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Teflon God

Wendy Kaminer

The following Op-Ed is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 25, Number 4.

On March 12, 2005, Terry Ratzmann strode into a church service in a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, hotel and started shooting. He killed seven people, including the pastor, and injured four. Ratzmann and the people he shot were members of the Living Church of God, described in the press as a small, relatively insular, Christian sect marked by a belief in the coming apocalypse, the subordination of women, and a strict set of dietary and behavioral rules. Church members (who number about seven thousand) are expected to date and marry within the faith and are discouraged from seeking professional help for psychological problems. Ratzmann apparently had his share, but he concluded his shooting spree by killing himself, offering no explanation for his rage.

Police suggested that "the motive (had) something to do with the church and the church services." Ratzmann, who may have targeted the pastor for execution, was said to have "stormed out" of a service two weeks prior to the shooting after hearing a taped sermon that attributed bad luck to ungodly choices. "All we know is he was very upset with the church, either with the church generally or a portion of the church or sermon," local district attorney Paul Bucher remarked. "We've ruled everything else out."

Speculation about the relationship between church dogma or culture and Ratzmann's homicidal fury was aired briefly in the mainstream press along with descriptions of the Living Church of God as "cultish." The challenge that religious violence poses to simplistic equations of religion and virtue is evaded when the religion in question can be dismissed as a cult or a fringe group. You can avoid examining the potential dangers of religious belief by crediting "true" religions for virtuous behavior and blaming "false" religions for vice. Indeed, if the Living Church were on the fringe of the New Age instead of evangelical Christianity, conservative Christian commentators would likely have used Ratzmann's shooting spree as an occasion for expounding on the evils of occultism and pop spirituality. Or, if violence occurs within a respectable mainstream faith-if an apparently respectable Christian or Jew hears God ordering him to kill people-religion's defenders can blame the violence on one outre, or schizophrenic, individual. (A spokesman for the Living Church characterized Ratzmann's act as "satanic.")

God is like a Teflon president who gets all the credit for his successes and none of the blame for his failures. When a religious person invokes God to avert, not inspire, violence, an amen chorus instantly appears. Google "Terry Ratzmann," and you'll get about 19,000 hits, compared with 120,000 hits for Ashley Smith, the young woman taken hostage in Duluth, Georgia, by alleged mass murderer Brian Nichols on the same day as Ratzmann's killing spree. Smith persuaded Nichols to release her and turn himself in peacefully. She "disarmed the 6'1'', 210 lb. suspect with her faith," People magazine reported. As almost everyone must know, Smith read to him from the best-selling evangelical self-help book, A Purpose Driven Life, and talked about God's plan for him.

Religious biases aside, a young, attractive woman who deftly defuses an explosive situation by establishing an emotional bond with her assailant is a better candidate for the cover of People than a dead homicidal maniac. If Smith had talked her way out of captivity and Nichols into it without the aid of religious belief, she would still have garnered admiration and publicity. Still, the assertion that she was saved by faith and her report that Nichols had called her "an angel sent from God" made the narrative irresistible. Smith became a celebrity, as her story became an argument for religious belief. "I think God gave this young lady a supernatural empathy and compassion for someone that most anybody else would have tried to kill," H.B. London, a vice president of Ministry Outreach for Focus on the Family, observed. "Every Christian organization in the country will want to tell her story."

They might have started by telling her story to those Christians who disdained Ashley's Smith's "supernatural empathy" and like "most anybody else" clamored to kill Brian Nichols. Only a few days after Smith spoke to Nichols of God's love, Bill O'Reilly was promoting a petition to impeach Atlanta's District Attorney, Paul Howard, for not immediately declaring an intent to seek the death penalty in Nichols's case.

Does God favor or disfavor killing? Believers apparently differ.

Maybe Ratzmann thought God wanted him to shoot up his church. Maybe not. Maybe O'Reilly thinks that God wants Georgia officials to kill Brian Nichols; or maybe, unlike Ashley Smith, he thinks God is indifferent to Nichols's fate and is content to let the people of Georgia decide it. Meanwhile, Catholic bishops have started a new drive against the death penalty, which they consider unnecessary though not inherently immoral. Catholics are divided on the death penalty (a little less than half support it), but evangelical Protestants tend to favor it strongly. The public seems simply confused: majority support for the death penalty competes with even stronger majority belief that innocent people are sometimes wrongly convicted and executed, by God-fearing executioners, no doubt.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic. Her latest book is Free for ALL: Defending Liberty in America Today.

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