First, the sorrow. Then, the fury. Next, what?
Countless Americans, across our political divides, experience stages one and two after a massacre such as the one at Orlando’s Pulse dance club in the early morning of June 12. Grief and rage over lives senselessly lost to violence are unifying emotions, at least in theory. We gather together, in groups small or large, in person and online, to weep and share and console one another and seethe that one more mass murderer has accomplished his depraved goal.
It’s what happens next—the action or lack thereof—that so thoroughly divides us. Many are certain that even a few limited measures to reform the nation’s gun laws—such as the restoration of the ban on assault weapons, the guns of choice for so many recent massacres and astonishingly easy to purchase—would go a long way toward protecting us all from murderers like Omar Mateen, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, Adam Lanza, James Holmes, and those whose names we don’t yet know but who will someday take innocent lives with a semiautomatic rifle. In fact, a majority of Americans (58 percent) support an assault-weapons ban, and nearly all Americans (93 percent) support background checks for gun purchases, according to Quinnipiac polls. And yet others, from anti-government militias to government officials themselves, see ownership of assault rifles as a badge of courageous manhood and liberty from tyranny: as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham bluffly told a gun-rights activist during his presidential campaign last year, “Come to my house. I will show you my AR-15.”
Numerous religious leaders too, including prominent evangelicals such as Russell Moore, chide gun reform advocates for exploiting tragedies like Orlando for political ends. Evangelical activists who advocate publicly for rethinking open access to assault rifles, as Shane Claiborne does (along with prominent Catholic leaders like Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell) seem to be few and far between. Findings from the Public Religion Research Institute consistently show that while most religious groups in the U.S. support stricter gun laws—African American Christians (76 percent), Catholics (67 percent), and white mainline Protestants (57 percent), as well as the religiously unaffiliated (60 percent), white evangelical Protestants are the religious outliers for opposing stricter access to guns, with 59 percent in opposition to gun reform as of 2013.
In addition to guns, Americans remain divided over core issues pertaining to gender and sexuality, a crucial point in light of the fact that the Orlando victims were targeted for being queer. What impact did religious condemnations of homosexuality have on Omar Mateen’s own loathing of gay people? Why was he so disgusted by the sight of men kissing? We do not yet know the sources of this hatred, and there is much we may never know. But surely the nation’s long history of homophobia, reinforced by many Christian and other religious leaders both within and beyond the U.S., was a factor that must be faced. More, insofar as religiously inspired homophobia remains alive and well, religious leaders have a duty not merely to face it but to actively work toward eradicating it. As the Christian author and LGBT activist Matthew Vines wrote after Orlando, “For the nearly 50% of LGBT Americans who are Christians, as I am, it only compounded the pain to have our faith leaders either ignore the massacre, qualify their condolences in ways they never would for other victims, or simply omit the fact that LGBT people were targeted for death because of who they are.”
Strictly speaking, of course, animus toward the subject of gun reform and vilification of homosexuality are unrelated issues, though we know they are often found together. Shortly after the 2012 theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, insisted on Fox News, “We don’t have a crime problem or a gun problem or even a violence problem. What we have is a sin problem,” one reflected in the fact that America had become an ungodly nation. Five months later, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson explained the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting as the effect of atheism, abortion, and gay marriage, saying, “We have killed fifty four million babies and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition … I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and on God Almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us.”
And then, there is Islam. In the aftermath of the recent carnage in Orlando, Huckabee excoriated President Obama and the “politically correct chorus” who he said insisted that this attack was about hate, homophobia, and “because gun laws aren’t tough enough”: “No,” Huckabee responded, “It was about religion. Specifically Islam.” Distancing himself from years of censorious rhetoric against LGBT equality and anti-discrimination protections, Huckabee even appeared to blame Islam for anti-gay violence, saying, “News flash: there is a real war on gays and women, but it’s not Republicans who are waging it. And instead of the hate behind this vicious slaughter, we’ll probably hear more lectures about the firearm.”
Yes, attitudes toward Islam divide us too, and roughly along the same fault lines. We are a long way removed now from the near aftermath of 9/11, when President George W. Bush, like Huckabee a Republican and conservative evangelical, consistently took care to distinguish Islam from terrorism, stating such things as, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.” President Obama continues to differentiate these, saying after Orlando that Mateen and the Islamic State group to which he pledged loyalty were “not religious warriors” but “thugs” and “thieves.” Those in Bush’s political party, however, today overwhelmingly support an American candidate who has repeatedly called for a ban on Muslim migration into the country. That many principled Republicans have denounced such ideas as intolerant and un-American has not stopped the tide of anti-Muslim sentiment.
Except for the radicalized few, all Americans surely want an end to violent massacres like those that have been all too prevalent in recent years. To move in that direction, we will have to take meaningful steps to prevent people known to be violent or unstable from easy access to firearms. We need to fight against the spite-fueled hatred of different types of people and educate against homophobia, misogyny, racism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and more. And we must convince our political leaders to reinstate the assault weapons ban that was federal law from 1994 to 2004. If we do none of these things, if we only wring our hands helplessly, we should steel ourselves for the next inevitable tragedy and beg the world’s mercy for the blood on our hands.
Marie Griffith is editor of Religion & Politics.