Are the fires anti-Baptist hate crimes?

burning crossWhat can you say about the latest string of predawn church fires down in Alabama?

For starters, you can say that coverage of this story never really caught fire in the mainstream press and, if you dig down into the news stories, it is pretty easy to figure out why.

Reporter Rick Lyman of The New York Times‘ national desk has been on the scene, and here are two of the crucial sections of one of his recent stories. Let’s start with the lead, which is precisely what you would expect in one of these stories:

The little rural churches of Alabama are like anchors for their small, often struggling towns, but nowhere more so than in this sparsely populated and predominantly black swath of the state’s far western edge, home to four of the nine Baptist churches that arsonists have destroyed or damaged in Alabama during the last week.

“Church is where the people come together out here,” said William L. Johnson, a Greene County commissioner. “We marry there and we worship there and we bury our families there. But they’re more than that. During the week we don’t see each other so much, but on Sunday we get together, and church is where we do it.”

Investigators do believe that the people lighting the fires have been seeking out specific churches — for some unknown reason. Why do they think that? Lyman notes that the arsonists have been driving past dozens of churches to find their targets.

It’s easy to read between the lines of this trend, with our minds flashing back to familiar images in the racist past, including all of those flames in the mid-1990s when more than 50 small black churches burned throughout the Southeast. Yet, quite a ways down in the story, we find out:

Five churches within a 15-minute drive of one another in Bibb County, about a half-hour east of Tuscaloosa, were burned in the hours around dawn on Feb. 3. All were Baptist churches. Four had predominantly white congregations, and one was black. Then, four nights later, arsonists struck four churches in three western Alabama counties — Greene, Sumter and Pickens — about a half-hour to the west and southwest of Tuscaloosa. Again the targets were Baptist churches, though this time they all served poor, black congregations.

So what’s the motive? Officials are suggesting that the arsonists may have been mere thrill-seekers. If so, why did they drive past other churches? Perhaps, notes Lyman, they were driven by “some deep-seated hatred of religion in general and Baptists in particular.”

Now, a report by Jay Reeves of the Associated Press notes that authorities are hunting for a pair of young white men in an SUV that witnesses said was near several of the fires. A federal agent called them “bosom buddies” and suggested that they may have been injured in one of the fires.

And once again, we are left with this strange, unsettled conclusion:

Investigators have said they don’t know a motive, but there is no racial pattern. Five of the churches had white congregations and five black. All were Baptist, the dominant faith in the region, and mostly in isolated country settings.

In other words, lacking the racial hook, this story is not a major, national story because the victims do not fit into an standard template for hate-crime coverage. I mean, might this actually be a case of anti-Baptist bigotry? Perhaps they drove past mainline churches to torch the Baptists? That doesn’t sound like something a pair of Southern, thrill-seeking good ol’ boys would do, does it? So what are we dealing with here? I hope that we find out.

UPDATE: The latest Times story has gone silent on issues of race and motive. But Alabama authorities have rolled out a massive hunt for the arsonists.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

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  • shari

    exactly the point if it was overtly against black churches it would have more attention

  • http://BUSY Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Faith-filled Baptists are like believing Catholics these days::In the eyes of many in the secular media they belong up on a cross like that guy they worship who should have stayed in his tomb.

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  • Ted Olsen

    Be sure to check out Jeff Jacoby’s column in today’s (Wednesday’s) Boston Globe. “[A]re anti-Christian crimes really that rare?” he asks. “Or are they simply less interesting to the left, which prefers to cast Christians as victimizers, not victims?” There’s a strong media crit angle in the piece, of course.

  • Michael

    Given Jeff Jacoby’s consistent opposition to hate crime laws and legislations, it’s interesting he’s so worried about it now.

  • tmatt


    I am opposed to hate crime legislation too. I don’t think a crime is worse because of what someone was thinking at the moment they committed a crime. You enforce the law to its full extent and seek justice.

    But this is what I was talking about when I said that MSM coverage on this story was probably down because it did not fit the approved hate template.

  • Michael

    According to a Google search, there have been 427 stories in three days–since it became clear it wasn’t all Black churches–in the electronic versions of a variety of sources. Many of them were wire stories, but other large, MSM papers had their own reporters.

    That doesn’t seem like slowing down. I would agree that the race element changes the stories, but 427 stories is A LOT of stories on an issue the MSM has allegedly back-off on.

  • jayman

    You ask yourself two questions I think.

    Why are these churches being burned?

    How and would mainstream media coverage be different if all of these churches were black churches?

    As to the first question it’s at least a strong possibility that these churches are being burned because someone really, really, really doesn’t like Christians/Christianity particularly in their/its rural, Baptist version. No other plausible explanation suggests itself.

    As to the second question: if all nine churches, having been burned down in such close temporal and spatial succession, were black the MSM would be quickly working its way to a paroxysm, and anyone with a lick of sense knows it. Dateline, Nightline, and 48 Hours would be doing special reports and CNN would be giving multiple daily updates on the investigation. Some national figure in the civil rights community would have already assigned Bush a measure of blame for it, and his press secretary’s handling or non-handling of it would be front page on the NYT. Most of this wouldn’t be justified since in this day and age a few bigoted nutjobs can make a show of themselves simply by reading a fire safety manual backwards, and that is probably who we have at work here in the actual situation.

    The double standard is instructive however.

  • BluesDaddy

    Hmmm, two white, male, “bosom buddies” in an SUV (not the preferred vehicle of southern good ol’ boys). Could it be that we have a couple of angry homosexuals burning Baptist churches as a way to “strike back” at what they perceive to be “homophobia”?

    In a different world, this would have already been discussed. I bet the FBI are asking the same question.

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