prophet Isaiah complained, “call evil good and good evil.”

Jonathan Falwell, senior pastor of the Baptist church his father founded in Lynchburg, Virginia, provided the prayer breakfast keynote remarks in 2010 and 2015. According to the NRA’s brief report in 2015, “Rev. Falwell drew on the firearms industry to provide a life lesson: Just as gun companies constantly strive to make better products, he said, people should continually try to improve their lives by serving others. He urged attendees to live with compassion, to be respectful, to intervene when friends and strangers alike need help, and to seek the absolute truth. In a lighter moment, he admitted to stretching the truth a bit when it comes to informing his wife of additions to his gun collection.”

In 2016, James Dobson focused his remarks on the need for fathers to spend time with their sons, which could particularly be done by teaching boys to hunt and fish. Dobson had previously blamed the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on God’s wrath over abortion and same-sex marriage. Guns, on the other hand, warranted Dobson’s support and prayers. Tim Clinton, who co-hosts “Dr. James Dobson’s Family Talk” (the show Dobson created after leaving Focus on the Family), spoke at the breakfast in 2009 and 2014.

Franklin Graham, who spoke in 2014, joked he was “helping to sponsor the breakfast because of all the ACOGs and other sights I have bought from Trijicon.” Graham delivered an evangelistic address about “the wages of sin” and how “Jesus is coming back,” but apparently saw no disconnect between the NRA and realizing the peaceable kingdom. Instead of seeing guns as the problem, Graham had previously blamed the Sandy Hook shooting on violent video games and for the nation having “taken God out of our school” (by which he means no longer coercing kids to recite government prayers). He again blamed the “entertainment industry” and defended guns after the Uvalde shooting.

Other ministers at the events have included Southern Baptist pastor Ike Reighard in 2011 and Council for National Policy head Bob Reccord in 2013.

Republicans who run on their Christian faith have also been top choices for NRA prayer breakfasts, which fits with the partisan gospel on display. For instance, Allen West, a controversial former U.S. congressman from Florida (and potential future NRA leader), spoke during the 2017 and 2019 events. He argued in 2019 that to practice their religion, they needed guns: “Our founding fathers wrote, the very first freedom we have, is freedom of religion. And then they backed that up with another freedom.” He also drew from Judges 7 to urge NRA attendees to fight for God even when they seem outnumbered.

“God ordered Gideon to send all but 300 of them home,” West said. “You have to trust God, even when it seems God is being unfair. Testing of faith reveals you have more … faith. We walk by faith, not by sight, because the victory has been won by our Lord and Savior.”

Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (and Family Research Council senior fellow) insisted in 2019 that Second Amendment rights didn’t come from government but God. Urging NRA members to “be engaged both offensively and defensively” in fighting for liberties, he invoked Ephesians 6: “My clarion call is to put on the armor [of God] and prepare to do battle.” Blackwell also referenced Jesus’s words in John 3 about “those who would do us evil, love the darkness.”

“Brothers and sisters in Christ,” he added, “now is the time to engage and punch holes in the darkness.”

This effort to take spiritual metaphors literally occurs throughout the events. Such as from Iran-contra figure Oliver North in 2018 as he talked about “four Christian virtues important to NRA and to all of us.” After alluding to Paul about needing to “fight the good fight,” North added, “You see, that’s the most important lesson of all: We’re in a fight. We’re in a brutal battle to preserve the liberties that the good Lord presents us.” North also spoke at the 2011 breakfast along with U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith of Nebraska. Jerry Boykin, a former military official who is now executive vice president of the Family Research Council, spoke in 2012.

The sponsors also often speak at the breakfasts, meaning the events have included testimonies and devotionals from gun manufacturers. Like in 2014 when Tom Munson from Trijicon said the “prayer breakfast is the highlight of the NRA convention for us.” He added, “The very concept of freedom comes from the divine hand of God.”

Helping sanctify the NRA gatherings, the breakfasts also include Christian worship by well-known musicians. For instance, Scotty Wilbanks of Third Day sang in 2017 and 2018, Charles Billingsley in 2010 and 2015, Meredith Andrews in 2014, and Bryan White in 2012.

While the religious rhetoric at NRA conventions is usually overlooked, Bobby Ross Jr. covered it for the Washington Post in 2018. He noted how former baseball player Adam LaRoche paused during his testimony at the prayer breakfast to take off a sweater and reveal a T-shirt that drew applause: “Jesus loves me and my guns” (since apparently he’s “reading” this “Bible”).

“Jesus always was and always will be a badass,” LaRoche said. “Jesus is humanity’s greatest warrior and is calling us to follow.”

But a quote from an attendee Ross spoke to might best capture this effort to spiritualize gun rights and espouse a Christian Nationalism that conflates American and Christian identities.

“It’s about God, country, and the protection of our freedoms,” one attendee said. “We don’t think we can be good Americans without this core value of Christian faith in Christ that gives us our freedoms of everything, and that’s what the NRA is.”

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The NRA’s Hell

As the blood of more slaughtered children cries out from the ground, preparations continue for this weekend’s NRA convention. We reached out to Tim Lee and Mark Robinson to see if they planned to still speak at the NRA’s prayer breakfast in light of the school massacre. While Robinson’s office sent a generic statement about the shooting that didn’t answer our question, Lee told us, “If they still have the event I’ll speak and address what has happened. A sad day for Texas and a sad day for America.”

We agree it’s a sad day. But it’s also a sad state for Christianity. Even after Sandy Hook, Stoneman Douglas, and now Robb Elementary — not to mention the numerous other mass shootings at churches, theaters, concerts, restaurants, grocery stores, homes, and basically any other place in our society — some Christian leaders still try to baptize the death cult that will gather in Texas this weekend.

After Tuesday’s shooting, we talked to Shane Claiborne, co-author of Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence. He criticized “the pastors that bless this group that is literally contradicting nearly every word of the Sermon on the Mount.”

“I’m going to go straight to Jesus and say we cannot serve two masters,” he told us. “And we really are at a crossroads where we’ve got to choose: Are we going to follow Jesus or the NRA? And literally, you couldn’t come up with much more contrasting messages. The gospel of Jesus — turn the other cheek, love our enemies — stands in direct opposition to the rhetoric of the NRA — stand your ground. The gun and the cross give us two very different versions of power.”

That’s why Obery Hendricks, a visiting research scholar at Columbia University, wrote in Christians Against Christianity about “the unholy alliance between right-wing evangelicals and the NRA.” He complained that the annual prayer breakfast tries to add “a veneer of Christian religiosity” to the NRA’s deadly agenda.

Claiborne sees this as more than just a misunderstanding of theology but even an problem of idolatry. He pointed to the words of J. Warren Cassidy, a former NRA executive vice president, who said, “You would get a far better understanding if you approached us [the NRA] as if you were approaching one of the great religions of the world.” Thus, Claiborne criticized the “idolatry of the NRA.”

“Idols are things that we put our trust in. They’re not God, but we treat them like they are,” Claiborne told us. “We put this sort of sacred reverence into things that should only be given to God. And it’s been said that idols are things that we are willing to die for, kill for, and sacrifice our children for. And literally, by that definition, I think guns would have that sort of unreasonable dedication.”

“Guns are not made in the image of God but children are,” he added.

Stephen Reeves, executive director of Fellowship Southwest (a multi-state network among Cooperative Baptists that is based in Texas), similarly criticized Christian leaders who bless the NRA.

“I don’t know how you pray in the name of the Prince of Peace and ask for God’s blessings on the mission of the NRA,” he told us after Tuesday’s shooting. “No other country sacrifices their children on the altar of the gun.”

This is also an old story. The biblical prophet Jeremiah condemned the Israelites for having sacrificed their children in fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom. When our New Testament translations refer to “hell,” it often is when Jesus used the word “Gehenna,” another name for the Valley of Ben Hinnom. In sacrificing their children, the Israelites created their own literal hell on earth and invited God’s judgment upon them.

An 1897 work by Charles Foster depicting a biblical account of people sacrificing their children to Moloch.

Our society has also chosen to sacrifice our children, not merely in a valley but in our schools, churches, theaters, concerts, restaurants, grocery stores, homes, and basically any other place in our society. And as our children are killed at the altar of a semiautomatic idol, high priests like Franklin Graham, James Dobson, and Jonathan Falwell help the NRA damn us all to this hell.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood 

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