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U.S. religiosity (or lack thereof) isn’t what’s driving gun violence

Some Republicans say we shouldn’t turn to politicians for solutions on gun violence. But we should look to them for ideas about our spiritual wellbeing?


The day after the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick appeared on Fox News and seemed eager to steer the conversation away from guns — and in a more faith-based direction.

“If there are some people in this country who are not believers, that’s fine. I respect their right not to believe. But for those of us who are Christians, we need to take hold of our country. And we do that through prayer. You cannot change the culture of a country without changing the character of the people, and you just cannot change character without changing a heart. And you can’t do that without turning to God.”

Other Republicans echoed the message. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson appeared on a radio program the day after the mass shooting and attributed the violence to the “secularization of society” and the “loss of faith.” The Wisconsin senator added, “I think the solution is renewed faith.”

It’s admittedly difficult, but for the sake of conversation, let’s give GOP officials like Patrick and Johnson the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say that they’re not simply using religion as a politically convenient tactic because they want to shift focus away from guns. Let’s say these Republicans and others on the right who used similar rhetoric this week genuinely believe that religion is the answer to the societal scourge of deadly gun violence.

It’s still a problematic pitch.

Right off the bat, part of the problem with this argument is the degree to which it blames Americans: If only we were devout to the satisfaction of Dan Patrick and Ron Johnson, gun deaths would be less common.

But there’s ample evidence to the contrary. According to international data compiled by the Pew Research Center, among wealthy democracies, the United States is easily among the most religious. Indeed, Americans’ weekly worship attendance is higher than rates across Europe, and if Republicans were right about the “secularization of society” leading to deadly violence, one would expect to see the United States as far safer.

In reality, of course, the opposite is true. Many foreign countries that are far more secular than the United States have far fewer gun deaths — because they have far fewer guns. Their lack of religiosity and infrequent worship attendance does not make the people of these countries any more violent or prone to mass murder.

But that’s not the only relevant data. Closer to home, many of the states with highly religious populations routinely also have some of the highest rates of firearms deaths.

To be sure, no one should be confused about correlation and causation: This is not a dynamic in which these states have more gun deaths because they have more religious populations.

It is, however, evidence that contradicts the rhetoric we’ve heard this week from several Republicans. As the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman put it, “[I]f the United States is simultaneously the most religious wealthy country and the most violent, a lack of religion clearly isn’t our problem.”

But I’m also struck by the underlying message undergirding the pitch: To hear Patrick and Johnson tell it, Americans concerned about gun violence should not turn to elected leaders for policy solutions. We should, however, look to politicians for suggestions about our spiritual wellbeing?