By Mark Tooley
Barely a few hours after the horrendous December 14 Newtown, Connecticut murders, the National Cathedral (Episcopal) in Washington, D.C. quickly publicized a news release pledging to “work with our national leaders to enact more effective gun control measures.” Then the cathedral announced its relatively new dean, Gary Hall, would sermonize on gun control that Sunday. The gothic cathedral that soars over the nation’s capital has been struggling in recent years, like many liberal, old line Protestant institutions, over declining membership and finances. And the political pronouncements of cathedral clergy, like most Episcopal and other old line clergy, in recent decades are mostly ignored. More typically the National Cathedral gains attention as a favored locale for state funerals, such as for Presidents Ford and Reagan, as well as astronaut Neil Armstrong. But CNN, The Washington Post and New York Times, among other media, uncharacteristically covered this sermon.
“If we are truly America’s ‘National’ Cathedral, as we say we are, then we must become the focal point of faithful advocacy of gun control, calling our leaders to courageous action and supporting them as they take it,” Rev. Hall preached. “For a variety of reasons our political culture has been unwilling and unable to address the question of gun control, but now it is time that you and I, as followers of Jesus, help them to do that.” Ostensibly “helping” Americans identify the right political solutions has been, unsuccessfully, the objective of old line Protestant elites for many decades.
In keeping with liberal theology, Rev. Hall warned against calling the Newtown murderer “evil” as dehumanizing. Instead, he focused more abstractly on “violence” and social tolerance for it. And in a familiar theme for old line Protestant clergy, he touted a political rather than a redemptive or spiritual crusade: “Our political leaders need to know that there is a group of people in America who will serve as a counterweight to the gun lobby, who will stand together with our leaders and support them as they act to take assault weapons off the streets.” The best way to mourn Newtown’s victims is to “mobilize the faith community for gun control.” And the Episcopal priest pledged his cathedral would become a “focal point of faithful advocacy of gun control, calling our leaders to courageous action and supporting them as they take it.” Rev. Hall promised that the “the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby.”
Keeping his promise, the National Cathedral last week hosted an interfaith press conference for gun control. Rev. Hall was joined by the Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., a United Methodist bishop, the National Council of Churches, a retired Catholic prelate, and the Islamic Society of North America. Cathedral officials urged banning semi-automatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, while also urging better care for the mentally ill. These stances are of course within the realm of reasonable discourse. But for much of the Religious Left, these policy objectives are only incremental steps towards more sweeping gun bans. The United Methodist Church, for example, has advocated for about 40 years an abolition of hand gun ownership. A former National Council of Churches president suggested transcending a Second “Amendment crafted for a time that bears little resemblance to our own.” Former lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) Richard Cizik professed to represent “new” evangelicals in backing gun control. “American Evangelicals need to be born again on this issue,” he insisted, denouncing “weapons of war” that defy “everything we say we stand for.”
But the president of his “old” evangelical group, although not joining the National Cathedral press conference since NAE has no official gun control stance, told The New York Times that maybe they should “take a harder look.” He cited the “decisive action” of the Holy Family after King Herod slaughtered the innocents. Whatever the NAE ultimately says, polls show that evangelicals are the religious demographic most opposed to more gun control.
At the press conference, Rev. Hall mocked the National Rifle Association’s suggestion of more armed guards at schools as answering “violence with more violence” and showing the NRA’s “answers are directly at odds with the teachings of all faith traditions of the vast majority of people of faith in America.” Unlike the United Methodist stance for a total ban on handguns, among other weapons, the Episcopal Church, according to its D.C. lobby, apparently more moderately advocates keeping “guns out of the hands of criminals (and to make certain assault weapons impossible to own), as well as to promote better availability of mental-health care and other measures designed to address the causes and effects of violence in our communities.”
Rev. Hall more specifically declared: “We must urge our legislators to support a ban on assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines, and commit ourselves to improving mental health treatment and critiquing our culture of glorified violence.” He also wants “tighter controls on all gun sales.” Rev. Hall insisted he doesn’t want to “take away someone’s hunting rifle, but I can no longer justify a society that allows concealed handguns in schools and on the streets or that allows people other than military and police to buy assault weapons or that lets people get around existing gun laws by selling weapons to people without background checks at gun shows.”
The cathedral dean’s seeming emphasis on background checks and mental health is obviously not outrageous of itself. But clerics leading political campaigns tend to invest their crusades with rhetoric pitting the angelic against the demonic. Not just the NRA but nearly all gun owners likely are the ultimate target of the true believing Religious Left, which for more than a century has had almost unlimited faith that the Kingdom of God can be achieved through legislation expanding state power. Interestingly, the Newtown killer reportedly degenerated emotionally after his parents’ divorce. Murderers and other violent felons overwhelmingly come from families broken by divorce or out of wedlock births. Churches typically bring no particular expertise to legislative issues, much less gun control. They do have 2000 years of expertise in promoting family life and the morality it sustains. None of the clerics who spoke at the National Cathedral press conference evidently extolled traditional church teachings about marriage and family as at least a partial remedy not only to violent crime but to a vast array of destructive social pathologies. Maybe they could start.
Nor did any of the clerics on the lawn of the National Cathedral mention that, even with the Newtown and other horrendous mass murders of recent years, murder rates in American are at record lows. In 1980, there were 10.2 murders for every 100,000 Americans. In 2011, it was 4.7, a more than 50 percent per capita drop. Murders today are less common per capita in America than they were in 1960. While not minimizing the urgency of deterring future Newtown-like horrors, maybe the clerics should have, and still could, give thanks for this massive improvement. And they could even ponder the reasons behind it.