Exploiting Tragedy

Robertson, Falwell, Dobson And Allies Use Littleton Shooting To Advance Religious Right Political Agenda

Pat Robertson was livid.

Addressing his national "700 Club" audience on the day after the Littleton, Colo., school massacre, the TV preacher railed against the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court decision that he claimed was at fault in the incident.

"[W]hen the Supreme Court of the United States of America insulted Almighty God," thundered Robertson, "and said our Constitution wouldn't permit children to pray in the schools, and when we lifted the religious restraints off of our society in that fashion and suddenly the worship of God became unconstitutional, and the thought that we would have an even hand between atheism and theism in society, it has begun a spiral that hasn't stopped yet.

"You say, why are kids killing themselves, and why are they killing each other?" Robertson continued. "Well, you just look back about 30-some years and you find, in my opinion, the principal reason."

On the next day's show, Robertson returned to the same theme.

Offering a prayer for God's forgiveness, he intoned, "We have allowed the Supreme Court to run roughshod over us, Lord, and we haven't protested. We've taken it meekly. Lord, forgive us."

The following Monday, Robertson was on the same rampage, denouncing "judicial tyranny" and declaring, "We've got to bring back the knowledge of God into our schools."

Robertson wasn't alone in exploiting the Columbine High School shooting. Other Religious Right leaders and allies -- from William Bennett and Michael Farris to Cal Thomas and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- lined up to do the same thing. Using the Colorado tragedy as a platform, they blasted the federal courts and bashed public schools. And they touted vouchers, school prayer, religious indoctrination and home schooling.

TV preacher Jerry Falwell, for example, said the Supreme Court's 1962 school prayer ruling was "one of the greatest mistakes in our nation's history."

"I believe it was our nation's first step toward our present-day environment of violence and disregard for life," he wrote in his April 23 Falwell Confidential fax newsletter. "As a result of banning prayer, the absolutes of the Judeo-Christian ethic have been replaced by situational ethics, moral skepticism and anti-Christian dogma." (Falwell also blamed movies, video games, Dungeons and Dragons and the teaching of evolution.)

Two weeks later, the Lynchburg, Va.-based pastor used the same forum to announce a "campaign to take back our children and our nation from the clutches of those who hate Christ and America's religious heritage."

The Moral Majority founder also castigated rock music, the occult, the "abortion industry," the "activist gay and lesbian agenda, and other blatant enemies of the American family." On "Geraldo Live," Falwell went even farther, suggesting that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two young Colorado killers, might have been gay.

The gay-bashing tack was also taken by Family Research Council (FRC), a Washington, D.C.-based spin-off group from religious broadcaster James Dobson's Focus on the Family. On April 21 The Washington Post reported that the FRC website featured a posting headlined "What Are the Media Hiding?" that suggested a news media coverup of the allegation that Harris and Klebold were bisexuals.

The posting is no longer on the group's website, perhaps because no evidence whatsoever has appeared to confirm the rumors spread by Falwell and FRC.

At Dobson's Colorado Springs operation, the radio counselor traced the Littleton incident to the breakdown of the family, although he conceded that Harris and Klebold came from "intact, respectable homes." He also blamed the "media-saturated 'culture of death'" [a term borrowed from Pope John Paul II] and a "radical paradigm-shift" from the "Judeo-Christian value system" to a "post modern philosophy which states that there is no God and that absolute truth does not exist."

Observed Dobson, "The problem is not the availability of guns, nor is it the 'southern culture' that was blamed after the shootings in Jonesboro. The issue is not with what is in a child's hand, but with what is in his or her heart."

But Dobson's minions took a more overtly political bent. FOF's Citizen Issues Alert featured an article headlined "Tearing Down the Wall" that celebrated government-organized memorial services in Littleton where evangelical Christian prayer and preaching predominated.

"It was a week in which the wall separating church and state suddenly seemed to fall," the fax newsletter exulted.

The newsletter favorably quoted Franklin Graham (evangelist son of Billy Graham) who told an April 25 memorial gathering of 70,000 organized by Colo-rado Gov. Bill Owens, "It is time for this nation to recognize that when we empty the public schools of the moral teachings and the standards of a holy God, they are indeed very dangerous places."

FOF Vice President Tom Minnery issued a statement praising these religiously pervaded memorial events but complaining that New York City school teacher Mildred Rosario was fired last year for preaching and praying with her public school students after a classmate died while swimming.

"[O]ne drowned child in New York City isn't enough; it evidently takes 15 dead in a Colorado high school to break down the wall between church and state," he said.

The Religious Right propaganda barrage sparked a strong response from Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn debated Falwell on Fox News Channel's nationally broadcast "Hannity & Colmes Show," as well as two radio programs. In addition, AU staffers discussed the implications of the Littleton incident with reporters, local activists and others.

In an April 27 press statement, Lynn said, "The recent shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., horrified the nation. In the wake of this tragedy, some have asserted that America could avoid similar problems in the future by interjecting religious worship and religious instruction into public schools. This is a profoundly misguided reaction.

"Public schools," he observed, "must serve children from many different religious and philosophical backgrounds. Mandating religious worship in our public schools will only serve to alienate some students and make them feel like outsiders. This is exactly the wrong message to send at a time like this....Requiring religious worship in public schools would violate the rights of conscience of millions of students and their parents, who by law and by right, are responsible for this area of young people's lives.

"In the days that have followed the terrible incident in Littleton, a small but vocal minority of religious leaders have garnered national attention by promoting their policy agenda as a panacea for what ails the nation. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and other Religious Right leaders have worked for years to force their narrow sectarian views into public schools, and it is discouraging and disappointing to see them exploit this recent tragedy to advance a purely political goal."

Lynn noted that Religious Right demands ran the gamut from government-sponsored prayer in schools to private school vouchers. Some activists, he noted, have even called on Americans to abandon the public school system completely.

"Such irresponsible talk," said Lynn, "distracts our nation from the real issues. Coerced religious worship is never a good idea and will do nothing to address the serious issues many young people face today, and taxing Americans to finance religious indoctrination through vouchers is a clear violation of the Constitution and individual rights. Furthermore, shutting down public schools because of a violent attack will not stop violent attacks. We must do more to protect young people from violence, but deserting our school system isn't going to help."

On May 7 Americans United issued a second press release, this time blasting the Christian Coalition's announced plan to air radio commercials calling for "putting God back in our schools." In the Littleton-related ads, Coalition Executive Director Randy Tate said, "It's time for Congress to lift the ban on the expression of faith in our classrooms. Give our kids the opportunity to pray, and our teachers the freedom to discuss morality and decency."

According to the Associated Press, the commercials were scheduled for broadcast on 65 Iowa-area stations and 22 New Hampshire-area stations, states with early presidential campaign events.

Said AU's Lynn, "This is sheer exploitation of the Littleton tragedy. Students already have the right to pray voluntarily, and teachers routinely discuss ethics and character. The Christian Coalition is shamelessly twisting the facts to advance its political agenda in presidential primary states."