The mass shooting on June 28 in Annapolis, Maryland, has renewed familiar concerns about America’s gun culture and gun policies.
Yet this was not the only June shooting to make national headlines.
Fox News and The Washington Post reported an earlier story involving the quick-thinking actions of a church leader who also happened to be a trained emergency responder. Spotting an armed carjacker exiting a Walmart Supercenter, in Oakville, Washington, the gun-owning pastor took pursuit – then shot and killed the man in the parking lot.
Compared to the Annapolis shooting, the Walmart incident offers a far more convenient narrative for gun-rights activists. At the same time, it highlights the intersection between America’s gun culture and its religious cultures.
In this, the event is hardly unique. As I’ve found in my research for a study of “Outlaw Preachers and Profane Prophets,” the image of the gun-toting preacher has recurred with remarkable persistence in U.S. history and culture.
‘With a Bible and a gun’
The Walmart shooting joins a long tradition of stories about well-armed American preachers – both real and fictional – who seem to embody national attitudes toward guns and religion, violence and justice.
Just picture Jesse Custer, the protagonist of the popular AMC TV series “Preacher.” One typical episode finds Jesse, in his preacher’s collar, firing round after round from a semiautomatic rifle to protect his little Texas church from the malevolent forces that threaten it.
On rock band U2’s 1993 song “The Wanderer,” originally titled “The Preacher,” singer Johnny Cash summons another version of this resonant archetype – that of the preacher who journeys forth with God on his side, armed with the Book of Life in one hand and an instrument of death in the other:
I went out walking
with a Bible and a gun …
It’s telling that the song’s composer, Bono, should have written “The Wanderer” specifically for Johnny Cash. Growing up in Dublin, Ireland, Bono had experienced enough of “Bibles and guns” during the decadeslong clashes between (mostly Catholic) Irish nationalists and (mostly Protestant) British loyalists. And Bono ordinarily sings his own lyrics.
In this case, though, it’s as if the Bible-and-a-gun theme required an American icon to sing it. But why should that be so?