LOUISVILLE, Ky., July 18, 2009 -- They clutched their Bibles and wore their handguns on their hips at New Bethel Church in Louisville, Ky., after Rev. Ken Pagano encouraged parishioners to pack both their Bibles and heat to celebrate their right to bear arms -- even in a church sanctuary.
"At first I thought he was joking," says Dallas Southern, a longtime parishioner. "But then as I found out he wasn't, I thought it was a good idea. It promotes our Second Amendment rights."
Southern came with his .22 caliber Rough Rider. More than 175 others also were "packing" in the pews at a gathering, which promised a handgun raffle afterwards. Pagano named it an open carry celebration to distinguish from the religious services he offers every Sunday.
"There were many of our founding fathers who had a deep seated belief in God and respect for firearms," he says. "That's our history, that's our culture and I'm proud of it."
Referred to as the "pistol-packing pastor," Pagano received national attention but also widespread criticism for the June 27 event at his Louisville church. While it's legal in 20 states to carry a gun into a house of worship, it's certainly controversial.
"To have someone bring a gun into that kind of space and to lift it up as if it were a symbol of goodness is horrific," says Rev. Serene Jones, president of the Union Theological Seminary.
Pagano defends his mix of gospel and guns in the name of self defense. Last year 18 shootings broke the silence of sanctuaries and 50 church deaths have occurred in the last decade.
"Churches are being marked off like public schools or universities that have become gun-free zones," Pagano says. "Those are the places that some crazed individuals will come in and we will be sitting ducks."
When not delivering sermons, Pagano works part time at an indoor firing range, and can be seen shooting everything from a typical handgun to a Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine gun. Guns are familiar fair for the former Marine who lives in a state where private sectors must post signs specifically stating that weapons are not allowed.
"We live in a gun culture," Pagano says. "They are not going to go away. I hope they don't go away. It's one of our constitutional rights. What we are doing here in Kentucky is not illegal."
The government isn't opposing guns in church but other religious leaders are. Clergy from churches around New Bethel sponsored an alternate event encouraging visitors to leave their gun home. The event just so happened to start at the same time as the pro-gun rally, a 30-minute drive away.
Pagano's concerns aren't for those who carry in church, but for those who don't. He believes that all churches should be encouraging weapons for self defense.
"If we are the first church that has ever done this, then shame on us," he says. "The Gospel is not only about our spiritual well-being, but also our physical and emotional well-being."
As for the spiritual problems of being a pro-gun pastor, Pagano argues that pacifism is an option, but not a requirement for Christians. Gun ownership falls under Christian liberty, a liberty that has been exercised by religions for hundreds of years.
"If you ever watch the old Western movies, they always bring their old guns in and hang them up in the church," Southern says.
The latest volley in the fiery debate over whether communities of faith should rely on God's protection or man's still remains a volatile debate.