Polls show that 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks for gun buyers, yet a bill mandating this died in the Senate. Evangelical Christians, however, may well be the key to shifting America’s broken political dynamic around gun rights.
Right now, white evangelical Protestants are the group most likely to oppose stricter gun- control laws. They stand out as one of the few constituencies where a strong pro-life identity is tied to attitudes against any restrictions on gun ownership. Evangelicals are also one of the strongest constituencies of support for the National Rifle Association.
Yet the NRA, which has been vigilant in advancing expansive gun-ownership policies, including broader concealed-carry rights, has been accused by its critics of having a casual disregard for the sanctity of human life. A brief stroll through its direct mail and advertising, listening to the language of its most prominent spokespeople and seeing the laws it promotes could bear this assertion out. Meanwhile, the proliferation of “stand your ground” laws, which relieve citizens of the obligation to exhaust all options before shooting in self-defense, sounds like an inversion of basic Christian teachings about loving every human being, including, and most especially, those who would harm you.
The close relationship between evangelicals and the NRA does not go back far. As recently as the Korean War in the early 1950s and the Vietnam War in the 1960s, many evangelicals said they were pacifists and registered as conscientious objectors.
But during the 1980s, the NRA moved strategically to exploit the nascent relationship between American conservatism and evangelicalism. It played to the fact that evangelicals saw much of their own cultural value system reflected in the narrative of traditional American values. They saw their belief in independent individualism embodied in the rock-ribbed, self-sufficient American gun owner, as described by the NRA.
It did not take long for the NRA and evangelicals to begin to strongly identify with one another. The similar demographics of both groups show the depth of this identification.
I’vet spent most of the past two years making a documentary about a leading evangelical Christian minister who is strongly questioning the close ties between his religion and the NRA.The Armor of Light shows how Rob Schenck, who operates an influential ministry on Capitol Hill in Washington, has begun asking whether pro-life Christians can also be pro-gun. In doing so, Schenck finds himself increasingly alone — way out on a political limb.
Yet this is where the greatest possibility for a change in the political dynamics of gun culture lies. If even a small percentage of those who claim a dynamic association with the life and teaching of the Jesus Christ who gave us the Sermon on the Mount start talking about the contradictory language and ethics of evangelicals and the NRA, a powerful shift could occur. This could alter the discourse among families and in media, shift the attitudes of men and women in public places where guns have become increasingly welcome. Perhaps most important, it could lead to a shift in the behavior and expectations of a community known for reliable turnout at the ballot box.
For decades, a rigid and paralytic political dynamic has been ascendant in this country, and the only way forward is to alter the behavior of the forces in conflict with each other — to find a different lever point for change. That lever point could turn out to be an evangelical Christian community fully reawakened to the fundamental tenets of its own creed.
As Schenck demonstrates in the film, if evangelicals can come together in open dialogue, fully informed by the Bible in which they believe, many might well conclude that the logic of unfettered gun rights is incompatible with a life dedicated to following the example of the Prince of Peace.
“I’m concerned about the NRA promoting the idea that the best way to solve the most vexing problems in our society is to be prepared to shoot people dead,” Schenck said at a meeting of the Evangelical Church Alliance. “That doesn’t sit well with me as a Christian moral vision.” He continued: “When we champion the Second Amendment over and above the word of God, then we must be very careful that in respecting the Second Amendment we don’t violate the Second Commandment.”
When the call of conscience trumps habit and history, surprising things can happen. From Jim Crow to women’s suffrage, it is only when men and women have brought their higher selves into the political realm that we have seen systems radically change.
It might not be as hard as we fear.