Americans have a long, deeply held, and often misrepresented history with firearms that recently has taken on some very strange forms, ones that directly apply to the current governor’s race.
In the beginning, local militias relied upon primitive matchlocks and flintlocks for survival on the bleeding edge of the seventeenth century frontier. Following British tradition, men between the ages of fifteen and sixty were liable for service to defend the community. Just how well they fought literally was a matter of life and death.
American policy and law followed tradition. The Second Amendment was built upon the difficulties faced by a young, cash-strapped nation that could not afford its own defense. Consequently, the militia was the backbone of national security until the early twentieth century.
Importantly, and until very recently, the courts have followed the principle set down in the eighteenth century that gun rights existed within a collective whole. In the 1939 United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 decision, the Supreme Court agreed that weapons used in the service of a well-regulated militia were free from regulation. Almost seventy years later, in District of Columbia v. Heller, 552 U.S. 1229 (2008), the court reversed that standard in a 5-4 decision that made the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms applicable to individuals, not military organizations.
The 2008 decision set the table for our current, ongoing debate over the tension between individual rights and social responsibility to the nation’s defense.
Doug Mastriano, a Pennsylvania state senator who holds a doctorate in history, should know all this context. Yet, the Republican candidate for governor has chosen a very strange tangent to gun safety in America that has very little to do with law or precedent.
That tangent exists in a weird universe of Old Testament justice embodied by the World Peace and Unification Church, otherwise known as the Rod of Iron Ministries, an organization headed by Sean Moon, the son of Unification Church leader Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Located a few miles east of Scranton, the ministry gained notoriety in 2018 with media reports of a mass wedding where participants carried AR-15’s as part of the ceremony.
Rod of Iron Ministries sees the world in apocalyptic terms.
Modern evil is everywhere according to Sean Moon, but the public sector seems to draw much of his attention. He has described public schools as “synagogues of Satan” In a 2018 sermon, he offered the following mashup: “The Democrat Party has become the communist party funded by Nazi collaborator George Soros.” After the November 2020 election, Moon described president-elect Biden as part of a “tyrannical, globalist, Satanist, Luciferian force.”
How best to fight evil? The answer is simple: with guns. The phrase “rod of iron” is taken from Revelation 2:27, which Moon interprets literally as Jesus using a weapon to defend himself and the world against evil. The modern “rod” translates as a military assault rifle. In fact, Moon once went so far as to claim in 2019 that: “In John, Chapter 2, we see that Jesus is an assault weapons manufacturer.” Rod of Iron Ministries appears perfectly ready to act on its convictions. It has its own Peace Police/Peace Militia, which regularly trains in the use of armed force, training that, according to a YouTube video posted by the ministry, will create a “tremendous fighting implement.”
Consequently, the gun debate has morphed from individual legal rights to collective action in a Christian struggle against evil. What started as a legal right is now a sacred act.
The combination of Second Amendment rights and projected Christian values have created an irresistible alliance between Republicans and Rod of Iron Ministries. Moon told Vice News in 2019 that Donald Trump was chosen by God to purge the “deep state, swamp, whatever you want to call it, the bureaucracy of the federal government.”
Rod of Iron and its affiliates have attracted the likes of Steven Bannon and Eric Trump to their events. Donald Trump Jr. personally attended the grand opening of Justin Moon (Sean’s brother) gun shop. Local Pennsylvania Republicans have also jumped on this particular bandwagon. Frank Scavo, a Republican with long service on the Old Forge School District, emceed a Rod of Iron Event just weeks before the 2020 election. Scavo later plead guilty to picketing within the Capitol building and was sentenced to sixty days in prison.
One of the best-known Republicans with direct ties to Rod of Iron Ministries is Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano. Just why Mastriano decided to form this relationship is an open question. Is it a cynical exercise in political manipulation? Or do Mastriano’s personal beliefs overlap with the ministry? The evidence points to the second conclusion.
A recent Salon profile described Mastriano and his supporters as: “a fusion of QAnon, the far-right Patriot movement and the revivalist New Apostolic Reformation — which views him as a military and political leader in advancing the biblically prophesied end times.” In July 2020, at a rally which featured the ritual sounding of the shofar, an Old Testament instrument made from a ram’s horn that Joshua blew outside Jericho, Reverend Earl Hixon pointed to Mastriano and said: “Father God, I am looking to our new general here, that you have appointed, this Joshua. In Jesus’ name!”
Mastriano clearly believes that the Second Amendment is one battleground in need of his leadership. During a 2018 primary forum, Mastriano likened the gun safety debate to a battle between good and evil:
It’s appalling to me anytime there’s a shooting, the left will jump on that as a way to advance an agenda to remove our right to bear arms. Whatever, what other right will they suspend? We saw a similar approach, as a historian with a doctor [sic] in history, we saw Lenin do the same thing in Russia. We saw Hitler do the same thing in Germany in the 30s. Where does it stop where did the tyrant stop infringing upon our rights?
Although Mastriano has a doctorate in history, he mistakenly draws the same correlation between American gun regulation and totalitarian dictatorship as made by the Rod of Iron Ministries. Other mistakes follow from this trained academic. Mastriano is fond of invoking the phrase “appeal to heaven” on social media, a term that appeared throughout the January 6th insurrection. Taken literally, it appears consistent with his Christian faith. In reality, the idea comes from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government, “The Right of Revolution,” rather than individual rights or religious faith and applies to the legitimacy of law between people and nations.
Whether Mastriano understands political or biblical meanings is less important than the fact that he is willing to act on his convictions. In the lead up to the 2020 election, he consistently invoked the need to intervene against alleged political corruption for the sake of the country. During a June 2020 interview, he said that “God is always looking for men and women like you and me to stand in the gap.” Although Mastriano attempted to distance himself from the January 6th insurrection, the evidence clearly shows him present when rioters breached police barricades.
How best to address the ongoing threat of this so-called evil? Like Rod of Iron Ministry, Mastriano sees an answer in firearms. In June of this year, in response to the Uvalde mass shooting, the gubernatorial candidate proposed arming Pennsylvania teachers “to enhance the safety of children and staff while on school property.”
Pennsylvania voters have a choice (among many) in November. As far as gun regulations are concerned, does the Commonwealth follow more than two centuries of legal practice and precedent or a bastardized version of the New Testament?