True crime (part 2)

True crime (part 2) February 20, 2022

Jason Morphew’s article — “My Cousin Allegedly Killed His Wife and Cast Her Vote for Trump“* — covers an important aspect of this true-crime story that most other reporting on it neglects: Barry Morphew and his missing-and-presumed-dead wife Suzanne were devout white evangelical Christians.

There was no mention of this in the 48 Hours episode CBS aired on this case. That broadcast worked so hard to cram this story into conventional true-crime tropes built around the dramatic beats of commercial breaks that it never mentioned Barry Morphew’s affairs, Suzanne’s two battles with cancer, or the most disturbing of the text messages detailing her fear of her husband and the many reasons for it.

Screengrab of the other family photo over-used in Ken-Burns-style slow pans by CBS’ “48 Hours”

I’ve only seen the Morphews’ religious life mentioned in a handful of tabloid items reacting to Barry’s appalling comments after investigators told him of his wife’s affair:

“I’ve had a very hard time understanding why God did this,” he continued, according to the affidavit. “But if I would have known this from the beginning, I wouldn’t had to suffer for nine months, not knowing why God did what he did. I’m not saying he did it to punish Suzanne because of her affair, but it makes more sense than what I knew before you guys came today.”

That’s a very white evangelical perspective on providence.** Even more white evangelical is Barry’s confidence that God would punish a wife for an affair, but not a husband who was doing the same thing (him).

Where most reporting on this story completely ignores the Morphews’ faith, Jason Morphew is convinced that you can’t understand these people, or what they did, without appreciating the role of that faith in their lives. Both he and his cousin grew up deeply entrenched in white evangelical Christianity, the church-centered world of twice-on-Sundays and Wednesday-night prayer meetings, and of graduating from youth groups to Men’s Bible Studies. Jason left that world; his cousin did not:

I met Suzanne Morphew in 2012, at a family reunion in Indiana. None of the extended Morphews had been able to attend my California wedding in 2009, and since my wife Lauren was pregnant with our first child, I thought it was a good time to introduce her to the clan. … Barry invited Lauren and me to follow him in his Porsche Cayenne to his impressively large compound nearby.

My abiding admiration for Barry prevented me from anticipating what followed. After showing us around his spread, Barry, Suzanne, Lauren, and I sat in Barry’s living room, chatting. Suzanne was kind and warm. Then, as Lauren and I started to say our goodbyes, Barry turned to his wife and said, “Would you share your testimony?”

Suzanne’s expression was that of a child ordered by her father to perform a daunting task. She pulled up her ottoman and dutifully recounted the story of her struggle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, of her doctor telling her that she could not have another child, and of the remission and “miracle baby” that followed—all of it flowing from Suzanne’s unwavering faith in Christ.

Though Lauren and I were greatly moved by Suzanne’s story, its command-performance quality put us on guard. Because of my evangelical training, I knew what was coming next. Barry thanked Suzanne for telling her story, then looked at me and said, “Jason, do you believe in God?”

Jason believes that his prosperous cousin’s prosperity-gospel beliefs became his way of justifying his actions — of justifying any actions — to ensure him the divine blessings it assured him he was entitled to. He notes Barry’s comment to a local TV reporter — “Suzanne trusted the Lord, and if one person got saved from this, she would think it was worth it” — and sees it as a chilling indicator of the faith-based calculus his cousin may have used to rationalize murder:

Barry articulated a truth about evangelical Christianity that he was uniquely situated to discover: Absolutely anything that brings a soul to Jesus is justified, including uxoricide. God’s sending his son Jesus to earth to pay for every sin—including Suzanne’s murder, which would have been on Jesus’ mind while dangling from the cross—renders murder meaningless compared to its potential to confer upon a non-believer eternal happiness.

If that reading of Barry’s quote seems heartless, I encourage you to correct it from an evangelical theological perspective. Saving souls is all. As one of Barry’s last texts to Suzanne attests, eternity in heaven mocks the comparative nanosecond of earthly existence.

If Barry killed Suzanne—a human woman on earth, who seems to have sought happiness here and now—I suspect he would have done it because he thought she was losing sight of heaven, losing sight of God, losing sight of death. If he dismembered and buried, burned, or drowned her body, I believe he would have done it because “the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church.” If he did it, he seems to have subsequently tried to justify or at least explain it with his faith.

Again, Jason Morphew tells us that he is very much an ex-evangelical — that he feels traumatized by the religious instruction of his childhood and that he now wholly rejects and resents it. You may feel that’s grounds for skepticism of his hostile religious analysis here. Fine. Let’s stipulate that Jason Morphew’s sense of the role played by his cousin’s faith is distorted by his own anger and hurt.

We’re still left with a couple whose devout white evangelical faith seems to have done nothing except to reinforce their grasping consumerism and to rationalize their infidelities as mysterious expressions of God’s Will For Their Lives.

I suspect that Jason Morphew is correct that his cousin is now using the language and constructs of his faith to try to “justify or at least explain” his actions. I don’t think Barry Morphew’s white evangelical faith, church attendance, and discipling caused him to become an emotionally abusive husband turned murderer. I suspect that he’s just a narcissistic bully and would have been much the same person he is now even if he’d never set foot in an evangelical church.

And that, in itself, seems plenty damning for every white evangelical church, Men’s Bible Study, book, radio show, or concert that had a hand in discipling him.

I’d want to argue further here, to suggest that Barry Morphew’s bullying and narcissism was likely what drew him to the patriarchal white evangelicalism he chose as the core of his religious identity. I think he recognized a kind of affinity there that welcomed his own predisposition.

But again, you don’t have to agree with me there. What you can’t deny, however, is that nothing in any of the worship, prayers, songs, or sermons Barry Morphew learned in his white evangelical churches prevented him from loading all of those trash bags into the back of his pickup truck and then tossing them all, one by one, in dumpster after dumpster 150 miles from his home.

That is his testimony.

* Jason Morphew writes: “In May 2021, Barry was arrested for allegedly murdering Suzanne. Soon after, I learned that Barry had also been charged with casting his missing wife’s mail-in ballot in the 2020 presidential election for Trump. According to an arrest affidavit, he has admitted to voting illegally, even as he has steadfastly denied murdering his wife.”

Barry Morphew’s admitted electoral fraud had no effect on the outcome of the 2020 elections, as Joe Biden carried the state of Colorado 55.4% to 41.9%, with nearly 500,000 more votes than Donald Trump. In the alternate universe of Fox News, Facebook, and Christian radio, however, what this means is that Barry Morphew’s confession constitutes proof of electoral fraud in Colorado, and that therefore Colorado’s electoral votes should be discounted and Trump declared the winner of the election, reinstated as God’s chosen Cyrus who will lead white folks out of exile.

I’m pretty sure Barry Morphew also used his murdered wife’s mail-in ballot to cast an illegal additional vote in favor of Colorado Proposition 115, a measure that would have criminalized abortion after 22 weeks, but that measure also failed to pass because not enough good, godly pro-life men like Barry killed their wives to double-vote for it.

** Some will object that this is unfair, describing a popular understanding of God’s micromanaging sovereignty that is explicitly rejected by most stolidly evangelical academic theologians and attributing it to white evangelicalism as a whole.

So, OK, yes, there are plenty of Eerdman’s and Baker Academic books written by respected evangelicals that do, indeed, reject this selective view of God’s selective intervention. But it’s still a popular view, and probably the popular view, of most white evangelicals. And the fact that it’s rejected and critiqued by a handful of faculty lounge evangelicals read only by one another does not change the fact that it is explicitly endorsed and taught and required from the pulpits of thousands of churches and megachurches, reinforced on thousands of “Christian radio” stations, and it is emphatically believed by the overwhelming majority — 81% or more — of white evangelicals themselves.

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