Can Faith-Based Organizing for Gun Control Work?

Photo courtesy "Heeding God's Call," a "faith-based, grassroots movement to prevent gun violence." The movement currently has chapters in Philadelphia, Delaware County, Harrisburg and D.C.

A thought experiment: What would religious gun control activism look like if it mimicked the most successful features of the anti-choice movement? It would begin, for one thing, with a better name. Nobody wants to be controlled; that sounds “anti-choice.” That’s like anti-freedom, which is un-American. Better marketing would demand a better name.

“Pro-life” comes to mind.

There would be rallies, marches, and sermons. And, in a novice move, posters with photographs of dead bodies—to make a point, to be sure, as passersby recoil in horror. The activists want to make a point about what death—senseless, gruesome, violent death—looks like.

But the movement would learn. It would learn that people want to hear a message that’s positive, that they don’t want to look at pictures of blood and gore. It would learn that to draw new supporters, new tactics would be required. These tactics would include talking about a forgiving God, not a vengeful one.

The foot soldiers in this pro-life movement would stage regular protests outside gun shops and gun shows. They’d make trips to the art supply store, and come equipped with sidewalk chalk, which they’d use to draw a big heart on the pavement at the parking lot entrance, emblazoned with the words, “God loves you.” These words are designed to stop you from doing something you’ll regret. The activists would focus not on the customer’s sin—no one wants to hear about their own sinfulness—but on that of the people inside the gun shop and gun show: how they look the other way at straw men purchases, how they’ve become a part of a background check system rife with loopholes, how they sold guns to someone who later shot people dead in a school, a church, a movie theater, a health clinic.

Do you want to be part of that culture of death? You do not.

The protesters might have a modicum of success; they might stop a few people from acquiring a gun. Their big get would be a gun seller with a change of heart, someone who allowed a rifle to get in the hands of a murderous lunatic and then had a come-to-Jesus moment. He quits selling guns. He finds himself on the speaking circuit, the toast of pro-life politicians, a sought-after fixture at fundraisers and conventions.

If these sidewalk protests stopped people from entering the gun show or the gun shop—or even reconsider it—the movement would add on. Drawing on funds donated by local churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, activists would buy a bus. They would retrofit it like a cozy community center, just on wheels. If they stopped someone from entering the gun show or gun shop, they would welcome them to the bus, where they could explore alternatives to buying a gun. The bus would have pamphlets—not anything silly and untrue like pamphlets that claim abortion causes breast cancer or that birth control pills are actually ineffective at preventing abortion—but pamphlets that detail the number of gun deaths in America, the number of mass shootings, the number of accidents, the number of suicides.

The movement would have more than these grassroots activists. It would have willing politicians, a legal strategy, and lots of money. All of these components would work in tandem to change people’s minds, to pressure lawmakers, to intimidate politicians running for office, to go to court when necessary. With these political, legislative, and legal components in place, they could change the laws to make it so hard to acquire a gun that in many parts of the country people would simply lack access to them.

I drew this hypothetical out of my 2011 report on the evolution of the anti-choice movement in Texas, to explore why ending gun violence hasn’t become the moral imperative for religious progressives that ending abortion has for religious conservatives.

Of course, even if a faith-based gun control movement could get off the ground, my analogy is imperfect. First, and crucially, shooting someone dead with a gun is murder. Abortion is not. Second, a religious gun control movement could not survive having violent extremists in its midst, as the anti-choice movement has. Such violence would instantly destroy a gun control movement’s credibility because of the glaring hypocrisy of someone trying to stop violence with violence (even thought that same glaring hypocrisy hasn’t undermined the anti-choice movement’s successes). What’s more, if someone were to physically threaten a gun show or gun shop, they’d probably be shot—something that would be seen as bolstering their political opponent’s argument that guns are necessary for self-defense.

Still, even if a faith-based gun control movement didn’t perfectly mimic (not that it would want to) the anti-choice movement, it seems self-evident to many religious progressives that gun violence is a pressing moral issue of life and death. “To me, gun violence is a natural because it’s such an obvious theological issue,” said Dean Gary Hall of the National Cathedral, and the chair of Faiths United Against Gun Violence. “Empathy for innocent suffering is at the core of Christianity and Judaism.”

But, even by Hall’s own admission, this hasn’t translated into an effective political movement. “My frustration is we don’t care about it as much as the single issue Second Amendment people care,” he said. “We need to find a way to make people care about it.”

Bishop Mariann Budde, of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington who is active in Bishops United Against Gun Violence, described gun control organizing as “a long distance marathon for us,” with much of the grassroots political work taking place “below the radar.” Bishops United Against Gun Violence is calling for, among other things, an expansion of federal background checks to gun shows and online sales, and improving access to mental health care.

“We don’t have the money and the platform—it’s a David and Goliath thing,” Budde said, referring to going up against the National Rifle Association. “We are trying to organize piece by piece by piece.” She sees small signs of change. Even in “the reddest of states,” she said, “bishops are starting to talk to their members.”

Yet organizing among mainline Protestant denominations, at least, has been fitful and episodic at best. Jim Winkler, president of the National Council of Churches, told me that NCC-type churches haven’t reached a “tipping point” of dealing in a meaningful way with gun violence. “A lot of it has to do with fear of upsetting people,” he said. In many congregations, “you would have a vocal backlash if the clergy were to stand up in the pulpit and really, really talk about what happened in Roseburg or Charleston.” Fear of “people standing up and angrily denouncing the pastor” is “scaring” clergy, he added.

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.

“The core lay leadership is politically diverse, and is not aware of their faith taking distinctive stances on these issues,” leaving the pastor to stand alone in framing issues like poverty, climate change, or gun violence as moral ones, Bean said. In contrast, in evangelical churches, the “core lay leadership” is “much more conservative than even regularly attending evangelicals,” reinforcing more homogenous political positions around their faith. (Bean’s 2014 book, The Politics of Evangelical Identity, documents how this conservative political identity—with a focus on Christian nationalism and abortion—is formed in evangelical churches.)

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.”

No one knows this as well as the Rev. Rob Schenck, the subject of the new film, The Armor of Light, which I reviewed here in October. Schenck, a deeply conservative evangelical with close ties to Republican lawmakers, has been waging a self-described “lonely” fight to sever evangelicals’ “unholy alliance” with the NRA. Thus far, as the film depicts, Schenck has made little headway with his evangelical friends.

Bean’s recent paper for the New America Foundation on evangelicals and climate change may provide some clues about why faith-based organizing fails. In the paper, “Spreading the Gospel of Climate Change: An Evangelical Battleground,” Bean and her co-author Steven Teles argue that the strategy of publicizing statements about the necessity of combatting climate change, signed by a few prominent evangelical leaders, is insufficient to build a movement. While the prospect of “strange bedfellows” (environmentalists and evangelicals) draws media attention, that alone does not change minds, mobilize activists, or create a movement capable of pressing for viable change. The Creation Care movement collapsed, Bean and Teles argue, because it “lacked mobilized power, a base of organized supporters with intense policy demands, willing to engage in sustained conflict.” In the end, Bean said last month during a panel discussion of the paper, the movement was “built on a house of sand.”

Later this month, Faiths United Against Gun Violence is hosting the second annual National Gun Violence Sabbath Weekend, “to remember those who have lost their lives to gunfire, pray for those whose lives have been forever changed because of the loss of a loved one, and to educate one another on proven strategies to reduce gun violence.”

Clergy, said Hall, “haven’t educated their congregations about the nature of moral problems and how we as a community address those problems.”

“My hope with the gun violence issue,” he added, “is that it will galvanize enough clergy to begin to make the case with their congregations that this is something the congregation needs to weigh in on.”