Veering to the dark side: What role did religion play in Devin Patrick Kelley's fatal family feud?

Yes, this is another GetReligion post about the contents of the original Facebook page that belonged to Devin Patrick Kelley, as opposed to some of the doctored material being circulated by "fake news" conspiracy theory websites.

After my original post on the massacre at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs in Texas -- "Texas church massacre: What to do with atheism arguments on that Facebook page? -- I received several messages pointing me toward an important quote from a Texas official involved in the investigation.

Here's the quote, as it was included in a report at The Washington Post:

“This was not racially motivated, it wasn’t over religious beliefs,” Freeman Martin, a regional director with the Texas Department of Public Safety, said at a news briefing. “There was a domestic situation going on within the family and the in-laws.”

Journalists are, of course, still struggling to put the "Why?" component in the old-school news formula known as "Who," "What," "When," "Where," "Why" and "How."

It is certainly crucial information that Kelley had been sending threatening messages to his mother-in-law and that she, along with Kelley's estranged wife, had been attending worship services at the Sutherland Springs church from time to time. This kind of family feud, linked to a history of domestic violence, is a powerful and logical hook for "Why?" reporting.

However, I have been pondering several questions over the past 24 hours as new evidence emerged: First, are law officials absolutely sure that there was no religious component to the family split at the heart of Kelley's actions? He was, after all, an ex-Baptist who -- according to his Facebook page and the testimonies of friends -- had evolved into an angry and argumentative atheist.

My second question: If the goal was to seek revenge on his mother-in-law, and she was not in the service, why did he try to kill the rest of the congregation? Read this NBC News report carefully, which includes some additional remarks from Martin:

The gunman accused of the worst mass murder in Texas history was part of an intra-family feud and had "a purpose and a mission" when he unleashed hell with a Ruger assault-type rifle in a small-town Baptist church, investigators said Monday.
But Devin Patrick Kelley's mother-in-law, who authorities said may have been his potential target, wasn't at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs when he opened fire on Sunday, killing 26 people ages 18 months to 77 -- almost half of them children. ...
"I think he came here with a purpose and a mission," Freeman Martin, regional commander of the state Department of Public Safety, said at a news conference Monday evening.
Martin disclosed that at least 15 empty 30-round ammunition magazines were found at the church, along with "hundreds" of shell casings" -- more than he would ever need, Freeman said, to "take care of the mother-in-law."
"There was conflict between the families, but I can't say if it was revenge or not," Martin said. He did, however, rule out racial or religious motivations.

NPR published a report with the complete Martin soundbite:

FREEMAN MARTIN: There are many ways that he could have taken care of the mother-in-law without coming with 15 loaded magazines and an assault rifle to a church. I think he came here with a purpose and a mission.

In other words, Kelley planned ahead to kill the whole church. You could make a case that carrying out this massacre -- with his primary target not present -- prevented him from accomplishing his main goal.

Perhaps state officials have powerful information that the split in the family was purely personal and that religious differences had nothing to do with it. Perhaps, on the video of the fateful church service, there are statements by Kelley that address some of these issues.

But let me stress that I am not blaming this attack on Kelley's beliefs as an atheist. I think people on both side of this question could agree that his anger had turned into madness, of come kind.

However, I am asking if his expressed hatred for Christians (I have known lots of atheists and agnostics whose convictions didn't cause hatred of anyone) played a role in the family split that certainly appears to be the primary cause for this massacre. Also, I am hearing from other readers who are asking the same troubling question: If the mother-in-law was not there, why did he go ahead and attempt to kill every member of this Christian community, assembled there in the pews, including the children?

In terms of mainstream-media coverage of topics related to religion, it's significant that The New York Times -- in day three coverage -- has tiptoed into that minefield, in a new report with this headline: "Texas Gunman Broke Child’s Skull and Assaulted Wife in Troubled Life."

Friends from New Braunfels, Tex., where he went to high school, expressed shock in the aftermath of the shooting, remembering how Mr. Kelley was a friendly, if awkward, teenager who grew up active in his church. His senior yearbook photo shows him smiling, with untamed hair and a Hollister T-shirt. But in recent years, friends said, he grew so dark that many unfriended him on Facebook.
“I had always known there was something off about him. But he wasn’t always a ‘psychopath,’” a longtime friend, Courtney Kleiber, posted on Facebook on Sunday. “We had a lot of good times together. Over the years we all saw him change into something that he wasn’t. To be completely honest, I’m really not surprised this happened, and I don’t think anyone who knew him is very surprised either.”

The story makes it clear that there are multiple levels to this "going dark" process, as he evolved or converted from the church kid into someone else. The clashes with friends on Facebook, and Kelley's online trolling of people linked to Sutherland Springs, clearly had a religious component.

To put it bluntly: Kelley was mad as hell at Christianity. This showed up in social media.

The Times team, toward the end of the story, returns to this theme with more specific content:

The [LinkedIn] account says that after the military, Mr. Kelley briefly worked as an aide at a youth Bible school in Kingsville, Tex., “helping their minds grow and prosper.”
Friends said on Facebook that in recent years, Mr. Kelley had become vocally anti-Christian, to the point where many stopped communicating with him. His Facebook page, which has been deleted, listed that he liked a number of atheist groups.
“He was always talking about how people who believe in God were stupid and trying to preach his atheism,” one of his Facebook friends, Nina Rosa Nava, posted on the site, saying she unfriended him because of it.
Law enforcement stopped short of saying religious views may have influenced Mr. Kelley, saying Monday that the shooting may have been motivated by a “domestic situation” involving Mr. Kelley’s estranged wife and her family.

Over time, readers will find out -- hopefully without images -- information contained in the church video recording of that service and the massacre. Over time, the few survivors will describe what happened and what, if anything, Kelley said.

It will be possible to cover that information in forms more nuanced than this new headline in The Daily Mail:

'Everybody dies motherf***er!' Survivor who lived after playing dead in Texas church massacre recounts gunman's only words as he stalked the aisles firing 450 rounds and shooting crying babies at point blank range

However, with the Facebook information in play, along with the testimony of people who knew Kelley throughout his troubled life, it's clear that religion is going to be part of this story.

In addition to the Times, CNN has finally "gone there" on these hot-button topics, toward the end of a new report online:

Whether Kelley had any religious affiliation is unclear. The First Baptist Church of Kingsville, two hours south of Sutherland Springs, issued a statement saying that, while Kelley was not a member of the church, he volunteered one night during the congregation's 2014 Vacation Bible School.
Kelley had been posting a lot about "non-God beliefs, atheism, a lot of gun violence and a lot of weapons that he was into," said Christopher Leo Longoria, who attended high school with him.
About a month ago, Longoria decided to unfriend Kelley because he didn't want to see it on his Facebook feed. He added that Kelley had also been launching personal attacks against friends. After learning of the church shooting, Longoria said: "I couldn't believe it, what a monster he turned into."

Stay tuned. And please let me know if you see coverage that does a good job, or a particularly bad job, of handling these issues. Let me stress that I have zero interest in conspiracy theory material in online niche media.

FIRST IMAGE: Screen shot from CNN coverage of prayer vigil in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

 

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