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Why the NRA Clings to Religion

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Perhaps the best thing to happen to the National Rifle Association, outside of the presence of a black man with an alien-sounding name in the White House, is intense partisan polarization. A new video promoted by the organization underscores just how thoroughly the group understands its value.

The video is similar in tone to the rhetoric associated with NRA leader Wayne LaPierre. It features Dana Loesch, of Glenn Beck's TheBlaze, offering a five-minute fusillade of invective and paranoia, the first delivered with contemptuous sneers, the latter with dramatic squints of her you-can't-fool-me eyes. What Loesch offers very little of, however, is talk about firearms per se.

Instead, the "Godless Left" is her topic. Billed as a response to the New York Daily News front page that mocked conservative politicians for offering "thoughts and prayers" to victims of the San Bernardino massacre in lieu of meaningful public policy, Loesch calls the headline indicative of a Godless Left "assault on the two freedoms they hate the most: Our right to believe and our right to survive."

The elevation of the Second Amendment, from the technical right to bear certain types of arms under certain circumstances, into the existential "right to survive" is a bold feat. (Extreme gun rights are rarely promoted with extreme subtlety.) But the primary goal of the video is not to glorify gun rights. It is to wrap guns in the protective mesh of Christianity and the prevailing conservative cultural and political ethos of resentment.

The video is essentially a lengthy run-on sentence, a series of variations on a theme of Us versus Them. "The Godless Left global alliance of elitists and Hollywood celebrities and campus radicals and political power mongers: They openly attack sacred American values and the people who cherish them with ruthlessness and contempt and downright hatred."

Driven by an unholy arrogance, these saboteurs are determined to destroy our history and eviscerate our rights and create a new America in their image.

Can you think of any groups in the news lately who destroy history and seek a new nation in their own image?

If not, Loesch spells it out for you with alliterative flair. "These saboteurs share the same fanatical fervor to tear apart the foundation of America as the terrorists who threaten our very survival. And together they march hand in hand toward the possible, purposeful destruction of us all."

Even Rick Santorum or Ted Cruz on a holy roll don't suggest their domestic political opponents march "hand in hand" with Islamic State. Loesch doesn't shrink from making the charge, however, while surfing themes prevalent in conservative discourse and emphasizing that Team Republican has to stick together. Otherwise, its components risk defeat at the hands of  forces that are not only "Godless" but "global," "elite," "radical" and hungry for power to enable the "destruction" of Christians and conservatives.

Ronald Reagan was the first presidential candidate endorsed by the NRA. Since the 1980s, as conservative Southern and rural white Democrats gradually disappeared in Congress and statehouses, the NRA has grown into an integral part of the Republican coalition. And the organization demands loyalty in turn. In 2013, after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, only four Republican senators voted to expand background checks for gun purchases, the rock-bottom legislative minimum. Eager to curry favor before a coming election, Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas was one of five Democrats who voted against the bill. The NRA thanked him by endorsing his Republican opponent.

The more the gun movement can embed in the Republican Party, the safer it is from political scrutiny and legislative attack. (Speaking of which, the congressional ban on research into gun violence has just been quietly extended.)

Intense partisanship entails linking issues and constituencies -- support for gun rights, low marginal tax rates and opposition to abortion -- that have no inherent coherence. There was a time when guns (like abortion) were a politically heterodox issue. Republican Richard Nixon sought to ban Saturday Night Specials; Democrat Eugene McCarthy warned of regulatory overreach.

Fear is always good for the gun business, and Loesch's video lays it on thick. But the video is above all a reminder to Christian conservatives and anyone else living under permanent threat from Hillary's heinous Hollywood caliphate of corruption that the NRA's fight must be their fight too. When in 2008 candidate Barack Obama offered his maladroit analysis of bitter provincials who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them," the news media treated the comment as a gaffe. The NRA recognized it as a blueprint for a coalition. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net