By Benjamin Cole
Count me among those Baptists who are about as likely to carry a leather-bound King James Bible as we are to carry a stainless-steel Colt Python .357.
Etched with almost equal prominence in my memories of childhood are my first Bible — received in the first grade as a gift from the First Baptist Church of Longview, Texas — and my first rifle — received in the fifth grade as a gift from my late father.
For many American boys, these two moments are among the most significant rites of passage to form the framework within which we learn our constitutional heritage. As humans, it is our natural right to worship God freely according to the dictates of our conscience and apart from government intrusion or coercion. As Americans, it is our constitutional right to keep and bear firearms.
I’m not sure many young men conflate the two, as if somehow our freedom to worship is safeguarded by our freedom to pack heat. But this month, the 87th General Assembly of the State of Arkansas is considering a bill that is causing critical reflection about these two separate-but-equal constitutional guarantees.
On January 27 Republican state Rep. Beverly Pyle of Cedarville, Ark., introduced House Bill 1237 to amend a state law that prohibits licensees from carrying a concealed firearm into houses of worship, schools and several other kinds of public spaces. The bill passed the House Feb. 11, and is now awaiting approval by the Arkansas Senate. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe has promised to sign it into law if it is passed. The effort, according to the bill’s sponsor, is a response to the growing incidence of church shootings across the nation.
As would be expected, Baptist pastors across the state are weighing in on the issue. And like every other issue about which Baptists squabble, there is no shortage of opinions. Some ministers oppose the bill because they fear that concealed weapons in their worship services would disturb the “tranquility and sanctity of church.” Others oppose the bill on a more substantive theological basis, advocating instead an ethic of Christian non-violence. Still others default to the separation of church and state and argue that the government is constitutionally restricted from interfering in church affairs.
For some reason, the question of God and guns always ignites our passions.
Most of us, at the moment of crisis, are unable to engage in the serious task of weighing moral responsibilities. Adrenaline kicks in, and the flight-or-fight instinct trumps our previously planned course of action when confronted with a choice between life and death.
As a staunch advocate of the Second Amendment who believes that the right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear firearms is a double bulwark against both totalitarianism and anarchy, I bristle every time the Left tries to restrict my gun rights. As a thinking Christian who is able to weigh the moral distinction between passive resistance and self-preservation, I’m aware that the Second Amendment does not supplant the gospel call to suffering injustice for Christ’s sake.
The question for me is one of competence. That is, who exactly is competent to tell me when and where to worship? And who, exactly, can tell me when and where to carry a gun?
Perhaps this is where it is helpful to read both the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence side-by-side, for the latter draws a distinction between alienable and unalienable rights while the former draws a distinction between the jurisdictions of federal and state governments.
It seems to me that these are two different rights grounded in two different laws and subject to two different facets of ordered liberty. The freedom to worship is a freedom of the individual conscience grounded in the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” to borrow a Jeffersonian formula. This right, as the Founders aptly saw, is among those unalienable rights that men possess irrespective of their age, race, creed or position in society. Not even a death-row inmate loses his right to worship God freely, for there is no shackle on earth than can constrain the soul.
The freedom to keep and bear firearms, however, is not an unalienable right. It is a constitutional one, lawfully and rightly retained by citizens who do not oppose just and reasonable laws. It is not a right to be retained by the irresponsible or the unlawful. We cannot keep a crazy man from worshiping a stick of butter, for instance, but we can certainly keep him from attempting to shoot those who prefer to prostrate themselves before a crock of margarine.
What House Bill 1237 has truly exposed, rather than a question of drawing lines between church and state, is the brilliance of federalism. We are beholding the people of the state of Arkansas determine, through a process of representative democracy, what the laws of their state shall be. And it is prudent that this question is determined by the state legislatures and not by the United States Congress.
I say it is prudent because of the cultural differences that exist between the states. A boy growing up in Longview, Texas, for instance, is more likely to receive a gun from his father than a boy growing up in Newark, N.J.. The fear that a gun rack in the back of a pickup truck would cause in Arkadelphia, Ark., is much different than it might cause in San Francisco.
So I cannot say that a Christian should or should not carry a gun to church. Nor can I determine whether or not the state of Arkansas should allow it. All I can say is that until a man is compelled by the democratically determined greater good of his society to relinquish his right to carry a concealed weapon to church, he is free to do so. Because he is free, however, does not mean that he is obliged. As a general rule I’m committed to maximizing the freedoms of citizens and limiting the power of government, though I realize a society where fathers do not take the care to raise responsible law-abiding sons might require the intervention of government to preserve ordered liberty.
On the other hand, no government has the authority to bind a man’s conscience in matters of worship. Fortunately, no major religion in America requires its adherents to worship the Almighty with both shotgun shells and chorus bells.