Wild times down in Alabama

facebookThe powers that be are saying it early and often down in Alabama: The three students held in connection with that wave of fires at rural Baptist churches were just a bunch of wild guys who were having some fun and things got out of control.

There certainly seems to be evidence that points in that direction.

However, reporter Richard Fausset at the Los Angeles Times picked up an interesting subplot in this drama and put it high up in his story.

The arrests of the men … were a balm for some members of the nine burned churches. But there also was bitterness and bewilderment as churchgoers learned of their alleged motives — and that two suspects were students at Birmingham-Southern College.

The private liberal arts school, where tuition is $21,000 a year, is associated with the United Methodist Church.

Anyone who grew up in the Deep South can read between those lines. What we had here, it seems, were some well-off white kids from the progressive Christian campus in town or, at the very least, the campus that would be to the cultural left of the local Baptists, be they white or black.

Now, please understand that — down South — there are a lot of United Methodists who are still pretty conservative on a lot of issues. And Birmingham-Southern College has a good reputation with people who study values and education. Click here to see its entry on the Colleges That Change Lives site.

burning cross 01I don’t think Fausset is hinting that some people think this was some kind of mainline Protestant hate crime against the local fundamentalists. But there are cultural tensions at play. For example, consider this:

All three suspects were in federal custody Wednesday. Two of them — Benjamin Nathan Moseley, 19, and Russell DeBusk Jr., 19 — are Birmingham-Southern students who have been suspended and banned from campus awaiting further action from authorities, school President David Pollick said. The third, Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20, is a former Birmingham-Southern student who transferred in the fall to the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The suspects were all apparently active in campus life. According to Birmingham-Southern’s website, Moseley recently starred in two plays, a farce titled “Young Zombies in Love” and a “white-knuckle psychological thriller” called “Extremities.” DeBusk worked on a production of “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”

Once again, we have a lively stereotype in play here. I think it is safe to say that, on most conservative campuses, the theater programs are not known as havens for the most conservative students on campus. I have — as a professor and, eons ago, as a student — seen more than a few campus scandals involving the free-spirited folks who tend to thrive in theater and film-studies programs (and journalism programs, too). What can I say: Creative people are often not fond of rules.

So were these simple good old Southern boys out having a wild night with a six pack or two? Could be. But I am still fascinated with the simple, pesky fact that these guys kept driving past lots of other sanctuaries to nail churches — black and white — with the word “Baptist” on the signs out front.

However, the authorities are clearly going out of their way to tell people not to worry about that. Fausset reports:

The arrests … ended weeks of nervous speculation in this conservative churchgoing state. Because all of the burned churches were Baptist, some had wondered whether the fires were specific attacks against that faith. Others wondered whether they were expressions of a more general anti-religious sentiment. In some areas, church members had begun keeping night watches over their houses of worship.

On Wednesday, however, Gov. Bob Riley assured Alabamans that the attacks were an “isolated instance.”

announceAnd the basic Associated Press report adds:

Court papers said Moseley told agents that he, Cloyd and DeBusk went to Bibb County in Cloyd’s sport-utility vehicle on Feb. 2 and set fire to five churches. A witness quoted Cloyd as saying Moseley did it “as a joke and it got out of hand.”

Tommy Spina, an attorney for Cloyd, said, “This is not a hate crime. This is not a religious crime.”

Maybe these wild boys simply wanted to burn down the churches that, in their view of the world, represented the puritan forces that would want them to settle down, sober up, live straight and become accountants or preachers, as opposed to actors in edgy plays and movies. Reporter Rick Lyman of the New York Times, acting on the totally logical assumption that these college students had their own pages at Facebook, was able to report the following passage (which raises more questions than it answers):

In the area on Mr. Moseley’s page where visitors can post messages, alongside more than 12 expressing shock at the arrests and promising to pray for the accused, was one that Mr. Cloyd posted on Jan. 9. It read:

“To my dearest friend Moseley:

“The nights have grown long and the interstates of Alabama drunk driverless, the state troopers bored, the county sheriffs less weary, and the deer of Bibb County fearless. 2006 is here, it is time to reconvene the season of evil! … May our girlfriends be concerned about our safety, may our parents be clueless, may our beers be frosty, may our love lives be fruitful, may our weed be green as the freshly mowed grass!”

Well, that certainly sounds like some wild guys who like to party, hit the highway and, perhaps, burn down some churches along the way. I’d still be interested in knowing more about why they burned down some of the churches they roared past and not others. Maybe they just wanted to sock it to the prudes, fundamentalists and other Bible thumpers who shop at Wal-Mart rather than the trendier stories at the malls on the good side of town.

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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.

  • Michael

    Did Ann Coulter hack into Terry’s computer and post this? :)

  • tmatt

    Well, I am curious as to why they picked the churches that they did.

    Michael, I am also curious: What do you think of the top of the LA Times story?

  • Michael

    People are surprised because “good kids” that go to “good schools” don’t do things like this? This is a narrative you get in lots of crime stories done by suburban kids.

  • dk

    This is a really interesting story, especially when read between the lines. Not the kind of thing that’s likely to matter or be processable in the MSM, but it’s the kind of thing you end up seeing as the subject of a good documentary that teaches you something about America.

  • http://auspiciousdragon.com holmegm

    >This is a narrative you get in lots of crime
    >stories done by suburban kids.

    That they burn down only Baptist churches, driving past others? I must have missed that “narrative”.

  • http://kevinjjones.blogspot.com Kevin Jones

    “People are surprised because “good kids” that go to “good schools” don’t do things like this? This is a narrative you get in lots of crime stories done by suburban kids.”

    This narrative has been going on at least since the Leopold and Loeb murder.

  • Roger

    I do think it’s interesting and concerning that these students went out of their way to burn only Baptist churches, without knowing their motives (yet), it’s a stretch to go from the fact of what these cretins did to the supposition that “Maybe they just wanted to sock it to the prudes, fundamentalists and other Bible thumpers who shop at Wal-Mart rather than the trendier stories at the malls on the good side of town”. And while I think looking at this throught the prism of Mclass vs Wclass is interesting, I think the reality is much less so, and sad:
    Thoughtless kids that end up ruining their lives and disrupting the lives of many others. Sometimes, things just are what they are

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I think it’s about time we saw how violent Methodists are. My copy chief is Methodist and she is seriously violent. (Don’t hurt me, Cathy!)

  • http://peterseanesq.blogspot.com Peter Sean Bradley

    That’s a nice post with an interesting perspective on the subject.

    My local paper – the Fresno Bee – was running the national story that this was a “prank gone bad.”

    When I read that I had to think that while one burnt church might be a “prank gone bad”, five on one day didn’t sound like something that just got out of hand. It sounded like something deliberate.

    The cultural antipathy issue rings true.

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  • http://noleftturns.ashbrook.org Joe Knippenberg
  • c.tower

    Jon stewart said it best: If this is just a “prank gone wrong”, it wouldn’t have gone this far… because no joke should be beaten into the ground like that.there’s something more here, even if the kids involved don’t have enough self-awareness to realise it themselves. But you know everyone will just ignore the problem, lock up the culprits, and tell themselves it’s all over. Not that I can blame them too much, because this sort of thing is pretty hard to fathom…

  • http://brainster.blogspot.com Brainster

    Yes, I think the media are rushing to non-judgment in this case; reading the articles they all stress that this was a prank that got out of hand, that they were drunk, etc. Even the article that mentions the Satanism tries to excuse it as “pursuit of knowledge”, heh.

  • http://BUSY Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I like that phrase “rush to non-judgement.” One can only imagine what the headlines and stories would be saying if students from a “notoriously”
    conservative Christian campus had done what these bozos had done–especially to the Black churches on their burn parade. But, oh well! They’re of the make love, smoke weed crowd so they can’t really be bad–it is cut slack time for some liberal “Good Ole Boys.”

  • Jane

    Where are you posting from, tmatt? Clearly not the region in which these crimes took place.

    “But I am still fascinated with the simple, pesky fact that these guys kept driving past lots of other sanctuaries to nail churches — black and white — with the word “Baptist” on the signs out front.”

    These guys would hardly have “kept driving past lost of other sactuaries” until they found churches that said “Baptist” out front. Most if not all of the churches they would drive past in those areas would be Baptist.

    Just the facts.

    “I’d still be interested in knowing more about why they burned down some of the churches they roared past and not others. Maybe they just wanted to sock it to the prudes, fundamentalists and other Bible thumpers who shop at Wal-Mart rather than the trendier stories at the malls on the good side of town.”

    Which others?

    There are plenty of “prudes, fundamentalists, and other Bible thumpers who shop at Wal-Mart” who attend Methodist churches around here. But in the areas where those stupid brats were joyriding, they’d have had to be a hell of a lot less drunk and extremely determined to find a church that wasn’t Baptist.


  • tmatt


    Get accurate.

    The mystery of the non-Baptist churches they passed was cited by authorities early on. There were other churches in between. Chase the coverage back to the early stories.

    Perhaps only the backroad Baptists built churches out of wood.

    And, yes, I know the deep south quite well. I do know there are more Baptist churches — of various stripes — than others. But there are plenty of Pentecostal and nondenominational, too.

  • Jane

    Oh, I’m plenty accurate.

    I not only know the deep south quite well, I’m very familiar with the regions in which the fires occurred.

  • Tom Breen

    I would be interested to know why these folks chose to burn the churches they burned. The excuse that they burned one and then burned the others “to cover their tracks” seems completely laughable. Who ever heard of committing more crimes to cover your tracks?

    I doubt the press will have access to them, so hopefully some prosecutor will think to ask the obvious question: Why?

  • http://www.centerforfaithinpolitics.org Matt Lacey

    I graduated from Birmingham-Southern last year. I am completely offended by any suggestion that these students burned churches because of BSC’s “liberal” label. They were just pyros–or at least I’m told from friends on campus. Don’t make this an issue of sectarian violence–please.

  • http://www.myspace.com/wipeitasoneturd Chris Stewart

    I know Russ. All these stories making him out to be a “satanist” are clearly absurd. Russ had a way for making metaphors in place of not knowing how to explain himself. A new religious idea to him was merely just a new way to look at life. And it most likely played very little into the arsons. He did not hate Baptists. He didn’t hate anything. He was just stupid that night, and that’s it. Now he’s going to prison. I hate it. I can’t stand to think of it. These other two kids, I did not know personally. I can’t vouch for them. But Russ… Ruskell Debuskell. He is a good person. He just f****d up. I know he regrets it and I know he knows what he did was more than just irresponsible. But I know, for a FACT, that Russ is not a satanist, or a christian. He’s just an agnostic 19 year old kid who wants to gather as much knowledge as he can. I can almost guarantee he had the least to do with these arsons. No one can understand the story from this angle unless they know him. And all you who are pointing fingers, saying satanist… you’re just as foolish as Russ was that night, and you might as well go burn down a church.

  • Nance Confer

    a very troubled young man (whom I am fraternity brothers with)
    So you know one of these young men personally?

    Do you have some insight into why he and his friends would do this?

    Troubled in what sense? Has he been receiving some sort of psychiatric treatment?

    It’s all very interesting — sad but interesting.

    It is hard to imagine this as a fun drinking activity but say that’s what it is — on some disturbed level. Why not burn random things? Why do you think they focused on the Baptist churches?


  • Jonathan White

    Yes, I knew Cloyd. For example, when we would all sit around and joke about things, he would always be the guy that would cross that line (spotlighting deer for the fun of it and capturing beavers to shave them). He never talked about burning down churches, of course. I believe the reason they focused on Baptist churches is because they have skewed sense of reality that is only enhanced by alcohol (as I have witnessed first-hand) and those were the only buildings in those rural areas that would be guaranteed to not have people inside. While their actions were grossly disturbed and completely wrong, I don’t believe they ever would have set fires in places where people could have been hurt. I don’t see it being a type of Baptist hatred either. Remember BSC is only affiliated with the Methodist Church because of its beginnings. Yes, the Alabama Conference Center is there, but the Methodist organization has no say in the everyday actions of the school. I’m not even sure I would say the majority of the students are Methodists. If it WAS anything having to do with Baptists and Cloyd had anything to do with it, maybe it was some type of internal conflict he has from his past, being a former Baptist churchgoer, because I know he’s changed a lot since coming to BSC. He’s not the same Cloyd that I hear his high schools classmates and former churchmembers say that he is. Remember, this is all speculation just having known him more recently than most people that have been interviewed by the media. I just know he’s not the same scholarly, exemplary, God-fearing person that he may have used to be before I knew him. I feel sorry for the kids’ parents most of all and for them only because they are the type of people who are not going to make it through prison. I believe they deserve a lot of jailtime, but they don’t deserve all that’s going to happen to them while in jail, being small, young, white college students that burned down lower-class, rural churches. God help them.

  • Nance Confer

    Thanks for the personal take.

    It is amusing, imo, that every time any young person is in trouble in the news, they are suddenly reported to have been the best scholar and nicest kid ever. Destined to cure cancer at the very least. Riiight. . . and that’s why they were out cruising around drinking and committing arson.

    I suppose we’ll never know if they had a choice about burning exclusively Baptist buildings. It seems to me that was a deliberate choice but what that means,if anything. ..

    Your idea that the buildings would at least be empty is something to consider.


  • Nancy A.

    Being from Birmingham, Alabama, I have never ceased being amused and appalled by the portrayal of this region by people who actually have zero experience in having lived in this region. Truth be known, we by no means have exclusive rights to ignorance…it abounds…everywhere!.

    “Anyone who grew up in the Deep South can read between those lines.”

    Interestingly enough, I did…and I can’t; you didn’t…and you can. But considering you are talking about an article written by a reporter from the L.A. Times who also probably has never spent much time in Birmingham, Alabama, might explain why you can read between the lines of his article, yet I can’t.

    It is amazing that someone can make a claim under the guise of religion; a claim that is blatantly uninformative and biased; and yet so many people want to embrace it without question as being “Godly” just because the writer claims to be religious. Wasn’t it Jesus who warned us to be aware of false prophets?

    I find it very curious that a “religious” writer writing a post regarding church burnings in Alabama would choose to put a picture of a burning cross in the middle of that post. That symbol has nothing to do with burning churches…it is the symbol most often affiliated with the most recognized hate group in American…the Ku Klux Klan. A group whose own members claim to be Christians doing the work of God; yet by most morale standards are anything but.

    Bloggers so often point their fingers at the evil world of MSM, yet what I have found on many blogs are statements being spouted as “fact” though there is no factual information presented to back up their claims. Viewers/readers of all media should always question a reporter’s agenda…not just in the evil world of MSM. Do you honestly think they are the only ones with a hidden agenda?!?

    Before readers begin jumping onto the Methodist vs. Baptist bandwagon remember you are dealing with a state where Alabama vs. Auburn football is a bigger religion than anything else. Most people here are more likely to know what college football team their acquaintances pull for than what religion they belong to.

    Why only Baptist churches? A Methodist plot?!? Try this instead: The three individuals who will be indicted for these crimes liked to hunt, drink, drive fast, and break the law according to their own website postings. Since Jefferson County, where Birmingham-Southern College is located, is the most populated county in Alabama it definitely doesn’t offer a lot rural areas to combine all of their “hobbies.” Since BSC is located on the western side of Jefferson County it doesn’t take a real genius to figure out that those three would choose the closest counties that provided plenty of rural areas without a lot of police presence; where income levels are low and trust among neighbors is high (making the likelihood of surveillence cameras/alarms almost nonexistent)…and there you have the western counties of Alabama…where the church burnings took place. Now if you actually know anything about Alabama and specifically that part of Alabama you would already know that Baptist churches are the most prominent churches in that area…disproportionately so! So even if they burned churches randomly in that area without ever looking to see what its religious affiliation was, the odds would be great that all the churches would have been Baptist anyway. That’s the sad truth of statistics. But isn’t it more interesting for your readership for you to suggest some type hatred of one religion toward another religion instead. I notice that you failed to mention that one of the reasons this story made national headlines is exactly because it is the exception to the norm here…not anywhere close to the norm here by anyone’s imagination.

    Interestingly enough I also noticed that you never mentioned that one of the three suspects was raised and baptized in a Baptist Church (Southern Baptist at that). Maybe you can write a new post claiming it was his backlash at his religious upbringing. Better yet why don’t you write a post that one of fathers of the suspects is affiliated with a hospital with ties to the Catholic Church. Maybe you can write that the Methodist and the Catholics here in the dumb ol’ South are ganging up together to destroy the Baptists. Sensational…yes! Truth…not even close! The truth is that other than those three idiots who burned those churches, nobody will probably ever know just why they did it and for anybody else to try to pinpoint one, single reason for them doing so is simply a futile attempt into a world of insanity which will only lead them into making inane comments that will only magnify their own ignorance.

  • Nance Confer

    Now if you actually know anything about Alabama and specifically that part of Alabama you would already know that Baptist churches are the most prominent churches in that area…disproportionately so! So even if they burned churches randomly in that area without ever looking to see what its religious affiliation was, the odds would be great that all the churches would have been Baptist anyway. That’s the sad truth of statistics.
    That is the interesting thing about statistics. If I only targeted churches in the region you describe, there’s some chance I’d still hit something other than Baptist churches, if I truly burned them randomly. That doesn’t suggest a wider conspiracy. It does suggest some sort of method to this madness. Which may be irrelevant. Which may only ever be understood by the “three idiots.”

    Maybe it points to a more general lack of respect for property than for a lack of respect for the property of the other guy’s church.

    To some of us out here in the know-nothing rest of the country, it raises all sorts of interesting questions.

    I wonder about young men who are this bored and hateful about life in general. Whatever their religious background, it doesn’t seem to have done them much good.


  • Nancy A.

    Let’s look at just the five churches that were burned in Bibb County during the first night of their rampage (remember they burned the other four churches to try to throw the ATF off their trail…luckily it didn’t work). If you do a search of churches in Bibb County you will find a list of 111 churches – 65 of them are Baptist and the remaining 46 are spread out among various other religious denominations. And keep in mind that “the idiots” made sure that all the churches were near U.S. 82 and Highway 139. Now this is what is interesting if you do the research:

    In the immediate area of where the first church was burned there are 9 churches, 7 of which are Baptist. The second church is located in a cluster of 4 churches, all of which are Baptist. (The third church I cannot comment on since I was not able to locate it.) In the immediate area of the fourth and fifth churches that were burned there are 6 churches. The fourth church sits in just a cluster of 2 churches, both are Baptist. The fifth church is in a cluster of 4 churches, 3 of which are Baptist. That is 19 churches and 16 of them are Baptist. With those numbers, I think I’ll stick to my original comment about statistics.

    BTW, Nance, I never said anyone else in the rest of the country “knew nothing.” I think what I basically said was that when anyone tries to paint a portrayal of a particular region (it doesn’t matter what region it is!) based strictly on what they may have seen or read yet to learn that they have absolutely no real-life experience with that region, I find it appalling. That’s called stereotyping (i.e., a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment)…and I find that behavior and action highly offensive and it goes against every religious belief I have ever known! Anyone who stereotyped a race or a sex they were not a part of would be lambasted! Why not the same indignation when it is a region?!?

  • Nance Confer

    65 out of 111 or 16 out of 19 or 3 out of 4 or 7 out of 9.

    You don’t seem to think there was any choice involved. I wonder if there was.

    Sorry I offended you.

    Have a great day! :)


  • Scherza

    Nancy A. –

    Dr. Cloyd is not “affiliated with a hospital that has ties to the Catholic church”: he is a practicing physician at a Catholic hospital. St. Vincent is run by Ascension Health, previously known as the Daughters of Charity National Health System.

    The Daughters of Charity, a French-based order of nuns with a mission in health care, founded the first hospital in Birmingham. St. Vincent also had the first integrated nursing school in the Southeast.

    St. Vincent is not simply tied to the Catholic church — it IS a Catholic hospital. Nuanced, perhaps, but it’s like the difference between calling a school a Catholic school or a “school in the Catholic tradition.” Much like BSC is “in the Methodist tradition” and Samford is unapologetically Southern Baptist.