On Conservative Christians Blaming the Charleston Massacre on Atheism, Secularism, and an Angry God

As Hemant reported the other day, many conservative leaders are scrambling to attribute the horrific Charleston massacre of nine African-Americans by a white racist to… anything but racism.

First, a reminder of what we actually know of Dylann Roof‘s motives: His Facebook page shows him in white supremacist emblems, a friend said he spoke of starting a race war, and shooting witnesses quoted him as saying, “I have to do it. You rape our women, and you are taking over our country. And you have to go.” There are, to my knowledge, no reports of his religious beliefs or lack thereof. [***Update***: Huffington Post is reporting that Roof was Lutheran.] With nearly 800 hate groups operating in the U.S., according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a majority of whom are white supremacist groups, it’s clear that the fight against racism in America has a long way to go.

Yet I’m sure none of you were surprised to see from Hemant’s list that many leading Christian politicians are instead blaming secular values. In case you were too heartsick to follow his links to see the quotes themselves, the lowlights included three Republican presidential candidates.

Sen. Rand Paul:

What kind of person goes into church and shoots nine people? There’s a sickness in our country, there’s something terribly wrong, but it isn’t going to be fixed by your government. It’s people straying away, it’s people not understanding where salvation comes from.

Former Senator Rick Santorum:

This is one of those situations where you just have to take a step back and say we — you know, you talk about the importance of prayer in this time and we’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before. It’s a time for deeper reflection beyond this horrible situation.

Sen. Lindsey Graham acknowledged the racism yet downplayed it in the same breath:

There are real people out there that are organized to kill people in religion and based on race. This guy is just whacked out… But it’s 2015, there are people out there looking for Christians to kill them… This is a mean time we live in.

Pastor E.W. Jackson, former Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in Virginia, told Fox News:

I’m deeply concerned that this gunman chose to go into a church because there does seem to be a rising hostility against Christians across this country because of our biblical views… And I just think that it’s something that we have to be aware of and not create an atmosphere in which people take out their violent intentions against Christians.

To which Fox host Steve Doocey agreed:

Some people look at it because it was a white guy apparently and a black church. But you made a great point just a moment ago about the hostility toward Christians — and it was a church…

The drumbeat grows louder. Yesterday morning, Franklin Graham, son of famed “America’s Pastor” Rev. Billy Graham and president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, made his third Facebook post on the massacre, not one of which mentions race. 

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This post, blaming godlessness and turning our back on God, received nearly a quarter million likes, 180,000 shares, and over 20,000 replies, many of which were variations on “Amen.” Graham also used the occasion for a political attack on Barack Obama, weirdly calling for the restriction of guns onscreen while simultaneously opposing their restriction in real life:

President Obama’s answer to the tragic shooting of nine people in Charleston, SC, is to have more gun laws. With all due respect Mr. President, all of the laws in the world can’t change the human heart — only God can do that. Our nation needs a spiritual healing — we have turned our back on God and His laws. Hollywood is responsible for glorifying gun violence on television, in movies, and in the video gaming industry. This plays a big part in our culture of gun violence today. If you want more laws, why don’t you ask Congress to pass laws against the poisoning of the minds of our young people by this godless industry?

But none was quite as horrendous as a piece published the other day by Christian news outlet Charisma News. They took unrelated comments from earlier in the month by Franklin Graham’s sister and fellow evangelist Anne Graham Lotz and applied them to the massacre, posting them the day after under the headline “‘God Allows Terrorists to Strike,’ Says Billy Graham’s Daughter.”

… In the days of Noah… There was no acknowledgment of God. God was irrelevant to them… I think that is where we are today…

In America, we are just neglecting God and ignoring Him. I just saw a piece about the rise of atheism, people walking away from the church. In fact, the Christian church is declining, according to Pew Research… That is why God sends us wake-up calls. That’s why he allows the terrorists to strike or a tornado to rip through our city, because for whatever reason, we don’t seem to give Him our attention until we are desperate… If we don’t give Him our attention, then He is going to allow things to happen to make us more and more desperate until we do cry out.

Some readers thought the timing apt:

The young man who murdered the people in the church did so because he believed that he was right and free to execute and live out his belief…

…just as men , in the name of freedom and rights (religious freedom), justify that it is RIGHT, a right, to be free to worship ANY ‘god’.

In the United States the Government has turned its back on God and outlawed Him from every public building because of the false notion of separation of church and state… the Church has turned its back on God by permitting deviant sexual practices and allowing heresy to stand up as sound doctrine and no one fights for the truth… Perhaps our insensitivity and self-interest provoked God to allow the attack to show us what it is like and to shock us into action… Did God allow the terrorist to strike? He knew it would happen and chose not to intervene on this occasion.

Lotz’s comments were ugly even without being made specifically about the Charleston massacre, though I wonder what she thought of Charisma News applying them to the new tragedy.  When Lotz (below) actually did comment on the shooting, on Friday, it was only slightly better. She at least knew enough not to repeat her comments from two weeks earlier. Lotz, who is white, instead reported that God explained to her directly why He allowed a racist mass murderer to kill nine African-Americans. It was, she announced, in order to give Charlestonians an opportunity to forgive a violent racist, which would make blacks in Ferguson and Baltimore look bad for rioting over police brutality and thus make Christians look good:

Sometimes God’s ways are hard to fathom. When Martha sent word to Jesus that her brother was sick, Jesus remained silent and still.  And her brother died. When Jesus did show up four days later, Martha told Him He was too late to make a difference.

Sometimes God’s ways are hard to fathom… Why does God seem silent and still when our world collapses and the worst happens? …why did He allow Dylann Roof to enter the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, knowing what the demonically deranged guy was planning to do?  Why did He not protect the pastor and seven other church members on June 17 as they met for prayer and Bible study? …Was God not there that night?  Was He asleep?  Did He not care? Was He just neglectful? Why did He allow this to happen?  Why didn’t He prevent it? Why?

In response to my “why” questions, He gave me the same answer He gave to Martha. He used the tragedy in her life to give a message to the world for all time that He is indeed The Resurrection and The Life. His answer? “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40)  Then Jesus raised her brother from the dead! Martha did indeed see His glory!

But I responded with another question… How will You be glorified through this horrific tragedy? And this is what He seemed to whisper to my heart:  At a time of racial tension, polarization, and even increased hatred, could it be God is giving Emanuel AME Church, as well as other Christians, an opportunity to preach a sermon to the entire nation and even to the watching world?  And what’s the title to the sermon? “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) Could it be that God is wanting the world to see that Christians, regardless of race or creed, respond to hate crimes in a very different way than others have responded in Baltimore or Ferguson or elsewhere? When Jesus Himself was subjected to the most vile hate crime in history, He set the example for us when He prayed, “Father, forgive them.”

Would Lotz dare to repeat to the faces of the victims’ families that God told her he wanted these people dead to send a message about blacks behaving badly about police brutality?

Or perhaps she along with the Charisma editors would comfort them with her earlier comments that God wants mass murder victims dead because humanity deserves death now just as it did before the Great Flood?

Are these people tone-deaf? Oblivious to racism? Or flat-out racist? Varying blends of all three, I’d say, heavily infused with anti-secularist bigotry. There’s such a tendency among many conservative Christian leaders to use inflammatory public rhetoric that they would never dream of using in a personal situation. It’s almost as if their ideology only works in the abstract, when draped in lofty euphemisms, and can’t be used to apply to real people in real life situations.

About Bo Gardiner

Bo Gardiner is an environmental analyst, naturalist, writer, and humanist/skeptic organizer. She's a former research hydrologist, EPA consultant, wildlife program director for a national NGO, and TV writer/producer. She holds a B.A. in communications and M.S. in environmental engineering sciences.

Bo writes on humanism, nature, science, skepticism and politics at her blog Under the Greenwood Tree. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter, and check out her videos on YouTube.