Uncivil Religion: January 6, 2021

The "Come and Take It" Flag and the Sacred Meaning of Guns

There is a certain irony about a flag bearing the words “Law and Order” being wielded at an event that ended up a stunning example of the opposite of both. To understand the attacks of January 6, 2021, however, we must keep in mind that the meanings behind this catchphrase are broader than what the words alone may indicate.  And this meaning has intricate ties with religion.

As we know, white evangelicals made up a substantial portion of Donald Trump’s most vocal supporters, and Christian nationalist rhetoric was well-represented on January 6th.  Guns are not at all tangential to this conversation. Recent survey data indicates that many white evangelicals regard the right to bear arms as the single most important liberty guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, even above the freedom of religion. That fact may be easily dismissed as a logical contradiction, or even an example of poor civic education, as some have argued.  But relying on those explanations alone ignores an important narrative involving both religion and guns that vibrantly animates significant portions of American culture. 

Much of this narrative construes guns as the foundation of democracy itself, in the sense that guns make possible those rights that, many Americans argue, are “endowed by their Creator”: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If this famous passage from the Declaration of Independence is any evidence, divinity language has long been a way Americans have promoted the idea of national uniqueness, importance, and authority. The involvement of guns may seem puzzling here, at first, yet if one sees the world not just as a threatening place, but perhaps even as a never-ending social contest, then it is possible to imagine how none of these supreme values can be realized if individuals cannot defend themselves from all sorts of opponents – whether that is a bear, a criminal, or an oppressive government.

Yet while this story of religion and guns is often portrayed by gun advocates today as one-part constitutional mandate and one-part divine right, that perspective is quite new. As historians of the Bill of Rights are often quick to point out, up until the very late 20th century, white conservatives were not only fairly neutral about the Second Amendment, but many were familiar with it as a method to ensure that certain populations (namely, racial and ethnic minorities) were denied the right to bear arms. Quite famously, after his own interaction with the heavily (but legally) armed Black power group, the Black Panther Party, then-California governor Ronald Reagan signed into law the Mulford Act (1967) in order to prohibit the public carrying of loaded weapons. (Ironically, Reagan would later become the first presidential candidate officially endorsed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), itself an organization that was once in favor of gun control restrictions but that abandoned that perspective by the 1970s.)

In light of the very long history of banning Native Americans, slaves, and free Blacks from owning guns, we should pay close attention to the fact that the message on the modified American flag bearing Donald Trump’s name (above) betrays its own race-based legacy.  The very words “law and order” have been used for decades in political lingo by politicians who wish to portray crime and criminality as a primarily Black phenomenon against which white people should be armed.  Clearly, the type of “law and order” promoted by the predominantly white crowd who initiated the attacks was about creating a specific reading of both “law” and “order” that constrained the behaviors of others but loosened it for themselves. According to this type of logic, the January 6th attacks were permissible because they upheld a divine type of order that called for the attackers to bypass human laws, in a type of divine exception.  

Although scholars differ widely on how they seek to define the term “religion,” what virtually all can agree is that one way religion works is by elevating ordinary social events into something extraordinary. To perform this type of transformation, religious speech often posits an authority that makes these claims appear a matter of divine will or some type of inevitable, natural law.  While a more mundane description of the events of January 6th would involve an examination of the discomforts faced by those who are experiencing the exposure of white Christian privilege in an increasingly diversifying country, that is hardly how this group would likely self-describe. Rather, politically-engaged white evangelicals often see themselves as an embattled, victimized minority that is on the side of God, and who therefore have a mandate from above to take defensive action against immoral (and infidel) “others.” One way that this happens in Christian nationalist rhetoric is to portray any discussion of privilege as a type of oppression that demands that the righteous fight back.

But who is the enemy? Liberals? The government? People of color? In a sense, the answer to this question doesn’t really matter.  What matters in terms of the momentum of a social movement like the one behind the events of January 6th is that a feeling of threat is never-ending. I call this type of speech chaos rhetoric, and one of its defining qualities is its defensive focus on the so-called “enemy” and rarely on the speaker. That is, so long as social movements can direct attention away from themselves and onto a perceived antagonist, then such groups can continue to build a high level of emotional commitment from followers at the same time that their own identities and positions can shift as the political winds demand. 

The amount of fear that it takes to drive such a movement helps explain, in part, why guns have been such an important symbol for this group; they are certainly an extreme response to social conflict.  These heightened emotions are on display in the “Come and Take It” Flag which, while having had various incarnations across history, has generally functioned as a type of challenge that is intended to signal confident authority.  Yet scholar Bruce Lincoln argues that threats of force, rather than marking the presence of someone’s authority, are actually a sign of authority’s absence.  Why? Having to resort to force is a sign that the more usual (and desirable) methods of social persuasion have failed.  Perhaps in this context, then, we might read the gun as a symbol of certain white Christian nationalist groups’ response to a culture that no longer uniformly naturalizes their message.  Guns, in this context, might be read as a sign of desperation.

Leslie Dorrough Smith is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Avila University (Kansas City, MO). Her research focuses on sex, gender, and American conservative political movements.  She is the author of Compromising Positions: Sex Scandals, Politics, and American Christianity (Oxford, 2019) and Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America (Oxford, 2014), in addition to numerous other books and articles.

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