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Religion Today Column for Week of July 12-18: Understanding the "Open Carry Celebration"

July 22, 2009

Religion Today is contributed by the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies Program to examine and to promote discussion of religious issues.

By Joseph Laycock, writing in "Sightings," from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School

On June 27, one week before the 4th of July, New Bethel Church in Louisville, Ky., held an "Open Carry Celebration" in which visitors and parishioners were invited to bring their firearms to church. Firearms could not be loaded, but celebrants licensed to carry concealed weapons would not be searched. This celebration of the Second Amendment also included a handgun raffle, patriotic music, and information on firearm safety.

The event seemed poorly timed after the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in a Wichita church and James von Brunn's assault on the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. However, the church's pastor, former marine and handgun trainer Ken Pagano, had been planning the before these high profile shootings.The celebration has received wide media coverage. Many find the juxtaposition of firearms and religion perplexing. Even other gun owners have questioned the logic of inviting strangers to bring guns to church. Many articles have linked Pagano to gun lobby fears that the Obama administration is planning sweeping anti-gun legislation. However, Pagano's sermons on Christian self-defense contain no references to current legislation or the reputation of President Barack Obama and Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as being "gun-grabbers."

Instead, material on the New Bethel Church Web site indicates two factors behind the Open Carry Celebration. The first was the March 8 shooting of Pastor Fred Winters in First Baptist Church in Maryville, Ill.. In one of his sermons, Pagano read a statement by the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission that attributed Winters' death to "anti-Christian hostility and a lack of guns in church." Pagano thought the statement was "over the top" but said he supported the idea that Christianity is compatible with self-defense.

The second factor is a brand of muscular Christianity supported by a theology that seeks a "synthesis" of the Jesus of the Gospels with the divine wrath found in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelations. In his sermons Pagano criticizes the axiom "What would Jesus do?" as "crass commercialism." He argues that the WWJD approach to life contributes to an overemphasis on the sayings of Jesus found in the Gospels, and undermines the doctrine that Jesus is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Pagano states in one of his sermons, "Many of the people who are raising the stink [about the Open Carry Celebration] are people who believe in a maudlin, sentimental view of Jesus Christ that really has nothing to do with the sacred texts of scripture." He cites Luke 22:36, "He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one" and points out that at least two of Jesus' disciples carried weapons. In one sermon he says Jesus is, "not coming back as a limp-wristed, stamp-collecting preacher. He's coming back as a navy seal, a force recon marine or a green beret."

At first blush, the Open Carry Celebration would seem to confirm the gaffe made by Obama during the primaries that a weak economy drives "bitter" working class voters to "cling to guns and religion." However, it would be dismissive to read the event simply as a conservative church supporting a conservative political cause. Within Pagano's theological framework, the Open Carry Celebration is not simply an affirmation of Second Amendment Rights.

The idea that America's gun culture is compatible with Christianity has become tied to a specific Christology. This is no longer a conflict over gun culture but over what scripture says about Christ. Pagano is not struggling with anti-gun legislation but with an image of Christ that many conservative Evangelicals see as feminized, commercialized, and inauthentic. Pastors seeking to "restore" a manly image of Christ have already brought us events like Mark Driscoll's "Fighting with God" where Jesus is discussed by athletes from the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Within this culture, is a church celebration of firearms really so surprising?

Joseph Laycock is a Ph.D student studying religion and society at Boston University, and the author of "Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampires" (Praeger Publishers, 2009).

Past Religion Today columns and more information about the program can be found on the Web at


Posted on Wednesday, July 22, 2009

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