God and guns: Inside the Pennsylvania church where they pray next to their AR-15s

This is an anxious moment in America, in a year dominated by division.

There are deep concerns there could be an outbreak of violence after the election amidst an electorate unlikely to be satisfied by either result.

We’ve seen militia groups on the rise, a near constant presence at moments of tension.

The World Peace and Unification Sanctuary Church is based in Pennsylvania
Image:The World Peace and Unification Sanctuary Church is based in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, you can see the national fault lines laid bare, in a congregation that looks somewhat incongruous nestled in the rural landscape of New Foundland.

Inside The World Peace and Unification Sanctuary Church people are dressed in white wearing crowns.

They’re also carrying unloaded AR-15 rifles – a popular but highly controversial weapon in America.

The man overseeing the day announces on the loud speaker that they are “religious accoutrements”. They believe the rifles represent the biblical “rod of iron” referenced in the Book of Revelation – needed, they say, to protect God’s children.

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This is a church that’s pro-gun, pro-life and pro-Trump.

Pastor Sean Moon, a softly spoken Harvard-educated man in his forties, is head of the church.

His father, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, was a self-proclaimed messiah, his followers pejoratively referred to as Moonies and called a cult by critics.

Pastor Sean Moon runs the church
Image:Pastor Sean Moon runs the church

The church became known for their mass weddings, often between strangers. But after his death, the church split – his son forming a new one attracting Americans who embrace Christian nationalism and second amendment rights.

He tells me the AR-15, connected with mass shootings in the US, is misunderstood.

“I think there’s a lot of skewing in the media… there are more stabbings, for example, then deaths by the AR-15… it’s a sporting rifle, it’s the most popular rifle in all of America.”

The president, he concedes, is not a perfect man but represents his Christian values because he “stands against murder and the genocide of 70 million children… and very radical left-wing ideologies”.

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That embrace of Mr Trump has seen him attract hundreds every year to his “rod of iron” festival, a celebration of guns.

He’s even met the president’s son Eric Trump, an indication of the church’s political reach.

When we arrive, they are holding a commitment ceremony; hundreds of couples from across the world, getting married, some remotely.

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Ted O’Grady is one of them. He said he’s marrying Tanya from Russia and that they “spent the last nine months communicating on Skype and through Google Translate”.

Among those watching on is Hope Igarashi.

She, like Mr Trump and many in the church, believe that if Joe Biden becomes president he’d try to disarm people and the country would descent into socialism – something Mr Biden rejects.

She believes there are left-wing groups plotting trouble.

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“There’s many cells, hidden cells all over the country,” Hope says.

“They’re ready. They’re preparing for some kind of war to take over our nation. We don’t want to become like Venezuela.

“Already. Right now. We have people in food lines trying to get food. And I believe that we need President Trump to protect us from many terrible things that might come about.”

We know from evidence, violent right-wing groups are also active in America right now too.

But like Hope, Annette Yamakawa is concerned about the other side who don’t share her political outlook.

She tells me she’s taken classes and practiced on a range in case there is conflict after the election and claims Democrats are doing the same.

She fears organisations like Antifa are threatening public safety.

Churchgoers pray alongside their guns
Image:Churchgoers pray alongside their guns

Everyone we speak to is at pains to tell us the church promotes peace and that they only carry guns for self-defence.

They fear a moment when a government overreaches itself.

Mira Williams explains to me “only an armed militia can really resist a government”.

It is an extraordinary glimpse at life inside a church that many will look at and perceive as extreme.

But their fears also speak to a broader conversation in America about God and guns.

They capture the anxiety about protecting faith and the right to bear arms that people still feel so feel in this country. It’s a conversation and a conflict that’s far from resolved.

Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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