America's Gun Problem and the Reassertion of Christian Leftism

A group long eclipsed by its conservative counterparts is finding its voice in the age of Francis.

By Nathan Pippenger

It’s an unusual lede for the New York Review of Books: “America is a Christian country.” But that is how Marilynne Robinson opens a new essay, echoing a claim more often heard on Fox News, usually by way of justifying ill will towards people unfortunate enough to fall outside the category. Robinson, however, is putting the sentiment to different use. First, she’s not out to justify exclusion or cultural chauvinism. (“Non-Christians,” Robinson notes, “will say America is Christian, meaning that they feel somewhat apart from the majority culture.”) And more to the point, Robinson’s invocation reverses the phrase’s normal demagogic intent: she aims not to comfort and reassure the majority of their righteousness, but rather to shame and condemn them. Her reminder of Christianity’s prominence in the U.S. is key to her two theses: “first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” The piece is accompanied by a photograph of a handgun, an American flag keychain tied to its trigger guard. The photograph is dated Tucson, 2011, calling to mind grim associations: Columbine, 1996; Blacksburg, 2007; Aurora, 2012; and Newtown, 2012.

For Robinson, guns—and the feverish excuses for why we might someday need them—are damning evidence of our national fearfulness. Fearfulness is employed as justification for flooding every crevice of the country with deadly weapons, contemplated for use against “only those scary ones who want to destroy all we hold dear,” but in reality more likely to be trained on “assorted adolescents in a classroom or a movie theater.” The ensuing violence, moreover, seems always to lead to calls for more guns. “Fear,” she writes, “operates as an appetite or an addiction. You can never be safe enough.”

This is not the only somber meditation on guns, both in America’s culture and its collective psychology, to have recently appeared in the New York Review. Nor, notably, is it the only to have made its argument in explicitly Christian terms. As a Christian condemnation of America’s gun addiction, Robinson’s piece echoes Garry Wills’s searing 2012 essay about the gun, “Our Moloch.” “It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god,” Wills wrote in the days after Sandy Hook. “Adoration of Moloch permeates the country, imposing a hushed silence as he works his will. One cannot question his rites, even as the blood is gushing through the idol’s teeth.”

The gradual normalization of mass shootings is frightening to witness. In late August, the U.S. was averaging more than one mass shooting per day through 2015. This raises the possibility that shocking acts of violence—at schools, churches, movie theaters—may someday be treated as regrettable but forgettable, raising as little concern as non-mass shootings, which already are little more than background noise. As both Robinson and Wills note, it’s already a sign of social rot that we treat the latter as an “everyday” occurrence. When we are shaken from our collective stupor, it’s by these more shocking incidents—but the inert promises to do something this time already sag with resignation and a feeling of powerlessness before the NRA and a do-nothing Congress.

To stay awake and guard against the callousness engendered by this futility requires constant attention. Some of this work has been done by Internet wonk-journalism at its best (Mother Jones’s regularly-updated mass shooting map is a masterpiece of diligent outrage). Unlimited space, unmatched design capabilities, and the ability to constantly update make web articles an ideal medium for tracking the problem. But as Robinson and Wills note, this is not a problem to be solved merely by policy tinkering, and to those millions captivated by the cultural power of the gun, it’s not a problem at all. (Even the sunny, technocratic center-leftism of Voxsplaining sometimes runs up against the stubborn opposition of people who somehow haven’t gotten the memo.)

For that reason, I think it’s wise to supplement hard policy reporting with this kind of cultural analysis, and I want to suggest that it’s important that the NYRB is the forum of choice for these Christian intellectuals. Changing gun policy will require that we first change the gun debate, which in turn will require a broad shift in the cultural understanding of guns. Guns are imagined as the tools of freedom, as weapons against tyranny, as guarantors of our independence. Wills and Robinson are suggesting instead that guns are not the salvation from tyrants; they are the tyrants. They force all of us to live under the vague fear that any place, at any time, could become the site of sudden and brutal death. If this critique of gun-mania catches on, it would represent a major collective rethinking of guns in American culture.

Yet importantly, this is not all that Wills and Robinson have to say. Each writer draws on the Christian warning against belief in false gods—the gun as Moloch (Wills), or the gun as our savior against vague and numerous dangers (Robinson). It is, perhaps, not too much of a stretch to read these particular arguments, in this particular publication, as part of a broader reassertion of Christian leftism that has accelerated in the era of Pope Francis. It would not be surprising to find arguments like Robinson’s and Wills’s in left-of-center religious outlets, or perhaps in the “Faith” sections of major newspapers. But their appearance in the New York Review signals an effort to reclaim a certain vision of American Christianity not only from the Christian Right, but from secular intellectual elites as well. If these groups agree on little else, they often share an image of Christianity as monolithically conservative—a reason for disdain among many secular intellectuals, and for narrow chauvinism among some religious traditionalists.

In that sense, these essays are a rejoinder to each side. The attempt of the American right to blur the distinctions between Christianity and conservativism has warped popular understanding of the diverse (and not uniformly conservative) ways in which religious views can inform social critique. This is reflected in the consistent tone of surprise which greeted Pope Francis’s environmentalism, his concern for the poor, and his disinclination to harshly condemn gay and lesbian people. In each case, conservatives insisted that the new pope had not announced a doctrinal shift—he had merely departed from the usual tone. But the defensiveness of this reaction, and news of conservative countermoves within the Vatican, betray their real nervousness. The pope’s conservative opponents understand exactly how much is at stake in public perceptions, in selecting which issues will top the agenda, in redirecting the Church’s moral authority to causes disliked by the right. It is, perhaps, with one eye towards this struggle that these two thinkers have decided to condemn our gun-obsessed culture—an issue on which their audiences are likely to nod in assent—in a religious vocabulary whose deployment might surprise them.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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