A Pattern of Violence Against Churches

Rick Plasterer on August 24, 2020

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.

  1. Comment by Rev. Dr. Lee D Cary (ret. UM clergy) on August 24, 2020 at 1:26 pm

    When what some identify as the biggest political “party” now in the US – Black Lives Matter – is led by three self-avowed Marxist-Leninists, no one should wonder why churches are a target. And will be more so ahead.

  2. Comment by Diane on August 25, 2020 at 1:06 am

    When a heterosexual, married nationally-recognized evangelical leader, one whom gladly saddled up to endorse Trump, chooses to do a photo op with his pants unzipped, and his arm around a woman who’s not his wife, people have good reason to target the church. Now Falwell, Jr. Is admitting to some pretty kinky, three way stuff between his wife and the pool boy. There’s probably a few more secrets we haven’t heard. Already, Falwell is blaming his wife and claiming the victim as he changes the focus to extortion attempts by the pool boy.

    And then we have the Catholic Church and the thousands of lives damaged by their priests.

    Evangelicals and Catholics have combined to flatter themselves as the morality police. Both traditions prefer men to be in power. Little wonder, they have judged women and the lgbtq community to be inferior. They have voted to deny human rights, arguing their “religious freedom” gives them a position of moral superiority to refuse service to those they deem morally less-than or whose stature is not equal to men. They love to shame others to make themselves look good.

    It’s a facade. Evangelicals need to own up to their worship of Falwell, Trump, and pious priests as morally superior.

    Not surprised at all that the Christianity is suffering. The hypocrisy of its leadership and supportive laity is cause enough to lead this corrupt fold.

  3. Comment by David on August 25, 2020 at 8:20 am

    In the past, I was involved in a group that sought to preserve historic pipe organs. Quite a few were lost to church fires. One reason for this is the nature of old churches with a large open space, often lots of wood, and sometimes antiquated electrical wiring and lack of a lightning arrestor system. Churches are often vacant much of the week as well so incipient fires go unnoticed. Then there is the problem of arson. Black churches were sometimes burned as they were seen as centers of civil rights movements. Another sinister cause are arsonists who feel they have been divinely appointed to destroy disfavored churches. In 1956, the Roman Catholic cathedral, the oldest Methodist church in NJ, and several other other churches suffered fires in Trenton. A man was arrested for this and eventually confined to a mental hospital, but there are doubts that all the fires were set by him despite his confession. He was described as a “religious fanatic.” After this arrest, two additional copycat fires were set by a man who was a political extremist—an incongruous communist and neo-Nazi. In my various tours of churches in various parts of the country, I noted that the few with sprinkler systems had installed them after a fire.

  4. Comment by Lee Cary on August 25, 2020 at 9:04 am

    “When a heterosexual, married nationally-recognized evangelical leader, one whom gladly saddled up to endorse Trump, chooses to do a photo op with his pants unzipped, and his arm around a woman who’s not his wife, people have good reason to target the church.”

    So, Diane, the misbehavior of one high-profile cleric, justifies attacking the collective called “the church”. That’s consistent with the Black Lives Matter movement which claims that the bad behavior of a few Police Officers justifies defunding all police departments in the U.S.

    According to your construct, Diane, the sexual deviancy of a few public school teachers justifies defunding public schools.

    “And then we have the Catholic Church and the thousands of lives damaged by their priests.” And what’s the second half of that equation? That all RC Churches be attacked?

    “Evangelicals and Catholics have combined to flatter themselves as the morality police…They have voted to deny human rights, arguing their ‘religious freedom’ gives them a position of moral superiority to refuse service to those they deem morally less-than or whose stature is not equal to men.”

    What denied rights are those?

    The “right” you deny, Diane, is that which gives religious institutions the right to define their own creed. Seemingly, a right you would deny them, as you define morality.

    “Evangelicals need to own up to their worship of Falwell, Trump, and pious priests as morally superior.” Own up to whom?

    So, to summarize: You assert that ‘evangelicals’ worship (1) Falwell; (2) the Orange Man; and (3) Catholic priests as morally superior?

    Diane, your screed jumps the shark and, in Free Speech America, you have the absolute right to do so. And, correspondingly, I have the right to debunk it. It’s a great country.

  5. Comment by David on August 25, 2020 at 11:11 am

    In the past, I was a member of a group that sought to preserve historic pipe organs. Many of these were lost over the years to church fires. Churches are particularly vulnerable to fires given the large open space, too often antiquated electrical wiring, and lack of fire protection systems. In the many churches I visited, the few that had sprinkler systems had previously suffered fires. Then there is the matter of arson. Black churches were targeted during he Civil Rights era. There are persons who feel divinely directed to attack disfavored churches. In 1956, several church fires took place in Trenton, NJ. These included the Roman Catholic cathedral and the oldest Methodist church in the state. Eventually a man was arrested and confessed to all these. He was confined to a mental hospital and was described as a “religious fanatic.” There remain doubts that these fires were entirely his work. Shortly thereafter, there were two more copycat fires set by a man described incongruously as a communist neo-Nazi. Churches can burn for several reasons.

  6. Comment by Thomas Brown on August 25, 2020 at 1:42 pm

    Please, please, give Diane a Snickers.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.