Teenage Activism and Conservative Hypocrisy

Teens across the country held school walk-outs in a nationwide demonstration against gun violence on March 14th. Many conservatives responded by arguing that teens should not be held up as standards of moral virtue, or that these teens were brainwashed, or unwitting pawns of the “liberal agenda.” This left me thinking—and remembering.

I grew up in a conservative evangelical home. As a child, my parents took me to rallies against marriage equality, to anti-abortion events, and so forth. But they didn’t just take me. They also pushed me forward toward the microphone. I was put forward to tell reporters what I thought of same-sex marriage, and so forth. My youth was treated not as a liability but as an asset. Out of the mouth of babes, and all that.

There are other things to remember, too. In the wake of Columbine, evangelicals rushed to declare slain student Cassie Bernall a martyr.

Shortly after the massacre, one survivor reported that one of the shooters had asked Bernall whether she believed in God, and that he shot and killed her when she said “yes.” Later reports from other survivors closer to Cassie revealed that some of the details had become confused—a different girl had been asked whether she believed in God after she began to cry “oh God” when she was shot. She did say “yes,” but was not shot again and subsequently survived the shooting. Cassie had not been given a chance to say anything when she was killed.

But the myth about Bernall had spread too far to be stopped. Her parents wanted to believe it. Her church wanted to believe it. Bernall’s martyrdom became a fact in the evangelical canon, and Cassie Bernall, in death, became an evangelical cause celebre.

A biography of her life was soon published. Songs were written about her.

The music video for Christian music artist Michael W. Smith’s song about Bernall, This Is Your Time, included footage of a girl who looked like Bernall running across fields, beaches, and deserts, her blond hair streaming. Bernall was celebrated as a hero in death, and a coming spiritual revival was proclaimed. It was a heady time to be an evangelical teen.

When Columbine survivor Stephen Cohen was asked to write a few words for the Parkland teens, this is what he had to say:

I hope that what the Parkland kids are talking about and what they are advocating for is really, truly what they believe — and it seems to me that they are. But if this is something that’s coming from the adults around them, tell the adults to fuck off. They should make sure they’re not being steered by anybody.

In the tradition I grew up in, there was a strong presence there of a conservative, evangelical bent. People thought Columbine was going to be the start of some kind of revival in the country. Of course they believed that, right? They had just seen their kids get murdered. How do you square that?

There’s a song that my brother and I performed at the memorial service, called “Friend of Mine.” It became an anthem of healing and community, but also it’s a deeply religious song. In the months after the shooting, my brother and I were flown around the country to go appear at different festivals. We went in front of a congressional delegation in DC at the Capitol. Then people would make donations that went to Columbine victims. We were this weird Christian rock star hybrid tragedy survivor thing for a summer, which will fuck with you.

Looking back on it now, that was a really weird time. I’m happy that we were able to raise money for the people who were injured, but I also feel deeply troubled about the fact that we were put in this very strange spotlight afterward.

Here’s the song Cohen referenced, sung by Cohen and his brother:

You can see the song’s lyrics here:

Columbine, flower blue, tenderly I sing to you.
Columbine, rose blood red, heartbreak overflows my head.
Columbine, flower blue, Columbine there’s hope for you.
Columbine, friend of mine.

Turn our pain to your gain,
Keep our hearts on the mark
Comfort us with your love again

Comfort, Peace and sweet release,
Must come from you,
Where it’s true, I hide myself in you.

Columbine, friend of mine.
Peace will come to you in time,
Columbine, friend of mine.

Columbine, flower blue, tenderly I sing to you.
Columbine, rose blood red, heartbreak overflows my head.
Columbine, friend of mine.
Peace will come to you in time.
Columbine, friend of mine.

In 1999, evangelicals used the Columbine teens and their tragedy to bolster their calls for revival. They held the survivors up as exemplars and role models, and thrust them into the limelight—armed with Christian lyrics a narrative of nationwide repentance and healing through tragedy, of course.

Indeed, Bernall was not the only Columbine victim portrayed by the evangelical community as a martyr. As Vox reports:

A similar aura sprung up around Rachel Joy Scott, another Columbine victim. Scott was an outspoken Christian who planned to become either an actress or a missionary upon her graduation, before her life was cut short. She was the first victim of the shooting, and, as with Bernall, Harris reportedly asked her if she believed in God before he killed her.

Scott’s mother, Beth Nimmo, said in interviews that Rachel had offered friendship to Klebold, who had become privately infatuated with her. Nimmo also said that both Harris and Klebold had “mocked [Rachel] and made fun of her because of her Christian values. She was on their target list.” (Later reporting on Columbine, including Dave Cullen’s definitive book on the event, disputed the idea that Harris and Klebold targeted anyone specifically during their killing spree, since their larger plan was to set off bombs and kill indiscriminately.)

Scott’s journals were published by Nimmo, and both parents co-authored their daughter’s biography. Scott had written in her journals, “I am not going to apologize for speaking the name of Jesus. … If I have to sacrifice everything … I will.” Rachel’s father, Darrell Scott, drew on a theme from his daughter’s journals to write a book called Chain Reaction: A Call to a Compassionate Revolution, and in 2008 he published a book called Rachel Smiles: The Spiritual Legacy of Columbine Martyr Rachel Scott, which included new excerpts from her journals and photographs.

In the wake of Columbine, evangelicals were not afraid to valorize youth or use the tragedy to promote specific causes. Perhaps the biggest difference in the response and uses of Columbine and Parkland, beside the different causes the memory of each soon lent itself to, was who was telling the stories. After Columbine, the parents of individuals like Bernall and Scott received a spotlight, and it was they who shaped and told their children’s stories. After Parkland, it is teenage survivors who have grabbed the microphone, shaping and telling their own stories.

This is not to say that the post-Columbine conversation did not involve youth. There were the Cohen brothers’ performances. But like Parkland, the impact Columbine had on teens was far wider—and in many ways, it was just as different as it was wide.

As Vox reports:

Books and songs about Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott circulated widely — especially among teenagers in suburban churches, as I and many others can personally attest. They prompted not just teenage soul searching but also that other teenage phenomenon: aspiration. Rosin described a “kind of teenage hysteria, a Christian-sanctified death wish” that the Columbine martyrdom mythology had inspired.

A teenager named Tina Leonard, Rosin reported, told a Southern Baptist news service that “God has laid it on my heart that I’m going to be martyred. When I told one of my friends, he said, ‘That’s awesome. I wish it could happen to me.’”

 

In the wake of Parkland and the ensuing teen gun violence protest, then, it’s not valorizing youth that conservatives have a problem with. It’s not youth activism. Conservatives don’t have a problem with using tragedies like school shootings to push a larger agenda. They don’t have a problem lifting youth up as paragons of wisdom. They’ve done as much and more themselves, and in the wake of very similar tragedies.

It’s the message that conservatives have a problem with.

As for claims that the Parkland teens are being manipulated and used to push someone else’s agenda, there may be some unstated self-awareness in play. As best as I can tell, it was by and large evangelical adults who used the teens at Columbine to push a message, and not the teens themselves who drove it. It is possible that evangelicals and other conservatives cannot imagine it any other way. They have used teens to push their agenda. From this perspective, they look at the Parkland teens and assume that someone, in the same way, must be using them.

I think I’ll finish with Cohen’s words, as he reflected on his own experience after Columbine and ruminated on the Parkland survivors’ activism:

I hope that what the Parkland kids are talking about and what they are advocating for is really, truly what they believe — and it seems to me that they are. But if this is something that’s coming from the adults around them, tell the adults to fuck off. They should make sure they’re not being steered by anybody.

I’ll second that.

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