Conservatives shamelessly use Charleston shooting to claim religious persecution

On Wednesday night, Dylann Storm Roof reportedly attended Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, sat with congregants for over an hour, and then opened fire, killing nine people. Emmanuel is one of the oldest historically black churches in South Carolina, and the shooting took place on the 193rd anniversary of an aborted slave uprising by the church’s founder, Denmark Vesey.

Dylan Storm Roof wearing the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia.

Dylan Storm Roof wearing the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia.

Roof traveled over 100 miles from his home in Lexington, South Carolina in order to target Emmanuel Church specifically. Roof’s Facebook photos showed him sporting and taking pictures with white supremacist flags, ranging from the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy all the way to the apartheid-era flags of South Africa and Rhodesia. The suspect’s former roommate was quoted by CBS as saying that Roof had been “planning something like that for six months,” and “said he wanted to start a civil war.” Roof reportedly told his victims, who were all black, that “you rape our women and are taking over our country.”

This was not a random, senseless act of violence. This was a planned, thought-out terror attack. It fits every one of our criteria for terrorism: Violence committed by a non-state actor with a clear political motive — in this case white supremacy. So, of course, mainstream conservatives — some of whom have a non-zero probability of being our next president — took to the airwaves to remind everyone that, despite the shooter’s clearly-stated motives, the attack really isn’t about race.

It’s actually an attack on Christianity.

Lindsey Graham, in an appearance on The View, took the position that, the Charleston shooting “probably” constitutes a hate crime, but it was a hate crime against Christians, not against African-Americans.

That’s right: “It’s 2015. There are people out there, looking for Christians to kill them.”

Setting aside for the moment that that simply isn’t true — there really isn’t any critical mass of people out there “looking for Christians to kill them” — there are organized groups of people out there who are looking for black people to kill. That’s especially true in South Carolina, which is one of only five states without hate crimes legislation and which sports one of the highest per-capita concentrations of white supremacist groups in the country.

Lindsey Graham, screenshot via YouTube

Lindsey Graham, screenshot via YouTube

What’s more, white nationalism and its violent associations are inextricably linked to Christianity itself. If you don’t believe me, ask a white nationalist. There’s a reason the KKK burns crosses and why those within the movement talk about a “re-Christianization” of the West, so let’s not pretend that Christians are the real victims when a black congregation is attacked; Christians are the aggressors.

It’s also rather facetious, to say the least, for Graham to assert that the attack “is not a window into the soul of South Carolina” or the rest of the country when conservatives, especially in the South, have been preaching that they need to “take our country back” from “welfare queens” and “thugs” for decades. Dylann Roof’s attack was a political statement as much as it was a racial one, telling his victims that he was doing what he was doing for the good of the nation, and it cannot be completely separated from rhetoric and policies that telegraph the idea to white people that their brown neighbors are stealing their money, their jobs and their votes.

Not to be outdone by Graham, Fox and Friends used an entire segment to downplay race and up-play religion’s role in the shooting, bringing in noted black Republican E.W. Jackson — the guy who has called gays pedophiles and Democrats worse than the KKK — to tell Fox’s pearly white viewers that we just can’t say for sure whether race was a factor in the shooting. But we can be sure that Christians are under attack in this country:

Said Jackson:

We’re urging people: Wait for the facts, don’t jump to conclusions. But I have to tell you: I’m deeply concerned that this gunman chose to go into a church. Because there does seem to be a rising hostility against Christians across this country because of our Biblical views. It’s something we have to be aware of, and not create an atmosphere in which people take out their violent intentions against Christians.

That’s right, definitely don’t jump to conclusions, but definitely do conclude that this attack was faith-based. Jackson used the assertion that Christians are under attack as an excuse to call for arming pastors in order to protect their congregations, presumably against militant secularists who are hunting Christians like him down. Like Lindsey Graham said, it is 2015, after all.

Following Jackson’s shameless plug for the NRA, Jackson and host Steve Doocy turned their focus to turning everyone’s focus away from race:

Doocy: …extraordinarily [the media] called it a hate crime. Some look at it as, ‘well, it was because a white guy — apparently — in a black church.’ But you made a great point just a moment ago about the hostility toward Christians — AND IT WAS A CHURCH — so maybe that’s what they’re talking about. They haven’t explained it to us.

Jackson: Most people jump to conclusions about race. I long for the day when we stop doing that in our country. But we don’t know why he went into a church. But he didn’t choose a bar. He didn’t choose a basketball court. He chose a church, and we need to be looking at that very closely.

Given what we know about Dylann Roof, all signs point to him choosing a church — and Emmanuel Church in particular — because he knew he could find the most innocent, peaceful and unarmed victims that he could kill with the most ease, shock and symbolism. If you’re looking to start a race war, you don’t kill people who society has already otherized; you kill people whose deaths you think will generate the most outrage.

But sure, let’s ignore everything we know about the suspect and say the word “church” as many times as we can.

To claim that the Charleston shooting was anything other than an act of race-based terror is to be wrong. It’s that simple.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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