Yes, John Earnest put 'Christian' label into play: That's half of an equation reporters need to cover

The following headline at the Progressive Secular Humanist weblog at Patheos was meant to be a grabber and it certainly achieved its goal.

Check this out: “Christian Terrorist John Earnest Issued Manifesto Before California Synagogue Shooting.”

That manifesto included some stunning pull quotes that were totally valid material for mainstream news reporters. Try to get through this Earnest passage without wanting to spew your morning beverage:

My God does not take kindly to the destruction of His creation. Especially one of the most beautiful, intelligent, and innovative races that He has created. Least of all at the hands of one of the most ugly, sinful, deceitful, cursed, and corrupt. My God understands why I did what I did. …

To my brothers in Christ of all races. Be strong. Although the Jew who is inspired by demons and Satan will attempt to corrupt your soul with the sin and perversion he spews—remember that you are secure in Christ.

Patheos blogger Michael Stone added, with justifiable snark: “Can you feel the Christian love?”

Yes, reporters also need to note that Earnest said, in that same manifesto, that he didn’t soak up this twisted version of Christianity while frequenting church pews with his family. His hateful, deadly heresies grew out of a private, secret life online, listening to true radicals. Church members tried to talk to him, but he turned away.

Nevertheless, there is no question that reporters will have to deal with two clashing versions of Christianity when covering this story — that white supremacist brand proclaimed in this digital testimony and the Orthodox Presbyterian — uppercase “O” is part of the name — faith taught in his family’s congregation. In this case, the accused gunman did everything that he could to put the word “Christian” into play.

It helps that leaders of the Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church decided to let journalists sit in on part of the confession and healing process. Here’s the top of a key USA Today report:

SAN DIEGO — Before Saturday, John T. Earnest was known only as a quiet, successful student and an accomplished pianist.

On Sunday, his church reeled, calling a special session to address the news: Earnest had been detained in connection with Saturday’s deadly synagogue shooting near San Diego. His name had also been linked to a racist online posting that praised mass shooters, spoke of a plan to "kill Jews," and extensively cited scripture. …

The suspect, a 19-year-old student at Cal State University San Marcos, is a part of a family known as regulars at the Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The suspect’s father, John Earnest, is listed as an elder. Pastor Zach Keele said Sunday the younger John always came with his family but was very quiet.

Here’s another crucial passage in that same story:

On Sunday in Escondido, the suspect's pastor held a session to specifically talk about the shooting and to offer sympathy for the victims. Keele rebuked the manifesto, saying "there is no superior race. We are all created equal." He said also "we are committed to loving all people."

He called the crime “unspeakable in so many ways” and said “we are surprised and we are shocked.” …

Keele said he took heart that the manifesto said that the suspect's family did not radicalize him.

For more information on the congregation’s meeting to discuss the crime, see this second USA Today story: “One Jewish, one Christian: How the California synagogue shooting tore apart two congregations.” It really helps that leaders of both congregations opened their doors and decided to let journalists listen to what was said in these sessions.

Let’s go back to the main USA Today story. Later on, there is an interesting tension — so common in news coverage today — between the words “political” and “Christian.”

Palini Ramnarayan, who was in Earnest’s class at Mt. Carmel High School and now studies at Cornell University, recalled him as “very quiet.”

“I think we all just perceived him as very shy. He played piano at the talent show every year and was absolutely amazing. He kept to himself most of the time and honestly it was hard to know what he was thinking,” she said. “He was very clear about his political ideologies in our AP government class. He's a staunch hard-right conservative who's driven by Christian values.”

Owen Cruise, 20, was a classmate of the suspected shooter and a student of his father, John A. Earnest, a longtime teacher at MCHS.

Cruise said he was in disbelief when he saw the name of the suspected shooter because the suspect was "a friend to everybody, including many Jewish students" at their high school.

“It doesn’t sound like the John that I know, or knew,” he said of a letter posted online that supposedly describes the shooter's hateful motives. “It sounds like someone who’s been brainwashed by associating with the wrong crowds.”

So here is the bottom line: Reporters need to pursue how Earnest was spending his time, how he was spending his money and how he was making his decisions (three points that I have made many times here at GetReligion). The content of that manifesto came from somewhere, from someone or some group of someones.

Journalists seeking church historians and denominational leaders who are up to speed on these issues, in the context of conservative evangelical Protestantism, may want to turn to the Southern Baptists who helped produce a strong 2017 statement that condemned white supremacy.

Concerning that Southern Baptist Convention resolution, the Rev. Russell Moore said: “This resolution has a number on it. It’s Resolution Number 10. The white supremacy it opposes also has a number on it. It’s 666.” That’s a reference to biblical number representing the devil and the Antichrist.

In conclusion, I would also urge journalists to read a classic 2003 essay by ethicist Aly Colon that ran with this headline: “Preying Presbyterians?” The key thoughts:

As journalists, we choose words carefully and conscientiously. We select nouns and adjectives to advance the story. We connect dots. We make points. We clarify. We explain.

So when I see the word “Presbyterian,” I expect an explanation somewhere in the story that tells me why I need to know that.

In this case, Earnest rejected the faith taught in his Orthodox Presbyterian church. What was the theology that he was rejecting, and why did he reject it? What replaced the faith he rejected and where did he learn these deadly doctrines?

That’s the heart of this story. Go there, but be careful.

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