The Pittsburgh Presbytery is calling on parishioners to destroy any “assault weapons” that they own and to work for greater gun control generally. As reported by Guns.com‘s Chris Eger, Sheldon Sorge, general minister for the presbytery, believes that AR-15s and similar weapons have “mass killing” as their only purpose.
In the past, the presbytery has also called for the laundry list of small-bore measures, including expanded and improved background checks and reporting of missing guns to the police. They also asked for a requirement of licensing for anyone wanting to carry a concealed firearm in public—though that is already the law of the State of Pennsylvania. But why let a little thing like checking current laws get in the way of advocacy?
As pointed out by Eger, this isn’t the first time that a religious organization has come out in favor of greater restrictions on gun rights. I’ll leave the theological question of how to square advice to buy a sword if you don’t have one with the principle of turning the other cheek to those who are interested in such things. The subject I wish to address here is that of the role of religion in a free society.
The concept of a wall of separation between church—or religion more broadly—and state was with us since our founding. That specific phrase, a wall of separation, comes from Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut. His intent was to give his understanding of the Federal Constitution’s First Amendment and to assuage concerns that the Baptists had over being a minority denomination in a state run by Congregationalists.
It’s important to note that the First Amendment’s establishment clause was cited here as a protection of one Christian group from another. Keeping religion and government separate is often presented as something that has been exploited by atheists or Satanists, while, in that point of view, the amendment was only meant to apply to Christians. But weakening the separation leads to exactly the kind of thing that the Danbury Baptists were worried about. If religion employs the machinery of government, it too often loses the scruples to trouble itself over tolerating the finer points of theological freedom within the religion.
Consider the cases of countries with official state religions. In Europe, many nations have established churches that reflect the Protestant-Catholic divisions going back some five hundred years, and yet, religious affiliation is on the decline across the continent. Perhaps people believe that when their taxes go to pay for churches, that’s enough participation for them. The other model for established state religion is found in the Middle East, where blasphemy is often a crime, as is conversion to a different religion or no religion at all, and people are free to practice any religion they like, so long as it’s the officially approved one.
Here in the United States, though we’ve bickered for our whole history over what establishment and free exercise of religion means, we have for the most part accepted the principles that each one of us is free to believe or not to believe and that we have to extend to others that same freedom. Perhaps as a result—but at least as a strong correlation—the United States has a high rate of religious affiliation. We accept religion as an individual—not a collective—right in this country, even though human history shows again and again that religion is one of the primary drivers of conflict between groups of people.
And therein lies an important point. All rights are dangerous. If safety is the the ultimate goal, freedom is inconvenient at best. If the leaders of various religious groups want to continue holding and practicing their beliefs, the way to do that is to protect all rights, rather than attacking the ones that they choose not to exercise.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.