After a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas on May 24, several pastors across the country challenged their conservative peers with this question: Are you pro-life if you are pro-guns?
One such faith leader is Rev. Steven Marsh, senior pastor of Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California. There, on May 15, a gunman, who officials say was fueled by hatred of Taiwan, opened fire at a luncheon organized by members of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, killing one and wounding five others.
“I’ve heard people tell me I’m not a Christian because I’m pro-election,” Marsh said. “I ask these people: how can you be pro-life and not support the abolition of assault rifles? You can’t choose where you want to be in life.”
Marsh’s emotional statement is a vignette in the larger narrative of a nation divided over how – or if – guns should be regulated. The faith community is not monolithic on this issue.
People of faith, fed up with years of failed gun control efforts and mourning recent victims of mass shootings, are pointing out what they call hypocrisy — conservative Christians who are pushing to abolish abortion and allow full access to guns. Those who disagree claim that the real problem is sin and soft goals. Not weapons, but kill the “evil” in people and abortions, they say.
These deep-rooted, partisan divisions in the US over abortion and gun rights are running sharply after high-profile massacres in New York, California, Texas and elsewhere as the country awaits a US Supreme Court ruling that upheld the constitutional right to abortion could tip.
According to 2017 Pew Research Center data analyzed for Christianity Today, 41% of white evangelicals own a gun compared to 30% of Americans overall — the highest proportion of any religious group. The survey also shows that 74% of all gun owners in the US agree that their right to own a gun is essential to their sense of freedom. Most states also allow firearms in places of worship.
Christian author and activist Shane Claiborne disputes the notion that the US has a sin problem but not a gun problem; he says it has both. Claiborne recently traveled to Uvalde to support the victims and to Houston to pray and protest the National Rifle Association gathering that took place days after the massacre.
He handed out tracts claiming, “We cannot be anti-life and ignore gun violence,” and asked, “Shall we choose the gun or the cross?” Claiborne said he was among those asked to attend the Sunday prayer breakfast to leave the NRA after interrupting the program to call for prayer for the victims of Uvalde.
Claiborne wants laws changed, including policies that increase the age of gun ownership, limit magazine capacity, ban assault weapons and require training. He said laws can’t make people love each other, but they can make it harder to take a life.
“We want to make it harder for people to kill other people, and we’re making it really easy right now,” Claiborne said.
Conservative pastors have said that mass shootings and other social harms are the result of a general degradation of moral values and disregard for human life.
Pastor Tim Lee, an evangelist and former US Marine who lost both legs during the Vietnam War, was a keynote speaker at the NRA prayer breakfast that Claiborne and others had to leave.
Following the Uvalde shooting, Lee wrote on his Facebook page: “This is so heartbreaking. I’ve said it so many times – when children hear adults say it’s okay to kill babies (abortion) then all respect for human life is gone.”
The gun debate is deeply personal to Rev. Chineta Goodjoin. Her best friend, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, was one of nine people shot dead by Dylann Roof in June 2015 while they were praying at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Goodjoin, who leads New Hope Presbyterian Church in Anaheim, California, said people of faith must rise up in “righteous anger” to demand sane gun control. When massacres take place in common spaces like churches, schools and supermarkets, the resilience of an entire community is tested, she said.
“How do you teach in schools when people are traumatized by gun violence?” she said. “If a church is no longer a safe place, do I work to increase security or strengthen people’s faith? The effects are like an epidemic that touches every fiber of our being.”
But others, like Rev. Russ Tenhoff, say it’s simply not possible to “legislate safety.”
“There are many laws, but people who are lawless don’t obey them,” said Tenhoff, senior pastor of Mountainside Community Fellowship in Kingwood, West Virginia. “Even without guns, there will be murders. We will never be able to prevent gun violence.”
As a firearms safety officer who educates adults and children, Tenhoff says the solution is to “harden the schools” that have become soft targets.
“We need to put one-way locks on schools, have metal detectors and an armed officer in every school,” he said.
For a Catholic pastor in Newtown, Connecticut, who a decade ago experienced the grief now gripping Uvalde, the lack of political will to legislate guns is unfathomable.
Monsignor Robert Weiss, parish priest of St. Rose of Lima, presided over the funeral of eight victims who were murdered on December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The day after the Texas shooting, he held evening mass at his church.
“I guess I was a fool to think Sandy Hook would change the world,” he said in a video recording of the service.
Weiss also questioned the consequences of individualism in America.
“Did our ancestors intend this for us?” he asked. “Living in a country where unborn babies are aborted, where children are murdered at school, where they should be safe, where you can’t even go to a grocery store or church or library and feel like that, OK? “
Pastor Mike McBride, who directs The Way Christian Center in Berkeley, California, said those on different sides of the gun problem need to find common causes to unite and work together on solutions.
McBride says many gun advocates are also concerned about accidental gun deaths, intimate partner violence and suicides.
“These common concerns can be addressed with targeted strategies that don’t get us bogged down in the struggle for the second amendment,” he said.
McBride suggests conducting listening campaigns in church groups and neighborhoods – a “peace infrastructure” to combat violence.
Marsh, the pastor of Laguna Woods, says the shooting at his church and other recent massacres have inspired him to have “more serious conversations about the issue” in his community. He would like to see various faith groups organize marches in local government offices to urge lawmakers to act.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “We must stop using Christianity as a front to deny reality.”
The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.