The military-style semi-automatic rifle used in last Sunday’s massacre at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, sells for about the price of an iPhone 8 and may be in stock at a retailer near you. One reviewer called it a “very affordable” gun “ready for any mission right out of the box.”
Meanwhile, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention have reached out in many ways to survivors of the rampage that killed 26 men, women and children gathered for Sunday morning worship in a salt-of-the-earth kind of fellowship historically and numerically the backbone of America’s second-largest Christian group behind Roman Catholics.
Convention President Steve Gaines and SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page traveled to Sutherland Springs Nov. 7 to offer personal prayer and encouragement. The convention’s North American Mission Board offered to cover funeral expenses for shooting victims. The Baptist General Convention of Texas established an FBC Sutherland Springs Church Recovery Fund to help the SBTC-affiliated church rebuild and recover, while the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention dispatched chaplains.
Articles included reminders about church security, tips on how to respond to an active shooter and other potentially dangerous scenarios, coping with grief, how to talk to your kids, keeping the faith in times of tribulation, debate over the value of expressions offering “thoughts and prayers” and the depths of sinfulness within the human heart.
Conspicuously absent is any suggestion that lives might have been saved by tougher gun laws barring civilians from owning weapons of war designed to equip soldiers to neutralize as many enemy combatants as possible in the shortest amount of time.
It’s easy in 2017 to forget that a generation ago right-of-center, moderate and progressive Baptists not only co-existed but sought to cooperate in pursuit of a Tower of Babel-like ambition to preach the gospel to every person on earth before the dawn of the 21st century.
Differences over the roles of women, theological education, religious liberty and the separation of church and state — and more recently LGBT issues — are well-documented reasons the groups went separate ways in the 1990s.
But the most relevant — and, depending on your point of view, perhaps the deadliest — disconnect between Baptists in the United States today may well be over guns.
A Washington Post analysis Nov. 6 speculated that the worst church shooting in modern history isn’t likely to change evangelicals’ skepticism of gun-control laws.
Russell Moore, president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, explained in media interviews that unlike other social issues such as abortion, he finds no single position on guns that is “clearly revealed in Scriptures.”
While not a gun owner himself, Moore says he holds to “conservative views on the Second Amendment” and hasn’t seen any gun control measure that he is convinced would be effective in preventing mass shootings.
“I’m suspicious of gun control measures as naïve and ineffective, if not counter-productive, preferring to combat gun violence with strict enforcement of laws against gun crime and murder rather than with measures to impede the ability of law-abiding citizens to own weapons,” Moore wrote in January 2016 in the wake of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Cal., that killed 14.
‘Get him a gun. Not a play gun, a real gun.’
Other Southern Baptist leaders are solidly pro-gun. Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, has said every boy should have three things: a dog, a dad and a gun.
“Get him a gun,” Patterson, a leader in the “conservative resurgence” of the last century said at a sportsman’s themed evangelism event in Arkansas in 2003. “Not a play gun, but a real gun,” Patterson said, turning to gun safety. “Play guns are the most dangerous guns in the world.”
A Kentucky Baptist Convention official said in 2014 that interest in events like the one Patterson addressed increases significantly if they are advertised as Second Amendment rallies instead of wild-game dinners.
“One of the things that we’ve learned in doing these is that when you do an affinity event, you have to have a hook that draws the unchurched,” the official said. “In the event of a Second Amendment rally the number of unchurched men that show up will be in direct proportion to the number of guns you give away.”
SBC breakaway groups like the 1,800-church Cooperative Baptist Fellowship have tended to gravitate in the opposite direction. CBF Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter referred to the Sutherland Springs shooting as the “latest act of gun violence in our nation.”
Two years in a row the Fellowship interrupted regular schedules of the annual General Assembly to pray for victims of mass shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 and at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., the following year.
The Alliance of Baptists, a smaller and generally more left-leaning group that separated from the SBC conflict a few years ahead of the CBF, is a member of Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, a coalition of faith groups including the American Baptist Home Mission Societies, formed to confront gun violence after a 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six and injured U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Another coalition member, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America-Bautistas Por la Paz, today draws members from a variety of Baptist traditions but started out during the Reagan administration as a modest enterprise by local churches in Georgia and Kentucky that were part of the Southern Baptist Convention’s then-growing social-justice wing that included concerns overs nuclear disarmament and fighting world hunger.
A BPFNA resource offers tangible suggestions about what local churches can do to reduce gun violence in their communities.
“It is insane that we are arming sick, hate-filled individuals or any normal citizen, for that matter, with semi-automatic weapons created for the sole purpose of killing large numbers of people,” Baptist News Global columnist Amy Butler wrote in 2016.
Last November Butler’s church, Riverside Church in New York City, held a God and Guns conference with sponsors including Baptist News Global. CBF pastors and other leaders called for stiffer gun control in BNG news stories and opinion articles following mass shootings in Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut and South Carolina.
Long history of silence
Contemporary differences notwithstanding, gun issues rarely came up in public proclamations by the Southern Baptist Convention prior to 1979.
A single sentence in a resolution on violence and disregard for law following the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 commended President Lyndon Johnson for his urgent plea to Congress to “pass laws to bring the insane traffic in guns to a halt.”
Foy Valentine, leader of what was then called the SBC Christian Life Commission from 1960 to 1987, wrote a letter in 1975 urging Congress to pass “immediate and effective legislation to control the abuse of handguns” following two attempts to assassinate President Gerald Ford within a period of two weeks.
In 1981 Valentine deplored another assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II with a challenge for Christians to do more not only to win the lost the Christ but also work more responsibly to confront social ills such as “political terrorism, religious and racial prejudice, widespread denial of human rights, handgun abuse, television violence, unemployment, poverty, injustice and war.”
As recently as 1993, Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman called for a better response to gun-related violence affecting American children during a three-day conference at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“The deadly quick violence of guns takes an American child’s life every three hours and the lives of 25 children — the equivalent of a classroom full — every two days,” she said in comments reported by Baptist Press. She added that “some children in inner cities are growing up being able to distinguish between semi-automatic gunfire before they can distinguish between their colors.”
In 1994 the Baptist Sunday School Board, now known as LifeWay Christian Resources, published a 13-week Bible study for youth titled “Violence: the Desensitized Generation.”
“Kids are getting more and more bold with guns,” Bo Irvin, a correctional program manager for the Tennessee Department of Youth and volunteer youth worker at Tusculum Hills Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., said in Baptist Press at the time.
“Kids know other kids carry guns and weapons, so they begin carrying them,” he said. “Guns are a status symbol. They carry them to show them off.”
While gun-wielding teens many times have no intention of using them, Irvin warned, “you never know what might happen” when two people get angry at one another.
The tone shifted with the 1988 selection of Richard Land to replace the generation of CLC leaders who came of age during the era of Vietnam, civil rights and the women’s movement with a perspective more at home with the conservative political agenda of the Religious Right.
“Southern Baptists are no longer going to be provincial, no longer going to be insular, no longer going to think that ecumenical is in and of itself a dirty word,” Land pledged at a gathering sponsored by the National Association of Evangelicals in 1992.
“We understand that there is often now going to be more division within denominations than there is going to be between denominations and that we are going to have more in common with people in other denominations who have the same basic values, the same understanding of Christian absolutes than we do than those people within our denomination or within other denominations who have abandoned those and have succumbed to relativism and to modernity,” he explained.
Those new relationships included other pro-Second Amendment evangelicals.
“I have found a lot about self-control, but I can’t say I have found anything vaguely supporting gun control in Scriptures,” Family Research Council head Tony Perkins, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, said in 2013.
“I am talking about the principles upon which the idea of gun control rests,” said Perkins, whose agency experienced the shooting of a security guard at its Washington headquarters in 2012. “Not only did Jesus not forbid his disciples to bear arms, he actually instructed them to buy one. He did rebuke Peter for being too quick on the draw, because clearly the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but spiritual.”
“As Christians, we not only have a right, but I would say a duty to protect our families from the threats of violence that only increases, as the focus moves away from self-control to more government control,” Perkins said.
The Christian Coalition responded to the shooting of the Family Research Council guard by attacking “anti-gun zealots are trying to use real tragedies like the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary or in Aurora, Colo., to create a demand for legislation that will do nothing to prevent such tragedies, but would in fact infringe on the rights of law-abiding citizens.”
“Christian Coalition of America will work to stop further erosion of our Second Amendment liberties, and in favor of solutions to care for those with mental illness and protect themselves and others from the harm they may do,” the group said in a petition titled “Defend our Second Amendment Rights.”
Following this week’s mass shooting in Texas, the American Family Association carried a headline declaring it “Time for God’s Men to Pack Heat to Church.”
Since taking over the helm of the ERLC in 2013, Moore has at times struggled to walk the line between an old guard identified with the Religious Right and younger pastors more open minded about ideas such as immigration and the environment.
In June he helped orchestrate passage of an SBC resolution denouncing white supremacists represented in the alt-right, saving the denomination from the embarrassment that voting it down would have certainly caused when the group’s violent and racist tendencies came to light weeks later in Charlottesville, Va.
Hitting closer to home
No one is suggesting a single armed attacker entering the Southern Baptist church on the main drag of the unincorporated rural community of about 600 souls and systematically reducing the population by 4 percent will be a tipping point for Southern Baptists on gun issues, but there is no question it is hitting closer to home than your run-of-the-mill massacre.
“There’s a kind of personalization of this shooting in an extraordinary way with people who are Baptist churchgoers because we can imagine being in the very same situation as those who were so wickedly killed,” Moore told Religion News Service.
The eight children and teenagers killed while sitting through Sunday services with their families is the largest number of children killed in a mass shooting since 20 died at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Piled bodies inside the blood-soaked sanctuary haunted even experienced first responders.
“I’m trying to get the horror out of my mind,” paramedic Mike Shaw told NBC News. “But you can’t unsee what you already saw.”
A majority of U.S. adults now support stricter laws covering the sale of firearms. Various studies show the only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.