St. Timothy McVeigh strikes again

390430 01: A copy of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh''s final written statement, the 1875 poem by William Ernest Henley 'Invictus' is shown June 11, 2001 in Terre Haute, Indiana. (Photo courtesy of Indiana Federal Bureau of Prisons/Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

It’s not uncommon to hear people claim that all religions are roughly the same when it comes to acts of violence. And when folks make this claim in the context of terrorism in the United States, it’s not uncommon that they will cite Timothy McVeigh as an example of a “Christian” terrorist.

President Bush said as much in an interview a few years ago. Nobody in the media corrected him. And outgoing Newsweek editor Jon Meacham did the moral equivalency on the flip side. He said that Nidal Hasan, a Muslim who killed 13 soldiers and wounded 30 others, was no more a Muslim terrorist than Timothy McVeigh was a Christian terrorist.

And now we have a similar statement from NPR’s Michel Martin. Appearing on CNN’s Reliable Sources this week, she was part of an exchange with Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson about the mosque proposed to be built two blocks from ground zero:

MARTIN: In 10 years from now we won’t be talking about this, but it’s an issue for right now.

CARLSON: Right. And wouldn’t it be a great thing if they moved it a few blocks, and Muslims and Americans who still worry would be talking to each other? Let’s compromise. Well, why don’t we compromise?

MARTIN: Should anybody move a Catholic church? Did anybody move a Christian church after Timothy McVeigh, who adhered to a cultic — white supremacist cultic version of Christianity, bombed –

Whatever one might think of the strengths or weaknesses of the moral equivalency argument, McVeigh is simply not a good example to use. People in the media need to find a better example.

Everyone who paid even surface-level attention to the bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City would know that McVeigh was motivated by extreme hatred of the federal government, not Christianity. McVeigh rarely discussed religion. When he did, he did not indicate any motivation at all coming from religion. This is not something that could be said about the 9/11 bombers or Nidal Hasan.

For those curious about McVeigh’s views, I recommend “American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing.” Written by two journalists who corresponded with and covered McVeigh’s trial and execution, the book describes McVeigh as having somewhat complicated views, but the takeaway is probably best summarized by his quote “Science is my religion.” He was raised and even confirmed Catholic. But the book also describes him as avoiding worship while in the military, once visiting a Seventh Day Adventist congregation and finding it boring, and claiming that he lost touch with religion. Again, this does not sound like the Christian equivalent of Major Hasan or the 9/11 bombers.

Time magazine interviewed McVeigh about his religious views and he said he wasn’t terribly religious but did believe in a God. Shortly before he was executed, he accepted an offer to receive last rites from a priest. But he also sent a letter to the Buffalo News where he described himself as an agnostic but said he would adapt if it turned out there was an afterlife. Here’s how Dan Herbeck, one of the Buffalo News reporters, explained it it in an interview with ABC’s Sam Donaldson:

Well, he is an agnostic. He doesn’t believe in God, but he has told us he doesn’t not believe in God. Death is part of his adventure, as he describes it to us. And he told us that when he finds out if there is an afterlife, he will improvise, adapt and overcome just like they taught him in the Army.

There’s a reason why nobody even thought to suggest that a Catholic or other Christian church should not be built near the Murrah building or that any religious structures near the site should be moved. I’m not suggesting that people in the media should be in the business of suggesting that all religions have the same problem with terrorism. But if they are going to do that, they simply need to get a better handle on history.

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  • Tim Snow

    The building Timothy McVeigh bombed is called the Alfred P. Murrah building, not the Murtha building.

  • Norman

    Very eye-opening information, Mollie. Of course all religions aren’t the same, but that idea has been fashionable for a long while now, and some people seem to need it to be so.

    I wouldn’t put Michel Martin in that camp, although she did misspeak in this case. She is usually so good. She takes religion seriously- I believe she was a divinity student- and is anything but an ideologue. I think if she sees this she’d never make that comment again.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Tim,

    Thank you — fixed. No idea how I messed that up!

    Norman,

    I agree — I enjoy Martin and find her to be a thoughtful journalist.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Could it be a confusion between McVeigh’s interest in the white supremacist Christian Identity movement and, well, actual “Christian identity”? Here’s a January post from Ethics Daily that discusses the influence of Christian Identity on McVeigh.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Ack – hit “Submit” too soon. Here’s the link to Ethics Daily:
    http://www.ethicsdaily.com/news.php?viewStory=15532

    My take would be to distinguish between influence and adherence, which is not often done in media coverage of religion. Just because someone is influenced by religiously-motivated writers doesn’t make that person a member of that religion.

  • Julia

    Was McVeigh part of a Christian white supremacist cult?
    I knew he was upset about Ruby Ridge and Koresh in Waco, but didn’t know he was supposed to be part of a cult himself.

    I found this about Elohim City, a Christian Identity compound on the border of Arkansas and Oklahoma.

    http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mcveigh/moreconspirators.html

    It sounds like people who were all angry at the Federal government for different reasons. The Elohim folks conflated being white with being Christian. It doesn’t appear that McVeigh cared about the Christian part.

    I can see how people might use McVeigh as an example of a Christian terrorist because of who he associated with.

  • Kelly

    Is there any way I could get a copy of your book Losing Our Religion? Thanks!

  • steve

    One example of a Christian terrorist group is the Ku Klux Klan, not as active as they used to be.

    Of course, Tim McVeigh isn’t very active these days, either.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    I’ve pointed out to several people that McVeigh wasn’t a Christian. They never believe me. The error is out there and like Washington cutting down the cherry tree it’s just one of those things people “know”.

  • Jeanette

    Consider these ignored stories about McVeigh and “religion”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9Q3L6x9PjU 6:35 minutes
    April 16, 2009 O’Reilly Factor: interview with Jayna Davis
    Was Timothy McVeigh Working for Bin Laden & Al Qaeda?

    http://jaynadavis.com/highlights.html

    Book: The Third Terrorist: The Middle East Connection to the Oklahoma City Bombing. by Jayna Davis

  • astorian

    It wouldn’t help to convince the mass media that Timothy McVeigh wasn’t a Christian. If you did, they’d just start bringing up Eric Rudolph all the time.

    Of course, Eric Rudolph isn’t a Christian either, and is amused that so many people think he is (he told his mother that the Christians trying to “save” him are so nice, he hates telling them that he greatly prefers Nietzsche to the Bible).

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2005-07-05-rudolph-cover-partone_x.htm?POE=NEWISVA

  • Steve

    Isn’t McVeigh’s favorite poem “invictus” thought of as an atheist manifesto (it is listed as such by Pelikan in his collection of writings on religion)?

  • yk

    Whatever the “motivation”, it still doesn’t mean generalization should occur.

    So if i don’t like what the U.S government is doing, should I be banned from the United States?