“Sectarian” bloodshed, blah, blah, blah

helicopter 01I am sorry to sound like a broken record and, believe me, I realize that I could make the following comments about dozens of other MSM reports from Iraq day after day after day. But the Operation Swarmer story is one of today’s top stories in newspapers and broadcast media.

So here I go again. You can see, with merely one glance at the top of this Los Angeles Times report, that the “sectarian” nature of this conflict remains at the heart of the story.

BAGHDAD — U.S. and Iraqi forces began a major helicopter and ground attack Thursday on an insurgent stronghold near Samarra, the Sunni Arab dominated city where the bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine last month set off waves of sectarian bloodshed across the country.

The assault was underway 80 miles north of Baghdad as the parliament elected three months ago held its inaugural session here amid extraordinary security and sharp exchanges that reflected Iraq’s deepening divisions.

And on and on and on, from “Sunni-led insurgency” to “full-scale sectarian conflict” to the dizzying reference to the urgency of bringing “minority Sunni representatives into a broad coalition government along with majority Shiites, ethnic Kurds and secular-minded parties.”

There are religious elements to all of that. But what do the words mean? Yes, I know that, to some degree, the leaders of these factions want political power and oil money. I know all of that. I know that some of the divisions are tribal (at least, I think I know that). But it still seems to me that American newspaper readers, in an era in which we are trying to understand why some (repeat some) Islam leaders want to destroy the West or absorb it, would like to know why so many Arab Muslims want to kill each other, as well. We are being told why they hate us and why they hate Israel. Could someone please explain to us, in language we can understand, why they also want to kill each other?

This is an important question and it leads to others. Is political unity impossible if the ultimate goal is a theocracy built on doctrinal unity? Is a secular compromise possible if Allah casts a final “no” vote?

Adnan Pachachi, at 83 the oldest member of parliament, underscored the urgency of the task in unusually blunt remarks to his colleagues after he had been appointed temporary speaker.

“The country is going through dangerous times … and the perils come from every direction,” he said during the nationally televised session. “We have to prove to the world that there will not be civil war among our people. The danger is still there, and our enemies are ready for us.

“We’re still at the beginning of the road to democracy,” he added, “and we’re stumbling.”

OK, is this Pachachi fellow Sunni, Shiite, Christian or secular? That matters, right?

Yes, it does matter.

Tension between the Shiites, who dominate the interim government, and other blocs surfaced in parliament when Pachachi, a secular Sunni, said in his speech that Cabinet ministers should not be chosen on a sectarian basis.

He was cut off by Abdelaziz Hakim, head of the Shiite bloc’s largest party. Sitting in the front row in black robes and a turban, he said: “This is the first session. We shouldn’t go into all these details.”

So let’s start with a basic question: Why is the Sunni sect symbolized by the color green and the Shiites by the color black?

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Suing over a book’s architecture

da vinci codeApparently Dan Brown’s use of “historical conjecture” in his wildly popular Da Vinci Code has landed him in the British legal system on a charge of plagiarism. The media are fascinated by the revelations on how Brown wrote his book, his wife’s involvement in forming the more controversial themes of the book and how strange it is to see the laid-back Brown among a bunch of powdered wigs in a British courtroom.

Here’s the New York Times version of what’s happening:

Mr. Brown acknowledges that he used “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” (published in the United States as “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”), as a source for his book, but contends it was just one of many books and documents he and his wife consulted. Indeed, his protagonist specifically refers to the book in a pivotal scene in “The Da Vinci Code” — a homage, Mr. Brown says; the name of one of Mr. Brown’s characters, Sir Leigh Teabing, was devised as an in-joke reference to “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail,” using the surname of one author and an anagram of the surname of another.

Mr. Baigent and Mr. Leigh’s case will rise or fall on how much they can prove that Mr. Brown relied on their book in writing his.

So far, their lawyers appear to have only scratched the surface of the issue, although they have in their possession what Mr. Brown says are all his notes, outlines and research materials.

In his statement to the court, he said that “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” was full of material that did not appear in “The Da Vinci Code,” and vice versa.

“I would like to restate that I remain astounded by the claimants’ choice to file this plagiarism suit,” he said. “For them to suggest, as I understand they do, that I have ‘hijacked and exploited’ their work is simply untrue.”

For the fans of the books it is great drama, and the revelations on the formation of the book are somewhat interesting, but the real significance of this story is on how the matter could end the genre of historical fiction.

dan brownNow I’m not talking about the basic histories we’re all familiar with. Common-knowledge subjects like the American Civil War, Queen Elizabeth’s reign and the journey of Marco Polo will remain up for grabs. But the more speculative aspects that have been recently explored by researchers and are not established in the history books will be out the window, as explained by author Sarah Dunant, a guest on National Public Ratio’s On the Media last week:

I think the problem about religion is it is based somewhere on a series of facts that nobody quite knows. The notion that Christ may have been married, the notion that Mary Magdalene may have been more than just a poor supplicant, are notions that have been around for a very long time. And if a writer, particularly a thriller writer, a writer where plot is really important, where the uncovering of secrets is really important … as you know, I began life as a thriller writer, and I try and weave in thriller plots to history because the better the book, the more you’re drawing on stuff that is actually fact. Thriller writers do lots of research. The big question here is whether or not an idea, a bigger idea as opposed to a series of facts and opinions, can be copyrighted. And that is a huge question, which I think, even when they have ordered one way or the other in the Dan Brown case, in a sense, we’ll still be asking. …

For a very long time, any kind of novel about history, particularly deliberately historical novels, were more often about kind of kings and queens and big battles and the big accepted history. But the kind of history that is being done by all manner of scholars over the last 40 or 50 years, from women’s research people to people who are interested in gay culture to people who are interested in the hidden bits of the sort of Christian mythology, their job has been to get under the surface, to get to those other nine-tenths of the iceberg. It’s all, in a sense, new and slightly hidden history. So the historical novelist, particularly if you want to write a good thrilling historical novel, which I certainly set out to do, has to use all kinds of sources which, in a sense, are just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m a bit disappointed that I have not seen more on this from mainstream publications. Perhaps I’ve missed it, but most of what I’ve read fails to highlight the very essence for which Brown is being sued. Perhaps because the ideas are so controversial, reporters avoid them with the subtle fear that they will make a goof? Or maybe it’s because those suing Brown don’t stand much of a chance to win even in Great Britain, not to mention the United States?

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What is a sanctuary?

wrecking ballLast year the Supreme Court issued a wildly unpopular decision that enabled governments to seize property for no other reason than economic development. A recent New York Times article says that almost every state legislature in the country is advancing bills or constitutional amendments to limit the spread of this ruling. Despite the tenuous legal state that the ruling (Kelo v. New London) is in, a Long Beach, Calif., government is using it to replace a church with an apartment complex. Sigh.

The Long Beach Redevelopment Agency voted 6-0 March 13 to condemn the Filipino Baptist Fellowship’s church building, ostensibly because it does not produce enough economic benefit for the city.

Because the Filipino Baptist Fellowship is just one of eight churches that governments are currently using eminent domain against, I wish that reporters were all over this. Unfortunately, it seems that print coverage has been more or less limited. Let’s look at how the Associated Press characterized the issue which, I’ll note, was very similar to the way the Long Beach Press-Telegram put it:

“We are a church. We are helpless. We have no place to go,” church pastor Roem Agustin said.

But redevelopment agency bureau manager Barbara Kaiser said the church was offered 13 alternative sites and the agency offered to pay for moving costs.

Well, if you’re like me and think that private property owners should have the right to keep their land no matter how much the government wants it for a baseball stadium or condominium developments, it doesn’t matter if the church doesn’t like the government’s offer. And if you’re like me and think this goes double for houses of worship, it really doesn’t matter if the church doesn’t like the government’s offer. But most people would see this and think the church was being unreasonable. Is that the end of the story? Is there any other information readers should have? Baptist Press, which has covered this story well, spoke with the church’s attorney, John Eastman:

“Well, let me tell you about the properties they’ve offered. Most of them were vacant lots,” he told BP. “It’s a little hard to hold a church service in a vacant lot. Several of them were leases, not buildings to own. [The church members] own this one, and they want to have a church that they own so they’re not at the whim of a landlord.

“So you take all those off the table. Almost all of the others were in other parts of the redevelopment area, where they could be forced to move out a couple of years down the road when the city gets around to developing that block,” he added. . . .

Some of the alternative sites the city offered the church included a bar and two gas stations. Most of the properties had no parking or less parking than the church has at its current location, and there was no guarantee that the city would give the church a conditional use permit without ensuring the parking was up to code, Eastman said.

“None of these were suitable alternatives because they wouldn’t have been able to have their church,” he said. “Giving you 13 different addresses doesn’t mean they’ve given you 13 different suitable alternatives.”

This level of explanation should be available in the wire or local news reports. But, more importantly, this broader story should be getting more coverage.

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“Mr. Cruise, come out of the closet”

chefThe voice of South Park‘s Chef, soul singer Isaac Hayes, has quit the show that centers on four foul-mouthed fourth graders. The reason: South Park inappropriately ridicules religion. Say what? Since when?!?

Here is a thorough account of the story from Reuters (my past posts dealing with Scientology can be found here and here):

Soul singer Isaac Hayes said on Monday he was quitting his job as the voice of the lusty character “Chef” on the satiric cable TV cartoon “South Park,” citing the show’s “inappropriate ridicule” of religion.

But series co-creator Matt Stone said the veteran recording artist was upset the show had recently lampooned the Church of Scientology, of which Hayes is an outspoken follower.

“In ten years and over 150 episodes of ‘South Park,’ Isaac never had a problem with the show making fun of Christians, Muslim[s], Mormons or Jews,” Stone said in a statement issued by the Comedy Central network. “He got a sudden case of religious sensitivity when it was his religion featured on the show.”

He added: “Of course we will release Isaac from his contract, and we wish him well.”

In a statement explaining his departure from the show, Hayes, 63, did not mention last fall’s episode poking fun at Scientology and some of its celebrity adherents, including actor Tom Cruise.

south park three boysAs blogger Andrew Sullivan joked, the episode “Red-Hot Catholic Love” wasn’t enough to drive Hayes from the show. Nor was the show that started it all, “The Spirit of Christmas (Jesus vs. Santa).”

The Scientology episode, which is available at South Park‘s homepage (for the time being) and through this site, is just as much about making fun of the alleged closeted homosexuality of actor Tom Cruise (who is also a Scientologist), but the plot certainly centers on Stan and his rather unusual experience in the group.

I’m glad Reuters and others have been quick to point out the hypocrisy of Hayes’ claiming that his departure was solely based on the show’s clear hostility toward religion. They obviously were helped out a bit by Stone’s statement, and it will be interesting to see if this story picks up any momentum. No lawsuit has been filed against the show that I know of, largely thanks to American judicial precedent that allows liberal use of satire, especially toward those who are in the public limelight.

While I certainly do not think it’s nice to mock another person’s religion, or life philosophy as Scientologists put it, and Scientology is indeed viciously mocked by South Park in this episode, it is certainly within the realm of comedy. As long as the comedy is actually funny, and in this case it’s hilarious, I’m OK with it.

One item that might be worth exploring in follow-up reports is the actual status of Scientology as a religion. Yes, Scientology has established tax-exempt status and walks like a religion, but it does not always talk like a religion. Scientologists have left comments on this blog that “many people practice Scientology and their chosen faith.” This includes Hayes, who says he is a Baptist by birth and that he considers Scientology an “applied religious philosophy.”

Perhaps the Internal Revenue Service needs to take another look at the group’s status as a religion?

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Should we ban military chaplains?

48502 mr chaplain CU031216 2762 stI want to revisit the always hot topic of free speech and military chaplains, because of a very interesting op-ed column in the Washington Post. We rarely deal with editorial page offerings here at GetReligion, but this piece anticipates where this hot story may be headed.

The column was called “What the Military Shouldn’t Preach” and it was written by Scott Poppleton, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. He is boldly asking a simple question: Are military chaplains appropriate? Are they even legal? Another question looms in the background: Is it legal to force soldiers to listen to prayers and/or evangelistic messages by clergy who are not of their own faith? Here at GetReligion, I have been asking: Is it legal to require chaplains (if they want to be promoted) to voice prayers that require them to water down, if not violate, the doctrines of the faith in which they are ordained?

According to Poppleton, it is now time to take a radical step. He believes the military services should create secular counseling services, thus removing the government from the religion business:

We are well past the point where we need to reset the baseline of individual religious freedom in our military. The first step is to provide clear-cut regulatory guidance to our commanders and chaplains requiring them to keep their religious views to themselves other than in personal settings or at church. If a solemn occasion is appropriate at a military ceremony, implement a moment of silence, as we do at every public school in our nation.

The next essential step is to reform our dedicated and government-paid chaplain corps into a nondenominational and non-religious counseling service to aid our commanders in helping everyone under their leadership. Let the counselors help with the drug, alcohol and family problems that face our forces. Give civilian clergy the right to preach and teach in the chapel. In deployed locations, provide time and space for service members to conduct services.

In other words, replace chaplains with counselors and then allow civilian clergy in a wide variety of faiths — from Baptist to Buddhist, from Catholic to Muslim — to come in and lead worship services and other activitities in which they would not be expected to compromise on issues of doctrine.

Instead of a lowest-common-denominator theism for military life, you would have a secular approach to military life backed up with a free-market system for worship.

This raises all kinds of questions, but they are questions that are already haunting military life. What happens on battlefields? On submarines with limited space? In military hospitals? Will there be no clergy in those locations at all (if local civilian clergy cannot get there on their own as Poppleton proposes)?

These are tough questions, but they are no tougher than the questions raised by the current system, in which one base may include soldiers representing a dozen or more faiths. How many chaplains can the military afford to fund for any one location so that no one is offended? Now flip that coin over. Can the military honestly expect clergy in traditional faiths to compromise on their own beliefs, in order to serve as shepherds for soldiers from a wide variety of flocks?

As I keep saying, this story is not going to go away.

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Every body is religious

05328151425 eyesA few years ago I was in Czech Republic to witness the baptism of a dear friend. We went to Kutna Hora, home to the beautiful Sv. Barbory (Saint Barbara) Cathedral, one of the most famous Gothic churches in Europe. From Jan Svankmajer’s film, I knew of an ossuary nearby that I wanted to visit. Hana repeatedly told me that I shouldn’t go, but I insisted.

She was probably right. A chapel made out of creative arrangements of the bones of 40,000 humans is, it seems, not for the weak. Finding out that it was made in the late 19th century, instead of 500 years earlier, only made it worse. It provoked in me a deeper appreciation for more private cemeteries and resting places.

I thought of this experience when reading Denver Post writer Eric Gorski’s interesting piece on an exhibition of human bodies that is touring the country. I enjoy reading Gorski because he takes the time to understand the nuances of religious issues. So many religion reporters think that they can explain complex religious issues by talking to people on opposite sides of an issue. Gorski tries to explain issues by differentiating seemingly similar views.

He looks at an exhibition in which corpses have their skin removed to show muscles and nerves. The corpses are put in bizarre positions, too, like swinging a baseball bat:

The exhibit raises questions about the existence of a creator, when life begins and the afterlife. Displaying actual cadavers — a sight usually reserved for medical students — also raises ethical and religious issues.

He talks to various religious leaders about their concerns, finding most clerics to be generally supportive. However, two of his Muslim sources disagree about whether the exhibit is okay. I found the following quote from the executive director of the Colorado Southern Baptist General Convention to be very interesting:

“The body is a beautiful miracle — a major proof of the creator,” [Mark] Edlund said. “In a cadaver there is no soul, no spirit. I see no Christian ethics involved.”

bodyworksI am sure this is the view of Southern Baptists, but I just thought it was fascinating. Think of how the spread of Christianity — with its central belief in the resurrection of the body — led to major changes in the way people dealt with the human body after death. The early Christians would have universally disapproved of such treatment of the human form. They strenuously advocated burial of the human body — contrary to many customs of the time. Obviously things have changed drastically in Christianity — with many churches supporting the cremation that early Christians worked so hard to eradicate. I am certain that some scholars or religious leaders who represent the historic Christian position could have been found, but the wide variety of belief mentioned in Gorski’s piece was interesting. I also appreciated that he found out a bit about the religious views of the exhibit’s creator:

As for the man behind it all, [Dr. Gunther] von Hagens told Colorado reporters last week he was baptized a Protestant behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany and did not see the inside of a church for 17 years.

Von Hagens describes his belief system now as largely agnostic.

Does the master anatomist believe in an afterlife? Did souls once dwell in his ballet dancer, his soccer player, his man at leisure?

“I think my brain is not constructed to answer those questions,” he said.

Too many reporters would listen to an agnostic such as von Hagens and deem his religious views unworthy of mention. But it’s important when writing about one source’s religious motivation to seek out information about everyone’s religious motivation.

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Rudy gets religion?

Giuliani speechAllow me to express a certain amount of skepticism toward the idea that if former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is talking about religion, he must be gearing up for a presidential run. Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman follows the theme set by Andrew Sullivan in The Sunday Times last month that Giuliani’s speech at the Global Pastors Network in Orlando, Fla., is a sign that he intends to run for president.

This is, in my opinion, a bit of an exaggeration and an attempt by Sullivan to drum up support for a candidate he’d prefer in 2008. Sullivan makes a big deal out of the fact that Rudy does not think the right way on many of the issues identified by Karl Rove as key ways of winning over the “oh so important” evangelical vote that was somehow decisive in the 2004 election. And somehow that makes him some sort of anti-evangelical.

Nevertheless, this is a story with some legs, so here is what Fineman had to say in this week’s Newsweek:

If you’re a Republican who wants to be president, the place to be this weekend is Memphis’s Peabody Hotel, with its parading ducks — and politicians. Unless, of course, you’re Rudy Giuliani. In that case, you skip the Southern Republican Leadership Conference even if — or, rather, especially because — it’s the unofficial launch of the GOP’s 2008 presidential cycle. Let lesser birds flock there; “America’s mayor” will be traveling on business. For a man with near-total name ID, a 9/11 hero’s aura — and, most valuable in these post-Katrina days, a reputation for administrative competence — it’s best to fly alluringly alone for now.

Let’s put Fineman’s overuse of dashes aside for now. I guess we have to accept the Southern Republican Leadership Conference as the launch of the 2008 presidential cycle, but we aren’t even through the midterms.

Most of those who attended this event with presidential aspirations considered this event a “pick-up game,” in the words of of Sen. George Allen, R-Va. “Intra-squad scrimmages” (which will come after the midterms) determine who gets to “start,” but this conference doesn’t reach that level.

GiulianiTimeSullivan was a bit blunter in promoting Giuliani’s religious and presidential credentials (even suggesting that a Giuliani-Rice ticket would give the Democrats the most nightmares — and I happen to agree on that, by the way, but it won’t happen):

An under-reported event took place at the end of last month. A leading Republican candidate went to address the evangelical Global Pastors Network in Orlando, Florida. The network is a large group, aiming to set up 5m churches worldwide in the next decade. Its leaders believe the apocalypse is coming soon and that their efforts at evangelisation might help accelerate the moment of rapture, when good Christians will be whisked to heaven to meet Jesus.

None of this is particularly noteworthy. The fastest growing theme in American evangelicalism is the pre-millennialist movement, while Left Behind, the fictional books dramatising the “end times”, are the bestselling adult series in America. What was surprising was that the Republican candidate addressing them was none other than Rudy Giuliani, the pro-choice, pro-gay, divorced Catholic former mayor of New York.

Giuliani gushed over his religious-right audience, according to an account on the evangelical website Crosswalk.com. “The principles of leadership apply universally,” he said, “whether in business, government, a sports team or a church. It is wonderful to see you improving yourselves in a way to make your ministries more effective. It is a miracle what you do.” He went on to stress his own faith in dealing with the crisis of 9/11.

Regardless of whether one thinks that these particular evangelicals are, or ever were, the lynchpin for a GOP presidential wannabes, are Giuliani’s overtures enough to overcome his views on key social issues? No one doubts his Christian faith, but Giuliani supports some of the very things that these evangelicals believe is wrong with this country, including gay marriage and a woman’s ready access to an abortion.

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Looking for demons in rural Alabama

ForestI 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.

Posted by Matt Lacey at 6:03 pm on March 11, 2006

Yes, I knew Cloyd. … 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. …

Posted by Jonathan White at 3:36 pm on March 12, 2006

I hope that GetReligion readers have been following the comments on my recent post about the students who were arrested as suspects in the wave of fires at Baptist churches in rural Alabama. There has been a lot of interesting commentary, including some posts that deserve a response. Meanwhile, the mainstream news coverage of the issue has slowed for the moment and I want to underline a few quotes from those stories, quotes that certainly created sparks in Birmingham.

First of all, I never said these fires were some kind of “mainline Protestant hate crime” in which blue-chip United Methodist commandos set out to attack fundamentalist fortresses in the region. What I said was that Birmingham-Southern College was a respected campus — very service oriented, but not doctrinaire — for the elite, progressive side of Alabama culture and that this was one reason these events were so shocking for local people. And, as is often the case, there is a kind of town-and-gown tension in the area involving the students at the elite, wealthy schools. The Los Angeles Times was right to pick up on that theme, according to my Birmingham friends, and there is a religious element to it because of the United Methodist ties (even if those have faded with time).

Second, early press reports about the fires mentioned that the arsonists drove past other churches. I mentioned, back in an early post on the topic, that I was interested in knowing more of the concrete facts about what churches were burned (wood vs. brick, for example) and which churches were not. Like I said before, journalists need to cover the crimes themselves — with every concrete fact possible.

Finally, let me also confess that, yes, I did not grow up in rural Alabama. However, I have spent thousands of hours on rural roads in the Tennessee mountains, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and East Texas. Yes, there are more Baptist churches out there at rural crossroads than there are churches of other brands. But there are more than a few independent Bible churches, Pentecostal churches and, yes, a very high number of small United Methodist churches (some dating back to circuit-riding days). I remain a skeptic that the arsonists managed to hit 10 Baptist churches in a row at random.

Now, on to the hot quotations about the suspects — Russ DeBusk, Ben Moseley and Matthew Lee Cloyd — that are lingering around this story like ghosts. It does appear that these guys were edgy, alternative students who believed that they were cut out for edgy, alternative lives in Hollywood or some venue linked to it. It does seem that they loved wild rides and alcohol. They were from families on the successful, prestigious side of the tracks. It seems that they wanted to act edgy and alternative, which in the Bible Belt can be seen as religious rebellion.

Thus, Richard Fausset of the Los Angeles Times did report:

Ian Cunningham, DeBusk’s suitemate, said Cloyd could be bothersome. “He mocked everybody; he had no tact. It seemed like he didn’t have a lot of self[-]esteem.” Something else disturbed Cunningham: DeBusk had come back from summer break talking about Satanism, and he had gotten Moseley interested as well. To DeBusk, Satanism was not a violent religion, but a peaceful means of self-actualization, Cunningham said. DeBusk had always kidded his churchgoing friends about their faith in Christianity, but Cunningham said it was a gentle sarcasm, not a bitter one.

He recalled DeBusk and Moseley having some strange weekends. “They’d show up at 7 in the morning covered in pine needles,” he recalls. “They’d just have strange little hippie rituals in the woods.”

1664430w4A similar theme showed up briefly in the Birmingham News coverage, with this note about Cloyd:

An academic standout, his true love was deer hunting. But hunting was intertwined with booze, and a rebellious anger crept into Cloyd’s personality. After he got a speeding ticket — 85 mph in a 70 zone — his Web site musings grew cryptically violent. In a posting to Moseley last summer as the two planned a road trip, he wrote, “Let us defy the very morals of society instilled upon us by our parents, our relatives and of course Jesus.”

And in USA Today, DeBusk’s roommate — one Jeremy Burgess — offered this rather strange occult reference:

“He wasn’t raised as a Christian, and he had never found any kind of religion to settle down with,” Burgess said. “He thought he’d found something that worked for him. It’s not worshipping the devil. It’s nothing ritualistic. It’s about the pursuit of knowledge. He explained to me that there can be Satanic Christians. It gave him the peacefulness and serenity of Buddhism. It was a real peaceful thing.”

Burgess said DeBusk invited him on a “demon-hunting” trip last summer.

“Nothing happened,” Burgess said. “Some friends of ours and the two of us were in the middle of the woods, playing guitar. They had some beer. There were no rituals, no weird seance. There was nothing that would lead me to believe he would burn down a church,” Burgess said. “Russ was always very respectful of my religion. We discussed it openly, the way many people discuss politics.”

So where does all of this leave us?

This is very strange stuff, but it sounds — to me — like some students who are trying to rebel and act wild. It’s hard to know what they actually believed and if those beliefs had anything to do with the hellish things that they did. Of course, traditional Christians would argue that these young men certainly were, at the very least, playing with spiritual fire and this opened the door to stupidity or worse.

Based on this sketchy information, it is also hard to say that they were committed to paganism in any meaningful way. To get feedback, I sent all these press reports to Jason Pitzl-Waters, the pagan scribe at the Wild Hunt blog. Here is part of his reply.

I would argue that there are different types of “Satanism.” “Satanic Christianity” would be those isolated groups and individuals who really perceive themselves to be Satanically driven and do stupid things like torture animals and burn churches in the service of their “dark lord” etc etc. They are making it up as they go, and are often mentally instable. This should be differentiated from the different forms of religious Satanism which range from philosophic hedonism and a libertarian ethic to the formalized worship of “outsider” and “rebel” entities like Lucifer, Prometheus, and Set. While some of the latter groups may talk a good game about being the enemy of Christianity they are usually quite harmless and content to operate within their own subcultures. …

As for why they picked only Baptist churches? Who knows? Maybe “Satan” told them to burn Baptist churches. Maybe one of them has an abusive history with someone in the Baptist church. Maybe they really are just a bunch of drunk stupid teens who subconsciously formed a pattern they didn’t even realize until after the fact. It is all tragic, no matter the motivation.

Amen. However, I would add one more thing. I do not think we know what role religion or any hatred of religion played in these events. Thus, I think it is too early for investigators — legal or journalistic — to make concrete statements that religion was not involved. I think they need to ask more questions and do some more digging.

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