While federal investigators described the motive behind last month’s cluster of church fires in Alabama as a prank that got out of hand, some religious leaders were unconvinced.

“When a church is burned and attacked in America, faith itself and religious expression is under attack,” Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, said Thursday.

Rick Scarborough of Vision America called it a “crime against Christianity.”

“Everywhere I turn in the media I see attempts to turn this horrendous crime against Christianity into a mere ‘prank,'” Scarborough complained in a Thursday newsletter. “Every news outlet from Fox to CNN has reported this as a teenage ‘prank.’  Let’s get something straight here: rolling a house with toilet paper is a prank, torching nine churches is NOT a prank.”

Federal authorities on Wednesday arrested three white Methodist college students from well-to-do families in connection with the crimes. The trio allegedly set fires at five Baptist churches late Feb. 2, followed by another four late Feb. 6, on a lark, perhaps not understanding the gravity of what it means to burn a church in the South.

“This is not a hate crime,” the lawyer of one of the suspects said in the Decatur Daily. “This is not a religious crime.”

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, who is a Baptist, said the nine fires appeared to be an isolated incident. “We don’t think that there is any type of conspiracy against organized religion or against the Baptists,” he said in a news conference.

“Alabama and all of the faith-based communities in this state can rest a little easier,” Riley said.

Scarborough, who supports Riley’s opponent in the upcoming GOP gubernatorial race, former state Chief Justice Roy Moore, disagreed: “With all due respect to the governor, this was a ‘conspiracy’ of three individuals planning these horrendous crimes together, and it was committed against ‘organized religion,’ namely nine Baptist churches. Why the desire to minimize the crimes?  Why the desire to deny the obvious facts?”

Scarborough said, “It appears that some are relieved to learn that the torchees are young college students who apparently were not wearing hoods on their heads or bearing swastikas on their arms.”

While some are relieved to learn the fires were apparently set by college students, Scarborough said he is not among them. “What does it say about our culture when we are relieved to learn that this crime against Christianity was committed by three boys that look like they could be our sons?”

“I for one want to know what possessed these boys to get into their SUV and drive at night to nine Christian churches, to kick in the doors, to walk to the pulpit where the word of God is preached, to torch the place, to drive off, and to then go to another church and do the same thing, again, and again, and again, nine times.”

“This is not a prank and we should not be relieved,” he said. “Instead, we should examine ourselves, our culture, and our nation and we should ask God why our college boys are torching our churches.”

Scarborough’s group is sponsoring a March 27-28 conference in Washington with a theme “The War on Christians and the Values Voter in 2006.” Featured speakers include Senators Sam Brownback and John Cornyn, Congressmen Tom DeLay, Todd Akin and Louis Gohmert, and religious-right leaders Rod Parsley, Ron Luce, Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes, Phyllis Schlafly, Laurence White and Janet Folger.

“The War against Christianity is raging across this nation like an Alabama Church Fire,” Scarborough said.

Along with church fires, according to an online brochure for the conference, battle fronts include purging of Christmas symbols and greetings, removal of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and the Ten Commandments from government buildings, limiting religious expression at the Air Force Academy and the “blasphemous ‘DaVinci Code’ movie” that hits theaters in May.

Use of terms like “prank” and “joke” to describe the motive does not make the crimes less abhorrent, said Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics

“Church burnings are not pranks,” Parham said. “Church burnings are serious offenses. When reporters and others label church burnings by affluent, white boys as pranks, it suggests a frat-boy cultural ethic—boys will be boys—that makes excuses for horrific behavior. If unemployed ‘rednecks’ had burned churches, they would be called racists. If urban black teenagers burned churches, they would be called gangsters.”

At the same time, Parham said, fundamentalist Baptists who toss aside reports by criminal-justice officials to claim that church burnings are evidence of the persecution of Christians, despite the reports from the criminal justice officials, represent “allegiance to warped theology” instead of the evidence.

Bobby Welch, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, recently described the arsons as “theological terrorism upon Baptists.”

“Fundamentalists are shamefully playing religion with these nine churches,” Parham said. “Religious-right leaders and organizations are not the victims. Church members are.”

A rash of church fires targeting African-American churches in the South during the winter of 1995-96 prompted President Clinton to form a National Church Arson Task Force. The task force reported convictions of 110 individuals in connection with 77 fires at houses of worship in June 1997.

While such fires had slipped from the nation’s consciousness until last month, church arsons never went away. According to the National Coalition for Burned Churches, which has sought to keep an official record of church burnings and supported rebuilding destroyed churches since forming in 1997, more than 1,500 churches burned between 1990 and 2000.

“The activities in Alabama is not new to Alabama,” Rose Johnson-Mackey, the coalition’s program director, said recently. “The cluster burnings really did get [people’s] attention, but it’s been going on in Alabama for quite some time, and not only in Alabama but throughout the South.”

From 2000 to 2006 the coalition documented a “minimum” of 600 church burnings, while saying that estimate is probably low. There is no central depository for data collection, and small volunteer fire departments and local police may not have the resources to investigate church fires properly, so they may go overlooked or underreported.

Whether prosecuted as hate crimes or not, Johnson-Mackey said, church arsons are intended to terrorize entire communities, because the soul of people is often housed in their place of worship.

“We must move the nation to a new place on this issue, a place of commitment,” she said. “The U.S. must commit to protect the right of congregations–regardless of color, ethnicity or nationality–to worship in peace, free from the threat of terrorism caused by arsons.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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