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On Sin And Individualism, Why Most Evangelicals Oppose Gun Control

A prayer circle for the victims in Sutherland Springs, Texas
A prayer circle for the victims in Sutherland Springs, Texas
Sarah Pulliam Bailey

The shooting at a Southern Baptist church in Texas is believed to be the worst such shooting at a church in modern U.S. history.

Several prominent Southern Baptist pastors have President Donald Trump's ear as members of his unofficial evangelical advisory council. Even so, it would be very surprising if Southern Baptists pushed for changes in gun policy, because it hasn't been a priority for the denomination in decades.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in the country with about 15 million members, has taken up issues like abortion and same-sex marriage at its annual conventions, but it has not taken on "guns' or "gun violence" in recent decades. Every year, members of Southern Baptist churches vote on resolutions often tied to theological or political matters. A 1968 resolution about Robert F. Kennedy's death and the assassinations in the 1960s is the only Southern Baptist resolution that mentions guns since 1845, according to its searchable database.

Most conservative evangelicals don't believe specific gun policies are spelled out in the Bible, and many of them don't believe gun-control measures are constitutional and can solve the problem of mass shootings, said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's policy arm.

"I think gun control proponents are misguided in trying to persuade others of their position in the way they usually go about it," Moore wrote in an email. "There are not two sides here about whether shootings should be stopped, laws enforced, and criminality punished, but rather two sides about whether gun control is a prudent way to carry out those common goals."

Southern Baptists make up one of the largest groups of evangelicals, who are more likely than other religious Americans to oppose stricter gun laws.

How evangelicals view sin and their individual role in the world

Most Americans belonging to major religious groups favor stricter gun-control laws, including black Protestants (76%), Catholics (67%) and white mainline Protestants (57%), according to a 2013 Public Religion Research Institute survey. But evangelicals - who make up about a quarter of the population — are the religious group least likely to support stricter laws (38% favor while 59% oppose them).

Some observers say that evangelical attitudes on guns have to do with how evangelicals view sin and their individual role in the world. For instance, after the Las Vegas shooting, Trump noted the role of evil in the world in his speech on Oct. 2.

"We pray for the entire nation to find unity and peace, and we pray for the day when evil is banished, and the innocent are safe from hatred and from fear," Trump said.

Trump's focus on evil was reflected in a statement from Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, after Sunday's shooting.

"Today's horrific church shooting is every pastor's worst nightmare and is proof of the reality of evil," Jeffress said. "Although the Bible never diminishes the pain of evil, it does promise that one day when Christ returns, evil will be defeated forever."

Jen Hatmaker, a popular author and speaker based in Austin, said gun rights have become an entrenched talking point inside evangelical politics.

"I know perfectly reasonable, lovely, non-gun-owning Christian women who will die on this hill of, "It's not about guns . . . it is about the heart." It is baffling," Hatmaker said. "It has taken deep, unchangeable root in the hearts of conservative evangelicals, and it is as sacred as the Trinity."

After evangelist Franklin Graham was invited to pray at the National Rifle Association's prayer breakfast in 2014, he suggested on Facebook that he was not in favor of universal background checks. At the same time, Graham has advocated for background checks for immigrants who are Muslim.

Guns are built into the structure and psyche of American Christianity from its founding, said Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University who has written about why she carries a handgun during her runs in rural areas of Virginia.

"The country was founded to escape religious persecution," Prior said. "America expanded as an experiment in individualism into the frontiers that required weapons for survival, both self-defense and attainment of food."

A duty to protect others against evil.

Evangelicals also place a larger emphasis on individualism and personal responsibility than other religious groups, and Christians believe they have a duty to protect others against evil.

"Having a gun at the ready to stop someone like the shooter Devin Kelley seems like a responsibility of the good guys," she said.

Some people believe the answer for why evangelicals don't want tighter gun laws is simple. Evangelicals tend to vote Republican, and Republicans tend to dislike tighter gun policies. Many evangelicals also oppose regulations of any sort because they believe it could ultimately infringe on religious liberty, said Cameron Strang, editor of Relevant, a magazine for younger evangelicals.

"I think it's completely partisan," Strang said. "Evangelicals vote along party lines, whether or not it makes theological sense. Pro-lifers would see supporting anything but steadfast Republican policy as endorsing part of a liberal agenda, which means ultimately endorsing abortion."

In his analysis of data from a large survey called the 2016 CCES Common Content Dataset, political scientist Ryan Burge compared evangelicals, mainline Protestants and Catholics who answered the question: "Do you support or oppose banning assault rifles?" His analysis found that the differences were dependent more on whether they identified as Democrat or Republican than how they identified religiously.

Joe Carter, an editor for the Gospel Coalition, said that he believes evangelicals are more opposed to additional regulations because they are more likely to own guns. White evangelicals are the most likely religious Americans to own a gun, according to a Pew Research Center survey reported by Christianity Today.

The survey found that 41% of white evangelicals own a gun, compared with 33% of white mainline Protestants (33%), religiously unaffiliated (32%), black Protestants (29%) and Catholics (24%) who own one. (By comparison, 30% of all American adults report owning a gun.)

White evangelicals (44%) are also more likely to be satisfied with gun laws. On the other hand, slightly more than half of religious Americans (52%) think gun laws should be stricter, as do less religious people, according to the magazine.

Carter said many evangelicals would support stricter gun laws if they believed they could be effective in stopping murders. "But they simply don't believe a criminal who would slaughter innocent people would honor firearms purchasing regulations," he said.

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