A small group of evangelical Christian leaders is hoping to promote stricter gun legislation by injecting a key element of conservative Christian theology into the conversation ― the principle of protecting life at all stages.
In the wake of a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last week that left 17 people dead, the group has put forward a petition that uses the language of the anti-abortion movement to encourage fellow Christians to fight for gun reform.
The signers claim it’s their “Biblical responsibility” to urge America’s lawmakers to pass common-sense gun legislation that will “protect life.” Though the meaning of “common-sense” varies for individuals in the group, they’re generally looking for tighter background checks, ensuring that certain high-risk individuals are prohibited from purchasing firearms, and potentially banning certain high-capacity and semi-automatic weapons.
The petition has the backing of at least 16 evangelical leaders, including Max Lucado, the best-selling Christian author, Lynne Hybels, co-founder of the Illinois megachurch Willow Creek Community Church, and Rev. Dr. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.
The “Prayers and Action” campaign is organized by Rev. Rob Schenck, an evangelical preacher from Washington, D.C.
Because of his background as a militant anti-abortion activist, Schenck is a controversial figure in progressive circles. Some have questioned his commitment to gun control, given his past statements and lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association ― which Schenck justifies by saying it was a gift from a financial supporter of his ministry and something he uses to “listen and learn” about the ideologies of those involved in popular gun culture.
But he says he’s modified his stance on gun legislation and become an ally in the fight for stricter gun laws. For years, he’s tried to encourage his faith community to break from its longstanding support of gun rights.
It’s a difficult task, but Schenck is optimistic. “I believe there is a change happening among evangelicals,” the preacher told HuffPost. “We will see a tipping point when many evangelicals will begin advocating for sensible gun safety measures.”
The ‘Prayers And Action’ Campaign
Schenck’s petition for gun reform started circulating in the evangelical community after a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, last November. It was released widely on Monday and has gathered over 200 signatures by Friday, according to the campaign’s site. Only a handful of those names are publicly listed on the site. The rest of the signatures are being funneled into a database that will be used to keep signers up to date with future actions, Schenck said.
The pastor told HuffPost that he wants to keep the petition an “evangelical family matter” and is hesitant to expose the signers to criticism from the larger faith community. His first purpose is to “find friends” in the community who care about gun reform.
And he thinks framing gun reform as an effort to “protect life” could help swing the conversation for evangelical Christians.
“Evangelicals believe deeply in the sanctity of every human life. Any public policy that contributes to a disregard for human life is a violation of this tenet,” Schenck told HuffPost. “The lives of children are especially precious to God and should always be for Christians.”
A Deep Loyalty To Guns
The task of rallying evangelical support for stricter gun control legislation is bound to be an uphill battle. As a whole, white American evangelicals are some of the strongest supporters of gun rights. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that 41 percent of white evangelicals own guns, more than members of other faith groups.
Pew could not break out black evangelical Protestants in the survey, due to a small sample size. However, the researchers did conclude that only 29 percent of a larger category, black Protestants, own a gun. (An estimated two-thirds of black Protestants identify as evangelicals.)
White evangelicals are more likely than most Americans to say that their right to own guns is essential to their sense of freedom (70 percent vs. 47 percent). Twenty-four percent of black Protestants said the same. White evangelicals also said that they are satisfied with gun laws in this country (44 percent). Sixteen percent of black Protestants agreed.
In addition, a 2013 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found that many evangelicals don’t see a contradiction in labeling themselves “pro-life” while opposing gun control. In fact, among the white evangelical Protestants who said the term “pro-life” described them very well, a majority (64 percent) also said they opposed stricter gun control laws.
Schenck’s experiences have taught him that for many evangelicals, guns are a “volatile issue.” He believes evangelicals’ loyalty towards guns stems from deep-seated distrust of the government.
“Evangelicals have long felt like a persecuted minority, even though we enjoy some of the largest, most influential, and wealthiest churches and institutions in the country. This misperception makes many in my community fearful of government oppression,” he said.
“There is a deep emotional and psychological bond between people that are fearful and the instruments they feel will protect them, their loved ones, and their way of life,” Schenck told HuffPost.
“There is a deep emotional and psychological bond between people that are fearful and the instruments they feel will protect them, their loved ones, and their way of life.”
A Broader ‘Pro-Life’ Movement
At the same time, Schenck senses that a change is brewing in some communities ― people are becoming increasingly concerned and anxious about gun violence, particularly mass shootings.
“More and more voices calling for restrictions on gun access are being heard. We are trying to curate those voices and give them a united platform to speak from,” Schenck told HuffPost about his campaign.
“We’ve been actively reaching out to evangelical leaders, mostly behind the scenes, and are finding many that are distressed by our seemingly unrestrained enthusiasm for easy gun access — and the perception that all evangelicals have a kind of bloodlust for firearms,” he added. “That’s not true, particularly when it comes to under-40 evangelicals and their pastors.”
The U.S. “right-to-life” movement is most closely associated with attempts to restrict women’s access to abortion and other forms of contraceptive care. But in recent years, certain factions of that movement are seeking to expand its goals. For some, that means advocating for refugees and immigrants. For others, that means standing against economic injustice and racism.
Kathryn Freeman, director of public policy for the ethics commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, is one of the evangelical leaders who publicly signed Schenck’s petition (although she pointed out she is not speaking on behalf of her organization). Freeman says she believes in working to support human flourishing “from the womb to the tomb.” For her, that includes supporting “common-sense gun legislation.”
“I am concerned about gun violence in this country, because I think to do nothing is to devalue human life, to treat that which God deems of ultimate value as of no value at all,” the Baptist leader told HuffPost. “Reducing gun violence is part of what it means to love God’s people and want them to flourish.”
For These Strange Bedfellows, The Ends Justify The Means
Over the years, Schenck has gone through an evolution in his views about gun reform. When he first began speaking up about this issue, he didn’t think the answer to gun violence would be found in more federal laws. In 2015, he claimed it wasn’t an issue about “gun control, but of self-control.”
Today, Schenck says he’s still hesitant about the phrase “gun control,” since it suggests to gun owners that the government is seeking to “control” their personal behavior. He prefers the phrase “gun regulation.”
He’s also hesitant about pushing for more federal controls, preferring that local and state governments take the lead. But he told HuffPost he now realizes that there are important instances when federal laws are needed ― such as when it comes to closing the gun show loophole and making sure all firearm purchases are routed through federal background checks.
“You have to deal with reality and the reality is that in many of these instances, the only remedy is on the federal level. I’ve acquiesced to that,” he said.
But the pastor is still a controversial figure on both sides of the debate about gun control. He’s faced criticism from conservatives for supporting stricter gun legislation at all. At the same time, progressives have questioned his background ― he helped organize the anti-abortion movement in the 1990s, at one point bringing a preserved fetus to a rally outside an abortion clinic. He also organized protests against the removal of Ten Commandments monuments from government property.
Lucy McBath is a faith and outreach leader for the gun control advocacy groups Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. She told HuffPost she’s known and worked with Schenck for about four years. The pair were the subjects of the documentary “Armor of Light,” a 2015 documentary about the evangelical response to gun violence.
McBath identifies as an evangelical Christian herself, but supports women’s right to make their own choices about their reproductive health. Although she and Schenck don’t see eye to eye on abortion, McBath said she supports Schenck’s efforts to rally the evangelical community around gun control. Not everyone in her movement is going to be happy with that stance, she said, but she believes people on opposite ends of the political spectrum are going to need to come together to try to solve the issue of gun violence.
“What I like to say to people is we need everybody,” McBath told HuffPost. “We need gun owners, we need non-gun owners, we need people of faith, people of no faith. We need everybody because gun violence is a nonpartisan issue. We all have to be able to come to some common ground to work together to make sure we’re changing this dangerous gun culture.”
“We need everybody because gun violence is a nonpartisan issue.”
Other gun control advocates seem to agree. The Rev. Jim Atwood, a board member of Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and a retired Presbyterian minister, said that he would welcomes the activism of Schenck and other evangelical Christians who want to fight for gun reform.
“I can’t speak for everybody but I would think that’s what we need to do,” Atwood told HuffPost. “We need to cross boundaries, cross lines of different political entities and work together.”
Looking at the list of prominent evangelicals who have publicly signed Schenck’s petition, McBath said she’s excited about the potential in that group. In her years as an activist, she said she’s never seen this level of support from evangelical leaders.
McBath hopes to see more of it.
“We need to see this kind of solidarity across denominational lines,” she said. “Because the end goal is saving lives.”
A Growing Sense Of Urgency
Dr. Jamie Aten, one of the signers of Schenck’s petition, is the executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian institution. In that role, Aten helps churches prepare to respond to disasters in their communities, including mass shootings.
In the past, he said that he tried to avoid controversial topics like this. But now he believes that “silence only divides people further.”
“I think we owe it to the victims and survivors of mass shootings, and to each other, to do what we can to try and prevent this from happening again and prioritizing that in our policies,” Aten said.
After the shooting at the church in Sutherland Springs, congregations around the country grew increasingly worried about security. But unless sensible gun laws are passed, Aten worries that churches’ preparedness efforts will fall short. As it stands, he believes evangelical Christians’ affinity for gun culture “does more to protect our fear than it does the lives of innocent people.”
Rev. Dr. Joel Hunter, a former megachurch pastor from Florida who served as one of President Barack Obama’s spiritual advisers, also signed Schenck’s petition. He believes that a “pro-life ethic” is the key ingredient needed to move the needle on evangelicals’ beliefs about gun control. Hunter is optimistic that more members of his faith community will sign on to Schenck’s campaign after witnessing teenage activists protesting against guns since the Florida school shooting.
“I think the connection will be made, the more carnage that is accumulated,” Hunter said. “I think people will begin to see this as a life and death issue.”
Schenck said that as a pastor, he understands the strong emotions that evangelicals associated with gun rights ― particularly the fear they have about any supposed threats to those rights. But in the end, he hopes that his community will be patient and “listen before they judge.”
“I think we all want the same things, which is a safer world, a safer country, safer schools and communities, especially for our children,” Schenck said. “Nobody wants children to die. We have to find the best way to protect them, a way that is consistent with our core Christian convictions. That’s what we’re searching for.”