As a writer and academic living in New York City, I often forget how close I was to becoming a radicalized conservative while growing up. I was raised on the notion of God and country first. Everything else played second fiddle, whether friendships, education, art, or occupation. My parents, who met in Bible college, believed that Christians were slowly losing ground to Satan in various ways — from governmental socialism to abortion to liberal-biased reporters. I have written elsewhere how my mother, fueled by this kind of Christian fundamentalism, ended up having a psychotic break while we lived in Texas. I fared only slightly better with my father, who worked for Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker at Heritage USA and then moved us to Colorado to work Paul Crouch of the Trinity Broadcasting Network. My father’s job was fulfilling the great commission by making sure all countries, cities, and villages, no matter how remote, heard about Jesus Christ via television. If the enemy was going to infiltrate the media, TBN would be a safe haven for the faithful.
Once I got to college, I joined a conservative Christian group. We hung out and formed Bible studies. We didn’t smoke or drink or have sex, and yet this group was full of young, charismatic students. Every spring break we went on a mission trip to Mexico. We didn’t talk about the rapture very often, but we knew the end times could be just around the corner, and it was our job to save as many people as we could from eternal damnation.
With that directive came the promise of persecution. Jesus warns his disciples that they are still blessed when “people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man” (Luke 6:22). In fact, the more you were persecuted, the more you knew you were in God’s will. This paradigm is a dangerous one. It seduces many American Christians into thinking they are the marginalized and oppressed.
It shouldn’t have surprised me then, when I looked up a friend from that college group on Facebook to see a profile picture of him and his wife happily holding rifles instead of each other. His family pictures were much of the same, each beaming son and daughter holding a rifle. A shared post dated from 2016 displays a gun seller’s contest video for an AR15 that “shoots fire and pisses freedom.”
I searched for other friends from that group. A few more had similar pictures. The reasoning for such firepower switches quickly and seamlessly between hunting and protection. My father, retreating further into radical, end times theology had given me a loaded pistol as a college graduation gift. I stayed with a friend of his after college, an older woman in her 60’s who stocked her home with so many canned goods, the place felt claustrophobic. She explained she wanted to be prepared for when the antichrist controlled the food supply. For she and my father, the war on God and country was never theoretical. The antichrist would work through legislation and technology just as much as by demonic force.
The churches I attended reinforced this thinking. Sermons focused on how we needed to take back the city of Denver for God. I was known as a “prayer warrior” against Satanic forces. But a subtle transformation had begun during my four years in college. My professors pushed me to critically examine the rhetoric of my own faith. By my junior year I had given up going to Mexico as a missionary to compete as a delegate in the Model League of Arab States in Washington, D.C. By the time I had graduated, I might have been an accidental gun owner, but I no longer thought of GOP as God’s chosen political party.
I was a couple of years into graduate school when my father wrote that he had a secret compound in another state so that we could run when it became too dangerous to be a Christian. He wanted me to know the location. I declined the offer, thinking my chances might be slightly better with the antichrist. My step sister later told me it was stocked with guns and food. I stopped all communication with my father. Between graduate classes and my therapist’s office, I started to work on dismantling the apocalyptic thinking that had kept me in constant state of anxiety. My father didn’t fare so well. He died this year, in a trailer in Texas, still waiting for the Second Coming.
There are many others who have not made it out. They are trapped in this spiritual matrix where they see themselves as soldiers and prophets trying to restore order. The video my friend shared on his wall was also shared by 69,700 other users and had 1.5 million views back in 2016. It was known as the “Never Hillary” giveaway contest.
We need to discuss the various rhetorics that work in conjunction to keep gun violence in motion — white supremacy, Christianity, and a toxic masculinity that is the inheritance of a mythologized America. Fighting a spiritual war allows a certain amount of collateral damage for many white evangelicals. When people ask how Christians can support Trump given the mass murders, they forget the invisible math being done. There might be hundreds of deaths due to guns, but there will be millions of unborn babies saved. To take away the right to bear arms is second only to getting the mark of the Beast. Healthcare for everyone veers too closely to socialism, which to a conservative Christian represents atheism. Lost lives are nothing compared to lost souls. Franklin Graham often reminds his followers on Twitter and Facebook that Christians are persecuted and therefore need extra prayer and legal protection.
It is this siege philosophy that will keep conservative Christians tied to Trump, no matter how many more shootings happen. We need to recognize that Trump uses religious rhetoric very persuasively when he needs to. He will continue to make mental illness and “cowardice” the culprit. He will protect them from a government system that might one day track them. He will throw around phrases about God and country and fake news while Christians cluck their tongues and say the shooter needed salvation. They will pray more fervently. They will polish their guns because war is still coming.