Summer 1999, Vol. 2, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:

A Different Spiritual Politics

Preaching the Word in Littleton

On the Beat: In Lagos, Religion’s Above the Fold

Something Wiccan This Way Comes

Kosovo: A Confusion of Tongues

The Diallo Killings: Sharpton Ecumenistes

Methodism’s Time of Trials

Spiritual Politicking and the IRS


Was the Church Arson Story Legit?

To the editors:

I am prompted to write with a less than enthusiastic review of Katie Day’s write-up of the journalistic treatment of church arsons (Religion in the News, Vol. 2, No. 1.) To the best of my knowledge, I wrote the first story in the country questioning the whole racial conspiracy angle on church arson coverage. I wrote it in June of 1996. I could have written it much earlier but I expected one of my colleagues on the religion beat in the South to beat me to it. It was obvious that the facts as they were being reported were all wrong.

In my years on the beat I’ve covered my share of church arsons. The church I was supposed to have been married in was burned to the ground by an arsonist a few months before the wedding. I was particularly familiar with the Gainesville, Florida church arsons circa 1990. I had covered the issue in detail entirely apart from the racial angle and I knew this: The most common cause of church fires everywhere in the United States is arson. The numbers when I had last written about them in the mid-1980s were about 600 a year. Therefore the media reports expressing horror about 40 church arsons in a two-year period had to be hogwash.

I also knew that there was no central agency for reporting church arsons. The closest thing to it would be the insurance industry. When I called the vice president of the largest specialty company insuring churches, he was just as perplexed by the numbers as I was. No one, from law enforcement or otherwise, was consulting with him.

I am not denying that some arsons stemmed from racial hatred. Because of the publicity, I suspect that a higher number in 1996 may have fit that bill. But most of the fires were probably set for the usual reasons: to cover up vandalism or robbery, to give bored kids with borderline personalities some excitement, or because a serial fire-setter had some obsession with religion. Take the Gainesville fires, for example. Between 1990 and 1992 more than 50 churches were burned down in the Gainesville area, a fact which eventually attracted widespread coverage. But the authorities eventually arrested a psychotic drifter who said he set the fires because voices from the buildings taunted him sexually. He was charged with setting 17 of the Florida fires. The arson task force also concluded that 39 other church arsons in the region were copycat crimes, inspired by the wave of national publicity.

It seemed quite clear to me in the mid-1990s that certain activists on racial issues had seized on the church fires as a way of raising either consciousness about racism or money for their causes or both. They were distorting the facts beyond all recognition. I remain disappointed in my colleagues in the media for having been taken in so easily.

It doesn’t take a lot of intelligence to contact Church Mutual and ask how the rate of church arsons this year compares to the rate five years ago. This story is a classic study in gullible reporters from even the most respected news organizations being taken in by "spinners" and never bothering to check the facts. That doesn’t mean that the victims of these fires don’t deserve sympathy or support. Because all church arsons now DO have to be reported to the federal authorities, and are investigated by experts, they catch a lot more of these arsonists. In that the media coverage, no matter how misguided, did some lasting good.

But your writer doesn’t cite any real facts to support her assertion that the media "dropped" this story too soon, or that they would have seen the conspiracy if they had stuck with it longer. The closest she comes to it is saying that a disproportionate number of black congregations burned. But were they all burned because they were black congregations? Or were many of them burned because they were rural, isolated, lacked fancy security, and were, therefore, easier targets? I look forward to each issue of Religion In the News. Most of it is well researched and demonstrates the quality of journalism that you are trying to encourage among those of us on the religion beat. Unfortunately, "No National Conspiracy" was, I think, an exception to that high standard.

Ann Rodgers-Melnick
Religion writer
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Editor’s Note: Rodgers-Melnick covered religion for the Fort Myers New-Press in Florida from 1983 to 1988.

Katie Day replies:

I stand by my contention that the press has dropped the ball by abandoning its interest in the racial dynamics in church burnings. From a national perspective, the key fact is that African American churches are represented in arson figures at twice their proportion in the total number of houses of worship in the U.S. This cannot be discounted as insignificant. Two-thirds of those convicted in the torching or bombing of African American churches have been white. Of course, this does not explain the motivations of these individuals-and there are many. I was not arguing that a centralized national racist conspiracy was afoot. In fact, no one involved in this issue is appropriating that view-not the Justice Department, National Council of Churches, National Congress of Black Churches, or the many volunteer groups involved in rebuilding. Still, when a lot more African American churches are being burned than white churches, and mostly by those of European descent, there is cause for scrutiny.

Of the 173 cases of church arson that have been resolved, only a few have been linked with the Ku Klux Klan. (For a compelling look at two such cases, see the documentary "Forgotten Fires," which was recently aired on Public Television.) But one does not have to be a member of an organized hate group to receive a civil rights conviction for a hate crime. Although racial hatred is difficult to prove in court, arsonists in Alabama, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas have been convicted of hate motives. While there is not an identifiable national conspiracy, a number of local clusters of such hate crimes have been identified.

At many of the burned African American churches, racist graffiti and harassment preceded arson. Since there have been arrests in only one-third of the church arsons, most cases remain unresolved and victimized churches live with lingering fears and a sense of vulnerability in their community. Nonetheless, in our research (at the Church Rebuilding Research Project) we have found many burned African American churches, not known for political activism or even rhetoric, to be quietly living and worshipping under a constant cloud of fear.

I would like to respond to another point raised by Ms. Rodgers-Melnick. There is now a mechanism in place for reporting all fires in houses of worship-the National Church Arson Task Force (a collaborative effort of the Department of Justice, the ATF, and the FBI). Prior to its establishment in 1996, the insurance industry would not have been a reliable source of information. Many black churches do not carry insurance. Journalists interested in pursuing the issue should contact the Task Force for data. It monitors the crimes, investigations, convictions, and racial demographics very closely. I hope that the press will be equally vigilant in its coverage.