by Sarah Posner
Evangelical Christians who don’t support guns deserve and need our support.
After the San Bernardino massacre in December, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University and son of the late Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, encouraged students to carry guns because “if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill.” Falwell’s 10,000-student-strong audience at the mandatory weekly convocation in the university’s basketball arena cheered and applauded. But Falwell was also subjected to a swift and harsh rebuke from fellow evangelicals.
The Rev. Rob Schenck, a prominent evangelical confidant of conservative politicians and power brokers, called Falwell’s statement “morally reprehensible” and “tactically reckless.” Shane Claiborne, a leading figure in a more liberal movement of younger evangelicals, wrote in reaction to Falwell’s statement, “The Jesus I worship did not carry a gun. He carried a cross.” Brian McLaren, a generation older than Claiborne but like-minded on evangelicalism and politics, wrote to Falwell in an open letter, “I feel impelled by conscience to repudiate your words as not being representative of authentic Christianity as I, and thousands like me, understand it.”
Dissent came even from within the university itself. Moriah Wierschem, a Liberty sophomore, criticized Falwell’s stance in evangelicalism’s flagship magazine, Christianity Today, noting, “Guns are not the biggest problem here, though; it’s the tone of our conversation over guns—and killing.”
Liberal, pro-gun control Jews need to start a conversation with these evangelicals—and even with Falwell. I say this not as a Pollyannaish believer in interfaith dialogue—I’m generally a skeptic—or even in the hope of generating a coalition of strange bedfellows to take on the gun lobby. Instead, I believe that this moment demands a cross-cultural conversation that will shed light on the respective embedded, communal commitments of both Jews and evangelicals. This could potentially lead to more fruitful organizing strategies for the broader battle against gun violence.
Generally speaking, evangelicals have a strong sense of kinship with Jews. For many, that kinship is rooted in the Bible—in their belief that Jews are God’s chosen people and, in some cases, that Jews are a crucial part of God’s plan for Christianity and the world to come. As a result, many evangelicals tend to focus on Israel as the political issue that binds them to Jews.
In reporting on evangelicals across more than a decade, I have frequently been asked if I’m “a believer,” “a Christian,” or other code for “Are you one of us?” When I reply that I’m Jewish—even though I can think of few other circumstances in which a reporter is asked to verify her religious beliefs—my answer is typically met with unmitigated joy and a response such as “I love the Jewish people.” On occasion, that’s followed by an offer to help me find salvation in Jesus Christ, which I always politely decline.
Many of these evangelicals don’t know many Jews; they don’t understand the diversity of observance and practice among American Jews, nor are they familiar with most Jews’ liberal stances on culture war issues, gun control included. Many liberal Jews, for their part, hold stereotypes of evangelicals as intolerant Bible-thumpers.
But that’s too simple a view, and changes of heart are possible even on such hot-button cultural issues—as Schenck’s own story illustrates. Schenck, whose Capitol Hill-headquartered Christian outreach group Faith and Action brings him in regular close contact with Republican leaders and policymakers, had a come-to-Jesus moment, so to speak, on guns. In 2014, he began to quietly wage what he told me was a “lonely battle” to break evangelicals’ “unholy alliance” with the National Rifle Association.
Schenck, as documented in the 2015 film Armor of Light, has embarked on a one-person campaign to unlink evangelicalism and guns—an effort that he has discovered is harder than arguing over the meaning of Bible verses. It requires a dismantling of embedded cultural values, like those Falwell articulated in his convocation speech, that are proving stubborn.
In the film, Schenck makes no headway with evangelical colleagues, even members of his own staff. Guns, a colleague tells him, “are in our DNA,” an argument that shuts down any discussion of whether the Bible sanctions gun use. “Fox News and the NRA aren’t theological authorities,” Schenck protests, but the viewer senses that for this group, at least, Schenck may be too late.
But the outcry against Falwell’s San Bernardino comments suggests that there are indeed divisions within evangelical communities—divisions that could offer an opening to Jewish outreach. And many Jewish organizations recently have strengthened their efforts against gun violence. The Reform movement has made it a lobbying priority, citing the traditional Jewish emphasis on “the sanctity and primary value of human life.” Six major groups representing the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements, as well as others, have signed onto Faiths United Against Gun Violence.
Real political change within communities on hot-button issues requires more than a few prominent figures taking a contrarian position. As the sociologist Lydia Bean has shown in a recent report for the New America Foundation, an evangelical movement to combat climate change failed because it relied on a handful of evangelical leaders signing public statements with environmental advocates, unaccompanied by meaningful political organizing of their constituencies.
Maybe that’s where the Jewish community comes in, with its well-organized gun control efforts and otherwise positive image in evangelical circles. “Interfaith dialogue” is often superficial and transitory. No one wants to have a contrived conversation in a sanctuary, conference room or social hall. But in the case of guns—as opposed to abortion, for example—a conversation might be possible. Or, at least, worth a try.
Sarah Posner is a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches and a freelance investigative journalist.