October 2019 Church & State Magazine | Featured

When Patrick Crusius went on a shooting spree in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people on Aug. 3, he left little doubt about his motive. A rambling manifesto the 21-year-old left behind condemned the “Hispanic invasion” of Texas and promoted racist ideas. Police believe Crusius drove from his home near Dallas to the border city in the hopes of murdering as many Latinos as he could.

Racial hatred would clearly seem to be behind that appalling mass shooting. But Republican Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had a different spin on things, blaming separation of religion and government, and specifically the lack of mandatory prayer in public schools, for the tragedy.

“I look at, on Sunday morning, when most of your viewers right now, half of the country, are getting ready to go to church, and yet tomorrow, we won’t let our kids even pray in our schools,” Patrick told Fox News during an Aug. 4 interview.

When his comments were criticized, Patrick doubled down: “In terms of prayer in our public schools, we do have a minute of silence for students to do what they wish, but there was a time when students prayed together out loud and students and schools weren’t sued or banned from praying at pep rallies and graduations.”

Patrick wasn’t the only one blaming church-state separation for the horrific events in El Paso and another mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, that occurred the next day. Commenting on the El Paso shooting, former Arkansas governor and failed Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee told Fox, “[L]et’s be real clear. The common denominator in all of this is not the particular weapon. It’s the hate inside the heart. It’s the loss of morality. It’s that disconnecting from a God who values all people and who would never let me do that to another person because I would be basically doing it to God and to myself. ... [W]e’ve got a lot of our country that are utterly disconnected from any sense of identity with their Creator and with his love for them and his love for the people that they hate.”

Lesser-known figures also jumped on the “blame separation” bandwagon. Ohio state Rep. Candice Kel­ler, a Republican from Butler County,  about 30 miles south of Dayton, issued a Facebook post blaming the incidents on, among other things, “the breakdown of the traditional American family (thank you, transgender, homosexual marriage, and drag queen advocates),” professional athletes who fail to stand for the National Anthem, former President Barack Obama and “the culture, which totally ignores the importance of God and the church.”

Christian nationalists’ tendency to blame enforcement of separation of religion and government in the face of mass shootings and national tragedies is nothing new. Would-be theocrats have been playing that card for decades – and their spiritual ancestors did it hundreds of years ago.

In the curious theology of many fundamentalist Christians, God apparently gets so upset over the lack of compulsory, government-sponsored prayer in public schools and other institutions that he occasionally lashes out with horrifying mass shootings, acts of terrorism, natural disasters, wars and other plagues.

In the curious theology of many fundamentalist Christians, God apparently gets so upset over the lack of compulsory, government-sponsored prayer in public schools and other institutions that he occasionally lashes out with horrifying mass shootings, acts of terrorism, natural disasters, wars and other plagues.

Such claims of a vengeful deity who demands public prayer and government recognition have been around since the founding. In 1793, just two years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the Rev. John M. Mason of New York attacked the secular nature of the U.S. government in a sermon. Mason was livid that the Constitution and its recently minted new amendments contained no references to Jesus Christ or God.

Mason called this “an omission which no pretext whatever can palliate” and predicted divine retribution. God, he said, would “overturn from its foundations the fabric we have been rearing and crush us to atoms in the wreck.”

Decades later, during the Civil War, M. R. Watkinson, a Pennsylvania minister, became convinced that the bloody conflict was God’s punishment of America for not declaring reliance on him in the Constitution. He wrote to officials in Washington, D.C., to suggest adding the phrase “God Is Our Trust” on coins as a way to make amends with the Almighty. The phrase, altered to “In God We Trust,” was approved for use on a three-cent coin by Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase shortly afterward.

Similar claims of an angry God eager for government endorsement continued into the modern era. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down compulsory school prayer and Bible reading in 1962 and ’63, some conservative Christian leaders were apoplectic. A Catholic cardinal, New York City Archbishop Francis Spellman, predicted that the decision would lead the nation to fall to communism.

The rise of the Religious Right as a political force in the 1980s led to a new round of demands for a school prayer amendment. Many of the movement’s leaders argued that the lack of formal prayer in public schools had spawned negative consequences. Whenever anything bad happened in a public school or in the larger society, it was immediately blamed on the lack of required prayer.

This argument reached a ridiculous apex in 1988 when David Barton, a Texas man who earned a degree in religious education from the evangelical Christian Oral Roberts University, self-published a book titled America: To Pray Or Not To Pray? In that tome, Barton, who obviously doesn’t understand that correlation is not causation, attributes every negative thing that has happened since 1962 to the high court’s school prayer rulings.

David Barton

PHOTO: David Barton. CREDIT: Gage Skidmore

According to Barton, random factors such as the divorce rate, the incidence of sexually transmitted disease and a rise in the consumption of alcohol per capita can be blamed on the school prayer decisions. Barton, who claims that God instructed him to do the research in the book, also overlooked the fact that public school students may pray voluntarily and many do so. (The Supreme Court struck down only mandatory, school-sponsored prayer.)

Barton’s book rests on a common logical fallacy called post hoc, ergo propter hoc, Latin for “after this, therefore because of this.” It’s the belief that if two events occur in sequence, the first must have caused the second. In fact, two things can occur in rapid succession and be totally unrelated. A rooster may crow just before the sun comes up, but his crowing didn’t cause the sunrise.

Despite Barton’s absurd claims (or perhaps, regrettably, precisely because of them), he became a popular speaker on the right-wing lecture circuit and went on to launch a business peddling “Christian nation” books, tapes and DVDs to fundamentalist Christians.

Barton was certainly not the first person to link the school prayer rulings to negative trends, but he greatly popularized the idea, and soon other Christian nationalist figures were running with it.

Violence in public schools was routinely blamed on either the lack of formal prayer in schools, the teaching of evolution or both.

In April 1999, two students went on a shooting spree in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killing 13 and wounding 20. Two months later, then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) appeared at a Washington, D.C., rally and blamed the shootings on the absence of school-sponsored prayer.

“I got an e-mail this morning that said it all,” DeLay said. “The student writes, ‘Dear God: Why didn’t you stop the shootings at Columbine?’ And God writes, ‘Dear student: I would have, but I wasn’t allowed in school.’”

Not long after that, while speaking on the House floor, DeLay expanded the list of suspects to include the teaching of evolution, legal abortion and “liberal relativism that has hollowed out the souls of too many in our society.”

In response to Columbine, the Republican-led House didn’t take up any gun control proposals but did pass a measure to encourage the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools.

TV preacher Pat Robertson adopted similar rhetoric. The day after the Columbine shootings, a livid Robertson appeared on his “700 Club” program and thundered, “[W]hen the Supreme Court of the United States of America insulted Almighty God and said our Constitution wouldn’t permit children to pray in the schools, and when we lifted the religious restraints off of our society in that fashion and suddenly the worship of God became unconstitutional, and the thought that we would have an even hand between atheism and theism in society – it has begun a spiral that hasn’t stopped yet.”

Continued Robertson, “You say, why are kids killing themselves, and why are they killing each other? Well, you just look back about 30-some years and you find, in my opinion, the principal reason.”

Two years later, in the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Robertson and fellow televangelist Jerry Falwell seemed uninterested in holding responsible terrorist leader Osama bin Laden or the al-Qaida terrorists who perpetrated it. The TV preachers again blamed separation of religion and government.

In the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, TV preacher Pat Robertson and fellow televangelist Jerry Falwell seemed uninterested in holding responsible terrorist leader Osama bin Laden or the al-Qaida terrorists who perpetrated it. The TV preachers again blamed separation of religion and government.

Speaking on the “700 Club” on Sept. 13, 2001, Falwell told Robertson, “What we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be minuscule if, in fact, if in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.”

He went on to blame church-state separation groups for “throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools.”

Agreeing, Robertson responded, “Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government. And so we’re responsible as a free society for what the top people do. And, the top people, of course, is the court system.”

Earlier in the program, Robertson had charged, “We have a court that has essentially stuck its finger in God’s eye and said, ‘We’re going to legislate you out of the schools. We’re going to take your commandments from off the courthouse steps in various states. We’re not going to let little children read the commandments of God. We’re not going to let the Bible be read, no prayer in our schools.’ We have insulted God at the highest levels of our government. And then we say, ‘Why does this happen?’ Well, why it’s happening is that God Almighty is lifting his protection from us.”

The reaction was swift – and uniformly negative.  Newspaper editorialists nationwide condemned the duo, and the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, at the time Americans United’s executive director, issued a statement reading, “Thousands of innocent men, women and children died in these attacks. It was not their fault. It was not the Supreme Court’s fault. It was not the fault of civil liberties groups, gay people or Pagans. The fault rests with the terrorists who devised, planned and carried out this vile deed.

“Over the years,” continued Lynn, “Robertson and Falwell have blamed church-state separation for just about every imaginable ill. This time they have gone too far. I call on all Americans to reject their divisive comments and to continue to nurture the spirit of unity that we have seen in recent days.”

Nevertheless, Falwell and Robertson both initially refused to back down. Both issued “clarifying” statements but no apologies. Falwell told The Washington Post the terrorists were to blame for the attacks but added that America’s “secular and anti-Christian environment left us open to our Lord’s [decision] not to protect. When a nation deserts God and expels God from the culture … the result is not good.”

As pressure on the televangelists continued to mount, Robertson threw Falwell under the bus, calling his statements, which during the original broadcast Robertson said he completely agreed with, “harsh.” For his part, Falwell appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Sept. 20 and finally apologized.

The incident was a mere bump in the road, and Robertson was soon back to his old tricks. On November 10, 2005, he attacked the residents of Dover, Pa., who voted to remove a pro-creationism school board during an election.

“I’d like to say to the good citizens of Dover, if there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God,” a grim-faced Robertson growled. “You just rejected him from your city.”

The offensive comments by Christian nationalist extremists continued to pile up, often coming in the wake of mass shootings. On July 20, 2012, James E. Holmes invaded a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and began shooting. Twelve people were killed, and at least 70 were injured.

That same day, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) took to the radio to blame the slaughter on lack of official school prayer.

Asserted Gohmert, “When people say, ‘Where was God in all of this?’... In fact, we’ve threatened high school graduation participants that if they use God’s name that they’re going to be jailed … I mean that kind of stuff. Where is God? Where, where? What have we done with God? We told him that we don’t want him around. I kind of like his protective hand being present.”

At the same time, conservative mega-church pastor Rick Warren tweeted, “When students are taught they are no different from animals, they act like it.” (There was a backlash, and Warren later deleted it.)

Jerry Newcombe of Truth in Action Ministries, writing in a column distributed by the American Family Association (AFA), shifted the blame from Holmes to advocates of church-state separation.

“I can’t help but feel that to some extent, we’re reaping what we’ve been sowing as a society,” Newcombe wrote. “We said to God, ‘Get out of the public arena.’ Lawsuit after lawsuit, often by misguided ‘civil libertarians,’ have chased away any fear of God in the land – at least in the hearts of millions.”

Newcombe asserted that people wouldn’t commit horrific crimes “if they truly understood the reality of Hell.”

In one of the most terrifying acts of carnage, Adam Lanza forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012, and used an assault rifle to murder 26 people, 20 of them children.

Huckabee was quick to blame the lack of formal school prayer.

“We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools,” Huckabee said during an appearance on the Fox News Channel. “Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”

Mike Huckabee

PHOTO: Mike Huckabee. CREDIT: Screenshot from Fox News

He added, “We’ve made [school] a place where we don’t want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability – that we’re not just going to have to be accountable to the police if they catch us, but one day we stand before, you know, a holy God in judgment. If we don’t believe that, then we don’t fear that.”

Not to be left out, Bryan Fischer, a radio talk show host and columnist with the AFA, chimed in: “[W]e have spent 50 years telling God to get lost, telling God, we do not want you in our schools, we don’t want to pray to you in our schools, we don’t want to pray to you before football games, we don’t want to pray to you at graduation, we don’t want anyone talking about you in a graduation speech. We’ve kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve gotta invite me back into your world first. I’m not gonna go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentleman.’”

Gary DeMar, a far-right theocrat, pinned the blame not on Lanza but on the teaching of evolution.

“The problem is, our current culture – through the educational system – is telling young people that they are animals, in some cases, less than animals,” DeMar said. “So genetically we are no different (really) from a worm, a bug, or a dandelion. If taught long enough, there will be some people who will begin to believe it and act accordingly with no regard for what we regard as a moral worldview.”

Comments like this usually meet with a lot of scorn, but don’t expect them to stop any time soon. As recent events demonstrate, they are alive and well, and Christian nationalist groups have no intention of dropping this argument, no matter how offensive it may be.

On Aug. 30, Seth Ator went on a shooting rampage near Odessa, Texas, killing seven people and injuring at least 25. The following day, Fox News invited Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council (FRC), on the air to discuss the issue.

Perkins blamed the incident on Charles Darwin.

“At some point, we have to realize that we, as a nation, we have a problem. And the problem is not the absence of laws, it’s an absence of morality,” Perkins said. “Really, the result of the decades-long march through the institutions of America, driving religion and God from the public square. … I mean, look. We’ve taught our kids they come about through chance through primordial slime, and then we’re surprised that they treat their fellow Americans like dirt!”

Americans United replied in a succinctly worded tweet, noting that Perkins and FRC “are using a tragic event to further their political agenda, claiming that forcing prayer in schools will solve our nation’s epidemic of gun violence.”

Given the Christian nationalists’ crass track record in this area, it likely won’t be the last time that happens.