THE BLOG
11/14/2014 08:41 am ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

Can Faith Moderate US Gun Culture? Studies Link Religion to Lower Devotion to Firearms

President Obama fed the stereotype of the relationship between faith and firearms in 2008 when he spoke of people in small towns who get bitter over the lack of progress in their lives. "They cling to guns or religion ... [as] a way to explain their frustrations," he said.

Rallying her troops in 2012, GOP activist Sarah Palin declared, "We say keep your change, we'll keep our God, our guns, our constitution."

Both may have taken the name of the divine in vain.

Two new studies indicate that greater personal faith predicts lower attachment to guns and lower levels of gun ownership.

Rather than propping up an anything-goes gun culture, religion may be part of the solution in promoting conversations that move beyond the partisan divides that have immobilized debates over gun control.

Guns and religion

Early results from the 2014 Baylor Religion Survey found that the more gun owners rated themselves as being moderately or very religious, the less likely they were to be attached to their weapons as sources of power in such areas as respect, safety and self-confidence.

The survey also found that while people who were moderate church attenders were more likely to feel empowered by owning guns, attachment levels dropped for people who attended services weekly or more, Baylor sociologists F. Carson Mencken and Paul Froese reported.

One area where religion was associated with greater attachment to guns was in images of the divine. White respondents who were more likely to view God as angry and judgmental reported greater attachment to their guns.

Overall, however, the results tended to puncture the popular image that "religious people are really into guns," Froese noted in an interview. "Somebody who is very religious is not going to be as attached to a physical object" that is not an overtly religious symbol.

In a separate study, Wake Forest University sociologist David Yamane found that the more people attended services, prayed and were engaged in spiritual groups in congregations, the less likely they were to be gun owners.

He also found there was no significant relation between theological conservatism and gun ownership. He analyzed data from four waves of the General Social Survey from 2006 to 2012,

In an interview, Yamane said he thinks the negative relationship between gun ownership and the importance of religion may be related to the higher levels of trust people form within religious communities.

Both studies were presented at the recent joint meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association in Indianapolis. The authors emphasized these were early results that will undergo further analysis.

Guns and economics

If not faith, what is related to the passionate embrace of guns by many Americans?

The answer may be found in another campaign quote, this one relied upon by former President Bill Clinton: "The economy, stupid."

In the Baylor study, researchers found a significant association between economic despair and the attachment white men reported to their firearms.

The more economic struggles white gun owners reported they were facing, the greater the attachment to their weapons, the researchers found.

The new global economy has deprived many men of the sense of self-worth they once derived from manufacturing jobs that paid middle-class wages. In turn, that may have increased their attachment to guns.

"When one source of power is taken away, another source takes its place," Mencken said. "White males with diminishing economic power are the most likely to use guns as a symbolic source of power, goodness and pride."

On a larger landscape, just as many people on one side of the gun-control debate view guns as symbols of violence and killing, so do many other Americans view personal weapons as symbols of self-worth and patriotism.

Among the practical implications of the research, researchers said, are increasing understanding that could lead to a more productive dialogue on policy issues balancing public safety with the right of responsible individuals to own guns.

"We really should be focusing on the idea these are symbolic battles here," Froese said.

Faith communities, in as much as they create trust based on shared spiritual principles, may be one of the best places to have these types of conversations.

America is often seen as a nation awash both in a sea of faith and a sea of guns, noted Yamane of Wake Forest.

But one does not necessarily beget the other. There is some evidence the more seriously Americans take their faith lives, the less likely the nation will drown in a culture that turns guns into idols.

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David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.