The 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.
I 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.”
And 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.