Reading Time: 5 minutes

Thoughts and prayers. That is what former President Donald Trump, Senator Marco Rubio, and former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan had to offer up after the Parkland shooting which killed 17 people in 2018. Politicians did the same after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 in which 20 children were killed. Gun violence is ubiquitous in America. The New York Times found that there had been 25 cases of mass murder (4 or more people shot and killed) throughout 2021. And Everytown, a gun-control organization, found that 100 Americans are shot and killed each day

It’s clear that firearms are a destructive force in American life. They change the way that we live for the worse. Elementary school children are now subjected to “active shooter drills,” ducking and hiding behind tables as they picture a gunman stalking the halls, looking for them. Guns are incredibly easy to procure in Republican-dominated states and flow freely across the country into the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.

Guns aren’t just a problem in the hands of criminals—they represent a potential catastrophe when combined with mental or emotional instability, or even a bad day.

Guns allow temporary feelings to result in permanent death. 

Guns aren’t just a problem in the hands of criminals—they represent a potential catastrophe when combined with mental or emotional instability, or even a bad day.

According to a study from Pew Research, 41% of white evangelicals own a firearm, compared to 30% of Americans overall. The study also found that white evangelicals are more likely than any other religious group to own a firearm. The evangelical attraction to firearms is a contradiction that isn’t probed nearly enough by pundits or researchers. Not only because Christianity is promoted as a religion that exudes peace and understanding, but also because of evangelical dominance of the pro-life movement. Nearly 70% of white evangelicals support restricting all abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother’s life. How can evangelicals’ support for “life” be reconciled with their unwavering support for firearms? 

Many guns rights advocates try to reconcile this contradiction in part by saying that guns are primarily used defensively. The argument typically goes that a “good guy with a gun” is simply protecting himself from “evildoers” and that most gun owners are simply responsibly using firearms to protect themselves and their families. But the data doesn’t bear this out. In fact, guns are very rarely used in self-defense. A Harvard University study using National Crime Victimization Survey data found that people defended themselves with a gun in just 0.9 percent of crimes between 2007 and 2011. In fact, researchers have argued that the chances of a gun owner using a gun offensively—against themselves or others—is for all practical purposes infinitely higher than the chance of using it defensively. 

“The average person … has basically no chance in their lifetime ever to use a gun in self-defense,” said Harvard injury control researcher David Hemenway. But “every day, they have a chance to use the gun inappropriately. They have a chance, they get angry. They get scared.”

The hollowness of evangelicals’ “pro-life” movement is also found in their complete ambivalence or even hostility toward social services. Evangelicals offered some of the fiercest opposition to the Affordable Care Act and in modern times have represented the Republican Party’s most conservative, economically individualist wing. Evangelicals largely oppose having their tax dollars going to social safety net programs for the less fortunate, much less foreign assistance—a further contradiction to the idea of “pro-life.” The infant mortality rate is nearly twice as high in poor counties as in wealthier ones, and child poverty remains one of the largest predictors of serious health and education issues for children throughout the United States. 

Another contemporary contradiction of the “pro-life” ideal is the evangelical hostility towards masks and vaccines for COVID-19. Vaccine hesitancy, misinformation about the virus, and distrust of immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci and the medical establishment have become a hallmark of evangelical support for conservatism and the Republican Party.

The science is settled: The unvaccinated are 11 times more likely to die of COVID. That hasn’t stopped the evangelical community from pushing their members to avoid vaccination and to stop wearing masks.

Of course, there is a long list of evangelical community leaders refusing the vaccine only to come down with the coronavirus. Marcus Lamb, a prominent evangelist, recently died after contracting the virus. He had previously preached against vaccination and wearing masks.

COVID has become one of the great crises in American history, with over 800,000 Americans dead. To push back against vaccines, masks, and other COVID restrictions is to promote ill-health and death. But that is exactly what so many evangelicals have done, despite the consequences. Even though the vaccine has been shown to save lives, many evangelicals have been willing to let people die in order to be seen as “a good conservative who supports the former President.” How can anyone square this with the concept of pro-life? 

Evangelicals have adopted “pro-life” as a framing device to sustain the illusion that they are fighting for human rights. But these contradictions show that is simply a deceptive frame to generate sympathy with the public.

We are not required to use or accept a frame that so clearly is out of lockstep with reality. Hostility towards the social safety net, towards gun control, towards masks and vaccines shows that this is a group that largely does not care if people live or die. How pro-life can you be, after all, if you are not moved to restrict gun access after the massacres at Sandy Hook and Parkland? How can you watch 800,000 Americans die in a once-in-a-generation pandemic and resolve that you’re on the side of the virus?

This is hostility and contempt towards life, not benevolence and compassion. 

Frames are like symbols—powerful in their ability to encapsulate complex ideas. If effective, a flag or an organization’s logo can telegraph the values of a political or corporate entity. Humans need these heuristics to help interpret the world around them. Amid the blizzard of incoming information, it provides a shorthand that helps us make decisions.

Frames are also powerful because they impact public opinion. Cognitive scientist George Lakoff has conducted research on how people interpret frames. He found that the 2016 Trump campaign’s frame on Hillary Clinton caused people to view her in a more negative light. Likewise, researchers Alexa Spence and Nick Pidgeon found that framing on climate change can significantly change one’s perceptions and support for climate change mitigation. How people feel about an event, a policy, or even a candidate can change drastically depending on the framing. So why cede the pro-life frame to evangelicals? 

I don’t have the perfect frame or the perfect retort in the debate. But I do know that “pro-life” is an inaccurate representation of what the evangelical community at large stands for, and we should stop using it. Being against abortion doesn’t grant you a pro-life label when you are against expanding healthcare for the poor. When you are against vaccines and masks in a pandemic, claiming to be pro-life is an absurd joke. Offering up thoughts and prayers instead of action after a mass shooting of children is inadequate beyond words.

There has to be a better term for this community than “pro-life.” It could hardly be worse. 

Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.