Walking down the long, broad hallways of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center today, where the NRA Convention is being held, I felt extremely out of place.
For one, I was wearing my clergy collar, which is unusual for me. I don’t normally wear it in my daily work.
Often, I get mistaken for a “priest” or “father” while wearing my collar, and this crowd was decidedly not Catholic, and likely not Episcopalian either. I can only imagine what they thought I was doing there.
And, of course, I don’t connect with these people politically. I find some of their positions downright dangerous and wacky. So it felt strange to be wandering among them, listening in to their conversations and showing interest at their booths.
However, there is an even deeper dissonance, which finally dawned on me while I was sitting through the long speeches of Vice President Pence and President Trump, and the NRA’s own Chris Cox and Wayne LaPierre.
The NRA is successfully and unashamedly waging a culture war.
This war is the same one that was fought between “true patriots” and “dirty Irish Catholics,” Negroes, Jews, “Chinamen,” Japanese-Americans, anarchists, Communists, “illegal immigrants,” and Muslims. The war is always portrayed as a fight between good, Protestant Christian, freedom-loving Americans and those who aren’t.
Pence plays along magnificently by talking openly about his evangelical Christian faith. When I say “evangelical Christian,” I mean that it is quite implicitly anti-Catholic (except when it comes to abortion), anti-mainline denomination, and anti-any-other-religion. In fact, not one speaker referenced the existence of any other religion.
LaPierre plainly addressed the membership of the NRA as inhabitants of the country’s “heartland,” people who are decent, hard-working, honest, “law-abiding citizens.” And he contrasted these patriots with their enemies, and there are many enemies: the mainstream media elites, the political class, university professors, and the cities of Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, and Hollywood. These are broad-brushed stereotypes, but they are resonate deeply with the people who make up the bulk of NRA membership.
The crowd booed and hissed at any and every mention of these “enemies.” But I could understand why. Because most of them can’t possibly relate to what it’s like to live in a big, urban, multicultural city, and most have likely never met a Muslim, much less a Sikh, Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, or Buddhist. These are folks who have had much of their impressions of life elsewhere framed by television or Facebook. And yes, these are the people who get their news from Fox.
Not once did I hear the words “tolerance” or “diversity” mentioned. That’s because these are dirty words in the culture wars. There is right and wrong, law and order, borders and boundaries. They must be respected, no matter who you are and where you’re from. You shouldn’t “tolerate” what is wrong, and nobody needs “diversity” when it’s so crystal clear what is best and right.
Seen from that simple perspective, NRA members make sense. America is for Americans first — naturally. The only threat to good Americans are bad folks with guns, and the only way to stop them is with your own guns.
But the world is so much more complex than that. This planet is full of diversity, beautiful in its variety, but also confusing in its chaos. There are real problems that we have to solve together, and we cannot simply retreat into a “what’s-best-for-us” mentality.
NRA members represent a certain way of life, which they understandably want to preserve. However, times have changed — and are changing.
The crowd was largely, overwhelmingly, impossibly white. And it is aging.
I looked around the room and thought, “This isn’t what America looks like.” It never has, but it certainly won’t be in a few years when minorities will outnumber whites. There were no refugees present, no DACA young people, no Indians or Pakistanis. The people who are changing the future of America with their genius, their courage, their gun-transcending solutions, were not represented.
The NRA can’t win this culture war because culture is a slippery matter, and can’t be contained by wishful thinking. Eventually, Americans will decide that the NRA is a vestige of white supremacy and will settle on more rational, common-sense gun policies.
Until then, there may be many more victims of this war.