SALT LAKE CITY — Jerry Patterson brings his gun to church every Sunday. As he listens to the sermons at Bethany Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas, he hardly thinks about the Ruger 9mm handgun resting comfortably in a small holster inside his belt. To him, it’s just like his wallet: something he doesn’t leave the house without.
But every now and then, as he sits amid 200 of his community members, he glances at the chapel’s exits and imagines what he would do to protect his friends and family in the case of an attack.
For Patterson, a former state senator who helped pass the 1995 law that allowed Texans to carry concealed weapons, bearing arms is a “God-given right.”
“God-given goes back to the phrase in the Declaration of Independence that says ‘all men … are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights,’” said Patterson. “I believe that includes the right to self-defense.”
Following February’s mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre also spoke to the idea that gun rights are “God-given” at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland.
The right to bear arms is “not bestowed by man but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright,” LaPierre told the crowd, which responded with loud cheers, according to news reports.
While some religious advocates of gun ownership look to the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution as the source of a “God-given right to bear arms,” others point to verses in the Bible or other scriptures that talk about self-defense.
But not all religious people think gun rights are divinely granted, or that church is an appropriate place to carry a weapon.
Some proponents of gun control who are religious find the “God-given” terminology at odds with their beliefs. They say the Bible denounces violence and teaches people to turn away from weapons of war.
In Missouri, a group of faith leaders are standing in opposition to a pair of bills that would loosen restrictions on guns in churches and allow people to carry concealed firearms without permission from clergy.
“This is highly offensive to us and would violate our First Amendment rights to religious liberty,” the Catholic Bishops of Missouri wrote in a letter opposing the law change, dated April 3.
Last month in Wyoming, a similar measure was signed into law by Gov. Matt Mead allowing people with concealed carry permits to bring guns to church without express approval from church leaders.
Supporters say churchgoers need the ability to defend themselves against attackers like the man who killed 26 people in a Sutherland Springs, Texas, church in 2017, and the young gunman who killed nine churchgoers in 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina.
Regardless of their views on gun rights, everyone wants to avoid mass shootings like the ones that devastated these congregations, but with solutions that are in line with their personal beliefs and values. They may disagree on whether concealed weapons make churches more or less safe, but for many on both sides, ideas about guns and religious beliefs are inextricably connected. It’s one reason that opinions in the gun debate are so personal and deeply felt by Americans.
Dave Larsen, a Mormon and owner of a gun store called Doug’s Shoot’n Sports in Taylorsville, Utah, said, “There's a time and place for firearms, and generally I don't think church is the place.
“But with my faith, I think self-defense is pretty much a given. I can't imagine a God that wouldn't want us to protect ourselves and our families,” he said.
The U.S. Constitution
Questions about the correct interpretation of the Second Amendment often lead to a debate about the intentions of the Founding Fathers.
“Our nation’s Founders talked about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” said Mark Meckler, president of a conservative political organization called Citizens for Self-Governance, who believes the Constitution and Bill of Rights simply enumerate freedoms that come from God.
“One of the fundamental rights that exists is the right to protect ourselves and family from physical harm. No one has to tell me I have that right,” said Meckler. “If you believe in a Creator, then it follows that right had to come from a Creator.”
Scholars such as Michael Austin of Evansville University, who has written about the history of the country’s founding documents, agree that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed in certain “natural rights.” As Deists, they believed a Creator imbued the universe with a moral order and sense of right and wrong, but that God was not directly involved in human lives.
“Jefferson and pretty much all of the other Founders would have recognized the right to self-defense as a natural right,” said Austin, executive vice president for Academic Affairs at Evansville. “It does not follow, however, that the purpose of the Second Amendment was to protect the natural right to own a gun for self-defense. It almost certainly wasn’t.”
According to Austin, the Second Amendment was a compromise over federal and state rights that allowed states to raise militias but, at the same time, did not prohibit the national government from raising a peacetime standing Army.
Larsen, the gun store owner in Utah, doesn’t necessarily believe the right to own a gun is “God-given,” but that individual freedom is. He believes the Constitution and the liberties it protects was directly inspired by God. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Larsen cites a passage in a Mormon book of scripture called the Doctrine and Covenants that says God established the Constitution “by the hands of wise men whom (he) raised up unto this very purpose.”
“That is something I believe wholeheartedly,” Larsen said.
The phrase “God-given right” does not appear in any of the documents or debates surrounding the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, according to Matthew Bowman, associate professor of history at Henderson State University. The phrase likely originated with neo-evangelicals in the mid-20th century who, in response to the threat of atheist communism, started talking about the founding of the United States as something God directed and designed, he said.
“Jefferson didn’t necessarily think God specifically intervened in history to raise up the Constitution,” said Bowman. “Jefferson and Madison would say they created the document using their own reason.”
The Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis, senior minister of Middle Collegiate Church in New York City, rejects the idea that the Constitution was inspired by God.
"The Constitution made my ancestors three fifths of a person," said the Rev. Lewis, who is African-American. "God wouldn't have inspired that. It is a creation of humankind, hoping to make laws that would protect themselves."
Others believe the Constitution is inspired in so far that it established basic freedoms and that it can be edited.
“The Constitution is a living document,” said the Rev. Wil Gafney, associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. “When we want to make significant changes to who we are as a people, we change or clarify the text.”
Religious texts are another source of some people’s belief in a “God-given right to bear arms.” Meckler said the principles that form the foundation of his beliefs are all found in the Old Testament, including the right to personal property and self-defense.
People from various religious backgrounds, not just Christians, cite examples of people using weapons for self-protection in their holy Scriptures to justify their positions on gun ownership.
“The Torah shows in many places you are responsible for yourself and your well-being,” said Alan Korwin, who is affiliated with a group called Jews for the Preservation of Firearm Ownership, which is concerned with preventing genocide and the exploitation of people by governments. Korwin referenced Exodus 22:2, which says that if someone kills a thief or intruder, “there shall no blood be shed for him.”
Imam Shuaib-ud Din from the Utah Islamic Center, who is in favor of strict gun control, said that the Quran does not talk about using weapons to defend yourself, but in general, self-defense is encouraged in Islam. According to Imam Shuaib, there is a saying of the Prophet Muhammed, or a Hadith, that says if you die defending yourself, your property or your possessions then you are considered a martyr.
“I think that idea of a God-given right to bear arms or the need to bear arms in the first place stems from fear,” said the Rev. Jeania Ree Moore, who works with the General Board of Church and Society, a Washington, D.C.-based group that addresses social issues and is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. “In the New Testament it says God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power, love and sound mind. We aren't supposed to live in fear.”
The Rev. Moore said her support of gun-control measures stems from a Bible verses found in Chapter 4 of the Old Testament book of Micah. In the passage, the prophet Micah has a dream in which he sees the nations of the world turning to God. In doing so, they turn their “swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”
“The point is not that sharp objects don't exist anymore,” said the Rev. Moore. “It's that the ends to which they are used are creative and productive instead of destroying lives.”
The Rev. Moore also points to the New Testament story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. When the apostle Peter used his sword to cut off the ear of one of the servants coming to take Jesus away, Jesus commanded Peter to put his sword away and healed the ear of the wounded servant.
“That’s a clear lesson for those of us who try to follow him,” she said.
Following recent mass shootings, many religious leaders have called for “thoughts and prayers” on behalf of the victims and their communities, while other faith leaders have cried out saying “thoughts and prayers are not enough.”
Some have responded by pushing gun reform, while others have taken a stand by arming their congregation.
After the deadly South Carolina church shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015, Pastor Ron Russell from the Lighthouse Mexico Church of God, in Mexico, New York, began encouraging his congregation to take concealed carry courses and bring their guns to church.
A banner on the church’s website reads “We are NOT a 'Gun free zone' — we protect our people”
The LDS Church, on the other hand, has long forbidden guns in its meetinghouses and temples.
In the wake of a deadly school shooting in Florida, LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson spoke to a group of church members in Las Vegas and lamented laws “that allow guns to go to people who shouldn’t have them.”
In the end, the views of religious people on guns are as diverse as their own personal relationships with God.
“There’s the old line that the Bible can be used to support any position,” said Korwin, of Jews for the Preservation of Firearm Ownership. “I guess it can.”102 comments on this story
“I don’t want this debate to be about whether you’re a good Christian or bad Christian,” said the Rev. Lewis, of Middle Collegiate Church. “I'm a person of faith who believes there is more than one path to God.
“I want this to be loving call to all the clergy and all people of faith to literally say to each other: Can we make our world safe? Can we create peace everywhere? If we make love and justice and peace our destination, we will find great creative ways to get there,” she said.