The Atlantic this week ran an article discussing the phenomena of church gun control activism. Much of the article examines Manhattan’s Trinity Church and its efforts to leverage its position as a very minor stockholder in Walmart to force a vote on whether Walmart will sell certain guns that Trinity Church alleges are well suited for mass shootings. Trinity Church is taking Walmart to court in an attempt to force the issue.
While such actions are certainly consistent with liberal mainline Protestantism, and the Episcopal Church in particular, one wonders whether this type of action is appropriate for a church. There remains significant disagreement within mainline Protestantism, and within Christianity at large, on the benefits of increased gun control; this is seemingly something upon which Christians of good will can legitimately disagree. This disagreement is mirrored in the American population at large. It would seem that Christians can legitimately disagree on the intricacies of gun control because it is not a matter of faith or morals. That being the case, is gun control policy something churches and church leaders are qualified to address? Does such an emphasis on political action distract from the Church’s vocation?
According to the Public Religion Research Institute (in a 2013 poll), 67% of Roman Catholics, 57% of white mainline Protestants, and only 38% of white evangelicals support stricter gun control. This was an increase after the Colorado movie theatre shooting in July 2012. The Public Religion Research Institute reports, “While there was no significant change in support for stricter gun control laws among most religious groups, support for stricter gun control laws increased 15 points among white mainline Protestants, from 42% in August 2012 to 57% today.” This demonstrates that, until very recently, support for stricter gun control was a minority position within mainline Protestantism. 57% of white evangelical Protestants and 55% of white mainline Protestant report that they live in a home with a gun.
Division exists within Trinity Church as well. As the New York Times reported, that the congregation “has been racked by infighting in recent years over whether the church should be spending more money to help the poor and spread the faith… Differences over the parish’s mission and direction last year led nearly half the 22-member vestry … to resign or be pushed out, after at least seven of them asked, unsuccessfully, that the rector himself step down.” This is a church in a denomination that, while known for political and social activism, lost 200,000 members between 2009 and 2013, including 27,000 between 2012 and 2013. When such harmful division exists within the non-essentials of an individual denomination, surely the emphasis should be on unity rather than on using ecclesial power to advance social and political platforms.
Often societal problems defy a simple solution; often political action merely bandages the festering wound of broken communities and broken souls. While such a surface approach is necessary, it is often all that governments are able to accomplish. What is usually needed is not more laws and policies, but more love for neighbor. This, governments cannot legislate. The Church stands in a unique position connected personally to those within its walls and, ideally, to those without as well. The Church was given a task which governments can only hope to facilitate; the Church is called to kindle the love of Christ in the heart of every man.
C.S. Lewis understood this. He writes in Mere Christianity,
When [people] ask for a lead from the Church most people mean they want the clergy to put out a political programme. That is silly. The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live forever: and we are asking them to do a quite different job for which they have not been trained. The job is really on us, on the laymen. The application of Christian principles, say, to trade unionism or education, must come from Christian trade unionists and Christian schoolmasters: just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists —not from the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time.
He offers the correct way,
By the Church they ought to mean the whole body of practicing Christians. And when they say that the Church should give us a lead, they ought to mean that some Christians— those who happen to have the right talents—should be economists and statesmen, and that all economists and statesmen should be Christians, and that their whole efforts in politics and economics should be directed to putting “Do as you would be done by” into action.
As the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, teaches what the good human life is, it becomes the duty of Christian statesmen – those with the necessary training and experience – to attempt to understand the practical policy steps needed to move towards that ideal. This process with be complicated and relies on input and compromise from those with differing opinions. As circumstances change, the practical measures needed to shape society with Christian principles may also change. This is exactly what the role of politics is. It is entirely different when ecclesial leaders attempt to immanentize the Christian ideal through utopian schemes.
Our Lord commissioned his Church to “Go… and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” This is, and must always remain, the central mission of the Church. While the gospel certainly does illumine political and social life, its application to particular social problems at particular times may be difficult to discern. The solution cannot be to ignore legitimate disagreement within one’s denomination and within Christianity at large – an uncertainty shared by the secular world as well.
When the Church encounters a social problem – and gun violence is a real social problem – that she is not equipped to address physically, she must press all the harder to attack the spiritually evil roots of the problem. The world does not need – and Christ does not need – a Church that functions merely as another policy lobbyist or another comfortable association. While the Church may, to some extent, be both of these, if it neglects its primary objective of teaching man to love God and to love his neighbor, it undermines the fulfillment of other societal goods.