Why pro-life Catholics and evangelicals part ways on guns

After receiving a set of recommendations from a task force led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., President Obama will Wednesday announce plans for major legislation to prevent gun violence in the wake of last month’s mass shootings in Newtown, Conn. Since the shootings, prominent religious groups such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a multi-faith coalition have also called for tightening the nation’s gun control laws.

But religious groups do not speak with one voice on the issue of gun control. On one hand, 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.

These findings-from a survey conducted after last summer’s mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater but before the Newtown shooting-expose an intriguing rift between Catholics and white evangelical Protestants, religious groups for whom a “pro-life” ethos is central. 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.

The idea of gun control as a “pro-life” issue is a more natural one for Catholics, thanks to a history of extending the concept’s reach from abortion to a variety of issues, such as the death penalty, euthanasia, economic policies that threaten the livelihood of the poor, and gun violence. As early as 1975, for example, 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 account for much of the gap between these two religious groups. Compared to white evangelical Protestants, Catholics are, overall, more urban and bicoastal, and are more likely to live where guns and hunting are not part of the rhythms of daily life. Less than one-third (32 percent) of Catholics live in households where one person owns a gun. White evangelical Protestants, meanwhile, are among the most likely groups in the country to live in a gun ownership household (59 percent). A lack of daily interactions with guns and gun culture certainly influences Catholics’ solid support for gun control, as well as white evangelical Protestants’ antipathy toward such policies.

Finally, Catholics are substantially 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.

These theological and cultural differences help explain much of the divide between Catholics’ and white evangelical Protestants’ divergent opinions about gun control. Despite these challenges, there are signs that some prominent evangelical leaders are renewing their effort to link gun control and “pro-life” identity. This is not an impossible task, but it will be difficult, given the limitations of the evangelical strain of “pro-life” theology and the deep roots of gun ownership and individualism in evangelical culture.