Gun Ownership: ‘An Obligation to God’

Herb Titus, a lawyer for the far-right Gun Owners of America, is jubilant over last week’s Supreme Court decision in the case McDonald v. City of Chicago, finding that state and local regulation of gun ownership must comport with the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

The decision has also pleased the National Rifle Association, which sees it as ammunition for challenging gun control laws across the country. But for Titus, who thinks the NRA “compromises” on gun rights, the Second Amendment isn’t solely about “firepower,” he says. “You have to see it in its spiritual and providential perspective.”

That perspective is about far more than hunting and self-defense. For Titus, the Court’s 2008 recognition of an individual right to bear arms, and its application of that principle to the states in the McDonald case, are crucial steps toward arming Americans against their own government. Titus cites the “totalitarian threat” posed by “Obamacare” and “what Sarah Palin said about death panels.” People need to be armed, he said, “because ultimately it may come to the point where it’s a life and death situation.”

Titus, who filed an amicus brief on behalf of the GOA, an organization which claims 300,000 members, told RD that “the ultimate authority is God.”

“[I]f you have a people that has basically been disarmed by the civil government,” he added, “then there really isn’t any effectual means available to the people to restore law and liberty and that’s really the purpose of the right keep and bear arms—is to defend yourself against a tyrant.”

If this sounds like standard-issue Tea Party fodder, it’s because the Tea Party movement emerges out of the confluence of different strands of the far right, including Christian Reconstructionism. Titus has long been a player at the intersection of Christian Reconstructionism, the standard religious right, and other far-right groups in which the Tea Party finds its roots. He was a speaker at the Reconstructionist American Vision’s annual “Worldview Conference” in 2009, has been a member of the Council for National Policy, and is a longtime homeschooling advocate from a Reconstructionist perspective. In 1996 he was the running mate of conservative icon (and Christian Reconstructionist) Howard Phillips for the far-right US Taxpayers Party (now called the Constitution Party) whose platform included the restoration of “American jurisprudence to its biblical premises” and, notably, opposition to every gun law in the United States.

Now a lawyer with the firm William J. Olson, P.C., Titus was a founding dean of Pat Robertson’s Regent University Law School, where he was the chair of a three-member committee that supervised Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s now-notorious graduate thesis. In it, a recitation of the religious right’s agenda, McDonnell called working women and feminists “detrimental” to the family, argued for policy favoring married couples over “cohabitators, homosexuals, or fornicators,” and called the 1972 legalization of contraception by married couples “illogical.” During his 2009 campaign, McDonnell tried to distance himself from his own work, but Titus told the Washington Post that McDonnell’s thesis was “right.”

In 2004, after Judge Roy Moore, another Titus client, was stripped of his position for defying a federal court order to remove his 2.6-ton monument to the Ten Commandments from the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court, he joined Titus in drafting the Constitution Restoration Act. The bill, had it passed, would have deprived federal courts of jurisdiction to hear cases challenging a government entity’s or official’s “acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government.”

This clear articulation of the religious right’s dominionist aims, framed as a challenge to what the Right asserts is the excessive power of the federal government, did manage to receive Republican support. It had nine co-sponsors in the Senate and was introduced in the House by Alabama Republican Robert Aderholt, who had 50 co-sponsors, including now-Minority Whip Eric Cantor, now-Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and Rep. Mike Pence, who is thought to be considering a 2012 presidential run.

Partners In Arms: Militias, the Religious Right, and Biblical Law

The militia movement and Christian Reconstructionism both contend that our current civil government, most especially the federal government, is illegitimate: that it has overreached the limits of its divinely ordained authority, and that it continues to do so. At this intersection of the religious right and the militia movement, gun ownership is portrayed as a religious issue. “When we’re talking about firearms,” GOA executive director Larry Pratt told RD, “we’re not really talking about a right but an obligation, as creatures of God, to protect the life that was given them.”

Many in the militia movement, the Tea Party Movement, and Christian Reconstruction also share the view that civil government should be reformed according to the dictates of biblical law.

In describing the “fundamental issue” as “God’s authority,” Titus echoes themes from Christian Reconstructionist founder R.J. Rushdoony, including the notion that civil government has certain limits established by God. Although Titus, who earned his law degree from Harvard in 1962, claims he is not a Reconstructionist, he doesn’t deny its influence on his thinking, acknowledging how, after he was saved in 1975, his new jurisprudence was shaped by Rushdoony’s seminal text, The Institutes of Biblical Law.

Like Rushdoony, Titus argues that government is by covenant; that authority is distributed by God among three institutions with distinct (and distinctly limited) jurisdictions: family, church, and civil government. To root this view in the American Constitutional system, Rushdoony and Titus both read the secular language of the Constitution in the context of the invocation of “the Creator” in the Declaration of Independence: “Inalienable rights are endowed by the Creator.” These rights, both Rushdoony and Titus contend, are not granted by either document, only recognized in them; these rights exist only because they were granted by God.  

Because Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan refused to acknowledge the divine source of the Constitution, and in particular the Second Amendment, Titus believes she is not qualified to serve on the Court. (Titus’ law partner testified on behalf of the GOA against Kagan’s confirmation, one of several witnesses called by the Republicans.) Echoing the Christian Reconstructionist view, Sen. Charles Grassley asked Kagan, “did the Second Amendment codify a preexisting right or was it a right created by the Constitution?”—something Kagan, not surprisingly, said she’d never contemplated.

“Here’s a woman who’s being nominated to sit on the United States Supreme Court and she’s never thought about the question whether rights are given by God or given by men,” Titus exclaimed incredulously. “She’s never even considered it!”

God and Guns: The Christian Duty to Take Up Arms Against the Government

While many gun advocates are concerned with preserving access to firearms for hunting, and others argue that the right to possession of firearms is essential for self-defense against criminals, Reconstructionists have a loftier argument: so Christians can exercise their duty to take up arms against a government that has exceeded its bounds established by God.

In this view, when the civil government oversteps the authority given to it by God, citizens have a right and an obligation to resist. Titus insists it is “the basis upon which this nation was founded. We were a well-armed people, and when the call came to come out and to fight the redcoats, people were armed—pastors, and their parishioners. They came out and defended their liberties.”

The view that gun ownership is a Christian duty, rooted in the overlap between Reconstructionism and the survivalist/militia movement, has become common in both. In his “Bring Your Pieces to Church” Sunday essay, Reconstructionist Joel McDurmon makes this point, suggesting that believers should organize target practice after church:

Christians should be aware that the use of force in preservation of life is a biblical doctrine (Ex. 22:2–3; Prov. 24:10–12; Est. 8–9; Neh. 4; cp. John 15:13–14). Likewise, those who possessed weapons in Scripture are often said to be well skilled in the use of them (Judg. 20:15–16; 1 Chron. 12:1–2, 21–22). We can only surmise that 1) God gave them talent in this regard, and that 2) they engaged in target practice regularly. Further, under biblical law, to be disarmed was to be enslaved and led to a disruption of the economic order due to government regulations and monopolies (1 Sam 13:19–22).

Reconstructionists are critical of those who defend the Second Amendment only in terms of hunting. They believe that the protection of a sporting activity would not have been the basis of an amendment to the Constitution intended to protect basic rights that were fundamental to liberty. McDurmon also points to widespread gun ownership as a defense against tyranny, tracing the colonial laws that required gun ownership and arguing that “in the context of the War for Independence, ministers saw guns as tools of liberty and defense against tyranny.” In fact, he argues that gun ownership by individuals should be the basis of national defense and that a standing army is unbiblical.

The Tea Party-Christian Reconstructionism-Militia Connection

Rep. Ron Paul, a godfather of sorts to the Tea Parties, calls the GOA “the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington.” Indeed, Pratt, GOA’s executive director, told RD that he has spoken at Tea Party events, calling his group “a natural match for the folks in the Tea Party.” Pratt believes the federal government is largely unconstitutional, and that all federal agencies save the Department of Justice and the Department of the Treasury (which should be “a lot smaller”), should be abolished. (The Internal Revenue Service is a part of Treasury that Pratt would like to see abolished.)

GOA’s political action arm has endorsed Paul’s son, Rand, in the Kentucky Senate race, as well as other Tea Party favorites for Senate Sharron Angle (Nevada), Marco Rubio (Florida), J.D. Hayworth (Arizona), David Vitter (Louisiana), Tom Coburn (Oklahoma), and Jim DeMint (South Carolina), as well as eight House candidates. The Angle campaign embraced the endorsement, with her spokesperson saying, “Not only is Mrs. Angle unafraid of guns, but she is also unafraid to stand up against those who would attempt to deny the legal rights of other gun owners.”

Pratt, whose advocacy has led him to intersect not only with the Tea Partiers, but also with neo-Nazis and white supremacists, sees the revitalization of the 10th Amendment movement—far-right agitators who believe the federal government is largely unconstitutional—as evidence of states “pushing back federal authority.” Pratt believes that states should be “reactivating” militias; which should be at their disposal “instead of relying on the [federal] government to come and screw things up… these things should be given new life.”

Pratt refuses the label “Christian Reconstructionist,” telling RD he prefers to identify as a “Biblical Christian.” He advocates for militias which he describes as “the sheriff’s posse” and that the “availability of it will further cool their [the federal government’s] jets. No more Wacos. Because if you try something like that again, we’re not going to stand around and watch. We’re going to put you in our jail. Which is what the sheriff in that county should have told the thugs in Waco.”

This is predicated, Pratt insists, “on the actual meaning of the word militia, as it was put into the Constitution and into the Bill of Rights.”

Citing Romans 13, Pratt said the “magistrate is a servant of God. He’s supposed to be a terror to evildoers and a comfort to the righteous. So we talk in terms of protecting the people’s liberties. That’s really the same concept.”

In an essay posted on the GOA Web site, “What Does The Bible Say About Gun Control?,” Pratt argues that “resisting an attack is not to be confused with taking vengeance, which is the exclusive domain of God,” citing Romans 12:19. That domain of God, he maintains, “has been delegated to the civil magistrate” who is “God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.”

Likewise, Titus, in his interview with RD, referred to this notion of legitimate civil uprising or resistance resting on the support of “lesser magistrates.” This concept derives from Calvin but is a concept central to Reconstructionism—that Christians are obligated to obey civil authority because it is delegated by God; they can only resist one civil authority when in submission to another one. Put in secular terms, this dovetails with their longstanding support for “states’ rights” and their desire to see organized militias that can be called up by state governors (who are “lesser magistrates”) for the defense of a state against what they claim is the tyrannical overreach of the federal government.

With the receptivity of the Tea Party Movement to arguments against supposed excessive federal power, Christian Reconstructionist-inspired militias could find new converts. Pratt said that when he speaks about his militia idea at Tea Party rallies, “it’s very well-received.” It may be “a new idea in the details,” he added, “but it certainly resonates instantly with them.”