In a testimony to America’s ongoing religiosity, virtually every public debate has religious voices arrayed on both sides. But typically religious voices of the left are more intensely focused on detailed politics because of their greater faith in perfecting society through politics. Gun control debates since the horrific Newtown murders exemplify this confidence, with the Religious Left certain that gun control is the main answer.
And no Religious Left campaign is complete without Sojourners activist Jim Wallis. He joined several dozen clergy and other religionists at a January 15 press conference at the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill to urge gun control legislation and to denounce the National Rifle Association. They claimed to represent 80 million Americans, which might be news to many within their supposed constituency. Particularly repugnant to Wallis et al. apparently was NRA chief Wayne LaPierre’s suggestion of armed guards at schools.
Denouncing LaPierre’s assertion that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” Wallis called such talk “morally mistaken, theologically dangerous and religiously repugnant.” Evidently not mentioning his own pacifism, which tends to see all violence as morally equal, Wallis instead argued: “The world is not full of good and bad people, that’s not what the scripture teaches. We all have bad and good in us.”
True, but Wallis the pacifist sidesteps historic Christian teaching that morally sanctions the defenders of the innocent against attackers on the innocent, even if all parties are indeed sinners. A robust defense of the moral necessity and urgency of defending the defenseless with more than just legislation and well-intentioned activism would strengthen his arguments. But Wallis and many of his allies are probably incapable of such admissions justifying force.
Specifically Wallis’s coalition urged assault weapons bans, universal background checks on gun buyers, and federalizing gun trafficking crimes. His lobby group includes the Catholic Health Association, the Islamic Society of North America, the Episcopal Church, the National Council of Churches, United Methodist Women and the Presbyterian Church (USA), whose D.C. lobbyist warned against a “false choice between guns and freedom.”
Citing the coalition’s “reasonable measures” such as banning assault weapons, the United Methodist Church’s chief lobbyist omitted that his denomination favors a complete ban on handgun ownership. The predictable hardcore Religious Left groups at the Wallis press conference did little to assuage the suspicion that their “reasonable measures” are but first steps towards their utopian dream of a gun-free America.
The night before Wallis’s press conference, another religious coalition, again including Wallis along with some more moderate religious voices, many of whom are reputedly presidential spiritual advisors, also urged “reasonable steps” towards gun control. Among the signers was Leith Anderson, head of the National Association of Evangelicals, which he continues to lead leftward. The NAE has no official policy on guns, but its official silence seems not to inhibit Anderson from becoming outspoken. A fellow NAE officer who is also a Florida mega-church pastor as well as Obama counselor, Joel Hunter, is another signer. Unexceptionally, so too are the presiding bishops of the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran denominations.
This group of White House faith advisors urged “universal background checks for gun purchases, collection and publication of relevant data on gun violence, and other constructive measures that will limit gun violence.” They also touted greater mental health awareness and warned against the “incessant cacophony of violent film, music and video that overwhelms our senses each day has not dulled the compassion with which we are endowed.” So at least they point to remedies beyond just anti-gun legislation. And they admitted with a little more modesty than the other anti-gun coalition, with its claims to represent 80 million, that “our communities are not in total agreement as to the extent of the measures they currently envision.”
A Washington Post account of the anti-gun religious coalitions shrewdly suggested that amid the de-institutionalization of American religion, such groups may no longer speak for large numbers. And the “Post” accurately noted that most evangelicals especially remain firmly opposed to gun control, with one August poll showing 68 percent of white evangelicals against stricter laws. It also quoted a somewhat younger and sometimes more liberal evangelical, Gabe Lyons of “Q,” who cited “the current gun restriction debate” as evidence of a potential another “lost liberty.” Indeed, younger evangelicals more socially liberal often are libertarian and hands off on issues like guns.
It was deeply appropriate that the Wallis anti-gun press conference convened in the United Methodist Building. It was built in the 1920s to sustain another religious utopian dream, which was to create a righteous America through abolishing all alcohol. The religious Prohibitionists then were genuine populists with direct support from millions of churchgoers. Today’s religious crusaders for gun control are mostly activist elites whose influence beyond a D.C. press conference is dubious.
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