AR-15 Lapel Pins are More Than Political Provocation — They’re Symbols of the Violence at the Heart of White Christian Nationalism

Georgia Republican Rep. Andrew Clyde shows off the AR-15 assault rifle lapel pin he is giving away in congress. Image: Twitter

Violence has always been at the center of White Christian nationalism: the vow to impose order on those perceived as un-American, if need be with force, either by the police or by wielding a gun themselves. And while the absolute right to gun ownership has been a core belief on the American Right since at least the Reagan years, the allegiance of today’s GOP to guns has never been so brazen or flamboyant. The AR-15—the gun with which a disproportionate number of mass shootings in the US are committed—has become a central part of White Christian nationalist iconography, as well as a stark expression of the violent ideology behind it. On January 6, 2021 a banner with the slogan “God Guns and Guts Made in America, Let’s Keep all Three,” was carried by insurrectionists storming the Capitol. 

Yet despite all this, Republicans aren’t shy about their reverence for the AR-15. In fact, members of Congress, like Representatives Ana Paulina Luna (R-FL) and George Santos (R-NY), have recently taken to wearing AR-15 lapel pins on the House floor. It was Representative Andrew Clyde (R-GA), however, who made the cruelty behind this trend crystal clear for anyone who might have been foolish enough to think he wasn’t aware of the symbolism: 

I’m Congressman Andrew Clyde for Georgia’s 9th District. I hear that this little pin I’ve been giving out on the House floor has been triggering some of my Democrat colleagues. I give it out to remind people of the Second Amendment of the Constitution and how important it is in preserving our liberties. If I missed you on the House floor, please stop by my office in Cannon, I have plenty more to give out.” 

These words are a slap in the face to every single American whose loved ones have died by one of these handheld killing machines, as Bradley Onishi accurately called them here on RD. Some Republicans have been posing with AR-15s in their Christmas cards, with their underage kids holding the lethal weapons, smiling. The fascist revels in the fear he instills in his opponents; in those he has singled out for destruction. The jackboot longs for the cathartic act of violence, bathes in the glow of his uniform—be it brown shirts, white robes or khaki shorts—and the fear it instills in those he passes by. 

Fascism is a spectacle of aesthetics. The display of military strength, of hetero-normative violence and brutality against those perceived as “weak” (and therefore not part of the body politic) lies at its very core. It’s only fitting that some elected Republicans have escalated their reverence for this symbol of mass killings with a drafted bill which would make the AR-15 into the country’s “national gun.” The full text of the bill hasn’t been provided yet, apart from a paragraph which states that the law would

declare an AR-15 style rifle chambered in a .223 Remington round or a 5.56x45mm NATO round to be the National Gun of the United States.”

The bill was introduced by Moore, and has the support of Santos and Lauren Boebert (who famously owned “Shooters,” a restaurant where servers openly carried guns). Santos, who’s been exposed as a fraud and a con-man, recently proclaimed his love of the AR-15

“This is a gun manufactured in the United States, creates jobs in the United States, it’s a made-in-America gun. We have national everything, why not have a national gun? It saves lives on a daily basis, and it’s not reported. And I think it’s good to have that contrast.” 

This, of course, is a blatant lie—AR-15s do not “save lives,” they are used to kill. After the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, CBS’s 60 Minutes named the AR-15 “the weapon of choice of the worst mass murderers.” And, of course, Uvalde isn’t the only place where an AR-15 style weapon has been used to kill innocents. AR-15s and AR-15-style weapons have been used in many of the deadliest mass shootings, from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 to the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018, to name two of the most high profile. 

These latest AR-15-themed antics by elected Republicans also highlight one of the few things the modern GOP stands for: performative cruelty. Anything to “trigger the libs” will do, including re-traumatizing the victims of school shootings. Remember Marjorie Taylor Greene harassing Stoneman Douglas survivor David Hogg (whom she’d previously called “#littleHitler”) when he was in Washington to support stricter gun laws? Well, the timing that Moore and his colleagues chose for the introduction of their AR-15 fanclub bill wasn’t a coincidence: they introduced it during national gun violence survivors’ awareness week

The emphasis on God and guns has roots that go back to 1850s England, where “muscular Christianity” originated as a youth movement. The core principle was that a strong spirit required a strong body as well—a principle that made its way to the US and was fused with the frontier spirit and Manifest Destiny, as historian Peter Manseau explains: 

All of this might seem far removed from holiday cards, until one recalls that it is Jesus himself who has been proposed as the exemplar of the ‘manly and virile’ faith found at the root of Christmas trees festooned with ammunition.”  

From Teddy Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, guns have been associated with both strength in body and faith, bound together by the belief of the muscular Christian, that violence and brutality “create nobility.” This is the historical and philosophical framework that the Right’s gun obsession operates in. It’s more than just mere trolling; violence and faith have become intertwined, with the potential for executing violence a necessity for the virtuous Christian. 

Gunmakers capitalize on this mindset, taking up the mantle of violent Christianity which goes back even further in European history to the bloodshed of the Crusades. Thomas Lecaque previously described here on RD a rifle made by a Florida gun manufacturer called “The Crusader” which: 

“features an engraved Templar shield logo opposite the Psalm, and has three settings on it, presumably safety, single fire and semi-auto, but named, ‘Pax Pacis, Bellum, & Deus Vult,’ or ‘Peace, War, and God Wills It,’ the First Crusade battle cry popular with contemporary white supremacists.” 

Engraved on this rifle is Psalm 144:1:

“Praise be to the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle. He is my loving God and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues peoples under me.”

Crusader rhetoric is popular particularly among far-right gun enthusiasts, which is not surprising, considering that many see themselves as God’s warriors fighting against the White supremacist “Great Replacement” myth—a myth that has led to calls for a new crusade and for mass shooters to style themselves as modern Knights Templar. There’s no shortage of Crusades-inspired gear available online—from rifles with Bible verses to rosaries made out of bullets. (After spending some time on the website that offers the latter, I was cursed with two straight weeks of ads on nearly every social media platform of dirty-looking shirts embroidered with Templar imagery.) 

Still, the gravity of the symbolism of these AR-15 pins cannot be overstated: The lapel is the place where lawmakers usually wear the American flag. That some congresspeople have replaced the American flag with a miniature replica of an AR-15 shows, once again, that this movement is very clear in who it sees as American, and is happy to replace national symbols if they deem them too inclusive, and alter them to showcase who they see as “real” Americans—with the addition of the “thin blue line,” for example, to showcase their contempt for the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight against police brutality. 

And while the American flag is not seen by all Americans as the inclusive symbol that it purports to be, replacing it with the preferred gun of White supremacists out to kill Americans they deemed unworthy should tell us everything we need to know about who these politicians are and what they stand for.