New Film Chronicles Unlikely Friendship in Battle Over God and Guns

In the new documentary film The Armor of Light, gun control activist Lucia McBath goes to meet the Rev. Rob Schenck at the Capitol Hill townhouse that serves as the offices of Schenck’s conservative outreach organization, Faith and Action. McBath, whose 17 year-old son, Jordan Davis, was shot dead in 2012 at a Jacksonville, Florida gas station by Michael Dunn, a white man angry about loud music in a car occupied by unarmed black teenagers, came to share her story with an activist best known for his graphic protests outside abortion clinics. For each of them, that first encounter was charged with trepidation and fear.

McBath, a Lutheran-turned-Pentecostal whose family has roots in the civil rights movement, had yet to meet a religious leader who saw gun violence as a spiritual and moral issue and was willing commit  to speaking out about it. Schenck, whose organization bills itself as “America’s only Christian outreach to top-level government officials in Washington, DC ,” is a white evangelical with close ties to conservative Republicans. In the film, he describes his “affinity” with Tea Party Republicans; McBath talks about her father, who for decades served as the president of the Illinois NAACP.

Despite his dedication to both religious and political conservative orthodoxy, Schenck was having a crisis of faith over evangelicals’ devotion to guns. While McBath and Schenck were coming from very different places and experiences, politically, racially, and even religiously, it was McBath’s religious testimony that proved the “tipping point” for the struggling Schenck.

In the film, the two meet in the garden behind Faith and Action’s townhouse. McBath shares her story, one suffused not just with a mother’s unbearable grief, but with her determination to “walk the walk” of her religious values, not just “talk the talk,” as she put it to me when I met her and Schenck, along with the film’s producer and director, Abigail Disney, in Washington this week.

“We have replaced God with our guns as the protector,” McBath tells Schenck in the film.

The meeting in the garden, Schenck told me, “has a metaphorical meaning to it. It was in the garden that Jesus decided to submit to the will of God.” McBath, he said, “is in many ways an angel sent from God to communicate that message to me in a way that would bring about God’s will. So this gets terribly religious in the telling, but at its deepest level, that’s what’s occurring here.”

For McBath, obeying the will of God on this issue emerged from an eight-week experience between “the heavenly plane and the earthly plane” after Jordan’s death, during which she says “God spoke very candidly with me.” After that period, she said, “I had such a tremendous sense of purpose for the first time in my life.”

While Schenck shares that sense of purpose, the film shows his tense encounters trying to change fellow white evangelicals’ minds. Schenck discovers that even members of his own staff have concealed carry permits; one staffer tells him he’s owned a gun since he was five years old. During a meeting of the Evangelical Church Alliance, which Schenck chairs, one member says guns are “in our DNA.” Another offers, “if we take guns away, people are just going to kill people with something else.” At a lunch meeting at a Capitol Hill restaurant, during which Schenck is attempting to persuade two close colleagues on the gun issue, Troy Newman, president of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, argues with his friend, “an armed society is a polite society.”

Schenck is obviously pained by these pronouncements by his fellow travelers, including how they highlight the racial divide on guns.

During our meeting, McBath called it a “spiritual and moral crisis” that white evangelicals would use the Bible as a justification for gun ownership. Despite the history of slavery and “the inequalities that we still deal with on a daily basis,” black people in the United States “still don’t feel the need to live in fear the way the white community does, although we have cause to fear,” she said.

Schenck, notably, did not defend the predominant white evangelical view. “I couldn’t agree more with what Lucy is saying,” he said, adding that the Bible warns of a time “when people want their itching ears to be scratched—in other words, to hear only what they want to hear, and not what they need to hear.” White evangelicals who argue they need to be armed to protect themselves and their families, he said, are adopting a position contrary to the Bible. “Arming yourself is a suggestion that you do not plan to live in peace, that you plan to live in violent confrontation with others,” he said. “I think the Bible speaks very clearly to us on that point.”

Schenck was frank, too, about evangelical fears of government and of a president they think “might be a crypto-Muslim,” about “myths” of Christian persecution that need to be dispelled, and of racial fears among white evangelicals. “In the average evangelical white person’s mind, who’s more likely to commit a crime against me?” he asked, answering himself, “A black male. Especially a young black male.”

For both McBath and Schenck, while there may be political answers to gun violence, their diagnosis of the problem is a spiritual and moral one. “It’s a spiritual and moral issue when people are dying needlessly the way they are dying, by fear and guns,” said McBath.

Schenck compared it to a disease outbreak in need of a public health response—but a spiritual disease requiring a spiritual response. “It falls to the leadership of the community as much as the membership, but especially the leadership,” he said. “That is, pastors in the pulpit dealing with this question and demonstrating how it contradicts the Christian life and message.”

The Armor of Light opens in theaters in 20 cities on Friday. Tickets are free for NRA members.