Faith, firearms and the gun control debate

  • Article by: DAVID BRIGGS , Association of Religion Data Archives
  • Updated: February 13, 2013 - 7:52 PM

During the 1940s, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" was a popular song of patriotism. Today's gun debate has stirred religious passions, too.

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2009 photo: A member of New Bethel Church in Louisville, Ken., wears his firearm to worship.

Photo: Ed Reinke, Associated Press

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You can learn a few things about religion and politics listening to flea market dealers in Indiana.

For starters, sociologist Arthur Farnsley writes in his new book “Flea Market Jesus,” it is a political mistake of biblical proportions to write off all Christian fundamentalists as red-state, moral values Republicans.

In in-depth interviews, Farnsley found among this fiercely independent group on the fringes of evangelical Protestantism an adherence to rugged individualism and distrust of institutions that left them open to differing opinions as to whether there should be restrictions on abortion or same-sex marriage.

But there was one issue where their religious and social beliefs came together: Gun control.

“The old bumper-sticker line, reinvigorated by former NRA President Charlton Heston, comes easily from the mouths of flea market dealers: ‘They’ll get my guns when they pry them from my cold, dead fingers,’” Farnsley writes.

The finding illustrates some of the challenges gun-control advocates face even as President Obama vows to make it a priority in his second term. The public outrage over the Newtown school shooting does not appear to have changed many minds among evangelical Protestants who have strongly opposed stricter laws.

In the short term, despite all the renewed debate, including calls for action from many religious leaders, some analysts say it is unlikely that there will be major changes in legislation.

“The odds are somewhere between slim and none,” says political scientist Ted Jelen of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, author of “The Political Mobilization of Religious Beliefs.”

But over the long term, several factors, from increasing migration to cities to changing attitudes among young evangelicals and the growth of Hispanic Catholics, indicate major changes may be coming.

Gun culture

A major reason Protestants are more likely to be gun owners and less supportive of restrictions on firearms is that they are more likely to have rural roots, and to live in areas of the country, such as the South, where owning a gun is part of the culture.

However, analysts also point to theological differences that reinforce an emphasis on individual rights. Many Protestants have a more personal orientation to faith, where the relationship to God and salvation is more one-on-one as opposed to being expressed in community.

“The individualistic orientation that emanated from the American frontier was strongly reinforced and perpetuated by religious fundamentalism long after the frontier period” sociologist Robert Young said in a 1989 article on “The Protestant Heritage and the Spirit of Gun Ownership” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Move forward nearly a quarter-century and Farnsley found among the independent Protestants he studied the idea that having a pistol in the sock drawer or a shotgun under the bed is a line in the sand: “They can’t make you do what you don’t want to do, at the very bottom, because you are armed.”

The religious differences show up in research. Consider these findings:

• Twenty-seven percent of evangelical Protestants, compared to 16 percent of mainline Protestants, 14 percent of black Protestants and 12 percent of Catholics, strongly opposed having the federal government enact stricter gun laws, according to the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey.

• In a 2010 Pew Research Center survey, two-thirds of white, non-Hispanic evangelical Protestants and 56 percent of white, non-Hispanic mainline Protestants said it was more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns than to control gun ownership. Just 36 percent of Catholics overall, but 47 percent of white, non-Hispanic Catholics, said protecting the right to own guns was more important.

• Six in ten Catholics and religiously unaffiliated Americans favored stricter gun control laws in an August 2012 poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute. Just 35 percent of white evangelical Protestants favored stricter laws. In a January poll taken after the Newtown shooting, 67 percent of Catholics, but 38 percent of white evangelical Protestants supported stricter gun control laws.

Obama may not be successful in getting this Congress to require universal background checks for gun buyers, impose a ban on military-style assault weapons and limit the size of ammunition magazines. But there are signs the future may hold more promise for gun control measures.

Disappearing frontier

For one, the increasing migration to the cities and suburbs is not only diluting the traditional strongholds of the gun culture, but is exposing individuals to more densely packed, diverse communities where gun violence is seen as more of a social problem than an issue of individual rights.

“In urban areas, at close quarters, guns may offer protection, but they also represent danger, fear and violence,” Farnsley writes. “Restrictions will proliferate and grow over the coming decades.”

Jelen and Farnsley also note that a younger generation of evangelicals is increasingly asking whether certain gun control measures, just like some environmental protections, are an expression of Christian stewardship.

In addition, many devout Catholics, and a growing number of Hispanic Catholics in particular, also are attracted to church social teaching about concern for the public good in regulating weapons, Jelen says.

It is not going to be easy given the powerful cultural and lobbying forces opposing gun control. But religious groups may have to play a major role in changing America’s gun culture.

Jelen says religious groups may be the only organizations with the intellectual and moral resources to lead such a change in public policy.

“I’m not sure religious groups are up for that,” he adds, “but I’m pretty sure no one else is.”

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David Briggs, a national religion writer who holds a master's degree from Yale Divinity School, is executive director of the International Association of Religion Journalists. He wrote this column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

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