Liberty University’s motto is “training champions for Christ.” Apparently, the training offered by the evangelical college will now include a free concealed-weapons course for its students.
At Liberty’s convocation service on Friday, the school president, Jerry Falwell Jr., responded to the San Bernardino shooting, saying, “If more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them.” He encouraged students to enroll in the university’s gratis certification course and said he was carrying a weapon “in my back pocket right now.” He concluded by saying, “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”
Falwell’s comments are the latest in a string of proclamations by conservative Christians appealing to religious authority and yet apparently devoid of biblical reflection. Can they claim the Bible as their chief authority if they ignore it when politically expedient?
Falwell Jr. inherited the leadership of the school from his better-known father, but Liberty (my alma mater) has remained a popular stop for conservative politicians. Former Republican Senator Jim DeMint, the president of the Heritage Foundation, spoke in chapel prior to Falwell’s comments, which included a criticism of President Obama’s push for more gun control. While the school claims to put Jesus at the center of its curriculum, its president never referred to the Prince of Peace’s teachings in his remarks about gun violence. The absence is unsurprising. It’s hard to imagine how Jesus’s teachings could support his case.
The New Testament recounts many comments Jesus made about violence, and almost all of them seem like an outright contradiction of Falwell’s remarks. In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blesses peacemakers and commends the merciful. Jesus advised people to love, not kill, their enemies and urged them not to take an eye for an eye, but rather to turn the other cheek. When he hung on a Roman cross, he did not ask his followers to arm themselves. Instead, he prayed: “Father, forgive them.”
One of the most telling stories of Jesus’s view of violence takes place during his arrest prior to crucifixion. The Apostle Peter, acting in self-defense, pulls out a sword and cuts off a Roman soldier’s ear. Jesus heals the man’s ear and scolds Peter: “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”
The challenge Falwell was ostensibly trying to address in his speech to students was this: What should Christians do in the face of terrifying violence like the San Bernardino? In the wake of the attacks, this was a hotly debated question—Christian leaders such as Russell Moore, the head of the political-advocacy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, and my colleague Emma Green, argued that some were “prayer shaming” those who called for prayer for the victims. But Christians and other religious Americans have long tethered prayer to action.
For Christians, the Bible speaks to this. The Apostles James and John warn against religious rhetoric that is unaccompanied by action. Jesus himself reprimanded pious leaders of his day for being people who “preach, but do not practice.” Those who hesitate to critique prayer divorced from action should consider that Jesus did it more than once.
How do Moore and other Christian leaders account for the Bible’s coupling of prayer and action? They don’t say.
This seeming gap between conservative Christians’ political views and the teachings of the Bible is not just limited to the issue of gun control. In debates about whether the United States should accept Syrian refugees, Republican presidential candidates, dozens of governors, and Christian political organizations like the Family Research Council and American Family Association opposed admitting refugees. Franklin Graham, son of the prominent evangelist and head of Samaritan’s Purse, warned that accepting refugees would lead to an attack similar to what happened in Paris.
These Christians made arguments almost completely on the grounds of national security, despite the consensus among security experts that America’s refugee-vetting process is one of the most rigorous in the world. They failed to mention that the Bible calls for people to welcome, feed, and care for immigrants and those in need.
Sometimes the Bible does not speak directly to contemporary political issues, and in those cases, Christian have to rely on logic, history, science, and the Almighty’s good gift of common sense. But violence, and charity towards those in need, are not among those issues. One of the core doctrines held by evangelical Christians is a belief that “the Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.” Conservative Christians cannot appeal to the Bible on issues like abortion, but skip over the Good Book’s teachings on other issues. Such waffling makes it difficult to take their convictions seriously and diminishes their ability to influence American politics.