It would be quite a stretch to blame churches for George Floyd’s death, police brutality or Confederate memorials, yet houses of worship and religious statues are coming under attack in the protest mayhem.
Last weekend, at least four Catholic Church-affiliated buildings and statues from Boston to Los Angeles were set on fire or vandalized. A blaze that gutted the 249-year-old San Gabriel Mission, once led by Father Junipero Serra, is being investigated as possible arson.
“Given that there were four attacks on Catholic churches nationwide over a 48 hour period, from July 10 to July 12, suspicion, obviously, turns toward the left wing extremists who have been toppling statues of Saint Junipero Serra and attempting to remove a statue of Saint Louis,” Catholic Action League Executive Director C.J. Doyle said in an email.
The focus on church institutions also has bolstered the contentions of those who say the protests are no longer about Floyd or even defunding police, but rather a radical reordering of American society fundamentally at odds with the U.S. religious liberty tradition.
“These folks have an agenda, which is to fundamentally transform America,” said Ken Blackwell, a board member of the conservative American Civil Rights Union and a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission. “If you think about it, Black Lives Matter has an affiliation with the advancement of an ideology and program of action that is closely associated with the Marxist ideology, and it has no place for God.”
The four incidents cited by the Catholic Action League left out one: the beheading of a Virgin Mary statue found Sunday at St. Stephen Parish in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, Tennessee Republican, called it a “disturbing attack on Catholicism and religion.”
“Sadly, it is among a series of attacks on Catholic churches that have happened in recent days,” Mr. Fleischmann tweeted Wednesday. “I hope that the perpetrators will be brought to justice, but I also pray that they will find their way to God as well.”
On June 20, Black Lives Matter protesters in Los Angeles tore down and spilled red paint on a statue of the Franciscan friar canonized in 2015. A Father Serra statue was pulled down in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park that same weekend.
St. Louis police on Tuesday arrested a person accused of assault during a June 27 protest over the statue of King Louis IX, or Saint Louis, the city’s namesake and the only king of France to be canonized by the Catholic Church.
Protesters accused Father Serra of human rights abuses against American Indians in 18th-century California and St. Louis of anti-Semitism for presiding over public burnings of the Talmud and the expulsion of Jewish subjects. The Vatican has said Father Serra tried to protect local tribes from Spanish authorities.
“The Serra statue represents mass incarceration,” community activist Jose Garcia told ABC7 in Los Angeles. “It’s important that folks know that mass incarceration as it exists now started with the mission system.”
Church vandals also have targeted protesters. A Black Lives Matter banner in front of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, New York, was replaced last week after the word “Black” was cut out, according to Syracuse.com.
Attacks ‘dramatically escalating’
No explanation was given for the destruction last weekend, which included fire set to the plastic flowers held by the Virgin Mary at St. Peter’s Church in Dorchester, Massachusetts; the spray-painting of a Virgin Mary statue with the word “idol” at Cathedral Preparatory School and Seminary in Queens, New York; and a vehicle crash into the Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Ocala, Florida.
Steven Anthony Shields, 24, was charged with deliberately driving into the front doors, pouring gasoline inside the church and setting it on fire. Marion County sheriff’s deputies said he specifically targeted the Catholic church and that he had schizophrenia, according to the Ocala-News.
Since 2016, Massachusetts has had 17 incidents of church vandalism, a 400% increase from the previous four-year period. Although many cases have gone unsolved, “those that were solved frequently involved mentally ill persons or alcohol-fueled teenagers,” Mr. Doyle said.
“So, no matter how suspicious the timing, we cannot yet be sure of the motive or identity of the perpetrators,” he said. “Whatever the motive, attacks on Catholic churches and religious symbols are dramatically escalating, at least in secularized New England.”
Eric Metaxas, a conservative Christian author and radio host, said he doubted that the timing is coincidental.
“I think a lot of the nastiness that’s being directed at these statues, it really has to do with something deeper,” Mr. Metaxas said on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” “You saw this with the French Revolution. There was a hatred at the bottom of it of God, of any kind of authority, and these people are drunk with the idea that they can somehow be an authority themselves, they can seize power.”
In that case, why stop with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee? “If you really want to cut to the chase, you forget about generals and things, you go right for God, you go right for the Virgin Mary, my goodness, you go for churches,” Mr. Metaxas said.
Black Lives Matter has become a popular rallying cry at social justice protests, but it is also a decentralized movement that includes community groups lobbying for criminal justice reform and national leaders seeking the “radical,” “sustainable” transformation of society.
The Black Lives Matter Global Network, founded in 2013 after the death of Trayvon Martin, says little about religion on its website, but it takes a number of positions that are at odds with traditional Christianity, including a call to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure” and “dismantle cisgender privilege.”
The Movement for Black Lives, which counts BLM as a partner, is avowedly “anti-capitalist.” BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors said in a 2015 interview that she and co-founder Alicia Garza are “trained Marxists.”
“We actually do have an ideological frame,” Ms. Cullors told Real News Network. “Myself and Alicia in particular are trained organizers. We are trained Marxists. We are super-versed on sort of ideological theories.”
At the UrbanCURE’s rally in defense of the Emancipation Memorial, pastor Marc Little said that “we are witnessing a Marxist takeover supported by members of Congress” and “fighting a new religion disguised as racial justice.”
“What we’ve seen since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis is the unveiling of what has been percolating against the church,” said Mr. Little, UrbanCURE board chairman. “Make no mistake: The body of Christ is the target of the Marxists, for it cannot succeed when morality stands in the way.”
He blasted those “defacing murals and monuments of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary while the former head of the DNC, [Howard] Dean, calls Christianity a religion of hate.”
The former Vermont governor drew both applause and condemnation for his July 11 tweet: “Unfortunately Christians don’t have much of a reputation for anything but hate these days thanks to Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell and other Trump friends.”
Progressive activist Shaun King called last month on activists to take down “the white European they claim is Jesus,” saying that such statues are “a form of white supremacy,” noted David Closson, director of Christian Ethics and Biblical Worldview at the Family Research Council.
“So, there probably is a connection with the current movement to topple statues and monuments (including Washington, Grant, Lincoln, and abolitionists) and churches being burned and statues of the Virgin Mary getting vandalized,” said Mr. Closson in an email. “An anti-authority, anti-American impulse links them.”
Floyd, 46, had a criminal record but was active before moving to Minneapolis in Resurrection Houston, a ministry focused on Houston’s rough 3rd Ward, where he grew up. His funeral services in Minneapolis and Houston were held in Christian churches and featured sermons, Scripture readings and gospel music.
“Any Christian leader who doesn’t understand that this is a Marxist, violent organization — this has nothing to do anymore with George Floyd,” said Mr. Metaxas. “They’ve hijacked this, and they want to burn down everything that has been built by good people over centuries, most of whom, of course, were Christians.”