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Doug Mastriano, Christian Nationalism, and the Cult of the AR-15

The Republican nominee for Pennsylvania governor has ties to a gun-worshiping sect. But the real scandal is just how common many of their beliefs have become on the right.
May 31, 2022
Doug Mastriano, Christian Nationalism, and the Cult of the AR-15
A detail view of an AR-15 style rifle at Kahr Arms' Tommy Gun Warehouse on Kahr Ave., in Greeley, Penn. (Photo by Bryan Anselm/Redux For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The horrific mass shootings at Buffalo and Uvalde have brought the AR-15 back into the news for the unfortunately 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 took place in Houston over the weekend. As conservative politicians defend Second Amendment rights and declaim against restrictions on gun ownership, a dangerous ideological commitment has become visible: the cult of the AR-15.

Daniel Defense, the company from which the Uvalde shooter purchased his guns, posted a since-deleted tweet containing an image of a child holding a dismantled rifle over which Proverbs 22:6 has been inscribed: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” The company clearly knows its audience, as an ideology connected to the AR-15—combining Christian nationalism with a firearms obsession—has spread across the country. There are churches that have AR-15 giveaways, some even using scripture to sacralize the weapon—with the most extreme proponents incorporating the gun into their services.

The most prominent and explicit church belonging to this cult has ties to Doug Mastriano, the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate for Pennsylvania.

Mastriano’s résumé hits all the main points of today’s bog-standard MAGA candidate template. He’s an insurrectionist who ginned up enthusiasm for the attempted coup as a featured speaker for Jericho March’s rally in December 2020 before participating—by his own admission—in the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6, 2021. (He bused Trump supporters to Washington and although he claimed that he and his wife did not cross police lines at the U.S. Capitol, they were caught on video doing just that.) The House Jan. 6th Committee subpoenaed him for being part of a plan to send pro-Trump electors to Congress, and he responded with loyal silence.

Mastriano also has an increasingly familiar religious profile. He has described the Gulf War, in which he served in 1991, as a “holy” war—a belief reflected in his bizarre 2002 graduate thesis, “Nebuchadnezzar’s Sphinx.” He has attended events of the Charismatic Christian dominionist movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation. He shares anti-Muslim memes, hangs out with militia members to guard Confederate statues at Gettysburg, and constantly hits all the main themes of Christian nationalist discourse in his speeches and other activities. In one particularly tasteless moment, he announced his gubernatorial candidacy while wearing a tallit and blowing a shofar—symbols that Christian nationalists have appropriated from the Jewish tradition and use to declare apocalyptic spiritual war.

American syncretic spirituality animates every part of Mastriano’s public profile and political career. Perhaps it should be no surprise that he associates with an extremist sect that places special emphasis on America’s most notorious gun.

“The World Peace and Unification Sanctuary Church” is the church of the Reverend Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon, the youngest son of Unification Church founder Reverend Sun Myung Moon. The senior Moon’s apocalyptic movement (often derisively called the “Moonies”) became widely known in the 1970s and ’80s for mass-wedding ceremonies in which participating couples often met for the first time just before saying their vows. The younger Moon’s schismatic offshoot of his father’s movement has a different signature emphasis and is better known by a shorter name: “Rod of Iron Ministries.”

Rod of Iron continues the Unification Church’s tradition of apocalypticism, but adds to this framework beliefs derived from a variety of sources that include, most importantly, the rhetoric, imagery, and ideology of both QAnon and Christian nationalism. The younger Moon wrote a constitution for the messianic kingdom he and his followers believe will replace the United States following its collapse. The church’s website calls for people to join in defending “freedom” by standing up for the Second Amendment, which “applies to all freedom loving individuals—across the planet.” (Just how a part of the U.S. Constitution is supposed to apply to the whole planet is left unstated.) And members of the church perform ceremonies wearing bullet crowns and carrying AR-15s—even, following the elder Moon’s tradition, the occasional mass wedding. (One ceremony took place only days after the Parkland shooting left 17 students, teachers, and staff dead in 2018, making the church the subject of intense criticism.)

From its Newfoundland, Pennsylvania base, Moon’s church has started to rapidly expand. In 2021, they bought a 40-acre compound they call “Liberty Rock” in central Texas and another property in Grainger County, Tennessee, where they plan on building a training center. At a blessing ceremony for the latter property, the administrator for the new property, Gregg Nall, said that “We believe that 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 really does represent strength. Peace through strength. If you have a gun in self-defense, the criminal or the predator will back off. If you don’t have a gun the predator comes in and ravishes you or us as a nation.” Nall’s remarks provide a good summary of the church’s theology, if one can call it that.

Rev. Sean Moon has been working to forge ties to leaders in the far right who align with his church’s vision of contemporary America’s destruction and rebirth as a theocracy, and Rod of Iron has expanded its reach through prominent events. Its annual “Freedom Festival”—billed as the “largest open carry rally in America”—features MAGA hangers-on like Steve Bannon and Seb Gorka and far-right figures like Pastor Dan Fisher and Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson. These speakers are only one attraction amid the weekend’s itinerary of militaristic cosplay, a “concealed-carry fashion show,” and gunfire.

Vice reported last year that Mastriano has been a speaker at Rod of Iron events. It’s no surprise, given how much he and Rev. Sean Moon have in common. They are fellow travelers not only in promoting far-right Christian nationalist politics, but also in being Jan. 6th insurrectionists: Moon reportedly stormed the Capitol with over 50 of his followers. But the most important connection 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 advent of the End Times.

Rev. Sean Moon derived his church’s unusual name from Revelation 2:27, “he shall rule them with a rod of iron.” He takes the rod to be the AR-15, a weapon he thinks Christians are bound by duty to wield to secure dominion and defend their homes—but his interpretation is not quite novel. As reported in 2013, retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Jerry Boykin similarly claimed that Christ will return wielding the AR-15 specifically. It is a weapon that appears to both mythologize and sacralize itself in Christian nationalist communities, where established religious doctrine and tradition are no longer determinative for the beliefs of adherents. One might ask Rev. Sean Moon if his golden AR-15 is made from the melted-down jewelry of his followers.

Just as Moon’s church has developed a larger and larger platform through partnerships with bad actors, the cult of the AR-15 has insinuated itself in communities where traditional faith has been displaced by the miasma of Christian nationalism. Rod of Iron might be the most explicit proponent of the cult, but those who see political opportunity in the business of fearmongering about gun rights have become its secret missionaries, bearing messages of salvation through implements 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 final book of the Bible and the place 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.

Thomas Lecaque

Thomas Lecaque is an associate professor of history at Grand View University. Twitter: @tlecaque.