January 12th, 2013
12:04 PM ET
By Athena Jones, CNN
Washington (CNN) -– There is a split in American pews over gun control. In the weeks since the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, many Christians are wrestling with gun control, an issue they once held as a sacred, untouchable right.
For years gun control was championed by Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, but now many evangelicals are joining the growing choir of Americans asking what can be done.
“Maybe the most interesting meeting we had was with the interfaith group,” Vice President Joe Biden told reporters after meeting with a wide range of interest groups on guns. Biden was tasked by President Barack Obama to head up a task force to provide recommendations to reduce gun violence.
Biden said he was surprised to see a new face at the table: “evangelical groups, who generally have been reluctant to engage in this, because it's been viewed as maybe an attack on cultural norms relating to rural communities and gun ownership.”
Newtown could mark a tipping point on gun control for evangelicals.
Daniel Darling, an evangelical pastor from the Chicago area, called on fellow evangelicals to speak up on guns in an article on CNN’s Belief Blog.
He urged support for what he called “common sense regulations” - like restricting sales of high capacity magazines and assault weapons.
"I think it's a conversation we need to have and as evangelicals not be afraid to have," Darling told CNN. "The Scriptures call us to love our neighbors more than we love our guns."
“Most religious groups actually line up in support of stricter gun control laws,” said pollster Robert P. Jones, CEO of the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute.
“The group that really stands out is white evangelical Protestants as the group most strongly opposed to stricter gun control laws," he said.
An August survey by the research institute found about 60% of Catholics and religiously unaffiliated Americans support stricter gun control laws, compared to just 35% of white evangelical Protestants and 42% of white mainline Protestants. That survey came after the mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater but before the shooting in the Connecticut elementary school.
Jones said culture and geography also played a role in the differences among groups.
The research institute found that white evangelicals are also the most likely religious denomination to own guns. Many live in southern and rural areas where guns are a way of life.
"We have separation of church and state, but not separation of religion and politics," Jones said.
Shaun Casey, a professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington who advised the Obama campaign in 2008, said the split among Christians on gun control nearly mirrors the split among Christian voters in the 2012 presidential election.
Casey points to biblical interpretation on weapons as a way to explain the difference among Christians. He said he believes some Christians misinterpret an episode late in Jesus' life when his disciple Peter tried to defend him from Roman soldiers with a sword.
"Some people say 'Well, that clearly means that disciples of Jesus Christ can carry personal weapons,'" he said, before adding that those readers ignore the part of the story where Jesus orders Peter to put the sword back in its sheath.
“People who look at that story and come away thinking that it's permissible for Christians to carry concealed weapons really misconstrue the whole story. The story is in fact about how Christians have in fact been disarmed by Jesus Christ."
The focus cannot be on guns alone for many Christians, but also on the environment that gives rise to this type of violence, according to the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian advocacy group. They said the focus should not only be on the guns themselves, but also on the environment that gives rise to this type of violence.
"When you have 40% of America's children being born into homes without fathers, we shouldn't be surprised to see this rise in violence. You cannot look at one aspect of this and say that it's simply because we don't have a ban on assault weapons," said the council's president, Tony Perkins.
"I'm not saying there is not merit to have a discussion about gun ownership,” Perkins said. “I do believe we have a Second Amendment right and that a law abiding citizen should have the right to protect themselves. What we are saying here at the Family Research Council is when we have a discussion about the violence that is taking place here in our nation, we cannot overlook the role that the family plays in this environment."
Biden has committed to getting his task force's policy recommendations to the president by January 15.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.