Franklin Graham, son and heir of evangelist Billy
Graham, looked out over the crowd of 70,000. Speaking at the climax of a Colorado memorial
service on April 25 for those slain at Columbine High School, Graham offered mourners,
government dignitaries, and the assembled media his own best advice for coping with the
tragedy: "Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ? Have you trusted him as your
savior? Jesus said, I am the way, the truth, and the light. No man comes to the Father but
A century ago, in an America saturated by evangelical Protestantism, nothing would have
seemed out of place about Franklin Grahams question. But with that classic,
unabashed, evangelical Protestant plea to accept Jesus Christ as a personal savior, Graham
tossed aside one of the unwritten laws of civility that has shaped Americas public
rituals of mourning since World War II. Generalized theism is good; Jesus talk is not.
Vice President Al Gore-and, in fact, all of the political officials who spoke in
Littleton that day-adhered to the conventions of modern civic pluralism. Gore spoke of
God, alluded frequently to the Beatitudes, but didnt say they came from the Gospel
of Mathew, and, for balance, quoted the Psalmist. The name Jesus didnt pass his
But at Littleton that Sunday afternoon, it was Gore who was out of step. Graham had
plenty of outspoken evangelical company on the stage.
"Whether you are a family member grieving the loss of a loved one, a neighbor
hurting deeply for them, or a member of this community that is shocked by the evil that
has been perpetrated in our midst, we your pastors urge you to seek Jesus," said
Jerry Nelson, pastor of the towns Southern Gables Evangelical Free Church. Christian
singer Phil Driscoll followed with a song entitled "Christ Remains," which
included lyrics such as: "Hes more than a religion. My provider, my protector
is always watching over me. He is my comforter, my counselor, hes all Ill ever
After the observance, a small howl of protest went up from liberal Protestant, Jewish,
and African-American religious leaders in the Denver area. The Rev. Michael Carrier, a
Denver Presbyterian pastor and president of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado,
complained that Graham seemed bent on "terrorizing us into heaven instead of loving
us into heaven." The service, he told Virginia Culver, the Denver Posts
religion writer, "was supposed to be for all the people of Colorado and the nation to
find solace, not an evangelical Christian service." Rabbi Fred Greenspahn of
Littletons Temple Beth Shalom, the only non-Christian on the program, added that the
service showed a "pretty ignorant, narrow-minded streak of Christianity."
Greenspahn observed that he and Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput, the other
non-evangelical religious leader to participate, were allotted only four minutes of a 90
minutes ceremony." Even African-American clergy, who are themselves quite prone to
stress Jesus in their public rhetoric, thought the service was over the top. "If you
have a state memorial and Franklin Graham says you have to accept Jesus, youre
asking to offend people," the Rev. Patrick Demmer, president of the mostly black
Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance.
A spokesman for Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who presided over the Littleton observance,
tersely dismissed the complaints with the observation that the event was entirely
supported by private donations. And, in fact, the complaints never gained much attention
from journalists or the public at large.
As for local evangelical leaders, they were amazed that anyone could possibly object to
their service. In a story aired on NPRs "Weekend Edition" May 2, Bill
Oudemolen, senior pastor of Littletons Foothills Bible Church, told reporter Dan
Drayer that the memorial service broadcast on CNN created a rare and irresistible pastoral
opportunity. "There was a huge audience, both local and national and even global, who
were all considering the realities of life and death in a way that, perhaps, many never
have. It was, therefore, "just the right time" to raise the issue of personal
Of course, for evangelicals, its always the right time to raise the question of
personal salvation. Whats striking about the Littleton case, however, is not simply
the reassertion of evangelical Protestant piety in public in the 1990s. It is, rather, the
general sense of legitimacy and authenticity accorded a prime example of the re-emerging
evangelical hegemony over American public rituals of mourning.
Local circumstances gave special prestige and plausibility to evangelical interpreters
of the Littleton tragedy: Evangelical students had a high profile at Columbine High
School, and a high proportion of the victims were young evangelicals. (Four of the 12
students killed belonged to Bible-study group that met daily at the school.)
News accounts reported that in many of the classrooms where Columbine students were
trapped for hours, students spontaneously asked their peers if they "were
religious" and could lead prayers for deliverance. As many as four students may have
responded affirmatively when their peer executioners asked them if they believed in God.
(Cassie Bernal and Rachel Scott, among the most discussed victims, were both killed. Two
other young women survived the shootings). In addition, teacher David Scott, an active
member of the congregation at Trinity Christian Center, played a heroic role in organizing
the escape of many students and died a martyrs death.
Pastors of churches like the Trinity Christian Center, Foothills Bible Church, the
Celebration Christian Fellowship, the Orchard Road Christian Center, and the Southern
Gables Evangelical Free Church-all buoyant examples of the growing strength of evangelical
Protestantism in many suburban neighborhoods-collaborate spontaneously and to a remarkable
degree. They took a common approach, expressing open grief and overwhelming pride in the
victims, and articulating a common theological interpretation of the meaning of the
And, with the exception of climactic African-American Protestant funeral for Isaiah
Shoels, the evangelical funerals dominated the week after the shootings. Broadcast live on
national cable television, the funerals-four of them from a single church-radiated
intensity. They were highly personal, emotion-charged, and offered a crystal clear
interpretation of the lasting religious and political significance of the shootings as
Pastors spoke frequently with the press covering the unfolding rituals of mourning: the
mounds of flowers and other personal items that soon buried Cassie Bernals and
Rachel Scotts cars in the high school parking lot, the 15 crosses erected on a hill
overlooking the high school that almost instantly became a pilgrimage site, the
collections of personal momentos displayed at the funerals. By and large, the news
coverage of these developments relayed this information without comment. But some
reporters did remark on the overwhelming sense of one faith traditions approach.
Reporter Lorraine Adams May 2 article in the Washington Post focused mainly on
the controversy over one grief-stricken parents demolition of crosses erected in
memory of shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, but she also recounted her visit to the
evolving hillside shrine. What struck her most about the crosses was the profusion of
flowers. "There are sealed plastic bags with long, homemade poems, signed and dated.
Wind chimes, posters made by Brownie troops. Elaborate with drawings and doggerel,"
she wrote. "A black leather Bible, bookmarked in Romans with an orange lily.
Protestant Christian expression trumps all others. There is no Koran, no Buddha, no
Hebrew, no Virgin Mary. Jesus is ubiquitous, as is Scripture: See I will not forget
you-I have carved you in the palm of my hand."
Have evangelical Protestants really "captured" public mourning for tragedies
such as the Littleton shootings? After all, the nations premiere ongoing site of
ritual mourning-the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington-does not function according to
the evangelical mode. The memorial and the rituals around it reject authoritative
verbalizations and interpretations. But that site was built two decades ago, and the
evangelical style is now ascendant in this realm of public life.
The re-emergence of an emotionally powerful evangelical Protestant approach to public
mourning is easily traceable-partly because our communal life gives so many opportunities
for public mourning. The public grieving after other recent mass killings, such as those
at Paducah, Jonesville, and Oklahoma City, were also shaped by strong evangelical
One might object that those killings took place in the Bible Belt, where the public
force of evangelical Protestantism has always been much stronger than in other places in
the nation. Maybe so.
But what makes the Littleton case so interesting is that Jefferson County, Colorado is
not an evangelical stronghold. Littleton manifestly has a lively evangelical culture-and
one with a strong presence among adolescents-but Roman Catholics make up more than 43
percent of the countys church members. The next largest groups are Mormons and Jews,
each with almost 7 percent of the population identifying with a particular tradition. The
total for all evangelical groups is only about 10 percent of adherents.
So what gives?
- Evangelicals are very willing to incorporate changing social mores into their patterns
of worship. Despite the hidebound image of evangelicals, this has been true since at least
the nineteenth century. In Littleton and elsewhere that meant great informality and
personal focus characterized the funerals: coffins designed to allow friends and family to
pen last messages, teddy-bears everywhere, and a structure of ministry that served up
religious leaders who actually knew the victims well enough to contribute to eulogies. The
massive congregations that attended the funerals at the Trinity Christian Center sang
"Amazing Grace," but at Rachel Scotts funeral a tape of "My Heart
Will Go On," the theme song from the movie Titanic, was played repeatedly, too.
- Evangelicals have loosened up about rituals and symbols. A generation ago, a field of
crosses would have screamed "Catholicism." But contemporary Colorado
evangelicals are evidently comfortable with shrines, symbolic gifts, and the celebration
- Where others are silent, evangelicals have lots to say about the meaning of death-for
both the dead and survivors.
By comparison, those employing the civic pluralist mode cant say much thats
concrete. Vice President Gore began his remarks at Littleton by saying, "Nothing that
I can say today to you can bring comfort.... I would be misleading you if I said I
understand this; I dont. Why humans do evil I dont understand."
Even the Catholic archbishop, who certainly could have summoned a great deal of
sectarian rhetorical firepower, offered mourners a message that emphasized that
"nothing great is achieved without suffering." By contrast, evangelical clergy
began most of the funeral with flat statements that the martyred students were sitting
with Christ in heaven. "Well Rachel, you have graduated early," Barry Palser,
pastor of Orchard Road Christian Center, said in his eulogy. "You are a champion.
Youre an example to this whole world about how Jesus can touch people through
Another evangelical touchstone-articulated in eulogies, on Web sites, in songs and
poems, and even on T shirts-is that, as Kenneth Woodword put it in the June 14 issue of
Newsweek, "Cassies death was part of Gods plan to bring forth witnesses
out of the Columbine killings who could then win others to Christ." Woodwards
story notes that a new evangelical ministry founded in the wake of the Littleton
shootings, Revival Generation, plans a series of teen rallies that stress that theme in 28
states this summer.
After two decades of relentlessly articulate evangelical self-insertion into public
discourse, the public and the press have gotten used to both the white-hot style of
evangelical discourse and its intentional parochialism. The Littleton pastors who shaped
the rites of mourning presented to the nation didnt set out to offend the
sensibilities of others. There was no pre-existent plan to marginalize Archbishop Chaput,
Rabbi Greenspahn, or anyone else.
But neither are they interested in anyone elses point of view. And most people
now take that reality for granted. None of the network evening news programs even
mentioned Franklin Grahams altar call at the Littleton on April 25. Print reporters
didnt pick up on it either. Grahams critics didnt get coverage until
almost a week after the service, when they complained to the Denver Posts
long-serving religion writer.
So will this evangelical style of mourning sweep away all alternate voices in every
corner of the country? Assuredly not. The kind of spontaneous evangelical response evident
in the heartland isnt likely to reach such mighty heights in Los Angeles or Boston.
But it is a growing factor and its clear that many evangelical leaders recognize
that their general critique of American society receives a more sympathetic response when
launched from pulpits at funerals than, say, at anti-abortion rallies.
"Weve removed the 10 commandments for our schools. In exchange, weve
reaped selfish indifference and glorified hedonism. Weve told our children that they
were nothing more than highly evolved amoeba, accidentally brought forth from mud pools
somewhere in time. And we wonder why so many of them see no intrinsic value in life,"
Bruce Porter preached at Rachel Scotts funeral. "I want to say to you here
today that prayer was established again in our public schools last Tuesday."
Can a religio-political gambit of that crudity win widespread support? It seems
unlikely. But as Hanna Rosin reported on June 21 in the Washington Post, "three
religious amendments that would have been unthinkable before the Columbine shootings
breezed through [the U.S. House of Representatives] with surprising support from
Democrats." One permitted the display of the Ten Commandments in public places.
Another made it harder to sue a school when students pray or read Bible stories in class.
And a third declared that a memorial service or statue on school property can be overtly
religious without violating the Constitution."
So well see.