This story has been updated.
Dozens of prominent faith leaders launched a push Tuesday for gun control, using the post-Newtown climate to argue there is a spiritual imperative for action on gun violence.
Jim Wallis, founder of the evangelical movement Sojourners, challenged the NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre’s argument that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
Wallis, who was among 25 clergy at a Tuesday news conference, called LaPierre’s view “morally mistaken, theologically dangerous and religiously repugnant. The world is not full of good and bad people, that’s not what the scripture teaches. We all have bad and good in us.”
Progressive clergy have long preached for tighter gun measures but since the mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn. elementary school, their demands are getting much more specific and the clergy involved are coming from a broader base.
Monday night, a few dozen national clergy who serve now or have as official advisors to President Obama issued a statement calling for “reasonable steps” such as the enforcement of universal background checks for people buying guns and the “collection and publication of relevant” data on gun violence.
The statement is signed by leaders including the Rev. Larry Snyder, the head of the Catholic Church’s social service arm; National Association of Evangelicals Leith Anderson; and mainline leaders from the Episcopal and Lutheran churches, among others.
“[We] call upon our communities and our elected officials to make every effort to save human lives, especially the lives of children, from senseless gun violence that does not represent the responsible citizenship intended by the Second Amendment,” the statement reads.
More specific is the push coming from a group called Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, which grew out of a successful clergy effort to limit use of tobacco. The group led the Tuesday news conference with Wallis and 25 others ,who were among 47 heads of major groups who signed a letter calling for: criminal background checks to buy guns, the removal of guns and magazines from public streets and the making of gun trafficking a federal crime.
The signers lead groups made up of tens of millions of Americans.
The efforts are meant to press and support Vice President Biden’s upcoming report on measures to stem gun violence.
The gun control campaign is a visible effort for progressive faith leaders in particular, who many religious progressives feel haven’t been confrontational enough in recent years and have ceded the public debate square to religious conservatives. The question is how effective they can be at a time when Americans are moving away from institutional religion, thus lessening the clout of even major groups like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops or the Islamic Society of North America or the National Association of Evangelicals.
There are notable absences to this effort, particularly white evangelicals, who make up a fifth of the country’s population. Even young evangelicals leaders who are known for their focus on bridge-building have been quiet or hostile to the new press for gun control. Among them are writer and thought-leader Gabe Lyons, founder of the trend-setting Q Conference, who last week framed the push for gun control as “the current gun restriction debate” and evidence of another “lost liberty.”
That puts Lyons squarely in the mainstream of white evangelicals, who overwhelmingly oppose stricter gun laws (by 68 percent in an August Post poll). Otherwise faith identity and practice aren’t typically good predictors of Americans’ views on gun control. People who attend worship and people who don’t are both essentially much split down the middle on the question of stricter laws. White Protestants, white Catholics and people with no religious affiliation are also divided. Black Protestants, like African Americans in general, favor stricter gun laws.
Clergy involved in this post-Newtown effort have been clear, however, that there is a racial gap, with some African Americans frustrated that it took Newtown to bring focus to an issue that has long afflicted black children in cities. That gap was on display at the Tuesday news conference, with an overwhelmingly white group of clergy at the microphone.
“African American clergy have been saying these things, we just haven’t been with them,” said Washington Episcopal Bishop Mariann Budde. “We live in such economically and racially segregated times, you don’t see it until acts cross the color and economics line, and gets people’s attention.”