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Why the Right Is Obsessed With the Sutherland Springs Shooter’s Atheism

It’s a way to cast blame on the godless left, yes. But it also shows the extent to which guns have become a kind of civil religion.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Devin Kelley, who on Sunday killed 26 people in a mass shooting at a small church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, may be an atheist. For some of the most influential media outlets on the right, his rumored atheism is a more salient data point than the fact that he had shown a demonstrated pattern of violence, including allegedly abusing animals, attacking his wife, and cracking his baby stepson’s skull. “Texas church shooter was a militant atheist,” said The New York Post. “Report: Texas church shooter was atheist, thought Christians ‘stupid,’” said Breitbart. “Killer ‘Preached Atheism,” a Drudge headline blared. Kelley’s atheism has been presented as a possible motive even in mainstream outlets like The New York Times.

For conservatives unwilling to blame the widespread availability of deadly weapons for this latest massacre, atheism may seem like a convenient scapegoat. But it goes deeper than that. In The Washington Post, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention avoided the subject of Kelley’s atheism but linked the shooting—sans any firm evidence—to the persecution of the global Christian church. “The goal the gunman sought, to terrorize worshipers, has been attempted constantly over the centuries around the world by cold, rational governments and terrorist groups—all thinking that they could, by the trauma of violence, snuff out churches, or at least intimidate those churches into hiding from one another,” he wrote.

Never mind that authorities have suggested Kelley targeted his mother-in-law, who had attended the church, as part of an ongoing domestic dispute, which in turn links Kelley to other mass murderers of recent vintage, many of whom share a predilection for domestic violence. Moore seems to believe the shooter targeted Christianity itself, a doubly strange position when you consider that white Evangelicals are strong gun supporters. We are seeing how far right-wing Christian conservatives will go to protect gun culture: The nation’s god-fearing do not only sacrifice the children of Sandy Hook, but themselves, too.

In 2012, the same year Adam Lanza murdered 20 kindergarteners along with six of their adult caretakers, 58 percent of white Evangelicals reported owning guns and only 35 percent supported stricter gun control laws. This, despite the fact that churches have been targeted by gunmen with some frequency. Kelley’s mass murder is the deadliest of its kind, but it is hardly the first. Emanuel Samson shot eight people, killing one, at Burnette Chapel in Tennessee in September; Woodrow Karey murdered his pastor in Louisiana in 2013; and Jim Adkisson opened fire on the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in 2008. In 2015, Dylann Roof shot and killed nine Christians at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Mass shooters have murdered pious Christians in other, less sacred contexts, all while conservative Christians and their representatives in Congress look at their feet and shrug.

The shooters have, in some cases, been Christians themselves: The Daily Beast says Colorado Walmart shooter Scott Ostrem “lived alone in an apartment with a stack of Bibles and virtually no furniture.” Pick any slain abortion provider, and chances are good that his killer professes Christianity. The right’s response is a logical gymnastics; these acts are just evil, no shooter is truly Christian. It is not a coincidence that this rhetoric both protects Christianity and the gun.

The aftermath of the Sutherland Springs shooting has shown a renewed devotion to this idea of implacable evil, in response to liberal complaints that politicians must do more than offer their thoughts and prayers. In National Review on Monday, David French defended prayer as the most “rational” and “effective” response to mass murder. “The sad and terrifying fact is that no one has a reliable answer for evil men who want to commit mass murder,” he insisted. The Federalist ran a story with the headline, “When The Saints of First Baptist Church Were Murdered, God Was Answering Their Prayers.” And Erick Erickson wrote, “There will be more church shootings. There will be more persecution of Christians. There will be more evil, often masked under the guise of progressive enlightenment.”

This is more than a sick kind of fatalism. It is the supplanting of one religion with another, which demands its own martyrs. “The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence,” Garry Wills wrote for The New York Review of Books in 2012. “Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails.” For Wills, the gun is child-devouring Moloch. It is almost as if, in stepping inside that house of worship, Devin Kelley conquered it for that god. And now its acolytes will spread a false gospel: Arm the teachers, arm the pastors, arm the toddlers.