Why The Church Can’t Stop Gun Violence

Liberal Christians may be too afraid to get their hands dirty.

Last night, as news of the shootings in San Bernardino was being digested, the Twitterverse erupted in debate over the proper response. Some commentators—most notably Igor Volsky of the liberal think tank ThinkProgress—pointed out the hypocrisy of politicians calling for #thoughtsandprayers while accepting stacks of cash from the NRA and other gun advocates. The nearly 1:1 correspondence there is truly sickening.

Others, including myself, pointed out that at least some of these charges were tone-deaf, and that there’s more to prayer than commonly thought. The Atlantic‘s Emma Green, and many conservatives, saw a “prayer-shaming” liberal attack on faith itself, which is twaddle.

As usual, Twitter’s done this to death, and then some. I’m less interested in the prayer-vs.-action debate itself, though, than in how it usefully frames another question: if not prayer, what?

It’s easy to see that political leaders could be instituting meaningful reform of American gun laws. Closing the gun show loophole would be a start. So would strengthening background checks, cracking down on straw buyers, instituting a federal waiting period, and banning assault weapons. Even fixing the mental health system would do some good, though the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators.

It’s less clear what civilians can do. Sarah Posner wrote an excellent piece the other day looking at the difficulties faith-based advocates for gun reform have encountered. Some of them are institutional:

Differences in the structure of mainline Protestant churches, compared to evangelical churches, play a role in shaping (or not) congregants’ political ideology. In mainline Protestant churches, “pastors tend to follow denominational teaching,” but lay leaders in the church are not well-informed about these denominational stances, said Lydia Bean, a sociologist and executive director of Faith in Texas, which organizes churches for social justice.

Another obstacle for faith-based gun control activists is the intensity and homogeneity with which white evangelicals view guns. While the congregants in mainline Protestant churches are split on the issue, leading to fears of stoking intra-congregational conflict by raising it, evangelical churches have “sacralized” gun culture, Bean said. Guns are not uniformly considered a “holy” issue like abortion, there is an “overlap of Christian heroism, gun culture, and nationalism” that gets “packaged together.”

Not only are more liberal denominations split on gun control, they’re distracted by any number of other issues: hunger, homelessness, anti-racism, advocating for LGBT rights, refugee resettlement, Israel-Palestine and on and on and on. Anybody who’s spent time in a mainline Protestant church knows that it seems like there’s a new cause every damn day. It’s difficult to coalesce around any one issue.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the ongoing self-segregation of Americans into liberal and conservative enclaves limits reform. Advocates in urban areas are likely to be literally preaching to the converted; those in rural or many suburban pulpits might as well save their breath.

Beyond structural limitations, I think we need to ask about the effectiveness of strategies and tactics. As Sarah points out, coalition-building among leaders hasn’t built much support for reform. The people in the pews will happily ignore what the leading lights are saying—and that’s if the leaders sign on.

Other methods have their own problems. Denying gun-rights advocates the sacraments is a non-starter. Divesting from gun manufacturers might have some effect, but I have to think that churches have already committed to this through socially responsible investment funds. Continuing: witnessing to the effects of gun violence tends to be discounted. The Sandy Hook shootings proved that. If 20 dead kindergartners and first graders don’t move the needle, no amount of memorialization will. Consciousness-raising? Most people know the scope of the problem already, and they’ve made up their mind. Petitions to Congress or the White House are politely acknowledged and filed away.

Even large protests, such as those against the Iraq War, are ineffective without clear demands and leverage points. Two recent examples prove the point, I think. The Black Lives Matter movement has seen some success because they’ve mostly concentrated on local issues: in Chicago, it’s possible to make police brutality toxic enough that the mayor feels the need to fire the police superintendent. Pressure like that is unlikely to work on a national level. In the Missouri University protests, the students held a trump card. The administration couldn’t afford to lose the entire football season, and so was forced to concede to the protestors’ demands.

This is not to say there is nothing that can be done. Advocates can work on a local level, perhaps protesting irresponsible gun shops, or through gun buy-backs. Those are relatively small-scale, but every bit counts. On a federal level, it might be possible to convince Pres. Obama to do something like require manufacturers with federal contracts to improve firearm safety technology.

Gun reform advocates will no doubt argue that it takes time to build an effective movement, that their strategies look to the long term. That’s quite right. It took more than twenty years of pressure for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to meet its goals, for example. And there is valuable long-term work to be done: counteracting the tribal politics that claim gun rights as an ideological imperative, for example, exposing the sublimated—and not so sublimated—racism that props up gun sales, or confronting the the 2nd Amendment idolatry that requires guns to fight off the imagined tyranny of an “illegitimate” federal government.

But in the short run, people are understandably frustrated as the body count continues to rise. What can be done?

The key, I think, lies with that idea of leverage. Building up positive values in elected representatives seldom works these days. They come into office knowing what they think, and what they think their constituents want. That leaves negative reinforcement: unless politicians feel they have something to lose in a debate, they’re unlikely to respond.

Unfortunately, the denomination of choice in American politics these days is money and votes, which essentially works out to the same thing. The NRA spent $3,000,000 to help Joni Ernst get elected to the US Senate, and they are not hesitant to use their war chest against candidates who defy their will. Against that kind of money, how effective can a church be? Until a Republican congressman has less to fear from gun reform advocates than from a well-funded primary challenge, we won’t see meaningful reform. What’s called for is exactly what the American church is not set up to do: intervene in electoral politics. When it comes down it, guns are a political problem, not a spiritual one, and the problem can only be resolved through political means: round up enough money and votes to break the gun lobby’s hold on Congress.

Christians—liberal Christians in particular—are desperate to find some way not to engage with the levers that actually produce change in our society because they think the system is too tainted. In my experience, liberal Christians will take any alternative to partisanship they can find, even if the alternative changes nothing.

Religious advocates for gun control are caught on the horns of a dilemma, then. They can live their values and not get involved in the dirty business of politics, in which case the slaughter continues. Or they can come off the sidelines and start to organize effectively, which challenges the cherished belief that faith-based action can somehow rise above mere politics. Reinhold Niebuhr pegged this problem right: no option for response is morally pure—and oh, by the way, doing nothing is just another option.

All of which should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Quite the opposite, in fact. Religious folk are imperfect people operating in an imperfect world, and they ought not let that stop them from doing some good, however limited. But neither should they labor under any starry-eyed impression that acting isn’t imperfect. Given American history and its present conditions, there will be no easy path forward from this point. There certainly will not be any pure and undefiled path that allows any of us to remain unstained by the world. Americans, religious or not, face their own dilemma: they can change the ongoing horror of gun violence, or admit their complicity in it.

In the end, prayer might actually the best thing religious people could do. Not as a sufficient course of action, but as a necessary one. Considering how much is happening with gun reform these days, it sure as hell couldn’t hurt to pray that God make us less violent and more amenable to solving the problem.

Update: Philip Bump at the Washington Post points out that the influence of money on votes is not as straightforward as it might seem, and may be overstated. Campaign contributions do get access to politicians, however, and in combination with a strong, single-minded constituency such as the NRA’s, this can lead to an extremely effective lobbying game. I think that doesn’t change my point about what it would take to create political change on gun reform, but it is worth noting.

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