In the process of doing some research into the issue of gun violence in the United States, I came across some data that paint a convincing portrait of the decline of the mainline protestant voice in the United States.
The major mainline protestant denominations each have been influenced by the Social Gospel Movement of the early twentieth century. As a result, each views a significant part of its mission as the promotion of “social righteousness” (that is a right ordering of society, often mirroring progressive political position).
One of the main ways these churches have done this is through actions of their highest governing bodies. These resolutions spoken with conviction, and advocated for by denominational offices have largely been spoken into an echo chamber that serves little purpose other than allowing the speaker to believe his message has been amplified and heard around the nation. In reality, no one is listening.
How do I know? Take a look at the facts:
In 1990 the Presbyterian Church (USA) called for “effective federal legislation to regulate the importation, manufacture, sale, and possession of guns by the general public.” In order to achieve this goal, the resolution suggested:
- the registration and licensing of guns
- the registration and licensing of gun owners
- background checks
- waiting periods prior to purchase
- regulation of the secondary market (secondhand guns, that is)
The PCUSA isn’t alone:
- The United Methodist Church passed similar resolutions in 1976, 1988, and 2000.
- The United Methodist Church passed resolutions calling for the denomination to enter into direct negotiations with the NRA in 1969, 1995, and 1999.
- The Episcopal Church passed no less than eight (8) resolutions between 1976 and 2000 calling for stricter regulation of firearms and ammunition.
- The U.S. Conference of Bishops issued policy statements in 1995 and 2005 advocating for the reintroduction of the lapsed assault weapons ban.
- The Evangelical Lutheran Church issued as message to the church in 1994 and reaffirmed it 2008 advocating tighter gun control.
- The National Council of Churches (NCC) issued its own Interfaith Call to End Gun Violence in 2000.
In other words despite significant effort over more than a decade, the mainline church has had a negligible effect on gun control issues. Despite all this work, in 2013 we’re no further ahead than we were in 2000.
- The church speaks at the culture rather than with the culture. When a denomination like the PCUSA issues a resolution and the begins to advocate for it, they have a press conference and bring together a non-diverse group of advocates. They speak the language of politics, activism, and with the sort of rhetoric that turns many off. Their language is abstract and inaccessible to many people who are predisposed to disbelieve their claims in the first place. In the end, they simply become one more voice in the tone-deaf world of politics.
- The culture is against gun control. The United States is a center-right nation. Always has been. Decrying that fact won’t change it, At the end of the day, the right to own and carry a weapon has been added to the Constitution. You may wish to limit this to the formation of a militia. That’s fine. I find your argument compelling, but apparently the Supreme Court of the United States wasn’t convinced.
- Many perceive significant hypocrisy in the voice of the church. A majority of Americans still believe that abortion is wrong except in the case of incest or risk to the life of the mother. However, each of the mainline denominations is officially on record as supporting a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. The argument for gun control on the basis of “the sanctity of life” sounds hypocritical from all mouths save the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
- These churches often don’t speak for their constituents. In the case of the Presbyterian Church (USA) these resolutions come from an act of a General Assembly. Delegates to that body aren’t democratically elected and are often not representative of the views of the average person in the pew.
In the end, these sorts of resolutions really ought to be avoided. All ministry is local. And all change will happen through faithful Gospel witness in the local context rather than through the press.