Tragic, jarring and disturbing, mass shootings have become a fixture of American politics. Mass shooters have targeted our houses of worship, our schools, our workplaces, our stores and our communities.
Unfortunately, in the wake of these attacks, the last casualty is always our ability to reason. It is understandable that these shootings provoke rage and reaction, confusion and finger-pointing. But while such responses are understandable, they are not acceptable. Which is why I could not let Sophie Laettner’s latest column stand unchallenged. Her assumptions are objectionable. Her logic is questionable. Her conclusions are unacceptable.
Entitled “It is time for the Christian church to respond to Christianist violence in America,” her column responds to recent bouts of white supremacist violence, specifically the Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand and the Walmart shooting in El Paso. After referencing an Atlantic article and summarizing the content of Dean Wilson’s “American Dreams, American Realities” class, Laettner makes a logical leap that could span the Grand Canyon. She writes “as it relates to gun violence in connection to white supremacy, which is ideologically linked to Christianity...”
This is slander. Laettner has not proven an ideological connection between white supremacy and Christianity. Neither the Atlantic article nor the summary of her course material establish this connection definitively. The Atlantic article documents that many Americans have demanded faith leaders respond to white supremacist violence, but also notes that many Christian pastors have argued that they have no special obligation to respond to these events. Far from supporting Laettner’s conclusion, the article simply summarizes an ongoing and inconclusive debate. Somehow, Laettner has snatched certainty from the jaws of ambiguity.
Judging from Laettner’s summary of his views and course content, Dean Wilson does not personally or academically claim that Christianity is ideologically linked to white supremacy. The closest Laettner gets to supporting this claim based on his observations is when she separately references “the city on a hill myth” which she claims “has roots in Christianity, capitalism and democracy” and the KKK’s belief in regenerative violence. If Laettner demonstrated a connection between these ideas then she would have provided some support for her claim. Instead, she leaves her freestanding points of evidence unsupported by binding analysis. I hope Chronicle readers are good at playing “Connect the Dots.”
Moreover, I wonder whether Laettner read the manifestos of the two shooters she mentions. The Christchurch shooter explicitly refrains from claiming that he is a Christian in his manifesto, and instead expresses ambivalence on the matter of his religion. The manifesto of the El Paso shooter makes no mention of Christianity or any faith as a motivation. Why is the Christian Church morally obligated to respond to the acts of two white supremacists who do not claim to be Christians?
Another issue: Laettner asks “where is the response from the Christian majority and the Christian church? Why is there a lack of response?” Let’s unpack this question. What is the “Christian Church” that Laettner calls upon? Does Laettner mean the Roman Catholic Church? Or the Eastern Orthodox Church? Or the Episcopal Church? Or the Baptist Church?
The last time the term “Christian Church” had any practical meaning was in 1053 A.D. That was in the Middle Ages, prior to the Great Schism of 1054 A.D. that split the Eastern Orthodox Church from the Catholic Church. Modern Christians, particularly in the United States, are incredibly diverse and numerous. They do not belong to a universal “Christian Church” and to assert otherwise is both ahistorical and trivializing of the theological differences that separate Christian denominations. To be fair, many Christians from all sects might argue that their personal church should become the one universal Christian Church, but they would never concede that a universal Christian Church exists currently.
In light of this, the answer to Laettner’s question, “Why is there a lack of response?” is simple. Organizations that do not exist do not issue responses. Some may think I am nitpicking on this point. I am not. Words have meaning, precision in writing is important and Laettner’s intentions should be as accurately reflected in her diction as possible. Doing otherwise only serves to muddy her argument and confuse her readers.
However, for the sake of argument, even if I assume the existence of a “Christian Church,” I still do not think Laettner has done the analytical work sufficient to prove an ideological link between white supremacy and Christianity. Even if the “Christian Church” did exist, it would not be obligated to respond to Laettner’s argument!
I have harshly criticized her column, but I believe Laettner is coming from a good place. Although her argument is fundamentally flawed, I can tell from her concerned tone that she truly did not believe she was slandering Christians. Nonetheless, radical claims merit heightened scrutiny. Real Christians, real people of various sects, colors, and backgrounds, are implicated and suffer reputational consequences when subjected to careless generalizations that affiliate their faith with evil.
Sweeping claims about diverse groups of people should not be made lightly. Arguing there is an ideological link between Christianity and white supremacy ignores the existence of Black, Latino, and Asian Christians—is their faith connected to white supremacy as well? Moreover, if Laettner made a similarly offensive claim about other religions—if she linked Islam to terrorism or Judaism to the oppression of Palestinians—then a severe, justifiable backlash would occur. The same should go for Christians.
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Those with public platforms are entrusted with some measure of influence and power over others. In particular, the Chronicle is an institution with the power to create narratives on Duke’s campus. Therefore, Chronicle columnists have a responsibility to critically analyze their claims, to support them with sufficient evidence and analysis, and to avoid spurious characterizations of large swathes of peers. To quote Luke 12:48, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of [her] shall much be required.”
Reiss Becker is a Trinity junior. His column, “roused rabble,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.