Meanwhile, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently reiterated its decades-long support for stronger gun laws by declaring gun-violence prevention a “pro-life” issue and asking Catholics to support federal legislation requiring universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons. In addition, three religious leaders—Christian pastor Rev. Peter Laarman, Imam Jihad Turk, and Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater—wrote in The Huffington Post last August that their different faith traditions are united in opposing gun violence:
Interfaith cooperation is helping create a unified, faith-based argument for legislation to stop gun violence. Faith-based social justice groups such as PICO National Network and Sojourners hosted a rally in Washington, D.C., on April 11 that featured faith leaders from diverse religious traditions. In addition to remarks from Christian and Jewish leaders, the event included representatives from the Sikh community who spoke of how the tragic shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, last August rallied their religious community around the issue of gun violence. Organizers also erected a graveyard of crosses, Stars of David, Khandas, and other religious symbols to symbolize the 3,364 gun deaths in the United States that have occurred since the Newtown shooting.
“Every one of those religious symbols represents one of God’s children,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and one of the event’s speakers. “See the one there? That’s a mother who won’t be there to comfort her child the next time they’re sick.”
In addition to personal encounters with tragic killings and the belief that gun violence is an inherently religious issue, religious leaders are also working to help pass legislation to prevent gun violence because they recognize faith groups as one of the few institutions with the organizational and moral wherewithal to counter the powerful influence of pro-gun lobbyists.
The National Rifle Association, or NRA, is considered one of the most influential lobbying groups in the nation. NRA lobbyists leverage the power of their more than 4.2 million members to hold sway over lawmakers and make ample use of the organization’s astoundingly deep pockets. The NRA rakes in millions of dollars from wealthy corporate donors annually and outspends its opposition by powers of 10 during election cycles; it spent almost $20 million on outside spending in 2012 alone. Meanwhile, Gun Owners of America, a lobbying group even more extremist than the NRA, has become an increasingly powerful player inside Washington. The group has reportedly forced some Republican lawmakers to back out of recent negotiations that would create bipartisan support for federal gun-violence prevention legislation.
In the face of such daunting opposition, it is tempting to conclude that gun legislation supporters are outmatched. But what the NRA and their allies wield in financial capital, faith groups can counter with something else: moral capital.
“Enough is enough,” said Very Rev. Gary Hall in a sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., a week after the Newtown shooting. “Everyone in this city seems to live in terror of the gun lobby. But I believe that the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby, especially when we stand together as people of all faiths across the religious landscape of America.”
Indeed, although the “cross lobby” and other interfaith coalitions cannot match the NRA’s massive fundraising machine, they can claim people power. The coalition Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, for instance, includes 46 religious organizations, faith-based institutions, and denominations that collectively represent tens of millions of Americans. And the National Council of Churches—which has held coordinated public events mourning the deaths of the 26 children killed in the Newtown shooting and has since distributed materials decrying gun violence—represents roughly 45 million people from more than 100,000 local congregations in communities across the nation.
In addition to their numbers, religious institutions have built-in advocacy mechanisms that bolster larger coordinated efforts. Following the tragic killings in Newtown, for instance, the Washington National Cathedral partnered with two other churches and One Million Moms for Gun Control in January to organize the “March on Washington for Gun Control,” gathering thousands of people on the National Mall—including 100 individuals from Newtown—to demand an end to gun violence. Similarly, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism spearheaded a “Faiths Calling” campaign on February 4 that flooded Washington lawmakers with tens of thousands of calls demanding they take action on gun violence. The campaign was repeated on April 9 with similar results and received widespread support from a diverse set of religious participants such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Islamic Society of North America, the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, and many others.
In mid-March, a broad consortium of faith-based groups, including the Lifelines to Healing Campaign, convened a national “Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath,” where hundreds of churches and faith-based groups across the country hosted worship services, rallies, and panel discussions to bring attention to senseless killings. The Sabbath received local and national media attention, granting the issue greater exposure and highlighting the religious and moral imperative of ending gun violence.
One week before the Senate vote on universal background checks and other gun-violence prevention amendments, faith leaders held a vigil on the National Mall, where they erected more than 3,300 crosses and religious symbols to represent the number of Americans killed by guns since the Newtown tragedy in December. One by one, they read the names of the fallen, speaking and praying through the night and into the next morning. In a TV interview Pastor Michael McBride of Lifelines to Healing told MSNBC news anchor Rachel Maddow that, “We have a significant charge to move our Congress and elected officials to enact the will of the American people.”
Despite the loss in the Senate, faith leaders and advocates are intensifying their efforts, promising that they will urge their congregations, communities, and all people of goodwill to push elected officials to pass gun laws that make communities safer. The challenge set before faith-based advocates is of David and Goliath proportions, but religious organizations—united by their spiritual fervor and empowered by their partnerships with other advocates—are still hoping to muster the moral imperative and political will needed to pass federal legislation to prevent gun violence.
As Rabbi Saperstein said at a gathering of faith leaders in December:
The indiscriminate distribution of guns is an offense against God and humanity. Our gun-flooded, violence-prone society has turned weapons into idols. And the appropriate religious response to idolatry is sustained moral outrage. When the parents across America start crying out for effective action, if there’s religious leadership, it will galvanize the community to create the moral demand that moves toward sensible legislation.
As hundreds of mourners gathered in Jubilee Christian Church in Mattapan, Massachussetts, to mourn the death of Kristen Lartey last August, the sanctuary brimmed with tears, sadness, and sobs of grief. Participants remembered Kristen as a vibrant and lively young woman whose life was cut short by a senseless act of gun violence. Yet in the midst of anguish, a call to action emerged—and a glimmer of hope.
“I believe her death will not be in vain,” said Rev. Ronald Ricketts, a Boston-area pastor, at Kristen’s funeral. “We have to contend together against this evil. It’s a vicious fight. We will not be the same anymore. Something powerful is going to result in this city.”
Similar to Ricketts, faith leaders, religious groups, and Americans as a whole know that stories such as Kristen’s don’t have to be the norm, and they recognize that common-sense legislation can help end the cycles of violence that plague cities across the country. Despite the Senate’s disappointing decision to strike down legislation that would have enacted universal background checks for gun purchases, secular and faith-based advocates will press on together to persuade officials at the federal, state, and local levels to address issues of gun violence. Advocates will continue to push laws that would help end gun violence such as a ban on assault weapons, universal background checks, making gun trafficking a federal crime, and reforming the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that oversees many aspects of gun regulation.
Indeed, in the aftermath of tragedies such as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Americans—both religious and nonreligious alike—resonate with faith leaders such as Ricketts who declare that we are “not the same anymore.” In the midst of grief and frustration, it is imperative that Americans unify voices and advocacy efforts to demand that lawmakers pass common-sense gun-violence prevention legislation.
Jack Jenkins is a Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Eleni Towns is a Research Associate with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.