L AST week, a bipartisan group of United States Senators announced an agreement that could lead to the most substantial gun legislation in 30 years. Ten Republican senators crossed the aisle in support of the framework. Now, the push to draft and pass the legislation begins. President Biden welcomed the agreement, while admitting it fell short of his expectations.

The announced framework is subject to change, but presently includes federal incentives to states who pass so called “red flag” laws. These laws are designed to trigger preventative intervention if a gun owner, for example, is undergoing treatment for ­mental health. It does not ban assault rifles or raise the federal purchase age to 21.

While any political action is welcome, ­delaying sweeping legislation may come with a cost of more lives. I am an American expat and father of young ­children. The only reason my kids haven’t ­experienced an active shooter drill at their school is simply because they’ve never attended school in America.

From this distance, the reality is obvious: America has become exceptional in our commitment to allow the most vulnerable to live under constant threats of violence in the name of freedom.

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It’s a sort of comedic tragedy to hear GOP ­senators, in the wake of a mass shooting, advocate for ­single-entry school designs or arming teachers. Anything but addressing large capacity magazines, high ­velocity rounds, and consumer oriented ­purchasing laws.

When my accent gives me away as an American in Scotland, it’s common to get a question or two about American politics. But ever since January 6, the ­questions have given way to a sort of incredulity. Instead of asking about a particular view or take, it’s more exasperation. You can hear it in the tone, if not the words. And with scenes of American gun violence streaming regularly into homes around the world, I struggle to explain to my confused ­Scottish neighbours – who just can’t understand – how ­deeply a distorted association between guns, God, and American liberty holds the hearts and minds of my fellow American citizens.

After the recent school shootings in Uvalde, Texas which took the lives of 21 Americans: 19 children and two adults, our family shared the story of ­Scotland’s own mass school shooting at Dunblane in 1996 with our American family and friends.

It’s hard to describe the reaction this story ­elicited; some ­responded with a sort of deep nostalgia, ­others with a pervasive ­paranoia of tyranny. Some opted for both. Many chose to remember the “good old days” where you could store your hunting rifle in your school locker after an early morning hunt.

Here the ­problem couldn’t be firearms, it could only be things like ­mental health or fatherlessness, or a vague ­conviction that God belongs back in public schools.

Some fell back on the patriotic ­revolutionary ­impulse: all which stands between everyday ­Americans and an oppressive government is an armed militia. Again, it’s less about what the problem is, and more about stating from the outset what the problem cannot be. This is ideology at its purest. The problem could not be firearms. The real problem, it claims, is the prospect of tyranny and the collapse of freedom. In this ideology, guns aren’t an accessory to liberty, but the image of liberty itself. In either case, both nostalgia in the positive and paranoia in the negative were fuelled by visions of American ­exceptionalism.

The emerging right-wing vision of ­absolute liberty is a sort of tyranny. It is a sort of authoritarianism. And it tends to dissolve the necessary tension of liberty with security in the name of freedom. The rhetoric of today’s radical Republicans bristles with this authoritarianism, even while stealing and distorting the moral authority of Christianity to ­underwrite it.

The National: Lauren Boebert, the Republican candidate, with a gun in her holster (David Zalubowski/AP)

GOP Colorado representative Lauren Boebert (shown above with her gun) recently spoke at an ­evangelical church: Charis Christian Center, in ­Colorado Springs. Boebert quipped from the stage that, regardless what trolls on Twitter said about how many guns Jesus needed to own, Jesus ­obviously didn’t have enough AR-15s to stop his ­government from killing him. It was delivered as a punchline. Congregants laughed. Here, Jesus is no prophet. He’s a patriot of their own design.

From the outside looking in, this seems ludicrous. To people of faith, sacrilegious. Those attuned to geopolitics, ominous. And I agree with all these things. But it’s one thing to explain this distorted association of God, guns, and country. Another to unravel it. Which presents the real challenge. Of course, it would be accurate, technically, to blame ideological zealotry. To see in America a radicalisation within partisan loyalty, the kind that prefigures a move towards fascism.

Again, all of this comes with the hint of truth. But this doesn’t do the ­necessary unravelling for those caught up in the ­culture.

It was the far-right commentator ­Andrew Breitbart who noted politics tend to operate downstream from culture. He thought if you want to affect ­politics, you first must change culture. This ­insight ­became known as the ­“Breitbart ­Doctrine”.

It also maps well with a Christian ­theology known as dominionism. This helps us make sense of the primal ­culture war trenches dug out behind ­American political theatre. Politico generals wage this war by invoking the shattered ­remnants of Christendom, of good and evil, and a struggle for hearts and minds. It is this sort of binary that ­fundamentally cannot abide difference. Total culture war takes no prisoners.

Next to Donald Trump, few come close to Steve Bannon’s (below) influence in stirring up the far right for this culture war in ­America. It should come as little ­surprise to learn that before Bannon was named the White House chief strategist to Donald Trump, he was the executive chairman of Andrew Breibart’s Breitbart News.

The National: Former White House strategist Steve Bannon (Alex Brandon/AP)

It’s necessary to see the Republican Party today in light of these insights and influencers. The shift in the GOP ­towards authoritarianism, legitimised by Christian nationalism, is not a political move. It reflects a larger cultural shift with continuing political consequences. Guns figure as a symbol in these culture war politics.

In this sort of American culture war, Christianity is quick to respond: “guns don’t kill, people do”. But it fails to ­wrestle with the fact that the tools we choose and use change us too. Just ask the American pastors who have learned to ask “is there a gun in the home?” when a congregant flees to the church in the ­crisis of domestic abuse.

The world over can see the proliferation of firearms in American society. But what Americans, particularly conservatives for whom guns represent the divine image of liberty itself, need to wrestle with is how the immediacy of firearms gives us quick solutions to the pain, hatred, or ­sickness which weighs on us more and more these days.

We might analyse political trends, but what is the treatment for a cultural ­sickness? The ideology that keeps guns off the negotiating table is bundled up in a culture, with various origin myths and heroes, of John Wayne and the like. And it’s common for progressives to talk of ­ideological influence as though it’s this conscious decision on the part of people who hold them. As if all it would take is a commitment to becoming enlightened. This assumes we always consciously ­consider or choose our ideological ­preferences and commitments.

Instead, I believe there is something more primal and perhaps less reasonable fuelling the cultural sickness of America reflected in our gun violence. Here, ­progressivism fails. Its incessant appeal, made through outrage or contempt, that people ought to hop on the forward ­moving train, and just be more reasonable, does little to change minds. It only digs deeper trenches. I just can’t get past something uttered by David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian. He simply observed that people do not so much assent to ideologies as much as they inhabit a home.

And the home we are talking about is a home where guns have always featured prominently alongside God.

If you’re looking for evidence, look no further than the other major political news in the United States: the January 6 hearings. At the hearings just this past week, Greg Jacobs, chief counsel to former vice president Mike Pence, testified Pence (below) believes the ­United States Constitution to be a ­divinely ­inspired document. In ­evangelical ­Christian teaching, this ­places the ­Constitution on par with the Holy Bible.

The National: Former US vice president Mike Pence gestures while speaking about abortion

I honestly think God would be ­offended in being credited with the three fifths compromise of the Constitution, one that declared enslaved people ­counted as just 3/5 of a person for ­determining State ­population and Senators. But these points of conflict can’t emerge in any ­significant way to dismantle the ­power of association between liberty, guns, and God.

So in a very real sense, the idea of gun ownership among conservative ­Americans carries with it the aura of ­divine sanction. Once you see guns as an external symbol of the political ­liberty which recognises religious freedom, then a slippery slope association has been formed. You start to believe political ­action on firearms is two steps away from political action against churches and ­people of faith.

As an ethicist, I’m more keen to ask questions than make dogmatic ­statements. But of course, the right ­questions only work in an attempt to ­understand the situation as it really is.

What good is asking, “is nostalgia a way we seek control in moments where that illusion is shattered”? Especially when, for many Americans, our ­ideological homes are a hermetically sealed ­bubble ­protecting us from all the unwanted ­elements outside, of reality.

Within this bubble, the digital ­discourse can confirm and form our ­ideas more ­often than it can disrupt them. ­Politics cannot fix this; indeed they can only ­harness it. And some would so seek to determine our politics that they would stir up paranoia and fear upstream, in deep trenches which cannot but hate the person on the other side. What hope is there?

One thing that gives me hope is what I believe will be true of the rising ­generation. Their culture is altogether different than ours, even though we have caused it. The tyranny of our visions of absolute liberty is experienced by the vulnerable and the weak, who we offer on the altar of freedom. See, they won’t remember a culture of classmates storing guns in their lockers after a hunt. They’ll remember, to our shame, a culture of fear, of crouching under their desks with ­bullet proof blankets. And their culture will practice a different politics when it comes to guns.

If we today, on the other hand, truly take seriously a commitment to life, ­flourishing, and the future, we cannot let fear make fascism an attractive ­option to us. We must do the work, though ­disorienting it may be, of confronting our own failure to see the world from the eyes of another. In this case, our own children.