No one has better antiabortion credentials than the Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council in Washington, D.C. In 1992, he was charged with disorderly conduct for demonstrating with a preserved human fetus he called “Tia.” In 1995, he organized the first National Memorial for the Pre-Born and their Mothers and Fathers. For the last 30 years, Schenck has been filing lawsuits, getting sued, lobbying, and going to jail to restrict legal access to abortion. Having helped create the pro-life movement, will he be permitted to reimagine it?
Reverend Schenck is the leading Evangelical minister in the effort to expand the conservative concept of “womb-to-tomb” defense of human life to include issues beyond abortion — namely, gun violence. In a January op-ed in USA Today titled, “Twin terrors – Abortion, gunfire,” Schenck wrote, “The pro-life movement must bring its voice of conscience … [to discussions about] the ominous proliferation of guns — licensed or unlicensed — in our society.” Citing the tens of thousands of American lives lost every year to homicide, suicide, and accidental shootings, Schenck urged his pro-life peers to embrace the idea that preserving the sanctity of human life means questioning every “use of lethal force against those we perceive to be a threat to our way of life, whether they are in the womb or out of it.” He echoed this charge in a speech before this year’s “March for Life” on the National Mall.
If other conservative Christian leaders embrace this rationale for gun violence reduction, it could reshuffle the politics of the issue, particularly for GOP presidential candidates trying to distinguish themselves from the throng. Schenck thinks a political shift is more likely since the massacre at a South Carolina church last week. “I hope [the shooting] captures the attention of people who maybe otherwise would kind of have written this off as something that happens in the margins in our society,” Schenck tells The Trace. “It is not. It happens in places as special to us as churches and schools.”
Many national leaders have made a religious case for stricter gun policies over the last several years, often in response to tragedy. After the mass shooting in Tucson in 2011, two dozen religious organizations combined to form the interdenominational advocacy group Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, which was modeled on successful clergy efforts to limit tobacco use. The 2013 massacre in Newton, Connecticut, prompted the Very Rev. Gary Hall of the Washington National Cathedral to tell his congregation, “Enough is enough. As followers of Jesus, we have the moral obligation to stand for and with the victims of gun violence and to work to end it.” Last July, The Rabbinical Council of America adopted a resolution endorsing stricter gun-policy measures, grieving “the terrible proliferation of fatal shootings in the United States that result in part from Americans’ easy access to lethal weapons,” and noting that the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America was calling for stricter federal gun legislation back in 1968. Speaking last Sunday in Turin, Italy, Pope Francis suggested that weapons manufacturers who call themselves Christians are hypocrites. “That leads to a bit a distrust, doesn’t it?” he said.
What sets the Rev. Rob Schenck apart from other faith leaders is his vertiginous standing within the Evangelical right and his willingness to risk that status by pitting one major conservative tenet against another. Schenck has not given himself an easy row to hoe. One month after the Newton massacre, a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that while most major religious groups in the United States supported tightening gun laws, almost 60 percent of white evangelical Christians opposed it.
But if anyone’s reach is wide enough to cross the ideological chasm, it might be Schenck’s. In 2003, U.S. Marshals detained Schenck for hours after he physically blocked the removal of a Ten Commandments monument from in front of the Alabama Supreme Court building. This April, an admiring documentary about his crusade against gun violence, Armor of Light, debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. (Lucy McBath, National Spokesperson for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which is a part of Everytown for Gun Safety — a seed donor to The Trace — appears in Armor of Light.) Of course, his bipartisan appeal is a turn-off to gun-rights advocates, who push back with examples of defensive gun use, but Schenck is unconcerned. “Once a sincere person begins to ask the right questions,” he says, “when they begin to look at themselves and others in a moral and ethical framework, they begin to come to different conclusions.”
Schenck, who believes in the death penalty and hates the phrase “gun control,” says he supports the Second Amendment. But he thinks it’s not being debated or regulated as seriously as it should be, for which he lays much blame with the National Rifle Association. “A gun is too easy to use, either on others or on ourselves. So these are very, very serious, life and death issues, and it seems to me in my encounters with the NRA that they are not taking that aspect of it seriously,” Schenck says. “I mean they even have the least likely politicians running scared of them, and they can congratulate themselves on that. But it does nothing to help or improve the safety or security of morality of our culture.”
Some people clearly shouldn’t have weapons, Schenck says, referencing Dylann Roof, the shooter in Charleston who allegedly killed nine people last week. “Yet groups like the NRA have worked tirelessly and very expensively making sure that anyone can get a firearm and anyone can get ammunition, really at any time and any place. They are not being helpful in curbing these kinds of deadly events, and they need to be. Morally and ethically responsible people have to not only address this situation but act on it, and that includes responsible gun owners.”
While he understands the human instinct for self-defense, Schenck believes it’s not up to the Christian to value one life over another. “Even in a violent confrontation, it may not be God’s will that I am always the one to survive,” he says. “I have to be at least open to that. It was certainly the case with Christ.”
That’s why he’s troubled by the attitude popularized by the NRA that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
“Every person is a sinner and therefore imperfect,” Schenck says. “We’re all a mix of good and bad. So when you have lethal firepower in your hand, you have the capacity to do something very bad.”
But even if one is unquestionably the “good guy” in a given situation, Schenck says that doesn’t guarantee a good outcome. Speaking again of Charleston, he observes, “Someone might say, had someone in that Bible study circle [in Charleston] been armed, maybe nine people wouldn’t have died — maybe one or two or three, but not all nine.” (In fact, an NRA board member suggested that some of the victims might have survived had the church’s pastor, who was also a state Senator, voted for a concealed carry bill.)
“But no one can guarantee that. When there’s bullets flying in both directions, and there’s adrenaline flowing and people are afraid, there’s no predictability. Any law enforcement officer will tell you. In the heat of a disastrously violent situation, if you think you can get a bead on somebody and take them out with one shot, that’s a fantasy. The only thing you can say about that is that there would have been more bullets flying in that room,” Shenck says.
“It doesn’t help us to engage in fantasy. We have to talk about reality, and the only reality is that whenever bullets are flying towards other human beings, a tragedy is unfolding. Period.”