Religious Leaders Push Congregants on Gun Control, Sensing a Watershed Moment
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
Published: December 19, 2012
Religious leaders across the country this week vowed to mobilize their congregants to push for gun control legislation and provide the ground support for politicians willing to take on the gun lobby, saying the time has come for action beyond praying and comforting the families of those killed.
A group of clergy members, representing mainline and evangelical Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Muslims, plans to lead off the campaign in front of the Washington National Cathedral at an event on Friday timed to mark the moment a week before when a young gunman opened fire in a school in Newtown, Conn.
The cathedral will toll its funeral bell 28 times, once for each victim, including 20 children, 6 teachers and school administrators and the mother of the killer, as well as the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who shot and killed himself.
“Everyone in this city seems to be in terror of the gun lobby. But I believe the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby,” said the Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the Washington National Cathedral, in an impassioned sermon on Sunday that has become a rallying cry for gun control. People in the cathedral’s pews rose and applauded.
Dean Hall said in an interview that he and Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington were calling on their parishioners to support four specific steps: bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, tightening rules for sales at gun shows and re-examining care for the mentally ill.
Clergy members have been involved in gun control efforts for at least three decades because, they say, they are the ones called to give the eulogies at funerals and comfort victims’ families. But they acknowledge that they have been unable to mount a sustained grass-roots movement against gun violence — partly because they have not made it a priority, and partly because their efforts have been overshadowed by the organizational and fund-raising power of the gun lobby.
Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, a two-year-old coalition that now counts 40 religious groups as members, has only one part-time employee, Vincent DeMarco, who is simultaneously organizing coalitions on obesity, health care and smoking. Asked his budget, he laughed and said, “de minimis.”
However, Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Church’s public policy arm, the General Board of Church and Society, said he was seeing some signs that the shooting in Newtown could be a watershed. His office immediately sent out an “action alert” on gun control to bishops and other church leaders, and he said he was surprised how many wrote back thanking him effusively.
“I could tell there was this real need, real hunger, at least in my denomination, for there to be some response that is not only prayers and expressions of sadness, but also a call to action,” Mr. Winkler said. “And it came from some who wouldn’t normally care that much about public policy action, but who would be more interested in spiritual responses.”
The primary organizer of the news conference on Friday, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, in Washington, said, “This is not likely an issue that we’ll have a sustained campaign on in the absence of political leadership. But if political leaders act, the religious community will be strongly engaged.”
On Wednesday, President Obama said in a news conference that he would make preventing gun violence a legislative priority, but that it would take “a wave of Americans” to move it forward.
Religious groups that sent out calls for action on guns to their members in the last five days include the Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the PICO National Network, an advocacy group, and many Jewish organizations.
But advocating limits on guns is controversial within many religious groups, and many evangelicals are opposed. A CBS News poll conducted Dec. 14-16, after the massacre in Newtown, showed that while 69 percent of Catholics said they wanted stricter laws on gun control, only 37 percent of white evangelical Christians agreed.
The evangelical leaders expected at the cathedral event on Friday are relatively moderate: the Rev. Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, and Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.
Mark DeMoss, a prominent evangelical who recently served as an adviser to the campaign of the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, stepped forward after the tragedy in Newtown, telling Politico.com that measures to address gun control, mental health treatment and violence in the media should all be on the table.
But he said in an interview that evangelicals were unlikely to support gun control efforts because they do not want to break ranks with the Republican Party, and because they tend to see gun violence as a concern to be addressed spiritually, rather than through policy change.
He said he also considered violence a spiritual problem, but said he saw a “double standard” at work. Evangelical clergy, he said, have boycotted the manufacturers of violent video games and pornography, but on guns they say, “No, this is just as spiritual matter of the heart.”
The Rev. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said in an interview that his group had never taken a position on gun control but might now “take a harder look.” He pointed out that a rarely read part of the Christmas story is King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.
“Mary and Joseph fled. It’s a part of the story, and they took decisive action. This is now a part of our story,” he said, referring to shooting rampages, “and we need to take decisive action.”