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Are Christians being targeted?

Analysis of recent church killings


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Topics in this essay:


Are Christians being targeted?

Many conservative Christians feel that Christians, particularly Fundamentalists and other Evangelicals, are being targeted for assassination. During the year after America's worst church shooting, many conservative Christian leaders commented on the increasing incidences of strangers killing Christians. Many of these leaders were distressed that the mass murder in Fort Worth was not acknowledged by the federal government as a religious hate crime:

  • Charles Colson, commenting on a speech about hatred by President Clinton, said: "Yes, Mr. President, I heartily agree: Hatred is a plague on our nation. But I'm curious about why, according to press reports, you seem to have left some people out of your litany." He then listed the conservative Christians who had died at school shootings in the Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, the Heath High School in W. Paducah, KY, and the Wedgwood Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, TX. Colson continued: "You left out, for one, Cassie Bernall, a Colorado girl who died because someone hated Christians. You left out Susan Jones, a Christian seminarian who was shot by someone who entered her church in Fort Worth, Texas, killing her and six other Christians. You left out those three kids who were shot while praying at their high school in Paducah, Ky. Why?...The president surely is not unaware of these outrages against Christians. They all received national media coverage, and the link between the shootings and the faith of the victims is well established. The answer is, I'm afraid, that, in elite circles, to paraphrase social critic Anthony Daniels, we see the political equivalent of 'most favored nation' policy. Victimizing certain groups earns you the condemnation of our political class. But victimize other, unfavored, groups -- like Christians -- and that same class will yawn, or, as the president did last weekend, just ignore it. Call it 'tolerance lite.'" 1,2
  • Brent Bozell of CNSNews.com wrote: "So why, despite mounting evidence from Fort Worth, and Paducah and Littleton before that, are Christians not now victims of 'hate crimes'? Some media outlets -- such as CBS, CNN, and Time -- apparently believe, to paraphrase Orwell's 'Animal Farm,' that some 'hate crimes' are more equal than others." 3
  • Dick Armey, the House Majority Leader issued a statement on 1999-SEP-19 Referring to "the tragic shootings in Littleton, Colorado, and Fort Worth, Texas" he wrote, in part: "I regret to say that one area where we're losing ground is our treatment of religious believers. We are witnessing a rising level of bigotry against people of faith, especially Christians."
  • William Merrell, spokesperson for the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention was quoted by the Washington Times as saying: "I believe there is a growing climate of hostility that is directed against Christians." 4

More detailed analysis of some recent murders of Christians:

The three most frequent examples cited of Christians being targeted for death appear to be:

  • The Columbine High School in Littleton, CO: Two senior students,  Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, murdered 14 students and one teacher on 1999-APR-20. They also injured 20 students. After the killing rampage, they committed suicide. One of the victims was Cassie Bernall, 17. 

    There are two opposing versions about her interaction with the mass murderers on that tragic day:

    • According to Evangelical Christian sources and the popular media:
      • The perpetrators were motivated by a desire to kill Christians.
      • Just before her death, Cassie was in the library, studying her Bible.
      • Eric Harris burst into the room.
      • He asked her whether she believed in God.
      • Cassie clasped her hands in prayer, closed her eyes and said "Yes."
      • Erik killed her. 5
    • The Jefferson County Sheriff's Department issued its report on the killings in mid-2000-MAY. It consists of almost 700 pages of text, audio files and video clips, on a CD. Officials conducted about 5,000 interviews of witnesses, and analyzed over 10,000 pieces of evidence. They concluded that:
      • The perpetrators were motivated by a desire to kill fellow students who made up the power cliques in the school -- the students who had harassed, ridiculed and marginalized Klebold and Harris. Religion was not a motivation.
      • Just before her death, Cassie Bernall was in the library, studying for a Shakespeare exam.
      • Eric Harris burst into the room.
      • He went to Cassie's library table, "where he bent down and saw two frightened girls. He slapped the table top twice, said 'Peek-a-boo,' and fired, killing Cassie Bernall."
      • Student Valeen Schnurr was at another table. She had been critically hurt earlier by Dylan Klebold. She began to pray, 'Oh God, help me.'
      • "Klebold...came back and taunted her about her belief in God. He then walked away." 6

    Cassie Bernall has become a martyr, within conservative Christian circles. She is believed to have died because of her faith in God, and her willingness to confirm that belief, even if it cost her her life. Her mother has written a moving account of her daughter's life and death. It has been published in hard cover, paperback and now in mass paperback. 5

    The account pieced together by the Sheriffs Department told a very different story: It was Dylan Klebold and Valeen Schnurr who talked about God. Dylan may have decided to not take Valeen's life because of her faith in God. He had every opportunity to kill her, but walked away instead.

  • The Heath High School in W. Paducha, KY: Michael Carneal, 14, killed three fellow students (Kayce Steger, 15, Jessica James, 17, and Nicole Hadley, 14) on 1997-DEC-1 with a 22 cal. pistol. Five others were injured. At his trial, Carneal was found mentally ill; he received a sentence of life imprisonment.

    Two opposing explanations have been given for the mass murder:

    • The early media reports of the tragedy appear to have been garbled -- probably because of the rush to meet media deadlines. Unfortunately, it is the initial account which tends to be remembered by the public:
      • Michael Carneal is a "self-professed atheist"
      • He occasionally heckled a prayer group as they prayed in the school corridor at their weekly meeting.
      • He went to school with a stolen handgun and specifically targeted the prayer group; his goal was to kill Christians.
    • More detailed investigation and interviews showed that:
      • Michael Carneal came from an intact, religious home.
      • He was baptized at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Paducah.
      • He was confirmed at the same church a few months before the shooting, in 1997-Spring.
      • According to his minister, he was not an Atheist,  He said that the shooting "was the act of a sinful Christian."
      • He was undersized for his age. Fellow students said that he "talked funny."
      • He had been continually harassed, marginalized and ridiculed by other students -- particularly by members of the football team, who also led the prayer meeting at his school. The tormenting eventually caused him to snap. 
      • He said he first intended to kill himself but changed his mind and killed the Christians after "thinking about all the things done to me, all the names they called me."
      • He told psychologists that anti-gay taunting by fellow students played a key role in his decision to seek revenge. 
      • Court psychologists reported that he suffers from chronic depression and low self-esteem. He was taunted by the other students for his suspected gay sexual orientation. The rumor that he is gay was even reported in the school newspaper. Carneal denies that he is gay. The psychologists report referred to "Mike's detailed extensive harassment at school in recent years in which he was called gay, faggot, nerd, geek" and other epithets..."He stated that he was also spat upon, hit, put in headlocks and threatened with violence.
      • Student and captain of the school's football team, Ben Strong, 17, led the prayer group on the day of the shooting. He bravely approached Carneal and persuaded him to give up his gun. Later he commented that the earlier teasing of Carneal "was just friendly joshing.7,8,9

    Carneal apparently went to school with a .22 caliber weapon with the intent to murder. His anger was not specifically directed at Christians or football players; it was not directed at a group because they were praying. He simply attacked those who had been relentlessly harassing and ridiculing him. A second reason why he chose to shoot at the praying students might have been that they formed a convenient target. 


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  • The Wedgwood Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, TX: Many Fundamentalists and other Evangelicals have viewed this tragedy as an attempt to assassinate Christians; they see it as a religious hate crime. In reality, the prime cause of the mass murders was the mental state of the perpetrator. He may have been depressed over his father's death. He is generally regarded as a mentally ill individual who had totally lost control. A secondary motivation for the crime appears to be that he was a radical conservative Christian who hated Jews and wanted to see them wiped off the face of the earth. He was angry at Baptists because of their attempts to convert Jews to Christianity. His murdering spree was not an anti-Christian act; it was an expression of uncontrolled rage against Baptists, by a mentally ill, radical conservative Christian .

Conclusions:

Church killings:

An analysis of the five killings in or at churches shows that:

  • The 1999-JUL murder in Bloomington, IN is different from all of the other killings:
    • It was in the Midwest. 
    • The killing happened outside of a church.
    • It was at a United Methodist church -- a mainline Christian denomination. 
    • The location and the victim were probably not chosen for religious reasons.
    • It was racially motivated hate crime.
  • All of the other murders:
    • Occurred in the Southern U.S. (AL, LA, and two in TX).
    • Happened inside the church.
    • The churches were all Baptist -- a conservative Christian denomination.
    • One was caused by a family dispute that degenerated into extreme violence. The others were probably all perpetrated by deranged individuals who were mentally ill. 
    • There has been only instance where religious hatred was involved; and then it was a secondary cause: The mass murder in Fort Worth appears to have been by a member of an extreme conservative Christian group expressing rage at Southern Baptists for their refusal to be genocidally anti-semitic.
  • The average homicide rate of people attending church is less than one per year, over the period 1974 to 1999 inclusive. This is miniscule, compared to the tens of thousands of individuals murdered each year in America, in locations other than churches. 
  • There seems to have been a significant increase in church murders in 1999. This escalation has not continued into the year 2000.

School killings:

  • An analysis of the two most common high school murder cases which have been cited as evidence of Christian assassination shows:
    • The Columbine killers did not target Christians. The opposite might have been true. Dylan Klebold might have decided to NOT kill Valeen Schnurr because she was a Christian.
    • The Heath High School killings in W. Paducah, KY were traceable to marginalization, exclusion and ridicule of the perpetrator by fellow students who were both football players and members of a prayer group. His actions were not anti-Christian, anti-prayer or anti-football. He had simply decided to end the relentless persecution, by shooting those responsible.
  • An analysis of the remaining high school murder cases indicates that they were motivated either by mental illness or by extreme anger caused by marginalization and ridicule.
  • The average number of students murdered each year in schools is fewer than the number of youth killed every day elsewhere.

General: 

  • Conservative Christians appear to be at greater risk for homicide than followers of other faith groups, particularly in the southern U.S. states.
  • Based on initial and garbled media coverage, many Americans feel that Christians are being targeted for death by non-Judeo-Christians. This cannot be supported by the facts. The vast majority of mass killers are fellow Christians.
  • The motivation for the killings can generally be traced to:
    • mentally ill, deranged individuals, and
    • students that retaliate after perhaps years of vicious harassment by fellow students.
  • Churches and schools are, relatively, very safe places.

References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Politicians don't count Wedgwood shooting as hate crime," Baptist Press, at: http://www.mcjonline.com/news/00b/20000907b.htm 
  2. Charles Colson, "BreakPoint" radio broadcast, 1999-SEP-27.
  3. Brent Bozell, "Suddenly Clueless in Fort Worth," CNSNews.com, 1999-SEP-23.
  4. Christine Gardner, "Fort Worth: Church shooting creates new martyrs." Christianity Today, 1999-OCT-25.
  5. Misty Bernall, "She said yes: The unlikely martyrdom of Cassie Bernall," Pocket Books, (2000). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.
  6. AANEWS, 2000-MAY-22.
  7. Lou Chibbaro, Jr., "Young gays traumatized by shooting," Washington Blade, 1999-MAY-7, at: http://www.youth.org/loco/PERSONProject/
  8. Tom Flint, "Was schoolyard killing gay revenge?" Seattle Gay News Online.  http://www.sgn.org/archives/sgn.7.24.98/News/default.htm 
  9. Ted Bridis, "Shooter in Paducah, [sic] Kentucky, High School is a Christian," Associated Press, 1997-DEC-3. See:  http://www.skeptictank.org/hs/shooter.htm 

Copyright © 1999 to 2000 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance 
Originally posted: 1999-SEP-28 
Rewritten 2000-SEP-8
Latest update: 2001-DEC-6
Author: B.A. Robinson

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