Prayers in the media spotlight

Rader.jpgOne of the most damning film portrayals of media hordes came years ago in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, which repeatedly made the sound of whirring cameras sound like so many locusts. Those scenes came to mind when I saw this detail in the Los Angeles Timescoverage of the scene at Christ Lutheran Church in Wichita, which Dennis Rader, the accused BTK serial killer, has attended for more than 30 years:

As congregants walked into the two-story brick church Sunday, bundled in warm coats to ward off the chill of an overcast day, reporters and television crews blocked their path, peppering them with questions about Rader and his family.

On any other Sunday, the people might have lingered over cups of coffee and nibbled on sugar cookies, chatting about sports and work while the children played outside. But this Sunday, they stopped and stared, saying little.

As P.J. Huffstutter’s Times article demonstrates, the best reporting about the worship at Christ Lutheran on Sunday morning resulted from going inside for the service and not simply conducting walk-by interviews at the entrance:

Gerald Mansholt, bishop of the Central States Synod in Kansas City, Mo., spoke at the service and pleaded with the crowd for patience — to wait for the evidence. He said churches across the state were praying for the congregation, as well as for the survivors of BTK’s victims and for the Rader family.

“We grieve with you,” Mansholt said. “Words fail us at times like this. . . . The very foundation of our faith is shaken.”

Several women cried. One buried her face in her hands, bent over her knees and silently sobbed.

Deb Gruver of The Wichita Eagle also reported on Sunday’s service, and revealed this strange detail: “Rader, who was elected president of the church last year, will continue in that role for now, [Pastor Michael] Clark said.”

Gruver’s report also quotes pastor Clark as saying, “We are not here to judge him but to support him as a brother of Christ” (Clark more likely meant “brother in Christ,” though even that reference is a bitter pill amid accusations of serial torture killings).

Clark’s sermon, which the Eagle published this morning, provides more context:

The light of Christ continues to shine and lead us in the paths of darkness. As we continue forward to seek the truth that Christ wants us to know, we are to continue to pray for all concerned. We are to pray for peace and comfort for those victims and family members of the BTK murderer. We must lift them up and ask God for continued strength in the days ahead. We must pray for healing of heart and soul for those who have been victimized in this tragic series of murders.

We are to pray for all law enforcement people for the time and energy they have committed to the task of solving this problem.

As we continue on as a body of Christ, it is important that we show compassion and love towards Dennis. If what is claimed is true we should be about the business of asking for God’s help in healing of heart and soul. As we travel from this day forward we should pray for all of Dennis Rader’s family members. Bring them peace and comfort as they too wonder what each new day brings.

So far most reporters are handling Rader’s membership at Christ Lutheran in a responsible and sensitive manner — but The Age newspaper in Australia wins a Most Strained Irony in a Headline award for “Church leader is killer of 10, police say.”

Rader’s regular attendance at Christ Lutheran, which already has led some talking heads to refer to his “devout” and “staunch” church life, adds another painful detail to this grisly saga. The most interesting stories about Christ Lutheran Church will come not just weeks from now, but months and years later. Let’s hope a few reporters are still around then, occasionally attending services after the horde has moved on, of necessity, to another horror.

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  • ECJ

    Assuming that he is guilty …

    Even I – convinced as I am that the MSM is my mortal enemy – find it hard to fault the media for leading with this angle. This man’s double life is a huge part of the story. So demanding it not be the lead would amount to little more than special pleading. And let’s be honest. This is exactly the kind of angle that will attract an audience. Case in point: me. I paid zero attention to this story until I saw this connection. Serial killing is just not something I want to read about. But I grew up in what is now the ELCA.

    Even so, it is hard not to suspect that just below the surface there lurks in these reports a great deal of schadenfreude over the connection. Of the “Once again, we see this religion-stuff is just a hypocritical sham, so maybe now these people will be so humiliated that they will just shut up and go away!” variety. You have to wonder.

    ECJ

  • http://www.getreligion.org/archives/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    I’m not begrudging the media’s attention to Dennis Rader’s church life. Indeed, I wrote today’s item because I too am fascinated by this detail. Remember, I end this post with my hope that reporters will continue covering the church angle in the coming months and even years. I do argue that covering the church angle requires more than ambushing people on their way inside, and I do object to The Age’s glib headline. Neither argument amounts to “Please ignore the religion angle in this story.”

  • Stephen A.

    Any reporter who calls this man a “devout” and “staunch” Christian is misstating facts, as much as the one who mistates a theological fact.

    If this is the killer (and he’s apparently confessing that he is) then the best that could be said is that he “appeared to be” staunch and devout. (Talk about “playing church.” This guy was “playing human,” as well as playing Christian.)

    It’s a subtle difference, but one that most REAL devout, staunch Christians would notice rather quickly. That said, other aspects of the coverage really have been good. Printing the sermon was a good and positive thing that gave religious and spiritual context to the way local people are reacting to this.

    This comes in an age where the non-religious get away with libel in print on a regular basis when it comes to religion. Example: So-called comedian Bill Maher recently said religious people have a “neurological disorder” that “stops them from thinking.”

  • Stephen A.

    Any reporter who calls this man a “devout” and “staunch” Christian is misstating facts, as much as the one who mistates a theological fact.

    If this is the killer (and he’s apparently confessing that he is) then the best that could be said is that he “appeared to be” staunch and devout. (Talk about “playing church.” This guy was “playing human,” as well as playing Christian.)

    It’s a subtle difference, but one that most REAL devout, staunch Christians would notice rather quickly. That said, other aspects of the coverage really have been good. Printing the sermon was a good and positive thing that gave religious and spiritual context to the way local people are reacting to this.

    This comes in an age where the non-religious get away with libel in print on a regular basis when it comes to religion. Example: So-called comedian Bill Maher recently said religious people have a “neurological disorder” that “stops them from thinking.”

  • David Scott

    Sadly, it makes a lot of sense for a serial killer to pretend to be a devout member of the community–it’s a good cover.

    Also, he hasn’t been convicted yet… media feeding frenzies are wrong on ocassion.

  • Cathy

    Being a Lutheran convert this story is of perticular interest… funny serial killings don’t phase us as much any more…Hum Oh well makes me look around the church on Sunday morning and wonder what mysteries are there?? Wonder how would we react as a congregation? What a great cover is right, but it is also why religion gets such a bad wrap in a lot of circles, it is used for a cover by a lot of acting beleivers that go out on Monday and send jobs oversea’s and vote to take help away from the needy and all of the other non Christian things that people do in the world as they profess to be “devout”…

  • ECJ

    Mr LeBlanc

    Let me apologize. After I re-read my post, I decided that you inferred from my post pretty much what any reasonable person would infer. But that was not at all the inference I intended to leave. So I did not commmunicate very well. When I read your response in context, I felt pretty bad. It never occurred to me that were demanding that the relious angle not be covered.

    I was actually agreeing with you, albeit somewhat clumsily it would seem. As much as I would like to see hidden sinister motives in this coverage (and that was my inital reaction), I had to admit that the press was behaving reasonably. Even the headline you quoted didn’t strike me as out-of-bounds. Do I think those hidden sinister motives exist? Yes. But I couldn’t prove it by what I have seen so far because I think the press would behave the same way without those motives.

    I shall be more careful in the future.

    ECJ :)

  • http://www.maryams.net/dervish Maryam

    I have to say, this linking of religion with a person’s crime is par for the course for us Muslims. Every time some Muslim commits a crime, his or her religion is invariably mentioned in our MSM here in Australia. The Lebanese rape gangs being case in point.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/archives/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    No hard feelings, EJC, and please forgive me for misunderstanding *you*.

  • Stephen A.

    I’m with Maryam. I don’t see the relevance and connection here between this guy’s religious beliefs and his alleged crimes. Unless it comes out later that he was deluded into believing God was telling him to kill, his religious persuasion is irrelevant. His faith apparently was irrelevant in a true sense, as well, since it didn’t inform and convict his conscience all of these years.

    Though one would hope that if it came out that some kind of warped view of religion did play a role in his crimes, journalists would note in their stories that acting on “voices in the head” is not a tenet or practice of Lutheranism.

    One would HOPE that message would come out. Given reporters’ general religious illiteracy, that cannot be counted on.

  • http://www.maryams.net/dervish Maryam

    “One would HOPE that message would come out. Given reporters’ general religious illiteracy, that cannot be counted on.”

    Exactly Stephen! I think what is ‘jarring’ in this case, is that it is generally accepted that Christianity, and Christians worldwide, abhor these types of actions, and would never accept religious sanction of the crimes even if he did come out with a “God was talking to me via voices in my head” type of defence.

    I think with non-Christian religions (and Islam in particular) of which journos are even more religiously illiterate, there isn’t that usual jarring sense of ‘this isn’t the religion we know and love, and how could this guy do that thing and be a member of that religion’? Instead, they accept when Ali says that God told him to kill the unbelievers, that his religion really does teach that.


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