Gun laws and the Godbeat

Back in my high school days in Texas, my minister would look out over the congregation and make the same request each Sunday.

“Hold up your swords!” he’d say, and we’d all raise our Bibles to show that we brought them.

As best I can recall, he never asked us to hold up our guns. But that was then. Flash forward to 2011 and this intriguing national trend piece by Religion News Service’s Adelle M. Banks:

The way Rev. Jonathan Wilkins sees it, members of his Baptist church in Thomaston, Ga., should have the right to carry guns into worship services to protect the congregation.

Wilkins’ Baptist Tabernacle and a Georgia gun-rights association are challenging a new state law that prohibits weapons in houses of worship. A lower court ruled against them in January; the case is now headed for appeal.

“What we’re fighting for is not that just any old body can carry guns in church,” Wilkins said. “We would be responsible. We would want people who are trained, and so forth, to carry, people that we designate for protective purposes.”

Recently, state legislatures in Georgia, Michigan and Louisiana have been caught in the crossfire of the debate between gun rights and gun control as they consider allowing weapons in houses of worship.

As my fellow GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey highlighted in a recent 5Q+1 interview, Banks is a Godbeat pro with a stellar reputation for accuracy and fairness. Her story on guns and churches is a textbook example.

This is a subject where a writer might be tempted to favor one side over the other or to get cutesy (for instance, see this Los Angeles Times opinion piece on “The 11th Commandment: Thou shalt bring guns to church”).

Instead, Banks identifies a relevant, timely trend on the religion beat and simply presents the facts — making it impossible to guess her personal opinion on the subject.

Yes, that’s Journalism 101 stuff. But unfortunately, it’s sorely missing from much of what passes for traditional journalism.

A key section of the story:

Though gun-rights proponents think they have both the First and Second Amendments on their side, they also cite the rights of religious organizations as property owners. Opponents, meanwhile, worry that having weapons in worship is part of a slippery slope to permitting them everywhere.

A month after then-Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the 2010 law listing places of worship among “unauthorized” locations for carrying weapons, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal took the opposite tack. Louisiana law now permits trained worshippers to bring guns into churches, mosques and synagogues as long as fellow congregants are informed.

Meanwhile, other states are mulling whether to scale back restrictions on weapons.

By my count (my computer’s count, actually), this RNS story is 782 words. That’s the upper end of space available for most daily wire stories, as I can attest from Associated Press days. So undoubtedly, Banks had much more information than she was able to include in this story.

I say that as a preface to my one criticism of the piece: It focuses entirely on political arguments and issues. I wish the story had acknowledged, even in passing, the theological question of whether guns belong in a sanctuary. That seemed to be a big issue when Arkansas lawmakers rejected a proposal to allow guns at churches last year.

Similarly, veteran religion writer Bruce Nolan of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans tackled that angle in writing about the Louisiana law last year:

The Rev. John Raphael, a cop-turned-pastor who shepherds New Hope Baptist church in Central City, knows too well how dangerous his neighborhood can be. Filing out of a service one Sunday, some of his congregation had to duck for cover when gunfire suddenly broke out nearby.

Raphael said he understands measures like parking lot security outdoors. But he said an armed presence in the sanctuary is incompatible with what a church is supposed to be.

He called it a “gut check” for faith.

“Great tragedy would follow if someone (inside) ever felt the need to use a gun,” Raphael said. “That would do more to harm the mission of the church, than to help. It’s a matter of faith that we trust God to protect us more than we trust our own ability.

“We should project the image that we trust in God.”

It may be that RNS — or Banks herself — has covered that angle previously and I missed it. If so, please don’t hesitate to share the link. And if you see religion ghosts that escaped me, feel free to point out those, too.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    I wonder about how much of that theology and guns in church question was missing due to that extremely severe 782 word limit.

  • Passing By

    So politicians should be parsing theology? Pontificating on the meaning of “sanctuary”? I’ll go with the guy who said that the state shouldn’t be in the business of preserving “the sanctity of the church.”

    …change the definition of sanctuary from safety, peace and openness to fear … and suspicion.”

    My city has seen a man walk into a sanctuary during a youth rally and shoot 7 people to death and wound 7 more. The irony is that a police officer, required by law to carry a gun, was planning to be there but didn’t make it. He could have stopped the killing. We have also seen people stabbed by a transient at the Catholic cathedral here. They have paid for armed security since then, although they stand outside the Cathedral.

    I’m not arguing for guns particularly, but against the sort of one-sided sentimentality in the Times-Picayune article.

    Adelle Banks did well to avoid the subject, given the space limitations, though I don’t doubt she could do a good job taking on the theological question. I thought the Arkansas News article was balanced, if a little shallow, which leads to my main point: is there a real theological principle at stake? What would it be? “The definition of sanctuary” sounds fancy, but there are dead and injured people to whom “sanctuary” is a fairly hollow concept.

  • MJBubba

    I live in a nice, very safe suburb that on rare occasions experiences a spillover of violent crime from our central city. One day I walked out of church after worship and there was a clutch of ladies (ages 40 – 70) who were examining new guns that two of them had brought to show their friends. These were cute little weapons that easily go in a small purse. I know I live in the south, and expect that a number of our parishioners are packing, but I was surprised to find out just how many. In the conversation, I found out that several of the ladies are range buddies, and go shooting from time to time to make sure they can handle their weapons. (They are loaded with hollow points; ’nuff said.) I am surprised to hear that this is an issue. I can’t think of any good reason to make these ladies go to the trouble of locking their guns away and putting them out of their routine, and I sure don’t see that it would make the church a safer place to do so.
    I really appreciate straightforward journalism, especially in a case where legislators are acting to address activity in churches that I do not consider a problem that needs fixing.