'My Third Conversion': Rev. Rob Schenck On Why He Took On Gun Control
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Reverend Rob Schenck was once a high-profile figure in the militant battle against abortion, a master of provocative tactics such as displaying fetal remains and blocking clinics. Now, though, he's parted ways with many fellow evangelical ministers and taken his pro-life message to the fight to reduce gun violence.
Reverend Schenck's life has been a winding spiritual journey. He was born into a Jewish family, but he and his twin brother, Paul, accepted Christianity as teenagers. This is where Reverend Schenck begins his new memoir, "Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister's Rediscovery Of Faith, Hope And Love." When he came into the studio last week, I asked what he and his brother were looking for when they converted.
ROB SCHENCK: You know, I think - as all people do - I was looking for meaning, something beyond the kind of two-dimensional existence that we all share. I was looking for some contact with the transcendent, with something beyond ourselves. But I was just as much looking for a surrogate family because at the time, my family was dysfunctional. And there was a lot of conflict and tension in my family. And it kind of left me feeling like I didn't have a communal anchor.
MARTIN: You were on the front lines of the battle against abortion rights. You participated in Operation Rescue, blocking women's access to clinics. In your book, you graphically describe how you used fetuses as protest props. You and your brother, at one point, were both arrested. You both wound up in jail for that.
But you also talk in the book about how you never really thought about the women and their circumstances, the fear on their faces or what brought them to that place. I'm curious about that, particular as a person who was led to faith by empathy, right?
SCHENCK: You know, I set up the book in three conversions. There was my first conversion to Christ, the Jesus I met through the Sermon on the Mount - this very compassionate, empathetic soul. And then I had a second conversion, and that was to what I call Reagan-Republican religion. And during that phase, I really lost that dimension of Jesus that empathized with others, that felt the anguish of others. And I had to be brought back to it. And that's the story of my third conversion.
MARTIN: I think some people who know of you may think that the reason that you got interested in gun control was because of two doctors who performed abortions were both murdered as a result of their work. But that's not really true.
SCHENCK: No. I was distressed by both of those events but mostly because they damaged the reputation of the movement.
MARTIN: So how did you get interested in the question of guns and what your role as evangelical clergy and as an evangelical leader should be in addressing the issue of gun violence in this country?
SCHENCK: Well, since you mentioned empathy, there was a moment in 2006 when I was called by a benefactor to the organization I was heading at that time, who employed a woman whose son had murdered five Amish school girls in their school house. And I was called to that emergency. And I was deeply, deeply affected by that.
But I would compartmentalize that again for a number of years into the future. And it wouldn't be until much later when a mass shooting occurred in my own neighborhood, here in Washington, D.C., within sight of my living room window. Twelve people died at the Naval Yard, and I felt that. And finally, I met Lucy McBath, whose son, Jordan Davis, had been murdered in front of a convenience store in Florida. And I saw her heart, her eyes, the pain in her mother's soul.
And those things, as well as others, would pull me across the finish line on calling into question my own evangelicals community's passion for second amendment, unfettered gun rights. I thought that was really the sign of a deep spiritual failing in our community.
MARTIN: So this kind of gets to the question I think a lot of people have. Why is it that white, evangelical Christians are so connected to this question of gun ownership and gun rights? Statistically, they are far more likely to be gun owners. Why is that?
SCHENCK: Well, I did want to ask that question, and I became more and more curious about it. And I was shocked at what I found. I was talking with colleagues. I'm a minister, and I had many pastor friends who were now arming in the pulpit. One of my longtime friends told me, Rob, if somebody ever stands up in my congregation and makes a sound, he'll be sorry he ever did because I'll take him out right from the pulpit.
When I heard that, I said, we have a deep crisis in our community. And I went looking - what is this that has brought us to a place of embracing popular gun culture? And what I learned was, first of all, there is a deep and abiding fear within my community, a fear of persecution by the federal government - and that many of my colleagues and friends and the folks in the churches that I visited would tell me if we don't have guns, we won't be able to defend ourselves against the government when they come after us.
There is a kind of fierce independence among evangelicals. And so I think it is part of the sort of wild west, you know, independent American culture woven into our Christian culture. And there may even be something more sinister.
I was in one encounter with a group of clergy in Kentucky. And I asked, how many of you are armed? And every one of the 20 or so around the table were armed. And I asked them, you know, as soon as you draw the weapon, you're ready to kill. When do you make that decision? And there was a lot of hemming and hawing and uncomfortable body language. And finally, a gentleman - maybe in his mid-60s - quietly ventured an answer. And he said, well, I'll have to tell you the truth about that. That would have to do with a man's skin color.
MARTIN: One of the reasons that you're such an interesting figure is that you are actually connected to or have worked with some of the most prominent evangelical figures in the news today - Roy Moore, for example, an associate of yours, Jay Sekulow, one of the president's lawyers. You know all these folks. So the question is why do you think that you've taken such a different path?
SCHENCK: You know, sometimes the paths we take in life are inscrutable. You know, I don't know all the unseen factors here. I still believe in providence. I think I've met the right people at the right time in the right places to help me find my way out of what I call the dark wood period of my life when I was disoriented spiritually, ethically certainly - if not morally.
And given the same set of encounters that I've had along the path in my life, especially in the last 10 years or so, I think some of those people - perhaps those you even named - would take the same course that I've taken. But they haven't had those same encounters, so they have reacted to those same encounters in the way that I have.
MARTIN: That's the Reverend Rob Schenck. His new book is called "Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister's Rediscovery Of Faith, Hope And Love." The book is out next month.
Reverend Schenck, thanks so much for speaking with us.
SCHENCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.