Another “Preying Presbyterian” in Aurora?

It was the detail in the Aurora, Colo., massacre that, logically enough, led more than a few GetReligion readers to drop me a note. Here’s the top of a Los Angeles Times report that puts the denominational label right up front:

A San Diego neighbor of alleged Colorado shooter James Holmes remembers him as a very shy, well-mannered young man who was heavily involved in their local Presbyterian church.

“He seemed to be a normal kid, I don’t know what triggered it. This makes me very sad,” said Tom Mai, a retired electrical engineer.

Mai said Holmes’ entire family was involved in the Presbyterian Church.

“I saw him as a normal guy, an every day guy, doing every day things,” said Mai’s 16-year-old son, Anthony.

Then again, there was this detail, in another Los Angeles Times report — as journalists from coast to coast go into a full-court press seeking the missing detail that might somehow make this latest hellish equation to some kind of sense:

In a statement to The Times, Randy Schwab, chief executive of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles and director of Camp Max Straus, wrote that Holmes was responsible for “the care and guidance of a group of approximately 10 children” at the camp, in the hills above Glendale.

“His role was to ensure that these children had a wonderful camp experience by helping them learn confidence, self-esteem and how to work in small teams to effect positive outcomes,” he said. In a later e-mail, he added: “That summer provided the kids a wonderful camp experience without incident.”

Then again, TMZ has a screen shot (.pdf) of a dating-site page online for a man who certainly resembles Holmes, as described by police in all of his red-haired, Joker-esque glory. This page identifies this man’s faith as “agnostic.” Interestingly enough, the creator of this page does not identify any parts of the Batman trilogy — including the Joker dominated “The Dark Knight.”

I could go on and on, of course. We are in the early stages of this story, still, and the other shoe has not dropped in terms of the alleged gunman’s motives, either religious or otherwise. I would assume that journalists have, today, traced down the “Presbyterian” congregation in which Holmes grew up and we may have some details on that tomorrow.

Now, why did I put the word “Presbyterian” inside quotation marks in that last sentence?

Here’s why. In and of itself, that solitary word tells us next to nothing in the context of early 21st Century America, in Southern California or anywhere else in this land of ours. In the San Diego area, the word “Presbyterian” — like the word “Methodist” or “Lutheran” — could be accurately used to describe congregations ranging from evangelical megachurches to mainline flocks with theological profiles that would be very similar to other bodies in the “Seven Sisters” of liberal mainline Protestantism.

Come to think of it, the fact that a person is identified as an “agnostic” tells you next to nothing, at least I think that is true based on the agnostics I have known in my life (a high percentage of them former Southern Baptists).

So once again, as we deal with violence and religious labels, I would like to point GetReligion readers toward a classic 2003 piece at written by Aly Colon, who for years ran that excellent journalism think tank’s programs on ethics and diversity. The title, fittingly enough, is “Preying Presbyterians?” Here’s how that essay opens:

Watch out for Presbyterians. Keep a special eye out for Presbyterian ministers, especially former ones. And if the topic involves abortion, exercise more caution. In fact, minister rhymes with sinister. Could there be a connection between minister and sinister?

Those thoughts came to mind as I read the recent coverage of the execution of Paul Hill. The state of Florida sentenced Hill to death for murdering an abortion clinic doctor and his guard in Pensacola in 1994.

Almost all the stories I read about Hill usually made the following point: He was a former Presbyterian minister.

This leads us to some journalistic thinking that I would hope all journalists keep in mind when covering this story, whether religion turns out to play a pivotal role or not.

Come to think of it, I think what Colon has to say is important if it turns out that this nightmare is somehow linked to video games, a particular set of movies, mental illness or whatever. The bottom line, as always, is this: words matter.

Read it all, but these passages in particular:

As journalists, we choose words carefully and conscientiously. We select nouns and adjectives to advance the story. We connect dots. We make points. We clarify. We explain.

So when I see the word “Presbyterian,” I expect an explanation somewhere in the story that tells me why I need to know that. I would expect the same if other terms were used, such as “Catholic,” “Episcopalian,” “Christian,” “Hindu,” “Jew,” “Mormon,” “Hindu,” “Buddhist,” “Muslim,” or “Pagan.” …

When we use religious terms, especially designations of denominations, sects, or groups, we need to offer more clarity about what they are and what they believe. We need to connect faith to facts. We need to define denominations. Context and specificity help news consumers better understand the religious people in the news and how religion affects what they do.

The key there is “connecting faith to facts.” Labels, you see, are not enough and this is especially true when there are allegations that religion is connected to violence. At some point, journalists have to move past labels and attempt to report on-the-record facts about the practical ways in which religion (or a belief system that resembles a religious worldview, in function) is connected to the lives of a person in the news — whether that person is an Islamist, an evangelical, a Mormon, an agnostic or, yes, some kind of generic “Presbyterian.”

Here’s another way to think about this puzzle. More than 20 years ago, while I was teaching at Denver Seminary, I created a kind of practical, journalistic definition of a key term in Christian faith — “discipleship.” Instead of painting in broad strokes, when talking about the faith of their people, I urged my students to define this term — mass-media theory style — by answering three personal questions. The goal was to round up some useful facts.

How do you spend your time?

How do you spend your money?

How do you make your decisions?

I still think these are good questions for clergy who are trying to understand their people in this confusing day and age. As I used to say, if you can ask those questions about the lives of modern Americans and not bump into the power of the entertainment and news media, then you have a promising future in ministry to the Amish.

Now, after reading Colon’s classic essay again, I think these questions would help journalists trying to piece together the puzzle of the young man from San Diego and Aurora. How did Holmes spend his time? How did he spend his money? What influenced him the most as he was making his decisions?

Go look for those facts. Ask these kinds of questions and if religion (or Hollywood) shows up in the facts that result, so be it.

UPDATE: It now appears that, in the recent past, the suspect’s mother may have attended some kind of “Lutheran” congregation. This changes next to nothing in my post, so I will let it stand.

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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.

  • Thinkling

    Great, thought provoking questions. I will go read his piece and maybe get back.

    I have to say, even if one suggests other questions than those in your course, the idea of a standard specific and incisive set of questions is a great idea. As is often pointed out here, many stories seem as if the reporter asked only one religious question, do you worship at the altar of the Donkey or the altar of the Elephant?

    Two more observations about the Aurora case. The first is what I have read, much from the AP, nothing about Holmes reported so far seems to tie in to violence in any standard memish way. I suppose “shy” is the closest but with that criterion I would be considered a security threat. [not]
    More sobering, that website screenshot creeped me out, specifically the line across the top “will you visit me in prison?” whaaaa…..?

  • sari

    Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters provides services to both Jewish and non-Jewish children in need. Its summer camp is listed as non-denominational. Even if it weren’t, very few Jewish summer camps hire Jewish counselors exclusively and, while many have a strongly Jewish cultural bias and refrain from using non-Jewish symbols, very few incorporate a major religious component.

    All the reader can infer from the article is that he was hired as a counselor and his employer and charges were satisfied with his work. There is no religious component to this part of the article.

  • MJBubba

    Associated Press is now saying the Holmes family belongs to Penasquitos Lutheran Church in San Diego. (A quick search shows them to be ELCA.) They attribute this to the pastor:

    Borgie recalls a proud, intelligent boy who was determined to go to graduate school. He last spoke with the suspect about six years ago.

    The pastor says the family has belonged to the San Diego church for about 10 years.

  • Joshua

    It is the religious right in this country that opened up on the topic of the lack of religion (specifically right wing Christianity) being a causative factor in the shooting. I can provide you with links to a dozen or so radio programs, from Bryan Fischer and the AFA and on around the evangelical radio world. A U.S. Congressman from Texas has been widely quoted opining that all of the “attacks” on Christianity caused the shooting. Finally, a “ministry” right in Colorado was picked up by several news sources as say that a lack of Christ caused the massacre and, oh by the way, sorry, but any of the dead who did not have Christ are now in hell. I gladly provide multiple links.

    So it would seem that some reportage of his faith background and upbringing is in order. Wouldn’t it?

  • Jerry

    I don’t care what church he attended. No true child of God performed this horrific act.

  • tmatt


    What does all of that have to do with factual reporting about the suspect’s background? Please read the post again.

  • tmatt


    Even if he is mentally ill?

  • Joshua

    Tmatt, I agree that accurate reporting of his faith tradition is very important. And I’ll be surprised if there is much accurate reporting on the subject. Nonetheless, you suggest that after reading Colon’s essay you think journalists should investigate the totality of his background and if religion “shows up” so be it.

    I am simply pointing that a number of people, some of them prominent in certain religious movements, some with their own media, and others picked up in a variety of other sources have introduced the idea (and very quickly) that a lack of religion in his upbringing is the cause.

    I am certain that his faith, whether formal, simply a vague spirituality, agnostic, or atheist is a complex story of its own. And it deserves to be told. We know now that there is a report that he attended a church as a young man that his family still attends. That seems like a good
    starting point. In any case, I think very good story is likely there comparing and contrasting the various claims about a lack of religious upbringing and belief with the story of this young man’s life. And I think all of the hotheaded talk demands a journalistic look. Not simply if it turns up “so be it”. That is all.

  • The Old Bill

    Even if he is mentally ill?

    Do we know if he was taking meds? If so, what and for what?

    I’m interested in his religious background also, but it might turn out not to have anything to do with his acts.

    Sari, In high school and college, back in the dark ages, I worked as acounselor, lifeguard, water safety instructor, pool director, bus driver and archery instructor at several Jewish camps and the local JCC. You’re right: they didn’t care a whit that I was Catholic, just that I was reliable.

  • Julia

    Then again, TMZ has a screen shot (.pdf) of a dating-site page online for a man who certainly resembles Holmes, as described by police in all of his red-haired, Joker-esque glory.

    FWIW I keep seeing this connection made between red hair and the Joker. Actually it isn’t the Joker who has red hair; it’s the Riddler who is often shown with red hair.×768,mod%3D4&q=The+Joker&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hl=en&tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi&ei=n8EMUJCHNYH48wTq0KDJCg&biw=1138&bih=529&sei=pMEMUPSLLYqQ8wTKmYX0Cg

  • sari

    Bill, the only Jewish camps that shoot for all or mostly Jewish employees are Orthodox, and even they will hire non-Jews for jobs that require little contact with the campers: cooks(under supervision to ensure kashrut), bus drivers (Jewish counselors present to handle the kids), etc. JCCs and JBBBSs serve the entire community; about a quarter of the children who attend our local JCC preschool and over half the teachers are not Jewish. Observant children go elsewhere.

  • bible teaching churches in Oakville

    A believe that a person’s wrongdoing should not carry with it names of their beliefs or their church. Although it is true that when we belong in a particular group, we already carry it’s name. But in this case, we need to evaluate first and investigate why and what made him do it.

  • tioedong

    This young man sounds like he was slowly descending into an acute psychosis.

    If he indeed was in the middle of a psychotic episode, his churchgoing may not give you many clues, unless, of course, if his delusions included ideas gleaned from his religion, which does not seem likely in this case.

  • Will

    Right. The Joker has GREEN hair.

  • Sean P

    I’m a Presbyterian, should I be worried about myself?

  • Mike

    MJBubba says:
    July 22, 2012, at 9:15 pm

    Associated Press is now saying the Holmes family belongs to Penasquitos Lutheran Church in San Diego. (A quick search shows them to be ELCA.)

    Actually, a quick search (i.e. the congregation’s web site) shows them to be LCMC – Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ. This is a new denomination of Lutherans — the affiliation makes it likely they were formerly a congregation of the ELCA.

  • George Harper

    Tmatt, I thought you might want to respond to this ridiculous blog posting on the website
    Note the absurd claims: not only is Holmes alleged to have been a committed Presbyterian, his rampage is supposedly the fault of the distinctively “Presbyterian” (actually Augustinian and Pauline, but who’s counting?) doctrines of original sin and total depravity. Evidently the “debunkers” have never read Luther’s “Bondage of the Will,” or they might have directed their fire elsewhere. But this sort of garbage takes on a life of its own in the echo chamber of the Internet.