The horrific mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde brought the AR-15 back into the news for the sadly familiar reason that the perpetrators of both massacres used the weapon to commit their violence. In response, public pressure has been brought to bear on senators, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, former President Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association, whose annual convention was held in Houston over the weekend. As conservative politicians champion Second Amendment rights and rant against restrictions on gun ownership, a dangerous ideological commitment has become visible: the cult of the AR-15.
Daniel Défense, the company from which the Uvalde shooter bought his weapons, published a tweet since deleted containing an image of a child holding a disassembled rifle on which Proverbs 22:6 has been inscribed: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn aside from it.” The company clearly knows its audience, as an AR-15-related ideology – combining Christian nationalism with an obsession with firearms – has spread across the country. There are churches that have AR-15 gifts, some even using scripture to sanctify the weapon, with the most extreme supporters incorporating the weapon into their services.
The largest and most explicit church belonging to this cult has ties to Doug Mastriano, the GOP gubernatorial candidate for Pennsylvania.
Mastriano’s resume addresses all the main points of today’s standard MAGA candidate model. He is an insurgent who sparked enthusiasm for the coup attempt as the featured speaker at the Jericho March rally in December 2020 before participating – by his own admission – in the “Stop the Steal” rally on the 6th January 2021. Washington and despite claiming that he and his wife did not cross police lines at the U.S. Capitol, they were filmed doing just that.) The House January 6 Committee l was subpoenaed for being part of a scheme to send pro-Trump voters to Congress, and he responded with staunch silence.
Mastriano also has an increasingly familiar religious profile. He described the Gulf War, in which he served in 1991, as a “holy” war – a belief reflected in his bizarre 2002 diploma thesis, “The Sphinx of Nebuchadnezzar”. He witnessed events of the charismatic Christian dominionist movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation. He shares anti-Muslim memes, hangs out with members of the militia guarding Confederate statues at Gettysburg, and constantly touches on all the major themes of Christian nationalist discourse in his speeches and other activities. In a particularly vapid moment, he announced his candidacy for governor as wearing a tallit and blowing the shofar– symbols that Christian nationalists have appropriated from Jewish tradition and use to declare an apocalyptic spiritual war.
ASyncretic American spirituality animates every part of Mastriano’s public profile and political career. It should perhaps come as no surprise that he associates himself with an extremist sect that places particular importance on America’s most notorious weapon.
“World Peace and Unification Shrine Church” is the church of Reverend Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon, the youngest son of Unification Church founder Reverend Sun Myung Moon. The senior Moon apocalyptic movement (often derisively referred to as the “Moonies”) became widely known in the 1970s and 1980s for mass wedding ceremonies in which participating couples often met for the first time just before pronouncing their wishes. Young Moon’s schismatic offshoot of his father’s movement has a different signature and is better known by a shorter name: “Rod of Iron Ministries”.
Rod of Iron continues the apocalyptic tradition of the Unification Church, but adds to this framework beliefs derived from various sources that include, most importantly, the rhetoric, imagery and ideology of QAnon and Christian nationalism. Young Moon drafted a constitution for the Messianic Kingdom which he and his supporters believe will replace the United States after its collapse. The church’s website calls on people to join the defense of “freedom” by defending the Second Amendment, which “applies to all freedom-loving individuals, across the planet.” (Just How? ‘Or’ What part of the US Constitution is supposed to apply to the entire planet is not specified.) And church members hold ceremonies wearing crowns of bullets and carrying AR-15s – even, according to the tradition of the elder Moon, the occasional mass marriage. (A ceremony was held just days after the Parkland shooting killed 17 students, teachers and staff in 2018, making the church the subject of heavy criticism.)
From its base in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, Moon’s church began to grow rapidly. In 2021, they purchased a 40-acre resort they call “Liberty Rock” in central Texas and another property in Grainger County, Tennessee, where they plan to build a training center. During a blessing ceremony for the latter property, new property trustee Gregg Nall said, “We believe the kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of armed citizens, so we believe that everyone in the kingdom should be armed”, and that “the gun truly represents strength. Peace through strength. If you have a gun in self-defense, the criminal or predator will back off. If you don’t have a weapon, the predator comes and robs you or us as a nation. Nall’s remarks provide a good summary of the theology of the church, if it can be called that.
Reverend Sean Moon has worked to forge ties with far-right leaders who align with his church’s vision of the destruction and rebirth of contemporary America as a theocracy, and Rod of Iron expanded its reach through significant events. Its annual “Freedom Festival” – billed as the “largest open carry gathering in America” - features MAGA junkies like Steve Bannon and Seb Gorka and far-right figures like Pastor Dan Fisher and the Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson. These speakers are just one attraction among the militaristic cosplay weekend itinerary, a “covert fashion show” and gunfire.
Vice reported last year that Mastriano had been a speaker at Rod of Iron events. It’s no surprise, given how much he and Reverend Sean Moon have in common. They are fellow travelers not only in promoting far-right Christian nationalist politics, but also in being January 6 insurgents: Moon reportedly stormed the Capitol with more than 50 of his supporters. But the most important bond between Mastriano and Moon is their shared belief in an apocalyptic religion that imagines the present moment as a battleground between good and evil at the coming of the End Times.
Reverend Sean Moon derived his church’s unusual name from Revelation 2:27, “he will rule them with a rod of iron”. He considers the rod to be the AR-15, a weapon he believes Christians are bound by duty to use to secure dominance and defend their homes, but his interpretation is not entirely new. As reported in 2013, retired US Army Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin also claimed that Christ would return wielding the AR-15 specifically. It is a weapon that seems both to mythologize and to sanctify itself in Christian nationalist communities, where established religious doctrine and tradition are no longer decisive for the beliefs of adherents. One might ask Reverend Sean Moon if his golden AR-15 is made from the melted down jewelry of his followers.
Just as the Church of Moon has developed an ever-widening platform through partnerships with bad actors, the AR-15 cult has insinuated itself into communities where traditional faith has been displaced by miasma. of Christian nationalism. Rod of Iron may be the cult’s most explicit supporter, but those who see political opportunity in the fear trade over gun rights have become its secret missionaries, carrying messages of salvation across tools of destruction. Like Moon and Mastriano, they desire an apocalypse, which is another word for revelation. The Book of Revelation – also known as the Apocalypse of John – is the last book in the Bible and where Moon came to his beliefs about the cosmic significance of the AR-15. What he and other cultists should consider is that the apocalypse they desire might reveal a different deity than they expect.