Gunfight at the…Our Lady of Peace?

By J.F. Sullivan

Jesus used to be a co-pilot, but now he’s riding shotgun.  On Tuesday, July 6th, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed the controversial “gun-in-church” bill into law. 

Of course the first reaction to this new law for many is a sharp intake of breath—guns in church, mon dieu!  Reactions to this law are obviously polarized, receiving a big hurray from the pro-gun folks and a dejected sigh from gun control proponents.  The law has also been the target of jokes pondering the need for and use of guns in church.  On a more serious note, Sarah Posner and Julie Ingersoll wrote a great piece on guns and God for Religion Dispatches, and already, an Atlanta minister is taking Louisiana’s lead and challenging Georgia’s own ban on guns in church.   (See article links below)

Church

While others can ponder the social and theological implications of the law, there is a religio-political aspect of this law that seems to have been overlooked—holy ground. The concept of the church functioning as holy ground or sanctuary has been around for as long as the concept of sacred space.  Temples and the like have always been the one safe refuge from the trials and tribulations of the outside world, and in some cases, the long arm of the law.  Churches, temples, mosques and other sanctuaries have, since time immemorial, been places in which fighting is forbidden; where the laws of whatever higher power resides within always trump the laws of humanity. It is likely that this commonly understood theme of holy ground is at the heart of most people’s surprise at Louisiana’s new law.

Synagogue

No one could possibly need a gun in church because no one would dare attack a church; it’s sacred ground.  This is one of the reasons why most of the nation was so shocked by the 2008 church shooting in Tennessee.  It is also likely that the Tennessee incident and others like it prompted Louisiana to consider this bill the first place (the bill also allows for churches to hire armed off-duty police to provide security for worshippers).  The status of church as holy ground or sanctuary seems to be eroding at a rapid pace.  Already, a church’s ability to provide sanctuary has been impacted by national security interests in the case of suspected terrorism or extremism.  It may also be that church sanctuary for illegal immigrants is also in jeopardy since immigration control’s takeover by Homeland Security in 2008.  With this new Louisiana law, the special status of holy places and the concept of holy ground would appear to suffer further erosion.  With Louisiana’s gun-in-church law, the laws of humanity now supersede the laws of the higher power.  What is really interesting about this new law, however, is the way that it appears to remove the perceived special status from Louisiana’s churches. 

Mosque

Most concealed-carry laws permit licensed gun owners to carry their weapons into many places where firearms are not typically needed; supermarkets, bookstores, ice cream shops etc.  You’re probably about as likely to need a weapon at 31 Flavors as you would at the local house of worship.  In truth, if you can carry a weapon into all of those other places, why not church?  With this law, church becomes no different than anywhere else.  While it is likely that the sponsors of this bill weren’t considering the demotion of church as holy ground or sanctuary when they presented and passed it, the law does seem to have that result.  In effect, this law makes clear that the safety of worshippers is not guaranteed by grace alone, nor is the status of a holy place sufficient to prevent attack.   

What does this law say about the perception of the strength of the higher power of any given religion if it is insufficient to protect its own worshippers inside of its own house of worship?  It is likely this side of the issue never occurred to this law’s supporters, and that this law was much more of a flexing of constitutional rights than anything else.  Social conservatives, pro-gun groups and many evangelical Christian groups have been closely aligned with the Republican Party and other conservative political groups in recent years.  Indeed this law seems to further blur the lines between religion and politics—especially given the outpouring of support for the law by religious groups themselves.  It does seem that this law is not so much a response to a need for additional firepower in churches, but rather as a way to push a pro-gun political agenda.  It also begs the question; if there is no need for a gun in church and it is only an issue because some want to press their right to keep and bear arms, doesn’t that elevate the gun to a status that puts it on par with church in importance?  It remains to be seen if this law ends up being more symbolic than practical or if it indeed has the effect of lessening the status of church as holy ground and sanctuary.  When considering the gun-in-church law and others that may come after it, it might be more helpful to remember and consider a simple axiom; just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should

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