As the intense argument over restrictions on firearms continues to rage across the country, religion and religious leaders have been drawn into the debate. Some have work to marshall support for some sensible reforms; inevitably, some initially insisted that tragedies like Newtown happen because we have “kicked God out of the classroom.” Now comes the theory that Jesus would want you to be armed to the teeth, as reported by the Huffington Post.
In light of that, here’s Dr. Anthea Butler’s December interview on the topic, where she doesn’t hold back in challenging the flawed theology of those who look to lay the blame for human suffering at the feet of political opponents.
And this is the column by Dr. Butler that got us talking: “Guns and Babies: What Newtown DOESN’T Teach Us.”
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Anthea Butler[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: It’s a sad fact that no matter what the tragedy – be it the earthquake that hit Washington DC last year, or Hurricane Sandy, or, most recently, the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut – voices are raised on the Right implicating a lack of national devotion to the Almighty as the cause of the given disaster.
For those who enjoyed the film “The Gods Must Be Angry,” this childlike view of a petty Higher Power would be laughable – it’s no different from the lunacy of the Westboro Baptist Church protests – were it not for the fact that not only does it try to place the blame for real human suffering directly on one’s political opponents, but it also implicitly absolves the followers of these leaders of any responsibility for the real causes of many of these tragedies – like global climate change or gun control or access to adequate mental health care. And the numbers of those misguided followers are vast – which is why this rhetoric cannot go unchallenged.
I tried to do my part with an open letter to Governor Huckabee in the Huffington Post last week. And in the pages of Religion Dispatches magazine, Anthea Butler voiced her strongly-worded opinion in a post titled “Guns and Babies: What Newtown Does NOT Teach Us.” The right voice for this moment. I’m very glad to have Dr. Butler joining us again on our show. Anthea, welcome back to State of Belief Radio![DR. ANTHEA BUTLER, GUEST]: Thanks, Welton, how are you? [WG]: I’m OK. A little sad, as all of us are. [AB]: Yeah, we’re definitely very sad, and troubled, at the same time. [WG]: I’ve expressed my deep concerns about this – what’s the harm being done – I have my answer, but I want to know yours: how do you see the negative impact of what is happening? [AB]: Well, I think we have several levels of a negative impact. First, it’s really just bad theology. To say that God, somehow, because you don’t have God in the classroom, we didn’t have prayer at schools, all of the permutations of what was said after the shooting, just does not get to the real issue here, which is: nobody should have a semi-automatic rifle, none of these kinds of things, that could shoot down so many kids in such a short period of time. And I think it does a disservice to Christian theology, it really does, to continue to make these kinds of statements, like Mike Huckabee made, or James Dobson made, or even the guy from… David Brody, from CBC. I really am just troubled by the sense in which – there’s two things that’s happening: one is, they make these kinds of theological statements in public to, sort of, shore up their base of the believers that they have; and two, it’s just a really bad witness. And three, it hurts all the people who’ve lost their children and their loved ones in Sandy Hook. [WG]: And you know, it doesn’t do God any favors, either! [AB]: No, it doesn’t. I figure God’ll be OK; but it really doesn’t do God any favors either. [WG]: Right. In your Religion Dispatches article, you wrote, these are your words: “If you continue to allow these theological hacks to speak for you, or if you, as clergy, repeat this asinine excuse to your congregation this Advent season – you lead your people astray, and you have blood on your hands, as well.” Now, that’s strong! Explain that, please. [AB]: Yeah, I said that they have blood on their hands because they’re not getting at what the real issue is, which is gun control. I mean, why can’t you say that something is evil? And this is what’s so very fascinating to me, is that, these are people who have Christian beliefs, but they won’t say that this was an evil act – and to say that something is an evil act is to ascribe something profoundly different to that, so that’s the first thing. I think the second thing is, is they’re leading their people astray because they’re making people believe that if you just work hard enough, if you just do enough, if we would just be morally correct in the way that they want everybody to be morally correct – bad things won’t happen. And that’s just not true! It really isn’t true. So to have both of these kinds of things in tandem, where they’re not confronting evil, and they’re giving this, sort of, pelagian idea about, you have to work hard in order to get things right, and if you don’t work hard enough, if you don’t do what God, exactly, tells you to do the way I say that God says to do it – then all these things are going to happen. And it’s just wrong! It’s just plain wrong. [WG]: You know, Anthea, I actually think that in some instances, and I know this is a judgement and I make it with caution and with the confession that I could be very wrong, but some ministers have become so enamored as politicians that their politics is leading them to moral blindness, and shutting down their prophetic ministry. [AB]: Yeah. I would agree with you, you’re not going to find any question from me at all on that one, I really believe that these kinds of stances are political ones, in certain respects – I mean, I would admit being political that I don’t want to have these kinds of guns out there; but I think that’s a social good not to have these high-powered rifles and assault weapons out on our streets. But apparently, they don’t think so. [WG]: Well, you know, you kind of play dirty, because you use the bible to support… You point out that God didn’t give David an AK-47 when he went to fight Goliath; God gave him a slingshot! What does that teach us? [AB]: Well, I think it teaches that you don’t, you know – if something is supposed to happen, I mean, if you are led of God – then why do you need all this stuff? Why do we need to have teachers to have guns in the classroom? I just don’t understand it. I’m a college professor and I think about these things all the time when I’m teaching, because, you know, sometimes you have students who are troubled; I mean, there have been shootings on college campuses. But I don’t want to be sitting up there in front of them with a gun. I’d like to think that whether I live or die, I’m for the Lord, right? I’m the Lord’s. So it doesn’t matter. It’s like they’re just so afraid of everything as though they can fix things – and it’s not… If you believe, you also have to believe that God either intervenes or doesn’t intervene; that God is with us in every case. And the way in which this got phrased out by people like Huckabee and Dobson is that, it seems like God is gone because we just haven’t done enough to make God stay there! [WG]: You know, maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I get the feeling, sometimes, that if I had the kind of manipulative theology that Huckabee has – I might want to carry a gun, because if he believes in a God that you can shut out of a classroom, a God that can be denied entrance anywhere – then I don’t know that God! That God’s not in my bible. [AB]: Exactly. And that makes you more fearful. And one of the things I said in the article is that we have this apocalyptic vision of everything; I think that people are so into the worst thing that can possibly happen, and they feel as though they need to prepare for it. But it also leaves out the sovereignty of God. I mean, that just messes with their theology on every level – it’s just bad theology. [WG]: You also go to an indictment of the moral core of American Exceptionalism as encouraging violence and conflict. I think that is an extremely strong point that people need to understand, and I wish that you would talk about it some more. [AB]: Yeah, what I meant by that, and I’ve been working on some things this past semester about American Exceptionalism, is that, you know, really, at the end of the day, we talk about being an exceptional nation, but we’re exceptionally violent compared to the rest of the world. I mean, our stats are way up in terms of gun violence, and just violence in general; I mean, we had a violent beginning, we understand why that was, I mean, it was a revolution to throw off England and all of that, but when we start to think about this history: the history of slavery, the history of the Civil War, the history of lynching – all of these things; and we start to put all of these things together, it’s amazing to see how much violence is really there. And I think the other piece of this that was really striking, and you can really think about this in terms of, sort of, denominationalism: you know, in World War I, we had a lot of people who stood up to say, “Don’t go to war; don’t do this; don’t do that.” Real pacifism. By the time World War II was over, that was not the case. And we have been careening down this road where war, Christianity, militarism and all of these things have gone hand-in-hand. And I think that violent piece of it has a lot to do with our stance as a nation, this country – we don’t want to argue about anything – we don’t want to argue civilly about anything – we just want to fight about it. [WG]: Yeah. Anthea, I obviously agree with what you wrote: “The time has come for us to confront this stuff, without reservation and unceasingly.” When someone asks you, as a religious leader or as just a good citizen: “What can we do? What should we do, going forward to confront these destructive influences,” what do you tell them? [AB]: Well, I think that it’s two-fold: one is to talk about the bad theology; I think people need to start to talk to their friends and neighbors about, “Why are you listening to someone like Mike Huckabee and James Dobson?” And to have an intelligent conversation with them from scripture. I mean, if you’re a believer, then you can sit down and you should be able to reason together, right? You should be able to talk about those things, to be able to begin to point out that perhaps these are not the best ways in which to confront the problems of our nation is not to just pontificate about what we’re lacking, and how mad God is at us. God is not just a punitive God, and that’s really important to get that across, so that’s the first thing. I think the second thing is advocacy: I think right now is a moment in the Christian community, I want to see what religious leaders are going to come out against assault rifles, and bans on assault weapons! I want to see which ones will be willing to confront the NRA. I want to see who will take some leadership in that sense, and begin to talk to their congregations about this. People in Chicago understand this – on the South Side of Chicago – because of things that have happened there. But just as much as you need to talk about that in the urban areas, you need to talk about it in a place like Newtown. And so we need to have a conversation across the board, whether it’s a big city or a small town; the middle of the nation or the coasts of the nation. We need to have this conversation, and religious leaders need to be a part of that. We cannot allow this kind of violence to continue. We can’t allow religious communities to be the ones that continue to perpetrate the stupidity. And that’s what I’m really looking for this time, is that for some people to step up and take some leadership about that. [WG]: Dr. Anthea Butler is a Contributing Editor at Religion Dispatches Magazine, and Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Graduate Chair in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her writing is always compelling, and as you can tell by now, the column “Guns and Babies: What Newtown Does NOT Teach Us” is an absolute must-read at ReligionDispatches.org. Her tweets are equally good; I follow them with great benefit.
Anthea, I think you’ve made an important contribution in a vital debate, and I’m deeply grateful for you being willing to come and talk with us about it here on State of Belief Radio.[AB]: You’re welcome, happy to. Anytime.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
Author of more than 20 books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy leads the national non-partisan grassroots and educational organization Interfaith Alliance and serves as Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana.
In addition to being a prolific writer, Dr. Gaddy hosts the weekly State of Belief radio program, where he explores the role of religion in the life of the nation by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America, while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Dr. Gaddy provides regular commentary to the national media on issues relating to religion and politics. He has appeared on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and Hardball, NBC’s Nightly News and Dateline, PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, ABC’s World News, and CNN’s American Morning. Former host of Morally Speaking on NBC affiliate KTVE in Monroe, Louisiana, Dr. Gaddy is a regular contributor to mainstream and religious news outlets.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Dr. Gaddy emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is a past president of the Alliance of Baptists and has been a 20-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance and member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100. Rev. Gaddy currently serves on the White House task force on the reform of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Dr. Gaddy served in many SBC leadership roles including as a member of the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-84 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-77.
Dr. Gaddy received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.