By Cary McMullen
Sarah Palin was in town in Lakeland last week. She was the headline speaker at the annual Leadership Forum at Southeastern University, an Assemblies of God school. The Forum is aimed at pastors and Christian business leaders who pay mucho bucks to listen to famous and semi-famous politicians, business executives and celebrity ministers give motivational talks.
The event inclines toward a sentimental, self-reliant and rags-to-riches kind of narrative, overlaid with evangelical theology. You might pick up an occasional scrap of inspiration or advice if you’re inclined to that sort of thing. Palin is tailor-made for this Forum.
According to an article in The Ledger, Lakeland’s daily newspaper, Palin’s “passionate talk was peppered with such vibrant cries as ‘Cling to your God, your guns, your Constitution!’ and pleas for the next generation to change the country’s moral fiber. ‘That will make our foundation crumble if we choose to ignore it,’ she said.”
There was more along the same lines, but how can you ignore “Cling to your God, your guns, your Constitution”? It would be easy to dismiss this as a rant or even to laugh at the contradiction of urging people to cling to God and guns in one breath. I’ll come back to the contradiction, but there is an internal logic here that is worth considering for a moment.
In fact, God and guns are either implicit or explicit in the first two Amendments to the Constitution, the First guaranteeing freedom of religion and the Second (the courts have held) guaranteeing the right to private ownership of firearms. So from the point of view of someone wishing to insist on Constitutional rights – or in this case fearing that they are threatened – it’s easy to put God, guns and the Constitution together.
For evangelicals, the fear that their freedom of religion is being threatened has been around for years. While it’s true that there are occasional excessive attempts to rid the public square of all references to God or belief, what has mostly been inhibited in recent years is the hegemony that Protestants had over the discourse in the public square. What to some is respect for multiculturalism is to evangelicals a threat to their freedom to publicly talk about Jesus Christ.
According to The Ledger, “Asked how she dealt with critics, Palin said it’s important to know who you are, and that’s why she speaks out for God publicly in a country where she said it’s often frowned upon or against the law to talk about religious beliefs. … ‘What has happened when we can’t say his name in public?’ (she said).”
But let’s return to the combination of God and guns. The ability to believe that the nature of God does not forbid the use of weapons requires a particular kind of Christian theology, one that compartmentalizes Jesus’ decidedly pacifist declarations, such as “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” among others.
Speaking as a practicing Christian myself, I’m certainly in favor of freedom of religion; I have no problem with hunting; and I’m even willing to entertain a discussion about whether Christians may engage in self-defense under some circumstances. But that is not the spirit of Palin’s remark.
“Cling to your God, your guns, your Constitution” is a seamless ideology that would have Jesus waving the American flag with one hand and clicking off the safety of his assault rifle with the other. It assumes that God created America specifically so that Christians could stand on a public school teacher’s desk in their boots and preach that all those who do not accept Jesus as their savior are going to hell. It assumes that God gave Americans the right to fire at will with whatever weapon they damn well want.
And I don’t believe that. Dear Ms. Palin, consider this possibility: Clinging to God might actually require believers to throw away their guns and turn their backs on the Constitution.
Cary McMullen is a journalist and editor who lives in Lakeland. He can be reached by email here.