Oct. 1, 2017, now marks the worst mass shooting in modern American history. In a scenario that has become depressingly familiar, a lone male shooter made use of rapid-fire weapons to slaughter and maim scores of victims. Afterward began the familiar polarized debate over gun violence in the United States. Yet what many Americans still do not realize is the increasingly important role that errant Christian beliefs about providence and apocalypse now play in these debates.
In the wake of the massacre in Las Vegas, the evangelical preacher and televangelist Pat Robertson blamed the incident on a culture of disrespect for Donald Trump, the national anthem and “biblical authority.” In the past, Mr. Robertson has also asserted that the primary response to gun violence should be to train citizens to use firearms in churches, malls and schools because, in his words, “blessed are the fully armed.” In Mr. Robertson’s puzzling theology, Americans are both armed and punished by God through the mystic medium of the gun.
Mr. Robertson’s fatalistic attitude toward American violence and suffering is far from uncommon. In her recent award-winning book, the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild narrates the growth of political fatalism in conservative American Christianity. Specifically, Ms. Hochschild highlights the way some evangelicals’ beliefs about the imminence of the second coming and the rapture have helped generate a politics of resignation in the face of real social and political evils.
In Pat Robertson’s puzzling theology, Americans are both armed and punished by God through the mystic medium of the gun.
So, for example, Ms. Hochschild describes how small-town dwellers in Louisiana who suffer higher cancer rates, job insecurity and diminished air and water quality at the hands of unregulated private sector corporations nonetheless abhor government regulations that could improve the situation. Instead, oftentimes belief in the rapture and in an accompanying future in which the earth will “burn with fervent heat” focuses such believers on a form of Christianity that they hope will rescue them from the world’s sufferings. Christianity is reduced to a largely private search for escape, while public political action becomes futile.
What may strike some readers as fringe ideas are far more common than one might realize. The Pew Research Center reported in 2010 that 58 percent of white evangelical Christians believe that Jesus Christ will return to the earth by the year 2050. The aforementioned Mr. Robertson has falsely prophesied an imminent doomsday not once but twice—first in 1982 and again in 2007. And a significant number of American Christians today believe we are living in the end times and that the signs can be read through a combination of biblical interpretation and science.
This practice of predicting the apocalypse (which contradicts the longer tradition of Christian teaching and is in tension with passages like Mt 25:13: “You know neither the day nor the hour”) has its roots in 19th-century biblical literalism, which attempted to establish a timetable for the Last Judgment. The treatment of the Bible as a pseudoscientific text for making predictions akin to those found in the natural sciences has become a recurrent strain in some quarters of evangelical thought ever since.
A softer form of the political theology of Christian fatalism is evident, for example, in Bill O’Reilly’s claim that mass shootings are simply the price of freedom.
Most recently, the evangelical Christian publication Unsealed predicted the arrival of the rapture on Sept. 23, 2017. This date was selected by combining established scientific phenomena like the solar eclipse with a numerological interpretation of the Bible. The apocalypse was to occur 33 days after the total eclipse on Aug. 21 because “Jesus lived for 33 years” and “the name Elohim, which is the name of God to the Jews, was mentioned 33 times” in the Bible. Meanwhile, websites like ApocalypseSoon.org interpret contemporary social, political and environmental unrest as a confirmation of the Bible’s power to predict the imminence of the doomsday.
Yet there is a similar passivity and fatalism even among Christians who do not avow superstitious forms of biblical literalism or a belief in the near coming of the apocalypse. This softer form of the political theology of Christian fatalism is evident, for example, in Bill O’Reilly’s claim that mass shootings are simply the price of freedom. And it is present in still subtler forms, such as the limited “thoughts and prayers” response given by so much of the Republican Party establishment to mass shootings like that in Las Vegas. So, for example, a Catholic Senator like Thom Tillis of North Carolina is ready to send out his “deepest condolences and prayers to the families of the victims” in Las Vegas but has accepted millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association.
In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, perhaps nowhere is this fatalism about evil more striking than in the response of the country music industry. As is now well known, the shooter used the functional equivalent of a machine gun (able to fire nine rounds per second) to murder 58 and injure almost 500 country music fans attending a concert. Although some in the country music scene have called for political action, Billboard magazine reported that most mainstream country artists responded by “sending thoughts and prayers, eschewing any mention of gun reform even after the attack on their fans.”
What might be termed “thoughts and prayers” Christianity appears to have abandoned the notion that political action has the ability to improve the lives of the governed.
What might be termed “thoughts and prayers” Christianity appears to have abandoned the notion that political action has the ability to improve the lives of the governed. Instead, prayer (and presumably reflection on the perennial nature of evil) sharply divides the kingdom of heaven from that of earth. Christianity falls into a dualistic rejection of this world. The politics of Christianity becomes fatalistic in that all punishment is fated, cyclical and inevitable. As Ms. Hochschild wrote in summarizing this passive political theology: “as for altering the pollution, poverty, ill health, and other things that had to be endured, for many that lay beyond the doors of the church.”
There are many societies that do not routinely suffer mass gun violence because they lack guns, Second Amendment absolutists, a violent streak or some of the other factors feeding our current crisis. But in the “thoughts and prayers” fatalism of too much contemporary Christianity, contingent features of social reality become inescapable and permanent. Belief in God comes to necessitate both absolutism about firearm ownership and resigned acceptance of slaughter of the innocent as an act of cosmic atonement. Indeed, in the case of Mr. Robertson, the violence may even be part of a constellation of signs accelerating the universe toward apocalypse and wrathful judgment on the wicked.
In this way, the politics of Christian fatalism is a diffuse worldview—not unlike Max Weber’s notion of the Protestant work ethic. Although it partly originates in dogmatic theological espousals of the rapture or pseudoscientific biblical literalism, it also comes to inform a much broader societal attitude of renunciation.
If this is true, then part of America’s gun violence problem is not simply an entrenched gun lobby or craven political leadership. It is a distortion of the Gospel that sees Christianity as completely irrelevant (or at least powerless) to help change vast swaths of the social and political world for the better.
Such fatalism both views America’s political order as ordained by God and sees anyone who acts to reform this order as acting against God’s will. The evils and suffering produced by American political arrangements—many of them endured by American Christians themselves—are seen as unfortunate but also deeply unalterable features of the human condition.
We now know that errant political theologies—from Eusebius’s fourth-century Caesarism to Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel—can have a pervading impact on social and political life. Indeed, these political theologies can even take on secular forms, as in the spiritual renunciation and asceticism of the American businessman or the messianism of some forms of radical Marxism. Likewise, political theology plays a larger role than many realize in the gun debate in America. In this respect, a Christianity that is affirmative of the human potential to achieve at least some good through politics may be necessary to help combat the clear evil of the slaughter of innocent concertgoers. More than ever, American Christians need the witness of a faith that is unarmed, humanistic and hopeful.
The Anglican bishop N.T. Wright has recently argued that the Gospels have an inescapable political dimension. Specifically, Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of God and his way of forming community were meant to be an imaginative challenge to the polis. Christianity is supposed to inspire people to continually reimagine how the world might be made more like the kingdom of God. So Bishop Wright insists that the Gospels continually “invite their readers to the imaginative leap of saying, ‘Suppose this is how God has done it? Suppose the world’s way of empire is all wrong?’”
If Bishop Wright is correct—and I believe he is—then too many Christians have lost the power of political imagination in the United States today. The mission of those who would claim to follow Christ is not simply to endure sufferings but to imagine and work for a better world.