The cultural struggle which powers politics in the United States and in the West more generally is at bottom a religious struggle. As this writer has noted before, the struggle is about a rejection of the Christian gospel of salvation from sin and suffering through Jesus Christ, in favor of a gospel of self-actualization. Apparently frustrated in their efforts to gain the power they want now, part of the secular left has recently turned to violence. It is seen in the attack on law enforcement, but now, more tellingly, in violence against churches.
Attacks on churches have been going on for some time in Europe, most notably in France. These attacks consist in desecration of sacred objects (including consecrated communion wafers), vandalism to statues, hostile graffiti, and burning of churches, resulting in major damage to church buildings or in their destruction.
After decades of ecumenism, liberalization, secularization, and truly, de-christianization, church leadership, at least in France, have been loath to admit that there is a problem. Most striking is the statement of Archbishop Georges Pontier, head of the French bishops’ conference that “We do not want to develop a discourse of persecution. We do not wish to complain.”
Yet there obviously is persecution, as the linked article by Nina Shea from the National Catholic Register makes clear. Pontier’s further claim that there may or may not be “a real wave of anti-Christian acts” seems belied by the numerous cases of vandalism, desecration, and burning Shea identified. While she does say that the infamous 2019 Paris Notre Dame fire gives no indication of being arson, it is remarkable that it occurred during a spate of church attacks and burnings in the last four years. And, interestingly, it was assumed by authorities to be not arson while still burning.
Notable in these attacks is hostile graffiti, expressing anarchist or Satanist animosity toward Christianity. Examples included “Neither God nor Master,” “Church on fire,” “Dirty priest” and “Satan punishes homophobes.”
The burning of churches is also a motif of early twentieth century anarchism, Shea pointed out, which used the slogan “the only church that illuminates is a burning church.” A widely circulated map of church attacks in France, disparaged by the debunking site Snopes for captioning it as a map of destroyed churches, nevertheless shows the scope of church attacks in France (i.e., burning, vandalism, graffiti). Ongoing stories of anti-Christian attacks in Europe can be found at the website of the European Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians.
Similar features of anti-Christian animosity appeared in a string of attacks on churches in the United States. These have taken place in the wave of violence that has followed the George Floyd murder.
After the initial attack against St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, which seemed simply related to the murder, a string of church attacks in mid-July followed the European pattern. A statue of the Virgin Mary was defaced with the word “IDOL” at the Cathedral Prep School and Seminary in Queens, New York in the early morning hours of July 10, while another statue of the Virgin Mary was set on fire at St. Peter’s Parish in Boston, Massachusetts around 10 p.m. the following day.
Also, on the morning of that day, a statue of the Virgin Mary was found decapitated on the grounds of St. Stephen’s Parish in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Then, on July 15, there followed the decapitation of a statue of Jesus at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Miami, Florida.
These acts of church vandalism all occurred during the ongoing violence and rioting during the summer, along with statues of American heroes attacked and demolished. They also occured after the call in late June by activist Shaun King to tear down images of the “white Jesus” and his mother, as well as “murals and stained glass windows” with such depictions.
Certain other attacks at the same time may have been coincidental, but were clearly violent acts or tragedies. At 7:30 a.m. on July 11, a man crashed the front door of Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Ocala, Florida with a minivan while worshippers were preparing for morning mass. He poured gasoline inside the church and ignited it. The church’s assailant, Stephen Anthony Shields, appears to be a deranged individual, but his attack came remarkably close to the clear vandalism in New York, Boston, Chattanooga, and Miami.
Similarly, and also on July 11, fire destroyed much of the historic San Gabriel Mission, dating from the eighteenth century, near Pasadena, California. While the Orange County Register reported that there was “no obvious evidence that the blaze had been set,” the mission church was associated with the Franciscan friar Junipero Serro, whose legacy was attacked and statues vandalized this summer.
In considering any remarkable occurrence, and certainly in considering one instance of unexplained damage to a house of worship or its sacred objects, people are surely inclined to think of design rather than accident. Some of the cases cited above may have been accidents, but hostile graffiti or the obvious desecration of communion elements cannot be accidents, and so we know that there is a dramatic increase of hostile attacks against churches.
Additionally, damage to a sacred place when many other such attacks are occurring, some of them obviously hostile, must immediately raise suspicion. It cannot reasonably be dismissed as unwarranted conspiracy thinking, as seems to have been done in some of these cases in Europe.
Traditional Christians and others concerned about our religious freedom must highlight the hostile attacks on churches and other houses of worship. Failure to do so, and certainly acceptance that it is impolitic to talk about it, only means continued attacks. This will embolden segments of society that are hostile to religious freedom to proceed to further suppression of religious expression and practice.
Christian faith and personal commitment to Christ can exist anywhere, even in North Korea or Saudi Arabia. But we know that God desires that we live “peaceful and quiet lives, in all godliness and holiness” to advance the gospel of Christ and his kingdom.