Looking for demons in rural Alabama

ForestI graduated from Birmingham-Southern last year. I am completely offended by any suggestion that these students burned churches because of BSC's "liberal" label. They were just pyros -- or at least I'm told from friends on campus. Don't make this an issue of sectarian violence -- please. Posted by Matt Lacey at 6:03 pm on March 11, 2006

Yes, I knew Cloyd. ... I don't see it being a type of Baptist hatred either. Remember BSC is only affiliated with the Methodist Church because of its beginnings. Yes, the Alabama Conference Center is there, but the Methodist organization has no say in the everyday actions of the school. I'm not even sure I would say the majority of the students are Methodists. If it WAS anything having to do with Baptists and Cloyd had anything to do with it, maybe it was some type of internal conflict he has from his past, being a former Baptist churchgoer, because I know he's changed a lot since coming to BSC. He's not the same Cloyd that I hear his high schools classmates and former churchmembers say that he is. Remember, this is all speculation just having known him more recently than most people that have been interviewed by the media. I just know he's not the same scholarly, exemplary, God-fearing person that he may have used to be before I knew him. ...

Posted by Jonathan White at 3:36 pm on March 12, 2006

I hope that GetReligion readers have been following the comments on my recent post about the students who were arrested as suspects in the wave of fires at Baptist churches in rural Alabama. There has been a lot of interesting commentary, including some posts that deserve a response. Meanwhile, the mainstream news coverage of the issue has slowed for the moment and I want to underline a few quotes from those stories, quotes that certainly created sparks in Birmingham.

First of all, I never said these fires were some kind of "mainline Protestant hate crime" in which blue-chip United Methodist commandos set out to attack fundamentalist fortresses in the region. What I said was that Birmingham-Southern College was a respected campus -- very service oriented, but not doctrinaire -- for the elite, progressive side of Alabama culture and that this was one reason these events were so shocking for local people. And, as is often the case, there is a kind of town-and-gown tension in the area involving the students at the elite, wealthy schools. The Los Angeles Times was right to pick up on that theme, according to my Birmingham friends, and there is a religious element to it because of the United Methodist ties (even if those have faded with time).

Second, early press reports about the fires mentioned that the arsonists drove past other churches. I mentioned, back in an early post on the topic, that I was interested in knowing more of the concrete facts about what churches were burned (wood vs. brick, for example) and which churches were not. Like I said before, journalists need to cover the crimes themselves -- with every concrete fact possible.

Finally, let me also confess that, yes, I did not grow up in rural Alabama. However, I have spent thousands of hours on rural roads in the Tennessee mountains, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and East Texas. Yes, there are more Baptist churches out there at rural crossroads than there are churches of other brands. But there are more than a few independent Bible churches, Pentecostal churches and, yes, a very high number of small United Methodist churches (some dating back to circuit-riding days). I remain a skeptic that the arsonists managed to hit 10 Baptist churches in a row at random.

Now, on to the hot quotations about the suspects -- Russ DeBusk, Ben Moseley and Matthew Lee Cloyd -- that are lingering around this story like ghosts. It does appear that these guys were edgy, alternative students who believed that they were cut out for edgy, alternative lives in Hollywood or some venue linked to it. It does seem that they loved wild rides and alcohol. They were from families on the successful, prestigious side of the tracks. It seems that they wanted to act edgy and alternative, which in the Bible Belt can be seen as religious rebellion.

Thus, Richard Fausset of the Los Angeles Times did report:

Ian Cunningham, DeBusk's suitemate, said Cloyd could be bothersome. "He mocked everybody; he had no tact. It seemed like he didn't have a lot of self[-]esteem." Something else disturbed Cunningham: DeBusk had come back from summer break talking about Satanism, and he had gotten Moseley interested as well. To DeBusk, Satanism was not a violent religion, but a peaceful means of self-actualization, Cunningham said. DeBusk had always kidded his churchgoing friends about their faith in Christianity, but Cunningham said it was a gentle sarcasm, not a bitter one.

He recalled DeBusk and Moseley having some strange weekends. "They'd show up at 7 in the morning covered in pine needles," he recalls. "They'd just have strange little hippie rituals in the woods."

1664430w4A similar theme showed up briefly in the Birmingham News coverage, with this note about Cloyd:

An academic standout, his true love was deer hunting. But hunting was intertwined with booze, and a rebellious anger crept into Cloyd's personality. After he got a speeding ticket -- 85 mph in a 70 zone -- his Web site musings grew cryptically violent. In a posting to Moseley last summer as the two planned a road trip, he wrote, "Let us defy the very morals of society instilled upon us by our parents, our relatives and of course Jesus."

And in USA Today, DeBusk's roommate -- one Jeremy Burgess -- offered this rather strange occult reference:

"He wasn't raised as a Christian, and he had never found any kind of religion to settle down with," Burgess said. "He thought he'd found something that worked for him. It's not worshipping the devil. It's nothing ritualistic. It's about the pursuit of knowledge. He explained to me that there can be Satanic Christians. It gave him the peacefulness and serenity of Buddhism. It was a real peaceful thing."

Burgess said DeBusk invited him on a "demon-hunting" trip last summer.

"Nothing happened," Burgess said. "Some friends of ours and the two of us were in the middle of the woods, playing guitar. They had some beer. There were no rituals, no weird seance. There was nothing that would lead me to believe he would burn down a church," Burgess said. "Russ was always very respectful of my religion. We discussed it openly, the way many people discuss politics."

So where does all of this leave us?

This is very strange stuff, but it sounds -- to me -- like some students who are trying to rebel and act wild. It's hard to know what they actually believed and if those beliefs had anything to do with the hellish things that they did. Of course, traditional Christians would argue that these young men certainly were, at the very least, playing with spiritual fire and this opened the door to stupidity or worse.

Based on this sketchy information, it is also hard to say that they were committed to paganism in any meaningful way. To get feedback, I sent all these press reports to Jason Pitzl-Waters, the pagan scribe at the Wild Hunt blog. Here is part of his reply.

I would argue that there are different types of "Satanism." "Satanic Christianity" would be those isolated groups and individuals who really perceive themselves to be Satanically driven and do stupid things like torture animals and burn churches in the service of their "dark lord" etc etc. They are making it up as they go, and are often mentally instable. This should be differentiated from the different forms of religious Satanism which range from philosophic hedonism and a libertarian ethic to the formalized worship of "outsider" and "rebel" entities like Lucifer, Prometheus, and Set. While some of the latter groups may talk a good game about being the enemy of Christianity they are usually quite harmless and content to operate within their own subcultures. ...

As for why they picked only Baptist churches? Who knows? Maybe "Satan" told them to burn Baptist churches. Maybe one of them has an abusive history with someone in the Baptist church. Maybe they really are just a bunch of drunk stupid teens who subconsciously formed a pattern they didn't even realize until after the fact. It is all tragic, no matter the motivation.

Amen. However, I would add one more thing. I do not think we know what role religion or any hatred of religion played in these events. Thus, I think it is too early for investigators -- legal or journalistic -- to make concrete statements that religion was not involved. I think they need to ask more questions and do some more digging.

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