Like countless others, those of us who work at R&P and the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics feel keen sorrow for the lives that were lost to ghastly violence at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday. We send our heartfelt condolences to the victims’ families and to all who have been personally affected by the deaths of innocent people, including 20 young children. It is almost impossible, in this week of 26 Newtown funerals, to think of much besides those lost lives and how to prevent still more such massacres from happening again.
We have been moved by the words of Newtown’s religious leaders such as Rabbi Shaul Praver and Monsignor Robert Weiss, who have offered consolation without devolving into banalities about God’s supposed will. President Obama, too, called upon God and scripture to comfort Newtown and the nation in an affecting speech delivered at Sunday’s vigil. At the same time, we have been repulsed by hearing from other observers, such as Mike Huckabee, that the tragedy reflects the abandonment of God by the U.S. government and American public schools; and by the equation in some quarters of these child murders with legally procured abortions. Religion, these divergent messages remind us, may comfort or may pour venom into an already infinite wound.
Two topics are now emerging as vital arenas for thoughtful national debate and policy change: our love affair with guns, and our inability to deal well with some varieties of mental illness (although, to be sure, the latter has yet to be established as a factor in the Newtown case and the public insinuations about Autism Spectrum Disorders have been odious). On their own, these are entirely separate issues; yet in recent years they have converged with ferocious intensity over the growing number of mass shootings, so many of these attributed to troubled men with easy access to military-style assault weapons. Religion has little to do with either issue, despite those whose mantra “God and Guns” makes weapons a matter of religious freedom (or, for that matter, those who support fundamentalist reparative therapy for homosexuals). We are greatly heartened to see thoughtful and respected conservatives, such as West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and Republican former Congressman Joe Scarborough, speak openly about rethinking our lax gun laws, and we wish them success in holding fast despite the inevitable storms bound to come their way.
Surely there is a productive role for religion in the wake of these despicable murders. To the extent that religious faith or ritual helps suffering parents survive the devastating loss of a child—a loss no one else can possibly fathom—its utility is obvious. But when religion becomes a weapon of destruction all its own, we have to condemn its use as a fearmongering political tool. Manipulation of our political ideals, our spiritual traditions, or our constitutional aims should never be welcome. We hope, in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, religious leaders can be a force to heal grief and also to inspire broad public action against the toleration of violence.