Summer 2006, Vol. 9, No. 1

Table of Contents
Summer 2006

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Hold the Prayers

To Print or Not to Print?

Another Melancholy Dane

Raising Hell in Alabama

Mr. Harper Goes to Ottawa

Apostasy in Afghanistan

Religious Politics, Japanese Style

Cult Fighting in Middle Georgia




Raising Hell in Alabama
David A. Stricoff






On the morning of February 3, five Baptist churches in rural Bibb County in Middle Alabama were set ablaze. Four days later, four more were burned in Pickens, Greene, and Sumter counties, all in the central and west central part of the state.

During the month between the first fires and the arrest of three suspects, speculation about the arsonists’ motives ran wild. Stories quoted a wide variety of sources blaming racists, drug addicts, vandals, and anti-Christian and anti-family values sociopaths as journalists sought to explain the crimes. 

However, it turned out that the three young men charged with arson were not the sort of miscreants the news media had in mind.

Instead, Matthew Lee Cloyd, Benjamin Moseley, and Russell Debusk were alleged to be college pranksters from affluent, suburban Birmingham families. Far from launching a crusade against religion, religious folk, or even black people, an unsigned federal affidavit described their actions as a joke that got out of hand. They were, as Time headlined its March 13 story, “The Unusual Suspects.”

“When Alabama churches were bombed or burned in the South in the 1960s, the reason was never a mystery. The racist violence was meant to intimidate the African Americans who met in the churches, and you didn’t need a guilty perpetrator or even a suspect, to know that,” Time’s Jyoti Thottam wrote. “Forty years later, after a new wave of church fires in Alabama, a twist ending to the story has residents stunned and confused.”

So, with their early theories shot to hell, journalists scrambled to pin the blame on one or another malignant motive. But in the end, none of them proved a convincing object of moral outrage. All that was left was the very real misery of the congregants whose churches had been destroyed.

At the outset, the story line began with Alabama’s history of racially motivated church burnings. “Church Fires Conjure Flashbacks of Racist Past” read the ABC News Online headline on February 8. After all, the arsons took place at the buckle of the “black belt,” the band of counties with very high African-American population concentrations that stretches from Texas to Virginia.

Martin C. Evans of Newsday noted that the fires were “reminiscent of a spate of arsons that hit rural churches with predominantly black congregations in the mid-1990s.” In line with this, many journalists focused on whether the latest fires could be considered hate crimes under the Church Arson Prevention Act that was passed following the 1996 fires.

This first interpretive impulse flew in the face of the fact that four of the first five fires occurred at churches with predominantly white congregations—and that investigators had therefore immediately ruled race out as a motive. National Public Radio had trouble letting go: “Nine churches were burned, five are confirmed arsons and race may be a factor,” declared Ed Gordon in his lead-in to Tanya Ott’s February 10 NPR report.

Steering clear of the investigators, Ott instead cited a conspiracy theory put forth by Panola, Alabama resident and restaurateur Shirley Collins in which “the white church burnings were a ruse to throw investigators off the trial of an arsonist targeting black churches.”

For those reporters willing to resist race, drugs offered another early possibility. “Residents speculating on motives were quick to mention crystal meth, which they say has become something of an epidemic in recent years,” wrote Jim Noels and Campbell Robertson in the New York Times on February 4. But since neither money nor expensive audio-visual equipment was stolen from any of the churches, this theory, too, faded away.

If the race- and drug-based theories enjoyed some basis in fact, other explanatory efforts were sheer fantasy.

After regional director for the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Jim Cavanaugh revealed that the “pulpit areas were the point of origin” for the first five fires, journalists found many sources who thought an attack on organized religion might well be underway. “If you burn a church and nobody’s there, then it’s not murder, it’s a message,” Joe Barnhart, a religious studies professor at the University of North Texas told the Christian Science Monitor on February 8. “Even as religion binds people together, it also often alienates people.”

“Whoever did this is looking for a front-row seat in hell,” Jim Thrasher, an 85-year-old member of one of one of the white churches told Mike Linn of the Montgomery Advertiser on February 3. “This is just mean.” Among the epithets thrown at the arsonists in editorials and letters were “instruments of evil” and “sick individuals.”

If not organized religion as a whole, what about the denomination in question?

Reports from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to the Birmingham News all registered that each burned church was Baptist. However, Wes Smith was one of a handful to try to read some significance into it.

“In several cases, the arsonists have passed up more-accessible sites of Methodist and other denominations of churches before kicking in the Baptists’ doors, dousing their pulpits and pews with accelerants and setting them afire,” Smith wrote in a February 18 dispatch.

In early March, this line of thought got a small boost when police arrested two students from Methodist-affiliated Birmingham-Southern College, Ben Moseley and Russell DeBusk, and a transfer from Birmingham-Southern to the University of Alabama, Matthew Lee Cloyd. It didn’t go far. None of the three seemed candidates for inter-denominational hostility.

“With the clichés that accompany crimes such as this,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Cynthia Tucker wrote on March 12, “friends and acquaintances expressed shock that these young men—nice, studious, fun-loving, successful, all-American (white) boys—might be accused of such heinous acts.”

From up in New England, the Hartford Courant pronounced on March 21, “There was not hate here, just stupidity and incalculable indifference to the consequences of such an unthinkable act.”

As numerous articles pointed out, the three were scions of sunbelt suburbia. Growing up as part of greater Birmingham’s growing professional upper middle class, on entering college they found acclaim in Birmingham-Southern’s drama program and were well-liked around campus.

The arson spree, the Christian Science Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson reported March 10, allegedly began spontaneously while the three were careening around Bibb County looking for deer to spotlight—freeze in the headlights so they can be shot. The spree was a chance thing, a lark, a “joke.” Or was it…something else?

“Debusk has come back from summer break talking about Satanism, and he had gotten Moseley interested as well,” reported Richard Fausset in the Los Angeles Times on March 10. However, “to DeBusk, Satanism was not a violent religion, but a peaceful means of self-actualization.”

Several other stories also highlighted the pair’s participation in the occult, but the idea that devil-worship made them do it disappeared within days of their arrest.

So journalists turned to, the college social networking website, for insight. On the portion of their personal pages where friends can post messages, Cloyd had left Moseley oblique gloating references to their exploits.

The Birmingham News, which worked the story hardest, painted a fairly unattractive portrait of the alleged arsonists. College acquaintances “tell stories of the young men shooting cows, spotlighting deer, filling dorm rooms with hay or rats” staff writer Lisa Olson reported on March 23.

“Cloyd’s own postings on boasted of spotlighting deer and killing animals for a hobby, and a friend wrote that Cloyd ‘has no fear of taking down coyotes with a glock…on the roof of his suv at 3 in the morning.’”

This prompted Birmingham-Southern’s president, David Pollick, to condemn the online culture of the youth of today. He was, reported Greg Garrison of the Birmingham News on March 12, “concerned that so many students inhabit a cyberspace world in which peers celebrate wild antics under the illusion they are anonymous and isolated, possibly endangering their futures.”

Cyberspace, however, seemed like a johnny-come-lately culprit for the sociopathic impulses of young white Southern males. In comments to the Birmingham News March 26, Amber Killingworth, Cloyd’s ex-girlfriend, claimed that his Facebook postings about killing animals weren’t to be taken that seriously.

“I can hear Matt saying those things, but knowing Matt, I know that would be a joke. There is nothing twisted like that. He would not torture animals. He was very into hunting, but we are in Alabama….He was just a Southern guy.”

Journalists in search of the context of meaning might have profited from consulting University of Mississippi historian Ted Ownby’s book Subduing Satan, which explores the traditional tension between evangelical piety and the traditional Southern male culture of drinking, hunting, and generally raising hell. It is not hard to imagine the youths as descendants of “certain boys who,” a Methodist minister in Camden, South Carolina, complained in 1883, “congregated at the door of the church and by smoking, loud talking and mischievous tricks annoy the congregations.”

But in this sorry tale, it was the sufferings and resolve of those who lost their churches, not the hellraisers outside, that provided the moral lesson.

Back on February 9, Birmingham News columnist John Archibald struck the right note by emphasizing the role of the rural church and the extent of the damage caused to the rural communities where they burned. “For a church, especially in the South, is more than a building,” Archibald wrote. “It’s both a second home and a living community journal, a scrapbook of memories from weddings and funerals and baptisms.”

A month later, the Birmingham News’ Garrison quoted the Rev. Jim Parker, pastor of Ashby Baptist Church in Bibb County, as saying, “We’re very relieved to know this had no political, racial or religious overtones. To the churches in our community, this was devastating. For a blow like that, you’re looking for a reason. To think it was malicious vandalism, we’re just kind of taken aback.”

Indeed, there were even detectable signs that community outrage may have had a positive impact on black-white relations. At least that’s what Megan Tench of the Boston Globe found in a February 15 story reported from Bibb County: “Amid ashes, unity: As unresolved fires ravage Alabama churches, a racial barrier falls.”

Tench described the stunned reaction of Pleasant Sabine Baptist Church members to an unannounced visit by members of Antioch Baptist Church, a neighboring white Baptist church that also suffered arson on February 3.

“‘People who I thought didn’t care, you know white people, they started expressing their sorrow,” Wardell Harris told Globe, “his eyes widening in astonishment.”

“They came down and hugged us. Some of them started even crying. Even the older ones, they came and said, ‘Come worship at our Church.’”


Hit Counter