“God isn’t fixing this,” says the front page of the New York Daily News about the latest mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. The paper shared the tweets of several prominent politicians who said they were “praying” for the victims of the tragedy. Before the shooting happened, the top piece of political news this week was the latest attempt to establish some kind of international agreement about pollution standards in Paris. Of course, any sort of agreement about pollution would be dead on arrival with our current US Congress.
Guns and pollution. Why do so many Christians freak out when you talk about the possibility of regulating either of them? It’s true that there are very powerful gun and polluter lobbies who have been able to buy the politicians in Washington. But they wouldn’t have the power that they do if they weren’t able to tap into the conservative evangelical ethos on the grassroots level. I can’t read other peoples’ minds. I can only draw from my own past indoctrination as a conservative evangelical. But if my hunches are right, then the reason many other evangelicals believe that we’re supposed to keep the government from regulating guns or pollution or just about anything is because doing so would represent an encroachment on God’s sovereignty.
When you grow up evangelical, the one thing you’re indoctrinated with more than anything else is the idea that “the world” sees things one way and Christians are supposed to see things a different way. This is based on scripture. Jesus tells his disciples, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18). James 4:4 says, “Friendship with the world is enmity with God.” So evangelicals are constantly defining themselves in contrast with “the world.” We look for ways to demonstrate that our thinking goes against “the world,” which can be interpreted to mean against science, against how Europeans do things, against political correctness, etc.
So who is “the world”? For many conservative evangelicals, it’s the federal government (with the exception of the military and law enforcement). There are two primary ways that the federal government became “the world” over the past half century. The first was through the civil rights era when the federal government infringed upon the rights of states and private individuals in order to enforce desegregation. Many evangelicals are going to reject any suggestion that they’ve inherited any of their ethos from their segregationist ancestors. Whatever degree we have evolved past our ancestors’ racism, the civil rights era made it “liberal” to support a strong federal government and “conservative” to oppose it.
The second way “the world” became equated with the federal government was through the Cold War. The ideological fault-lines between capitalism and communism turned “the state” into an atheistic entity. Before communism was the enemy, conservative Christianity was not ideologically obligated to oppose a strong federal government. Indeed, the Prohibition at the beginning of the 20th century was a triumph of conservative Christian activism in support of strong regulations from the federal government. But because of the Cold War, the federal government became ideologically representative of secular humanism and thus an encroachment upon the sovereignty of God.
If you’re going to solve society’s problems with God’s help, then you’re supposed to work through your local church, because working through the federal government is the way you build a “communist” society that doesn’t need God. To regulate pollution means acting like God doesn’t have the climate under control. To claim that humans can destroy our ecosystem through our pollution implies that humans can overthrow God. Likewise, regulating guns is perceived as a secular humanist solution to the human problem of sin which can only be solved through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Every social issue is analyzed with the presumption that there’s a secular humanist answer and a Jesus answer. Federal regulation is always the secular humanist answer. So it doesn’t matter what arguments are made or what the data says. Anything that gives more power to the federal government is an attack on God’s existence. It wasn’t this way before the Cold War or the civil rights movement. What will it take for the conservative evangelical worldview to evolve again? How many mass shootings will need to happen? How volatile does the weather have to get?
I’m not sure what the solutions are, but I do think that God would appreciate it if we took our paranoia about his sovereignty and relevance out of the equation so that we could actually have rational conversations about two issues that are causing many of God’s children to suffer.