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The Nightmare of Christianity: How Religious Indoctrination Led to Murder

The authoritarian culture of the Christian right pushed a deeply disturbed young man named Matthew Murray over the edge.
 
 
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Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Max Blumenthal's new bookRepublican Gommorah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Partypublished byNation Books.

A few miles down the road from Colorado Springs [a home to James Dobson's Focus on the Family], in the quiet bedroom community of Eldredge, a deeply disturbed young man named Matthew Murray followed the unfolding debacle at New Life Church [once under the stewardship of Pastor Ted Haggard] with an interest that bordered on obsession. Murray, a sallow-faced, bespectacled 24-year-old, had been indelibly scarred by a lifetime of psychological abuse at the hands of his charismatic Pentecostal parents. Murray's mind became crowded with thoughts of death, destruction, and the killings he would soon carry out in the name of avenging what he called his "nightmare of Christianity."

On an online chat room for former Pentecostals, Murray heaped contempt on his mother, Loretta, a physical therapist who homeschooled him to ensure that his contact with the outside world was severely limited. "My 'mother,'" Murray wrote, "is just a brainswashed [sic] church agent cun,t [sic]. The only reason she had me was because she wanted a body/soul she could train into being the next Billy Graham..."

He went on:

 

...my mother was into all the charismatic "fanatical evangelical" insanity. Her and her church believed that Satan and demons were everywhere in everything. The rules were VERY strict all the time. We couldn't have ANY christian or non-christian music at all except for a few charismatic worship CDs. There was physical abuse in my home. My mother although used psychotropic drugs because she somehow thought it would make it easier to control me (I've never been diagnosed with any mental illness either). Pastors would always come and interrogate me over video games or TV watching or other things. There were NO FRIENDS outside the church and family and even then only family members who were in the church. You could not trust anyone at all because anyone might be a spy.

An authoritarian Christian-right self-help guru named Bill Gothard created the home-schooling regimen implemented by Murray's parents. Like his ally James Dobson, Gothard first grew popular during the 1960s by marketing his program to worried evangelical parents as anti-hippie insurance for adolescent children. Based on the theocratic teachings of R. J. Rushdoony, who devised Christian schools and home-schooling as the foundation of his Dominionist empire, Gothard's Basic Life Principles outlined an all-consuming environment that followers could embrace for the whole of their lives. According to Ron Henzel, a one-time Gothard follower who co-authored a devastating exposé about his former guru called A Matter of Basic Principles, under the rules, "large homeschooling families abstain from television, midwives are more important than doctors, traditional dating is forbidden, unmarried adults are 'under the authority of their parents' and live with them, divorced people can't remarry under any circumstance, and music has hardly changed at all since the late nineteenth century."

At the Charter School for Excellence, a school in South Florida inspired by Gothard's draconian principles that receives $800,000 in state funds each year, children are indoctrinated into a culture of absolute submission to authority almost as soon as they learn to speak. A song that the school's first-graders are required to recite goes as follows:

 

Obedience is listening attentively,
Obedience will take instructions joyfully,
Obedience heeds wishes of authorities,
Obedience will follow orders instantly.
For when I am busy at my work or play,
And someone calls my name, I'll answer right away!
I'll be ready with a smile to go the extra mile
As soon as I can say "Yes, sir!" "Yes ma am!"
Hup, two, three!

Former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is among the 2.5 million Americans who have attended Gothard's Basic Seminar. According to Huckabee, who once earmarked state funds to distribute Gothard's literature in Arkansas prisons, Gothard was responsible for "some of the best programs for instilling character into people." But to the deeply alienated Murray, Gothard was the original source of his pathology. "I believe that the truth needs to be exposed," Murray wrote in a September 2006 discussion forum of recovering Gothard followers. "People need to see through errornious [sic] and destructive doctrines and teachings including Bill Gothard's."

After graduating from Gothard's home-schooling seminars, which constituted the bulk of his education (Colorado has no educational records for Murray after third grade), he was presented by his parents with two options for higher education. The first choice was Haggard's alma mater, Oral Roberts University. ORU at the time was beginning to unravel under the weight of scandalous revelations that its new president, Richard Roberts--the scion of its beloved founder--had allegedly looted university coffers to pay for his daughter's junkets to the Bahamas and bankroll his wife's shopping sprees. (Oral Roberts's other son, Ronnie, was a cocaine-addicted closet homosexual who committed suicide in 1982). Murray's second option was the "Discipleship Training School" of Youth with a Mission (YWAM), a Christian Reconstructionist-inspired missionary group that trained bright-eyed youngsters to spread the gospel of Colorado Springs to under-evangelized Third World nations. Desperate to escape his parents' rigid order, Murray joined YWAM.

But as soon as Murray enrolled at YWAM's training center in nearby Arvada in 2002, he found himself trapped in an authoritarian culture even more restrictive than home. He realized that, as another student of YWAM bluntly put it, the school's training methods resembled "cult mind-controlling techniques." Murray became paranoid, speaking aloud to voices only he could hear, according to a former roommate. He complained that six of his male peers had made a gay sex video and that others routinely abused drugs. Hypocrisy seemed to be all around him, or at least dark mirages of it. A week before Murray was scheduled to embark on his first mission, YWAM dismissed him from the program for unspecified "health reasons." "They admitted that I hadn't done anything wrong, just that they had prayed and felt I wasn't popular/'connected' and talkative enough," he recalled.

Two years later, Murray raged at two YWAM administrators during a Pentecostal conference his mother had dragged him to attend. The shocked staffers promptly warned Loretta Murray that her son "wasn't walking with the Lord and could be planning violence." Within days, an ornery local pastor was allowed to burst into the young Murray's room, rifle through his belongings, and leave with a satchel full of secular DVDs and CDs--apparent evidence of his depravity. Murray's mother searched his room for satanic material every day afterward for three months, stripping him of his privacy and whatever was left of his love for her. After the trauma-inducing raids, in which Murray estimated his mother and her friends destroyed $900 worth of his property, he concluded, "Christianity is one big lie."

Murray lurched to the polar opposite edge of his parents' fanatical faith, replacing their Bible as his inspiration with the writings of Aleister Crowley, a flamboyant, self-proclaimed Satanist. The fin de siècle British sensationalist declared himself the "Great Beast of Revelation" and claimed his birth was foretold in the Apocalypse of St. John. For two years Murray attended ceremonies of Crowley's mock-religious order, Ordo Templi Orientis, following in the footsteps of famous Crowley followers such as Scientology cult founder L. Ron Hubbard and Jack Parsons, the eccentric rocket fuel inventor who prayed to the Greek god Pan after each successful launch. "This man is like the antidote to what I was raised in," Murray wrote of his new hero Crowley. Murray was especially compelled by the fact that Crowley, like him, was raised by fundamentalist Christian parents he loathed.

Murray had been indoctrinated so thoroughly into charismatic Pentecostal culture, however, that even while he railed against his religious upbringing, he could not abandon his ingrained attraction to religiosity. So instead of fleeing hardcore Christian culture for secular humanism, a natural position for jaded skeptics like him, he traded his former faith for Crowley's occultism. Crowley's philosophy of sex "magick," narcotic hallucination and self-degradation (he allegedly ordered his followers to have oral sex with goats and drink the blood of cats) was forged in reaction to his parents' Puritanism and, in fact, was first practiced in English boarding schools, where homosexual experimentation was practically de rigueur. Crowley became Murray's new lodestar. Like Jesus, who was so impressed by the ardor of a pagan Roman centurion whom he met that he remarked, "I have not found such great faith, even in Israel," Murray yearned for spiritual practice in its purest form.

Now he practiced Crowley's faux faith as fervently as his parents wished he had worshipped their neo-evangelical macho Christ. But the occult only led Murray into a confusing new world of cheap thrills. By his own account, he engaged in "every sort of sexual pervrsion [sic]...that's legal," from anonymous gay sex to bestiality. He boasted of his proclivity for binge drinking, his love for death metal bands, and his penchant for spewing "blasphemy." He envisioned his new experiences as positively transcendent. "In a way it's like I'm just about completely rebelling against christianity [sic] in any way that I can," the enragé mused, "but this is a little different of a rebellion."

But as Murray's detachment from his family and community intensified, so did his yearning for the interpersonal solidarity increasingly denied to him. In May 2007, Dr. Marlene Winell, a leading expert on treating ex-fundamentalists traumatized by the experience of leaving their faith, was notified about Murray's tortured online postings. Winell immediately posted a response to Murray. "I can see that you are in a great deal of pain and I'd like to invite you to contact me," she wrote on a website where he frequently posted. "I'd like to be helpful if I can. People do care about you and there is hope."

Murray recoiled. "It's so funny how many people want to help you and love you and counsel you when there is money involved," he replied.

Having refused one of the last means of human contact available to him, Murray plunged into a sinkhole of loneliness. His online postings now read like death wishes. In one of his final screeds, dated July 7, 2007, Murray offered a garbled attempt at death metal lyrics that captured his sense of complete despondency:

... I am crying here in a buried kennel
I have never felt so final
Someone help me please, losing all reserve
I am f***ing gone, I think I am fu**ing dying
HANDSONMYFACEOVERBEARINGICAN'TGETOUT!
You all stare, but you ll never see
There is something inside me ...
Cut me! beat me! molest me! abuse me! @#%$ me! hate me!
break me! Rape me! kill me! show me!
Here is my purity ......
Enter this nightmare....

Murray's desire to realize his emotional and intellectual aspirations had become completely blocked. His self-esteem and sense of spontaneity evaporated into a heavy cloud of hopelessness. At the same time, his destructive impulses grew. The self-described "rejected sheltered Christian boy" openly contemplated suicide, cutting his arms with sharp objects when his anxiety seemed unbearable. He burrowed himself into the mass-marketed aesthetic of goth culture, from Satanist screeds to plastic pagan chum to the calculated gloom of commercial death metal, still finding time to download literally thousands of fetishistic porn images on his computer. Murray had become what Erich Fromm called the "necrophilious character," a personality whose fixation on death leads them to acts of malignant destructiveness.

As Murray nourished his death obsession, his behavior grew increasingly aggressive. On July 22, he posted a diary entry boasting about haranguing his mother and mocking her "favorite pastor," Ted Haggard, or, as he called him, "Ted Faggard." "Hey, bit,ch [sic]," Murray said he barked in his mother's face, "using drugs, alcohol and having gay sex, I'm just trying to do what any Christian pastor would do, at least I'm not doing meth like Ted Haggard...but maybe I will try it and maybe I'll just OD on stuff just so I don't have to deal with you anymore..."

The violent rage roiling inside Murray overwhelmed his sense of self-pity. He was intent on suicide, but first Murray wanted to kill as many tongue-talking Pentecostal zealots as he could. Those who constantly invoked the wiles of Satan to frighten him into submission, or impelled him to wage "spiritual warfare" against the secular Enemy were the true spawn of the Devil. "You Christians brought this on yourselves," Murray proclaimed. "All I want to do is kill and injure as many of you...as I can especially Christians who are to blame for most of the problems in the world."

As winter approached, Murray acquired a fearsome arsenal of assault rifles, including a Bushmaster XM-15 ("Beltway Sniper" John Lee Malvo's weapon of choice) and an AK-47. At a local UPS store where Murray maintained a mailbox, employees observed that he was ordering "boxes and boxes" of ammunition. Murray's bogus tales of preparing to deploy with the Marines quelled whatever suspicions burned-out UPS employees might have had. Meanwhile, Murray's parents, who were adept at ferreting secular media material from his desk drawers, had no idea his stockpile even existed.

Late in the evening on December 8 (the same day that a psychotic young man named Mark David Chapman killed John Lennon in 1980), Murray suited up in black military fatigues, gathered two automatic rifles, three semiautomatic pistols and 1,000 rounds of ammo, then jumped in his car. Besides his weapons, Murray carried in his pants pocket Aleister Crowley's The Book of the Law, a tract the author claimed to have transcribed from messages dictated to him by ancient Egyptian gods, and which he summarized in one phrase: "Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law."

In the back seat of Murray's car was another of his favorite books. It was I Had to Say Something, by Mike Jones [a former escort who had an affair with Haggard].

Murray sped toward Arvada, where the Youth with a Mission complex stood. The time for spiritual warfare had come. Upon arriving at the complex, he stomped to the front desk and demanded to stay overnight. A receptionist calmly refused his demand. Without hesitation, Murray whipped out a .40 caliber semiautomatic Berretta pistol and opened fire on a group of staffers chatting away as they wandered out of a Christmas banquet.

Tiffany Johnson was caught in Murray's fusillade. An affable 24-year-old who said she spent one night every week ministering to adolescent skateboarders involved in "drugs, cutting, branding, and hurting others," Johnson fell and died instantly. A studious 26-year-old named Philip Crouse, who spent part of a summer vacation constructing a house for impoverished residents of the Crow Indian reservation in Montana, was also hit while rushing to stop Murray. Crouse crumpled to the floor and died beside Johnson. Murray fled the blood-soaked complex, fired up his car, and sped away to complete his mission. Days earlier he seethed, "God, I can't wait till I can kill you people. Feel no remorse, no sense of shame, I don't care if I live or die in the shoot-out."

Murray's next stop was the New Life Church.

While police fanned out through Arvada in a frantic search for the still-unidentified YWAM shooter, Murray pulled into the New Life parking lot. At 1 pm, as worshippers filed out of afternoon services, Murray sprayed a hail of bullets at the crowd with his Bushmaster rifle. He struck two teenaged sisters, Stephanie and Rachel Works, who had recently returned from missionary trips to Brazil and China, killing them instantly. He then charged into the church's main foyer, unaware that Haggard's replacement, Brady Boyd, had authorized as many as thirty parishioners to carry concealed weapons into his spiritual sanctuary, presumably to guard against hell-bent invaders like him. One of Boyd's volunteer guards, Jeanne Assam, an ex-cop who became born again after the Minneapolis police department fired her for lying, sprinted toward Murray, shouting, "Surrender!" again and again. Murray refused to comply. Assam leapt forward, directly in the line of Murray's fire, and peeled off a clip from her pistol, lightly wounding the black-clad shooter in the leg. He retreated. Moments later, he shot himself in the head and died.

All four of Murray's victims were youthful, mostly home-schooled and extremely idealistic. They could have been his roommates at YWAM or could have joined him in a Christian youth fellowship. They seemed so much like him, at least on the surface. So did he single them out? Although there is no conclusive answer, Murray's acknowledged grievances hint at his motives. Each of his victims represented to him the obedient, unquestioning religious automaton he was required to be but never could become. They had embarked on the exotic foreign missions he had been rejected for, discovering friendship and even (nonsexual) wholesome romance while he languished in his room--his "buried kennel." The blithe everyday existence of these shiny, happy Jesus people was Murray's "Christian nightmare."

Like the sadistic antagonists of William Golding's Lord of the Flies Murray's violent impulses had been constrained only by what Golding called the "invisible yet strong...taboo of the old life...the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law." When he mowed down his peers, Murray hoped to demonstrate his complete contempt for the civilization of adults, along with all its corruption, cruelty and internal contradictions. His victims, then, were no more than "littluns" he sacrificed to exact his revenge, to make Colorado Springs weep for the end of innocence long after order returned. Murray's real targets were his rigid parents, their draconian childrearing gurus and the prying pastor who raided his room--the architects of his "Christian nightmare."

The evangelical hierarchy's handling of the Haggard scandal had hardened Murray's murderous intentions. Both Murray and Haggard were unable to fulfill their essential selves within the strict confines of Pentecostal culture, so each of them sought an escape through drugs and illicit sex. But whereas Murray openly embraced his turn to decadence, Haggard concealed his secret life behind bombastic expressions of religious fervor. After Haggard was unmasked as a fraud, however, he was pronounced "completely heterosexual" by the movement's elders in only three weeks. Murray, who had been irrevocably rejected for abandoning his faith, was stung by this spectacle of cheap grace. "I want to know where was all the love, mercy and compassion for my supposed imperfections?" he wrote despairingly.

The mainstream media made little effort to analyze the trauma-wracked mentality that drove Murray to violence, opting instead for a tight focus on the more sensational aspects of his killings. When cable news arrived on the scene of the crime, it sketched a haphazard portrait of Murray hardly distinguishable from that of Eric Harris [one of the two Columbine High School shooters], Cho Seung-Hui [the Virginia Tech gunman], or John Lee Malvo. He was just another young male nutcase with a gun, or, according to CNN anchor Rick Sanchez, a killer motivated exclusively by "his hate for certain Christians." When Sanchez interviewed Marlene Winell, the psychiatrist who attempted to counsel Murray, her attempts to assess the impact that Murray's religious indoctrination had had in shaping his destructive behavior were brushed aside.

During the brief moments in which Sanchez allowed Winell to speak, she attempted to explain the obvious, that Murray's destructive actions were influenced at least in part by what she called "a crazy-making system that has all sorts of circular reasoning. It's got bottom line rules like, 'Don't think, don't respect your own feelings in any way.' Small children are told they're going to burn in Hell. And if it doesn't work for you...[you are told that] it's your fault."

Sanchez crinkled his brow in deep indignation. Finally, he cut in on his guest. "While I disagree with much of what you said as a Christian," he snapped at Winell, "I certainly respect your right to say it." Sanchez suddenly became exasperated. "You're not blaming the faith for this, are you?" he wanted to know. "I mean a man has free will!" Before Winell could respond, Sanchez terminated the interview.

By failing to explore the roots of Murray's violence, the mainstream media allowed the far right to seize the narrative. Relying on the insights of pastor Joe Schimmel, a sixties rock burnout who resolved after becoming born again "to show how Satanism can influence youth through music," the far-right web magazine WorldNetDaily reported that Murray "had sold his soul" to the occult and "another devil: rock and roll." An earlier WorldNetDaily report on Murray's killing spree buttressed its analysis with the conclusion of an anonymous commenter on a Rocky Mountain News forum: "Two words: DEMONIC POSSESSION."

 
The Rocky Mountain News channeled the movement's version, turning to none other than the evangelical anti-porn crusader Steve Arterburn as the arbiter on the impact of pornography on Murray. The newspaper reported, "Arterburn said Thursday he wasn't surprised to hear that pornography played a role in Murray's life. Not only does pornography dehumanize, but like any addiction, increasing amounts are needed to be satisfied--a deadly recipe for those prone to violence." But if porn breeds violence, then why had Ted Haggard, an avid porn consumer, never engaged in any act of physical brutality beyond lightly spanking the buttocks of a gay bodybuilder?

While the national press clamored for an exclusive interview with Murray's parents, the couple quietly arranged to meet with a psychologist who could help them prepare a satisfactory explanation for their son's acts--and one devoid of the hard truths Winell attempted to tell. On February 27, 2008, the Murrays were escorted onto Focus on the Family's compound, led into its lower recesses, and seated, in an elegantly appointed radio studio, at a table across from James Dobson. Now they poured forth their version of their son's descent into madness. "The lesson is that unforgiveness leads to this bitterness and then opens you up to the spirit of Satan, to the spirit of whatever, and when that occurs, it becomes a power that people cannot control," said Murray's father Ronald, a neurologist. Dobson was careful not to press the Murrays further for insights into their son's pathology. Blaming Satan was always safer than excessive reflection. "We can't explain it, we can't understand," Dobson declared. "We say, 'Lord, someday we will understand, but today we don't.' "

There was really little else Dobson could say. Murray's parents were not neglectful of their son, nor were they intentionally abusive. By all accounts, they raised him in faithful accordance with the teachings of the Christian right's leading self-help gurus. In their cloistered world, where home-schooling is viewed as an ideal alternative to "government schools," and where the rod is rarely spared, they were model parents. Murray's killing spree thus reflected less on his parents than on the all-encompassing authoritarian culture that Dobson had helped to shape. When practiced in the real world, the movement's "family values" sometimes produced some unusually dysfunctional families. Only by blaming Satan and his minions for Murray's acts could the Christian right avoid acknowledging this absolutely damning indictment of its ideology.

This sort of reasoning had been seen before, from figures ranging from Ted Bundy to Tom DeLay to Ted Haggard. When confronted with their own crimes and sins, these movement icons found that faulting the prince of darkness was far easier than accepting personal responsibility.

By the time Colorado Springs completed its mourning period, the Republican primary had begun in earnest. The primary field was a cast of deeply flawed figures, each one less attractive to the conservative movement than the last. Almost none of them boasted culture war bonafides, yet all campaigned as though their ambitions depended on "value voters." Ironically, the Republican politician most despised by the Christian right, Senator John McCain, a sworn enemy of conservative icons from Tom DeLay to Jerry Falwell, secured the nomination. McCain immediately lurched to the right, embarking on a doomed strategy that would ratify the self-destruction of his party.

Max Blumenthal is a senior writer for The Daily Beast and writing fellow at The Nation Institute, whose book, Republican Gomorrah (Basic/Nation Books), is forthcoming in Spring 2009. Contact him at maxblumenthal3000@yahoo.com.