Evolving Christian Attitudes Towards Personal and National Self-Defense

Issue number 5 of this year’s Connecticut Law Review is an excellent symposium on firearms law, policy, and culture. The lead article is from Nicholas Johnson, of Fordham: Firearms Policy and the Black Community: An Assessment of the Modern OrthodoxyJohnson (who is my co-author on the Second Amendment textbook Firearms Law and the Second Amendment) details the long and honorable history of Black Americans’ use of arms for lawful self-defense, especially against white racists. Johnson observes that in the late 1960s, Black political leadership abruptly shifted from the community’s traditional support for armed self-defense into being quite hostile to gun ownership.

The Johnson article is a short version of his forthcoming (Jan. 14, 2014) book Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms by Nicholas Johnson (Jan 14, 2014). I very highly recommend the book. It goes far beyond the Connecticut article. The subject of race control and gun control has been a subject of increasing scholarly attention ever since Robert J. Cottrol and Raymond T. Diamond’s 1991 Georgetown LJ article, The Second Amendment: Toward an Afro-Americanist Reconsideration. Having followed the subject carefully for the past two decades, I am amazed by how much original research that Johnson brought to the book, and by the rigorous analysis he provided for the most difficult questions.

In the Connecticut symposium, response essays are offered from leading “pro-gun” scholars (Cottrol & Diamond, Don Kates & Alice Marie Beard) and from leading “anti-gun” scholars (Michael DeLeeuw, David Kairys, Andrew McClurg [my co-author on another gun textbook], and William Merkel).

My own contribution to the symposium is an article titled Evolving Christian Attitudes Towards Personal and National Self-Defense. (SSRN link here; Conn. L. Rev. link here.) My article observes that the Black political leaderships’ sharp turn against self-defense in the late 1960s and thereafter was coincident with a similar turn among American religious leadership (Catholic, and mainline Protestant) against personal and national self-defense at the same time, and thereafter. Here’s the abstract:

This Article analyzes the changes in orthodox Christian attitudes towards defensive violence.

While the Article begins in the 19th century and ends in the 21st, most of the Article is about the 20th century. The Article focuses on American Catholicism and on the Vatican, although there is some discussion of American Protestantism.

In the nineteenth and early in the twentieth centuries, the traditional Christian concepts of Just War and of the individual’s duty to use force to defend himself and his family remained uncontroversial, as they had been for centuries. Disillusionment over World War I turned many Catholics and Protestants towards pacifism. Without necessarily adopting pacifism as a theory, they adopted pacifism as a practice. World War II and the early Cold War ended the pacifist interlude for all but a few radical pacifists.

Beginning in the 1960s, much of the American Catholic leadership, like the leadership of mainline Protestant churches, turned sharply Left. Although churches did not repudiate their teachings on Just War, many Catholic and mainline Protestant leaders seemed unable to find any circumstances under which American or Western force actually was legitimate. Pacifism and anti-Americanism marched hand in hand. Today, pacifism now has greater respectability within orthodox Christianity than any time in the past 1700 years.

Among the influential thinkers profiled in this Article are all Popes from World War II to the present, Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker Movement, and the Berrigan Brothers. The Article suggests that some recent trends in pacifist or quasi-pacifist approaches have been unduly influenced by hostility to the United States, and by the use of narrowly-focused emotion rather than the rigorous analysis that has characterized Catholic philosophy.

Readers interested in the topic might also be interested in an earlier article I wrote: Pacifist-Aggressives vs. the Second Amendment: An Analysis of Modern Philosophies of Compulsory Non-violence. 3 Charleston Law Review 1 (2008). The article praises  Thomas Merton and John Howard Yoder, criticizes Stanley Hauerwas, Leo Tolstoy, and Tony Campolo, and also examines the Danish rescue of the Jews during WW II, the American Civil Rights movement in the South in the 1960s, and the invasion of the Chatham Islands – the home of the pacifist Moriori tribes.