The American Faith in Violence

From abortion rights to gun rights

Stories along two fronts of the culture war have dominated social media conversation recently. First, the undercover videos that the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) recorded and released in which Planned Parenthood leaders discuss the harvesting of fetal body parts and the costs associated with donating those parts to scientific research. Second, the latest mass shootings that have occurred in the United States—one at a Navy reserve center in Chattanooga, TN, and another in a movie theater in Lafayette, LA.

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illustration by Jef Thompson /

Calls for stricter regulations immediately emerged. In the case of Planned Parenthood, pro-life activists and politicians demanded investigations to make sure the organization was not breaking federal laws and selling the body parts for profit. In response to the mass shootings, gun control advocates renewed their campaigns for more background checks and for states to report to federal databases those people deemed mentally incompetent to own weapons.

On both fronts, the major lobbying groups supporting abortion rights or gun rights offered organized counterpoints. In reading the numerous articles and opinions on these matters, I see a similarity between the groups that feel threatened by the voices of protest.

The lobbies for both abortion and gun rights downplay troublesome aspects of these stories. In the case of Planned Parenthood’s organ harvesting, pro-choice supporters point out that although viewers might find the conversation in the videos disturbing, Planned Parenthood has done nothing illegal and that nonchalant conversations about bloody procedures are common in the medical field. (As the spouse of a physician, I can attest to the detached ways doctors discuss matters that many people find gruesome.) Planned Parenthood’s defenders have criticized CMP for misrepresenting the doctors discussing the organ harvesting through selectively editing the videos. There is some merit to this point—the shorter versions of the videos do show omissions that would seem to undercut CMP’s claims—but CMP has also released full, unedited versions of the conversations.

In the case of the mass shootings, gun rights lobbies claim that the problem is not ready access to deadly weaponry but the psychology of the shooters. They point out most gun owners are law-abiding citizens. We need, therefore, to stop religious extremists from coming ashore and to better monitor the mentally ill.

Both lobbies have proven to be intransigent toward any regulation, even regulations supported by large swaths of the population. Their actions and language reveal a worry that giving an inch on, say, late-term abortions or universal background checks would inevitably lead to the abolition of the rights they deem essential. Any attempt to place limits on these practices is met with a full-court press in both the legislature and judiciary. In public opinion, these lobbies and their supporters engage in ad hominem attacks of their opponents, drumming up fearful claims of a “war on women” or saying the government is “coming for our guns.”

These groups share something more fundamental than dismissive attitudes and aggressive debate tactics. We see in the defense of abortion and gun rights a deep-seated fear of the “other” and a faith in violence to solve our problems.

Much of the defense of guns is based on a fear of the “other” who might attack the innocent. We are asked, “If someone breaks into your house carrying a gun, wouldn’t you rather be armed as well?” Attempts to place stricter regulations on access to firearms is met with the refrain that gun laws only hamper the ability of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves, since criminals will ignore any law.

Pro-choice lobbies argue strongly for unrestricted access to abortion using examples of fetuses with physical abnormalities so severe that the babies would not be able to survive for very long outside the womb. Or they refer to cases in which the life and health of the mother is at serious risk should they carry the baby to term. One has the sense that these examples represent the majority of abortion cases and that if abortion is restricted, thousands, if not millions of women’s lives will be at risk. But if we dig deeper we find that the three most frequent reasons women state they sought an abortion are:

  1. concern the baby would interfere with their career, education, or ability to care for dependents (74%);
  2. an inability to afford a baby (73%);
  3. a desire to not be a single mother (48%).

In other words, most abortions are sought for fear that the unwanted baby will negatively and radically affect the lifestyle of the pregnant woman. President Barack Obama said about his daughters, “If they make a mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby.” While this comment was not specifically about abortion but about access to sex education, it is telling that Obama would see an unexpected child as a punishment, that is, a consequence to be feared.

The solution the pro-choice and pro-gun lobbying groups offer to our fear of the dangerous other—either the armed assailant or the unwanted child—is to use violence to stop the threat. The answers these lobbies offer are strikingly similar and fail to address the roots of the problems they seek to solve. There is little attention given to how we shape a less-violent society in which we care for our neighbors.

illustration by Jef Thompson /

In the wake of the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the gun lobby has shown no interest in community-building efforts that would foster trust and prevent violence before it happens. They portray a Manichean world divided between good guys and bad guys. Since violence cannot be prevented, the NRA’s solution is for more good people to carry more guns into more places. Instilling the fear of armed resistance into the bad guys is seen as the best prevention—all this despite studies that have shown more guns lead to more crime and violence, not less.  Former Arkansas Governor and current presidential candidate Mike Huckabee even suggested that the victims of the mass murder at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston could have saved themselves had they been armed. The belief is no longer, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” The belief has now become “if you don’t carry a gun, you will get yourself killed.”

NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre expresses what has become a creed for the saving power of gun violence: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

As mentioned above, the pro-choice lobby privileges certain justifications for women seeking abortion, most of them tragic: a fetus who won’t be able to survive outside the womb, a medical complication that puts the mother’s life at risk, pregnancy due to rape or incest. Aborting the fetus is thus a life-saving measure, or at least it alleviates further suffering. But research by the Guttmacher Institute shows these are four of the five least-common reasons women give for seeking an abortion. Further, in the defense of Planned Parenthood’s organ harvesting and donation, supporters have argued that these donations are essentially no different from other organ donations and could lead to medical breakthroughs that may save lives. So the violence of abortion not only prevents further suffering, but it also becomes a life-giving act for future generations. It is a leap of logic to equate the organ collection that Planned Parenthood admits to doing to other forms of tissue collection and organ donation. In just about every other case of organ donation, the life of the donor is not intentionally ended with legal protection. Most other dead people who donate organs or give body parts to science die of natural causes or are the victims of accidents or homicide.

Fear of losing our way of life leads us to devalue people we see as possible threats. We legitimize violence against those threats by telling ourselves we are saving life and preventing suffering.

Greater access to sex education and advances in contraception, like intrauterine devices (IUDs), have reduced both the number of unplanned pregnancies and abortions. We should find ways we can support women for whom abortion is seen as a solution to their problems. We will have to consider greater financial and communal support and a more robust culture of adoption. But these efforts at reducing the number of abortions do not address the core issue that the CMP videos reveal. Writing for the Jesuit periodical America, Sam Sawyer states the problem succinctly: “Neither of the videos show, even for a moment, any concern whatsoever for the fact that the fetal bodies being dismantled for parts are undeniably human bodies, which is in fact precisely what makes them valuable and desirable.”

The American faith in the redemptive power of violence is evident in two areas that most people would consider on opposite ends of the political spectrum. But the results are the same. Fear of losing our way of life leads us to devalue people we see as possible threats. We legitimize violence against those threats by telling ourselves we are saving life and preventing suffering. This violence is no longer seen as even a necessary evil but as an intrinsic good. Any attempt to curb such violence is met with political intransigence. Meanwhile the communal fabric is frayed, we see our neighbor—even the one in the womb—as a dangerous other, and we cheapen the value of human life in our society.

Tyler Watson is a stay-at-home dad living in the Bay Area of northern California with his wife and three children. Prior to his current vocation he served as a pastor in congregations of the Evangelical Covenant Church. He received his MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary. He has written devotionals on the Psalms and blogs at The Space Between My Ears.

The Armor of Light is a terrific new documentary by Abigail Disney (producer, Pray the Devil Back to Hell). Don’t miss it!


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