May 19, 1999
Religious Faith, Columbine, and the Media
-- Jonathan Moore
We hesitate to add more to the monsoon of analysis following the school shootings in Littleton, Colorado. But faith figured significantly in the tragedy, even stirring some controversy, and the media had plenty of eyes and ears to notice. Given our mission, it seems fit to notice what they noticed.
Television programs and news magazines made much of the death of student Cassie Bernall. Reportedly she was in the library reading her Bible when the killers entered. Confronted with the sneer, "Do you believe in God?" Cassie answered, "Yes, I believe in God" and paid for it with her life. Many spoke of her as a modern-day martyr, a faithful Christian murdered for refusing to deny her faith.
In short photo captions, NEWSWEEK noted that the aforementioned Bernall "always had her Bible at school," while John Tomlin was remembered as "a devout Christian." Another news source described Rachel Scott as "a beatific presence....who had hoped to become a missionary." Religion seemed to have been an important part of these students' identity, and reporters were right to notice.
Religion also caused some trouble among the mourners at the public commemoration of the slain students. Organized in part by the governor's office and including many political officials, among them Vice President Al Gore, the service took on the appearance of state sponsorship. Some 70,000 in attendance heard music by Christian music stars Amy Grant and Michael W.Smith and listened to a variety of speakers.
Evangelist Franklin Graham (son of Billy) told the audience that only by believing in Jesus Christ would they gain salvation. Hardly a surprising message coming from Graham, but his message, along with that of another evangelical preacher on the program, left many offended in a situation they thought would be broadly ecumenical in spirit. Reverend Don Marxhausen of St. Philip Lutheran Church complained of being "hit over the head with Jesus" during the service. A local rabbi, the only non-Christian on the program, complained that the commemoration displayed a "pretty ignorant, narrow-minded streak of Christianity." Another rabbi, Steven Foster of Temple Emmanuel, complained of feeling "disenfranchised" by the Christian particularism of the service. And an African American pastor noted that "No people of color spoke or sang," resulting in a "pretty vanilla" occasion. Mainstream media attended to the particulars of this controversy, and again they were right to notice.
In the aftermath of this horrific event, as customarily happens with such a prominent event, advocates for various issues took the opportunity to use Columbine as evidence in support of this or that public position. Again, the media fared well in capturing the theological flavor of many comments. For example, Bill Davenport, a Baptist pastor in San Clemente, California, told the LOS ANGELES TIMES that the secularity of public schools contributed to the shootings. "We've taken God and prayer out of the schools, and now you have satanic worship operating behind the scenes, unobstructed," Davenport argued. "Those kids had no value for life because they haven't been taught about God."
Others agreed. Ray Moore, who as director of Exodus 2000 calls on Christians to withdraw from public schools, said that Columbine may only be the beginning. "These things...are inevitable and I predict they will continue and likely increase." Moore thinks only God can stop the trend. "What is happening is that the culture realizes we have a desperate problem, but we seem unwilling to turn to the God solution. How many more of these situations do we have to have?"
Marshall Fritz, the director of the Separation of School and State Alliance, echoed Davenport and Moore. "Children learn that eternity must not be important, because it is not being taught. If you send children to schools where they are under the care of people who believe in no eternity, then why should we be surprised when children embrace death?"
No one, of course, is surprised to find religion in the midst of tragedy, suffering, and mourning; indeed, on such occasions religion is perhaps most needed and does its best work. By and large, the mainstream media faithfully represented religion's place in the events surrounding Columbine--all of the information above can be found in self-consciously "neutral" publications and programs. By attending to the multiple and complex aspects of religion, both good and not so good, in the midst of this tragedy, the media provided a welcome sign amid a truly sad event.