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Be Careful How You Label

Trent Horn

Former Los Angeles Police Department officer Christopher Dorner is the most wanted man in America. After declaring war on his former department and allegedly shooting four people, Dorner posted a manifesto online that has some parts that seem newsworthy despite the fact most media outlets have not covered them. They include the following:

I’m not a [expletive] Christian and that old book, made of fiction and limited non-fiction, called the bible, never once stated Jesus was called a [expletive]. . . . You can’t really give a valid argument to as why gays shouldn’t be eligible as every month a new state enacts laws that allow same sex marriage. . . . Oh, and you Prop 8 supporters, why the [expletive] do you care who your neighbor marries. Hypocritical pieces of [expletive].

Curiously, I haven’t seen a headline saying “Gay rights supporter eludes police” or “anti-Christian ex-cop on the loose.” Granted, Dorner says lots of odd things in his manifesto, but I think an equally rambling Christian rant that opposed same-sex marriage would get more media coverage.

This, of course, isn’t the first time the nonreligion of an infamous person has been glossed over. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh said that “science was his religion” and described himself as an agnostic (although right after the bombing he said he believed in a God but had lost touch with his Catholic Faith). Jeffrey Dahmer was a serial killer and a cannibal, yet it is not common knowledge that atheism motivated his crimes (he later converted to Christianity while on death row). In a 1994 Dateline interview with Stone Phillips he said,

If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then—then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought, anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we, when we died, you know, that was it, there is nothing.

In contrast to Dorner, McVeigh, and Dahmer, when bad people are Christian, or even mildly profess to be Christian, you can bet that mainstream media will not let everyone forget that fact.

In 2011, Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik bombed a government building and then shot 69 people at a summer camp hosted by Norway’s Labour party. The media was quick to label him a “Christian terrorist,” but a look at his writings reveals that Breivik was a cultural Christian, or a Christian in name only. He writes:

If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian. Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.

What is the lesson Catholics should take away from all of this? Simply that bad people do not invalidate true beliefs. Evil atheists like Dahmer no more prove that God exists than hypocritical pastors and priests who are brought up on criminal charges prove God does not exist. While it’s tempting to use to use the immoral behavior of someone like Dorner—who openly supports same-sex marriage and disparages the Bible—as a way to smear critics or to get back at the media for its unfair coverage of Christians, it is a temptation that must be resisted.

At best, such references should only be used in self-defense. For example, when people bring up “radical” Christians who kill abortion doctors, I think we are justified in saying that every group has its radicals who pervert its message. These include radical anarchist atheists to Buddhists killing minority Muslims. When someone points out that some Catholic priests have been found guilty of sex abuse, we can agree but also point out that college football coaches and school teachers who molest children do not prove that football or public education are evil.

Instead of saying, “Look at how bad your side’s people are!” we should instead ask, “Which of us has true beliefs and how can we all work together to get rid of our false beliefs and come together in holding true ones?” Instead of pointing out that last week’s mass murderer condemns the Bible and this week’s keeps one in his pocket, maybe we should just ask if the Bible is true, and, if it is, how should we respond to that fact.

Rather than attack people or groups (which is what it means to commit the ad hominem fallacy) we should attack false ideas. St. Paul said it best, “We destroy arguments and every pretension raising itself against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5).

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