An Economist column contrasted theologically different responses to the Las Vegas slaughter. Conservative Christians stress its “evil” with implication there’s no effective answer to intractable human sinfulness, while liberal Christians advocate political solutions (i.e., gun control). Southern Baptist seminary president Al Mohler, conservative, is contrasted with Jesuit magazine editor James Martin, liberal.
Per the column:
Another clear implication of the stress on “evil” is that there is no point trying to stop its effects through regulation. If evil is an inexorable feature of a fallen plane of existence, one that has been tainted from the very start of things by human sin, then no policy measures will ever remove it. The only response to evil is to identify it clearly, to avoid secular soft-headedness, and perhaps to mitigate its effects as and when they arise, without presuming to abolish it. In other words, gun control will not work.
It’s untrue that conservative Christians use the “evil” label as pretext for political inaction. They of course denounce terrorism as evil and expect decisive state action. They denounce abortion as evil and work for laws in defense of the unborn. It’s true conservative Christians don’t typically support gun control, but neither is opposing gun control a significant focus of organized Christian political witness. In contrast, liberal Christianity has strenuously touted gun control for 40 years or more. The United Methodist Church urged banning handguns and registration for all other guns in 1972.
The major political distinction between conservative Christian political witness and its liberal counterpart is that the former, like conservativism overall, has a more limited view of government’s vocation, while the latter of course has more expansive expectations. Defending against foreign enemies, fighting domestic crime, upholding the sanctity of all human life from the unborn to the elderly and terminally ill, are considered among the state’s core functions by conservative Christians. They are correspondingly skeptical of government’s ability to significantly reform fallen humanity. The state might deter or punish crime with its police powers but cannot eliminate it.
Liberal Christians dating to the late 19th century Social Gospel and earlier have always been more hopeful that successful politics through decisive state action can uplift and perfect society. Poverty, crime, racism, ignorance, bigotry, and fear can be confronted and perhaps even defeated by the right legislation, administration and determined public will. People will generally do right if educated, materially accommodated and encouraged toward proper regard for humanity.
The early Social Gospel commendably focused on labor reforms, but its most sweeping achievement was Prohibition, which many liquor-averse conservative Christians also backed. As recounted in my book Methodism & Politics in the Twentieth Century, Methodism led Mainline Protestantism in identifying alcohol as society’s chief evil, whose abolition would save lives, foster good health, end gambling, defeat prostitution, defund political corruption, save marriages and families, and transport the poor into prosperity, creating a godly America.
Prohibition didn’t completely fail. Liquor consumption was permanently reduced. But it didn’t establish nirvana, it criminalized millions of Americans, and no legislature was ever willing to vote sufficient funding for its effective enforcement. A liquor-free America was an unsustainable Protestant dream. The political overreach was partly rooted in Methodist perfectionism, which optimistically surmised that if God will perfect individual sanctified souls so will He sanctify and perfect whole societies.
Since Prohibition’s repeal, even the most zealous of Protestant teetotalers have effectively acknowledged that whatever the evils of booze, whose abuse kills more Americans than guns, strictures against it will have to be mostly moral persuasion, not legal. The ripples of Prohibition persevere through restrictions on liquor through age limits, closing times, zoning, and control of hard liquor sales by some state governments.
Liberal Christian political witness retains its robust confidence in the state’s power to refine society, but liberal Protestant political influence never fully recovered from Prohibition’s repeal. The Economist noted that U.S. Catholic bishops support gun control, which has been true for over 40 years, though the language is often vague, advocating “sensible regulation.” There’s no binding Catholic teaching on gun control.
The Economist concluded:
Either end of this religious-ideological spectrum can go to funny extremes. An approach that puts overwhelming emphasis on the structural or regulatory context of violence can leave itself open to mockery by seeming to deny that individuals have moral choices. But whatever you may think about the causes of badness in the world, it seems manifestly absurd to suggest that the legislator should not try, at least, to reduce the scope for evil to prevail.
But what should the legislator under Christian influence pursue? What is right that is also effective and feasible in our distinct culture? Would European-style abolition of guns be feasible in historically gun-owning America with its Second Amendment and nearly 400-year-old emphasis on individual rights? To what extent can laws bend human nature or transform centuries-old national character traits? To what extent can the state, itself as sinful as the people it governs, be entrusted with vast new sweeping powers? Would the unintended consequences, as with Prohibition, nullify and overwhelm the original intent?
The Las Vegas killer, like many/most killers and other criminals, came from a broken family and absent father, himself criminal. Should government actively advocate intact families, and if so, how? Or would such policies undermine what they sought to defend and therefore are better entrusted to civil society, especially the church and religious, character-shaping institutions?
Those private institutions are not mentioned by The Economist, which implores the legislator to try to “reduce the scope for evil to prevail.” But even high-minded laws, especially if contrary to human nature and national habit, can be more destructive than the evil they sought to arrest. Christianity traditionally asserts that government is ordained to restrain evil, but it cannot of itself defeat it, which is a project belonging to God alone. This realization rejects political apathy but with realism and modesty.Google+