Fall 1999, Vol. 2, No. 3

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 3


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: The BVM at the BMA

Why Smash the Falun Gong?

Vouchers Move to Center Stage

The Kansas Compromise

Those Revolting Greeks

Covering Israel's Religion Wars

Discriminating Bodies

Spiritual Victimology
by Dennis R. Hoover

On September 18 the Omaha World-Herald cast its eye back over the year’s regrettable array of multiple shootings and concluded, "As if mass murder isn’t horrifying enough, an unsettling thread can be found running through too many recent attacks. That thread: Religion."

Religion, however, is a thread with multiple strands, and the news media did not have an easy time untangling them.

Consider first the anti-Semitic literature left behind after the June 18 firebombing of three Sacramento area synagogues. Writing the next day in the New York Times, Todd Purdum speculated briefly on a possible connection to the World Church of the Creator (WCOTC), a hate group that had earlier made its presence known in the area. In early July the media caught the scent of conspiracy when it was revealed that Benjamin Smith, who had gone on a July 4th weekend shooting spree in Indiana and Illinois, was himself a WCOTC devotee. The Jerusalem Post was on the story early, emphasizing in a July 6 article that the WCOTC was also under suspicion in the synagogue arsons. The Chicago Sun-Times made the connection too, though in his July 9 background piece Abdon Pallasch sounded a note of caution by pointing out the apparently limited organizational strength of this "church."

Concern about the WCOTC grew after the July 7 arrest of Benjamin Matthew Williams and his brother, James Tyler, for the July 1 double slaying of a gay couple in northern California. Searches had uncovered WCOTC hate literature in one brother’s home, and evidence that suggested a possible link to the synagogue fires, to boot. A July 12 San Francisco Chronicle article, peppered with quotations from the WCOTC’s web page, made much of this, but (unlike the Washington Post) failed to point out that WCOTC literature was only part of the Williams brothers’ voluminous collection.

Hedging on the significance of the WCOTC proved to be the wiser course, because in late July the search for a hate group link lurched towards another culprit, the "Christian Identity" movement. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, much of the Williamses’ reading material actually reflected Identity teachings that "Aryans"-whites of Northern European extraction-are the actual Israelites; Jews are the offspring of Satan; blacks and other nonwhites are sub-human "mud people"; and an apocalyptic race war is imminent. (WCOTC also anticipates what it calls RaHoWa-Racial Holy War)-but unlike Christian Identity is, despite its name, atheistic; it glorifies the white race as "the creators of civilization.") "People don’t connect the dots, but a lot of the terrorism in this country is perpetrated by people linked to Christian Identity," Joe Roy of the anti-hate watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) told the Los Angeles Times.

It was Christian Identity man Buford Furrow, Jr.’s decision to unleash a fusillade of 70 rounds in a Los Angeles Jewish Community Center on August 10 that led everyone to connect the dots that way. In the dozens of reports on the history and beliefs of Identity that followed, journalists cited a notable cast of characters reported to have had at least some contact with Identity ideas, including Randy Weaver (of the firefight at Ruby Ridge, Idaho), Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and suspected Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph. Often, they quoted SPLC’s assessment of Identity as "the glue that binds together the terrorist right."

Yet while journalists uncovered some highly radicalized Identity adherents, the group’s overall strength and importance appear uncertain. In mid-August, the New York Times estimated the number of Identity members at 35,000, the Houston Chronicle at between 25,000 and 50,000, and the Los Angeles Times at 50,000. But Syracuse University political scientist Michael Barkun, who has studied Identity more closely than anyone else, will only say that Identity adherents number at least in the low five figures. It is probably safest to say that Identity is just one of the more prominent sources of extremist ideological fodder. "You can really craft your own philosophy from this extremist buffet," California State University criminal justice professor Brian Levin told Jim Nesbitt of the Denver Post. "You see a lot of morphing out there."

Just as the news media struggled to get a handle on the sources of right-wing extremist violence, so was there uncertainty about the import of the anti-Semitic acts perpetrated. When Furrow, on turning himself in, reportedly called his rampage "a wake-up call to America to kill Jews," some in the Jewish community were quick to warn of a resurgence of anti-Semitism, and their concerns were picked up in several news stories: "Anti-Semitic Wave Rolls Eastward" and "Revived Anti-Semitism Fuels Crime" declared headlines in the Washington Post and Boston Herald respectively.

Some reports did try to put extremist-fueled anti-Semitism into context. Writing on racist group strategies in the August 15 Tampa Tribune, Michael Fechter quoted a Justice Department official’s contention that Jews are "enemy number 1" for Identity-linked groups, but also noted that Florida crime statistics indicate that most hate crimes are directed against racial, not religious, minorities. Other articles pointed out the decline of anti-Semitic attitudes among the general population. "Isolated Incidents Overshadow Broad Jewish Acceptance" ran the headline in Ira Rifkin’s August 12 article for the Religion News Service. "There are some Jewish organizations who live off of anti-anti-Semitism," Arthur Hertzberg, a humanities professor and Conservative rabbi, told Rifkin.

National crime statistics from 1998 show that while 78 percent of hate-crime offenses motivated by religious bias were anti-Semitic, only 16 percent of all hate crimes involved religion. As a whole, moreover, hate crimes seem to be in decline.

So was the media’s search for patterns behind a few notable but isolated cases doing more harm than good? "Our media’s obsession with ‘hate’may breathe air into the smoldering embers of their paranoid loathing," declared Andrew Sullivan in the September 26 New York Times Magazine. Indeed, as Steve Wilson of the Arizona Republic reported, white-supremacist web sites interpret the heavy coverage of the Furrow story as evidence that Jews control the media.

Throughout the summer, the hate- crime story remained centered on the deeds and creeds of the far right. But on September 15, a new narrative of religious victimology entered the scene when Larry Gene Ashbrook walked into the evangelical Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth. Spouting anti-Baptist rhetoric, he proceeded to kill seven members of the congregation, wound seven more, and then kill himself.

Were evangelicals the latest hate-crime targets? Many evangelicals thought so after connecting different dots: West Paducah, Kentucky, where a shooter fired away at a group of evangelical students at prayer; and Littleton, Colorado, where many of the victims were evangelicals and where 16-year-old Cassie Bernal famously affirmed her faith. The Wedgwood Baptist slaughter was, according to Robert Knight of the Family Research Council (FRC), "the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of recognition that there’s a pattern."

A handful of news stories and editorials saw the pattern too. "Violent Trend Targets Christians Now as Well," proclaimed the Boston Herald. "Christians Under Siege" declared the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. "Evangelicals are Being Killed, Too, But Where’s Outrage for Them?" asked Detroit News religion writer George Bullard. "By anyone’s definition," said an Indianapolis Star editorial, "this was a hate crime."

For the most part, however, the news media did not buy into a pattern of anti-Christian violence. To be sure, notice was taken of the fact that each of these incidents had victimized young evangelicals. But as to the motives, the West Paducah case was unclear. So was Littleton: The rantings of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were erratic, and athletes and minorities also numbered among their victims. Ashbrook had a clear animus against Baptists, but its source was obscure. In the first couple of weeks after the attack there were even media reports (later discredited) that he might have been influenced by Identity teachings, and wanted to punish Baptists for trying to bring the despised Jews inside the Christian fold.

Although few journalists expressly rejected the claim that anti-Christian feelings had something to do with these attacks, many conservative evangelicals blamed anti-evangelical bias for the media’s hesitation to declare the Ashbrook incident a religious hate crime. "It would seem that killing Christians is on a far lower level of seriousness than anyone else being killed, " said the Rev. D. James Kennedy, pastor of the 10, 000-member Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida just two days after the Fort Worth shootings. "There seems to be a smug satisfaction in some parts of the media that, gee, the Christians are getting theirs," scolded the FRC’s Robert Knight. Christians "find themselves as the targets of great hostility in this culture," said Southern Baptist Convention spokesman William Merrell. And Rev. Jerry Falwell claimed flatly that had "those seven students at Wedgewood Baptist Church been gay or lesbian, we wouldn’t have been able to get a weather report on any station. But, because they were Christians, it was treated as no big deal."

From "moral majority" in the 1980s, the self-conception of some parts of the Christian Right has shifted to "persecuted minority." Part of the explanation may lie in evangelicals’ increasing sensitivity to religious persecution abroad. "The real hostility today, the real hate crimes, are against people of faith," said Falwell.

But domestically, the linkage some evangelicals want to make between a culture-wide anti-Christian bigotry and specific hate crimes is not so easy to establish. In contradiction to Falwell’s claim, FBI statistics show that old-fashioned racism is still the biggest thug on the block. And unlike many anti-Semitic and racist attacks, which can be tied to specific extremist organizations, the hostility evangelicals detect is more diffuse. Where are the anti-evangelical hate groups that advocate violence? What fringe religions call evangelicals "children of Satan?"

Still, there is more going on here than a self-pitying attempt to turn "victimization into a contest of one-upmanship," as New York Times columnist Frank Rich suggested. Ron Hutcheson’s story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on September 23 got close to the heart of the matter when he noted that many evangelicals don’t actually support the movement for hate crime laws. The subtext of the "hate-crime victim" language now deployed by the Christian Right is that many evangelicals feel that they have been wrongly implicated by liberals and the media in creating a "hateful climate" that encourages violence -- that the search for culpable parties to hate crime is aimed at them.

Xenophobia, racism, and a conspiracy theory of history "can be found not just in the far right but in the Christian Right," Chip Berlet of the leftist Political Research Associates declared in a Boston Globe op-ed piece on August 13. "[Many] people mistake all militias or patriot groups as hate groups, but there is a lot of crossover, including from the so-called religious right," wrote Julie Peterson in the September 17 Seattle Times, paraphrasing Brian Goldberg of the Anti-Defamation League.

Evangelicals regard these insinuations as not merely unfair, but dangerous to their health. As Robert Knight of the FRC put it: "What’s going on is Christians are being painted as bigots and haters, and some people are taking it to heart and attacking Christians as a result."

But just when it seemed that the hate crime debate would get folded into the larger culture war, a detente broke out on an unlikely front. On October 23 an "Anti-Violence Forum" was held in Falwell’s church, with 200 evangelicals and 200 gay rights advocates meeting for heart-to-heart discussions about violence aimed at their communities, and about the often-vitriolic rhetoric they aim at each other.

Though held behind closed doors, the novel event was of course irresistible for the media. And while some of the coverage scarcely concealed its cynicism, the story was generally reported as a significant, if tentative, breakthrough.

Pledging to look "more carefully in the future at any kind of rhetoricthat might lead someone to have hostility towards anybody," Falwell admitted (referring to himself in the third person), "Through the years, evangelicals, Jerry Falwell included, have been too strident in their condemnations, to the point that we were not communicating adequate love." Replied Rev. Mel White, a sometime Falwell ghostwriter who led the assembled gay rights advocates, "We demonize Falwell all the time -- saying that he wants to create a theocracy and making him look like a devil. We’ve got to stop.... People are being killed on all sides."