First Lady Melania Trump recently hosted a dinner for influential evangelical figures at the White House. During his remarks, the President briefly referenced the recent shooting at a gaming tournament in Jacksonville, Florida, where a crazed gunman with a history of mental illness killed two people and wounded eleven others. After expressing condolences to those affected, Mr. Trump said dismissively, “How it happens, nobody really knows.”
Of the 100 or so evangelical guests in attendance, a number of them were pastors. I wonder if they cringed when the President made that statement – a statement that no spiritual shepherd would ever make.
We must wonder why the Commander-in-Chief of the United States, who is charged with running the most complex operations of government, including the most sophisticated military in the world—not to mention its nuclear arsenal—finds an event like the one in Jacksonville so mystifying. After all, it is his responsibility to oversee federal departments that conduct mandatory background checks on purchasers of firearms—and one disqualifying criterion for would-be buyers is a history of mental illness.
At the White House soiree, the president was careful to remind evangelicals, “I have given you a lot. Just about everything I promised.” It is widely accepted that he is transactional in nature. If there’s one axiom that describes Mr. Trump’s political modus operandi, it would be, “You scratch my back, I scratch yours.” While he’s been very good delivering on his campaign promises to conservative evangelical constituents, he has yet to deliver on his much bigger, much more consequential promise to the nation made in his 2016 GOP nomination acceptance speech. I was there in Cleveland and heard him say emphatically, “I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored. The most basic duty of government is to defend the lives of its own citizens. Any government that fails to do so is a government unworthy to lead.”
Unfortunately, the terrifying gun violence that plagues our nation has not come to an end, and the horror that recently took place in Jacksonville has become all too familiar for Americans. For many, these last two years have been marked by gun violence and mass shootings—shootings that shattered families and whole communities. As pastors and spiritual advisors, we must not forget the devastating loss of life at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas last October, or when a gunman entered a house of worship Sunday, November 5, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas and opened fire on the congregation, killing 25 innocent people. This year, we have witnessed even more tragedy as precious children and teenagers in Parkland, Florida and Sante Fe, Texas were senselessly shot and killed. In fact, there have already been 12 mass shootings this year alone in our country.
There are, once again, family members, friends, and too many others in unspeakable anguish after this most recent gun slaughter. President Trump needs to be reminded by faith leaders of every tradition, including evangelical Christians, that every single human life matters—not just the ones on a cynical political promise list. It is time for the President and every government executive under him responsible for the public’s safety to take this moral mandate seriously, rise to the task, and do everything possible to ensure the mentally unstable do not have access to firearms, like the shooter in Jacksonville did. Furthermore, the Trump Administration needs to push congress to tighten up federal law and allocate necessary resources to states to enforce such restrictions and to punish states that fail to do so.
Finally, because our government is “of the people, by the people, for the people,” it is also every voting American’s responsibility to elect those who take the charge to “defend the lives of its own citizens” as more than simply campaign hype—but as a sacred duty that must be performed and for which they must be held accountable.
President Trump informed his evangelical leaders at the White House dinner that his administration has “stopped the Johnson Amendment from interfering with [their] First Amendment rights.” Presumably, this means pastors and other religious leaders are free to speak their minds from the pulpit and in other media when it comes to who will be best to lead the country into the future and to do something about the horrific plague of gun violence that snuffs out and shatters tens of thousands of lives each year. On this one point, it’s time for faith leaders and all members of their communities to take President Trump seriously and speak out loudly in defense of the preservation of peace and safety for all. It’s time to elect members of Congress and other representatives at all levels of government who will hold this president accountable and who will craft legislation that keeps firearms out of the hands of those who present a grave danger to the public.
The Christian leaders at the White House dinner that heaped praise on Mr. Trump for giving them everything they’ve demanded of him surely know that there is an explanation for the murder and mayhem in Jacksonville—and Parkland—and Las Vegas—and Sutherland Springs and in the many dreadfully similar episodes of murder, injury and trauma that preceded his presidency. Simply put, mental illness and access to deadly firearms should not go together. Let’s put that on our list of demands for the president—and make sure that there are those in Washington who will make sure he delivers on them—not just for we evangelicals, but for all of the American people.
About Rev. Dr. Rob Schenck
The Rev. Dr. Rob Schenck is an ordained evangelical minister and president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, located in Washington, DC. He holds a Doctor of Ministry from Faith Evangelical Seminary in Tacoma, Washington and is a senior fellow of The Centre for the Study of Law and Public Policy at Oxford. Rev. Schenck is the subject of the Emmy Award-winning documentary, The Armor of Light and a member of the leadership team for Survivor Sunday, a nationwide day of remembrance for the 30,000 lives lost annually to gun violence sponsored by Prayers & Action. He is also the author of God and Guns, a part of Zondervan’s upcoming book, Christianity Engaged in Culture and the book, Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love, which was released by Harper Collins on June 5, 2018.