Since the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, religious groups such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a multi-faith coalition have called for tightening the nation’s gun control laws.
But religious groups are not united on the issue of gun control. The religiously unaffiliated (60 percent), minority Protestants such as African Americans (69 percent), and Catholics (62 percent) all favor stricter gun control laws. On the other hand, a majority of white mainline Protestants (53 percent) and more than 6-in-10 (61 percent) white evangelical Protestants oppose stricter gun control laws.
A survey conducted after the tragic mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater indicated a rift between Catholics and white evangelical Protestants. Approximately 8-in-10 white evangelical Protestants (80 percent) and Catholics (77 percent) say that “pro-life” describes them somewhat or very well, yet Catholics are far more likely to connect their “pro-life” identity with gun control issues. This divide is embedded in three fundamental differences between Catholics and white evangelical Protestants: divergent native strains of “pro-life” theology, contrasting cultural contexts, and conflicting approaches to social problems.
In 1975, Catholic bishops favored controlling and even eliminating handguns, calling them “a threat to life.” In the wake of last month’s shooting, the bishops released a statement declaring that guns are “too easily accessible” and that “it is time for our nation to renew a culture of life in our society.”
Among white evangelical Protestants, by contrast, “pro-life” theology has no parallel history of flourishing over such wide terrain. When evangelical pastors try to weave together pro-life identity and theology with support for stricter gun control, they are, to borrow a Biblical metaphor, sowing seeds on rocky ground. Referring to gun control as a “pro-life” issue sounds much less natural to evangelical ears.
Cultural and geographical differences also play a factor in opinions of firearms. Catholics are more likely to be urban and bicoastal, where firearms and hunting are not common activities. White evangelical Protestants are found in more rural areas where hunting is more traditional.
Catholics are far more likely than white evangelical Protestants to support institutional rather than individualistic solutions to social problems. When asked what could be done to prevent future mass shootings, a plurality of Catholics pointed to stricter gun control laws and enforcement. White evangelical Protestants, on the other hand, were most likely to support a call for a greater emphasis on God and morality in school and society. Four times as many supported this emphasis on changing individual hearts and minds as supported stricter gun control laws.