Gun laws and the Godbeat

Back in my high school days in Texas, my minister would look out over the congregation and make the same request each Sunday.

"Hold up your swords!" he'd say, and we'd all raise our Bibles to show that we brought them.

As best I can recall, he never asked us to hold up our guns. But that was then. Flash forward to 2011 and this intriguing national trend piece by Religion News Service's Adelle M. Banks:

The way Rev. Jonathan Wilkins sees it, members of his Baptist church in Thomaston, Ga., should have the right to carry guns into worship services to protect the congregation.

Wilkins' Baptist Tabernacle and a Georgia gun-rights association are challenging a new state law that prohibits weapons in houses of worship. A lower court ruled against them in January; the case is now headed for appeal.

"What we're fighting for is not that just any old body can carry guns in church," Wilkins said. "We would be responsible. We would want people who are trained, and so forth, to carry, people that we designate for protective purposes."

Recently, state legislatures in Georgia, Michigan and Louisiana have been caught in the crossfire of the debate between gun rights and gun control as they consider allowing weapons in houses of worship.

As my fellow GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey highlighted in a recent 5Q+1 interview, Banks is a Godbeat pro with a stellar reputation for accuracy and fairness. Her story on guns and churches is a textbook example.

This is a subject where a writer might be tempted to favor one side over the other or to get cutesy (for instance, see this Los Angeles Times opinion piece on "The 11th Commandment: Thou shalt bring guns to church").

Instead, Banks identifies a relevant, timely trend on the religion beat and simply presents the facts -- making it impossible to guess her personal opinion on the subject.

Yes, that's Journalism 101 stuff. But unfortunately, it's sorely missing from much of what passes for traditional journalism.

A key section of the story:

Though gun-rights proponents think they have both the First and Second Amendments on their side, they also cite the rights of religious organizations as property owners. Opponents, meanwhile, worry that having weapons in worship is part of a slippery slope to permitting them everywhere.

A month after then-Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the 2010 law listing places of worship among "unauthorized" locations for carrying weapons, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal took the opposite tack. Louisiana law now permits trained worshippers to bring guns into churches, mosques and synagogues as long as fellow congregants are informed.

Meanwhile, other states are mulling whether to scale back restrictions on weapons.

By my count (my computer's count, actually), this RNS story is 782 words. That's the upper end of space available for most daily wire stories, as I can attest from Associated Press days. So undoubtedly, Banks had much more information than she was able to include in this story.

I say that as a preface to my one criticism of the piece: It focuses entirely on political arguments and issues. I wish the story had acknowledged, even in passing, the theological question of whether guns belong in a sanctuary. That seemed to be a big issue when Arkansas lawmakers rejected a proposal to allow guns at churches last year.

Similarly, veteran religion writer Bruce Nolan of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans tackled that angle in writing about the Louisiana law last year:

The Rev. John Raphael, a cop-turned-pastor who shepherds New Hope Baptist church in Central City, knows too well how dangerous his neighborhood can be. Filing out of a service one Sunday, some of his congregation had to duck for cover when gunfire suddenly broke out nearby.

Raphael said he understands measures like parking lot security outdoors. But he said an armed presence in the sanctuary is incompatible with what a church is supposed to be.

He called it a "gut check" for faith.

"Great tragedy would follow if someone (inside) ever felt the need to use a gun," Raphael said. "That would do more to harm the mission of the church, than to help. It's a matter of faith that we trust God to protect us more than we trust our own ability.

"We should project the image that we trust in God."

It may be that RNS -- or Banks herself -- has covered that angle previously and I missed it. If so, please don't hesitate to share the link. And if you see religion ghosts that escaped me, feel free to point out those, too.

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