Theology in headlines: When a terrorist starts quoting Calvinism, journalists should be careful

No doubt about it, when a domestic terrorist starts defending his actions with concepts drawn from the great Protestant reformer John Calvin, it is time for journalists to up their games.

The manifesto published by John Earnest, the accused gunman at Chabad of Poway, is a classic example of a story that all but demands that newsrooms deploy one or two journalists with experience covering the nuts and bolts of religion and, to be specific, church history. Here is one of my earlier posts on this puzzle: “Weaponized Calvinism? Accused shooter said his salvation was assured, no matter what.”

The key is that Earnest was preaching a deadly sermon that — he stated this, in writing — had multiple sources. While he was clearly influenced by the conservative Calvinism of his home congregation, Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church, his words and the testimony of church members indicated that he had, for the most part, rejected much of what he heard during his days in a pew.

In the end, his manifesto took centuries of fierce anti-Semitism from sources online and mixed it with a key theme in Calvinism — that believers who have been chosen (the elect) by God are assured of salvation, no matter what. As Earnest said:

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.

During this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in) I stressed that reporters would need help navigating the astonishingly complex world of debates inside Calvinism. That was the bad news. The good news is that — because of several years of arguments about the alt-right and the heresy of white supremacy — there are lots of conservative Calvinists around who are ready to fire soundbites at these targets. They are, as I said, the theological equivalent of “lawyered up.”

There are places to head online to get a head start. Check out this giant double-decker headline at Christianity Today:

Who’s to Blame When the Shooter Is One of Our Own?

The latest synagogue attack has shaken fellow Orthodox Presbyterians — but it implicates all of us living in a fallen world and divisive culture.

Over at National Review, there was this commentary by the always readable Harvard Law School alum David French: “Dealing with the Shock of an Evangelical Terrorist.” I wish that the headline had also included, somehow, this word — “heretic.”

However, for those willing to dive deeper into the political and theological lingo woven through this story, let me recommend a think piece at The Gospel Coalition website written by former GetReligionista Joe Carter.

Some of the complicated lingo made it into the headline: “Kinism, Cultural Marxism and the Synagogue Shooter.” Journalists: Don’t let that slow you down. Print out a copy of this piece and mark it up. Here is a crucial passage, which is long, but essential:

Earnest seems to have been largely shaped by the same online culture as the terrorist-troll that targeted the mosques in New Zealand. Yet he also quotes Scripture and lists his influences as “Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, Adolf Hitler, [two white nationalist terrorists. …]”

What distinguishes Earnest from the other white nationalist murderers is that he seems to have been influenced by the racialist heresy known as kinism.

Several years ago a friend of mine, a Presbyterian minister, asked me to speak to his congregation about cultural issues. During the discussion, an older couple asked me a question about separation of ethnic groups, specifically white Americans from blacks and Jews. I told them I must have misunderstood their question, because what they were talking about could be mistaken for promoting a view called kinism. The wife replied, “And what’s wrong with kinism?” *

To explain what’s wrong with kinism we first need to understand what the term means. Defining the term is difficult, because it is applied to a broad range of ideas centered on a white separatist interpretation of Christianity. The anti-kinist theonomist John Reasnor says:

At its core, kinism is the belief that God specially ordained “races” and that he intends for us to preserve that division to one degree or another. Kinism believes that God ethically and specially ordained the nations and “races.” In short, kinism is a doctrinal conviction of anti-miscegenation. All positions commonly held by kinists flow from this key kinist doctrine.

It is very easy to quote Kinist thinkers stating that their beliefs are merely another form of traditional Christianity — because that is what they insist is true. Carter notes:

As one kinist website claims, “The same continuum of concept has alternately been called familism, tribal theocracy, theonomic nationalism, or simply, traditional Christianity.” Kinists are obsessed with preserving the “European race” and their twisted form of Calvinism against those who would threaten it — usually African Americans or Jews.

There’s much more, including complicated material about the term “cultural Marxism,” which can be used in ways that are accurate and informative — but also, in certain contexts, as symbolic jargon that points toward the world of Kinism and related ideas.

In other words: “Here be dragons.”

Reporters will have no trouble finding conservative Calvinists who are ready and willing to discuss these complicated and dangerous topics. I advise, however, using a digital recorder in these interviews. Make sure that you have ways to contact these sources a second time, seeking ways to accurately capture their views in language that readers will be able to grasp.

Let’s be careful out there. And, enjoy the podcast, if “enjoy” is the right word.

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