In the wake of the horrific violence unleashed last week at Sandy Hook Elementary School, religious leaders across the country have tried to provide spiritual healing and grappled with profound theological questions about the nature of evil. As the dead are buried and we mourn the loss of heroic teachers and innocent children, the work of faith communities is just beginning. Now is the time for pastors, rabbis and imams in every community to speak up boldly for saner gun control laws.
Pro-life Christians who are a major political force in this country should be leading this movement. If the sanctity of human life in the womb galvanizes evangelical Christians and Catholics to march on Washington, create sophisticated lobbying campaigns and hold members of Congress accountable, there is no excuse for pro-life timidity on this issue.
Sadly, if not unexpectedly, the loudest Christian voices have been from the usual chorus of culture warriors who are again blaming Democrats, President Obama and "godless" public schools for the tragedy. Mike Huckabee, pastor-in-chief at Fox News, thinks if we had a more God-fearing nation this tragedy could have been avoided. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, best known for his homophobic screeds, roared that "we've kicked God out of our public school system." Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, an evangelical who apparently believes the Prince of Peace would want us all packin' heat, recently called for arming teachings and school administrators at a Tea Party event.
The National Association of Evangelicals, a pro-life lobbying force, has sent out press releases this week about how evangelicals are portrayed in the media and the attitudes of younger evangelicals toward abortion reduction, but nothing about the moral scandal of gun violence that kills more than 30,000 people a year. The Southern Baptist Convention has been mum. Back in 2002, Richard Land, the chief public policy spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, decried what he called a "long-term assault on your Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms."
This moral cowardice and Christian capitulation to NRA propaganda should turn our stomach.
Catholic bishops, who will help mobilize many thousands of pro-life activists next month for the annual March for Life in Washington, could also put more lobbying muscle behind gun control efforts considering the church's past statements. As Carol Glatz reports for Catholic News Service:
The Catholic Church's position on gun control is not easy to find; there are dozens of speeches and talks and a few documents that call for much tighter regulation of the global arms trade, but what about private gun ownership? The answer is resoundingly clear: Firearms in the hands of civilians should be strictly limited and eventually completely eliminated. But you won't find that statement in a headline or a document subheading. It's almost hidden in a footnote in a document on crime by the U.S. bishops' conference and it's mentioned in passing in dozens of official Vatican texts on the global arms trade. The most direct statement comes in the bishops' "Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice" from November 2000.
"As bishops, we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer -- especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner -- and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns." That's followed by a footnote that states: "However, we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions -- i.e. police officers, military use -- handguns should be eliminated from our society." That in turn reiterates a line in the bishops' 1990 pastoral statement on substance abuse, which called "for effective and courageous action to control handguns, leading to their eventual elimination from our society."
Catholics in the pews are ripe for mobilization. Among U.S. religious groups, Catholics are the most likely to support gun control. More than six in 10 of Catholics (62 percent) favor stricter firearms laws, compared to fewer than half of white evangelicals (35 percent) and white mainline Protestants (42 percent), according to a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll.
There is no easy fix for the epidemic of gun violence. Inadequate mental health services, rampant materialism, the glorification of violence and the spiritual alienation of young men and women who are disconnected from community all play a role. We live in a toxic culture. Laws can't be the only answer for a crisis that is more deeply rooted. But the complexity of this urgent challenge can't be an excuse for inaction or deferring to an unacceptable status quo.
The religious right will continue to blame the gays, contraception and abortion for the collapse of civilization. But there are far more empty churches in Europe and Canada than in our highly religious society, and mass shootings like the ones in Littleton, Aurora and Newton are a rarity because of reasonable gun laws and a culture that does not mythologize guns. If pro-life Christian leaders need some inspiration they should look to Rev. Gary Hall, the dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, who on the first Sunday after the school shooting in Connecticut said the best way to mourn the Sandy Hook tragedy is "to mobilize the faith community for gun control."
"The gun lobby," said Hall, "is no match for the cross lobby."