Almost immediately after authorities had apprehended 21-year-old Holden Matthews of Leonville, Louisiana for allegedly burning down three historic, African American churches in rural St. Landry Parish, they suggested to the public the young man may have been brainwashed by Norwegian “black metal” music, an esoteric sub-genre of heavy metal that had been popular in pockets of Europe among neo-nazis and self-proclaimed satanists nearly 26 years ago.
In a nationally televised press conference held the morning after Matthews’ arrest, Louisiana State Fire Marshal Butch Browning told the media the suspect appeared to have been influenced by the music, suggesting that this could be an explanation about his motive. By then, however, the media had been aware of Matthews’ activity on social media, including a Facebook profile in which he claimed to be the lead singer of a band that, at the time of his arrest, had a total of six likes online. More importantly, though, Browning seemed to believe that racist music causes racism instead of the obvious explanation: Racists listen to racist music.
Louisiana’s hate crimes statute not only provides enhanced sentences for simple and aggravated arson committed by an individual who selects their victim “because of (their) actual or perceived race, age, gender, religion, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or ancestry,” it also allows for prosecutors to tack on a charge when a person communicates false information about a planned arson.
If there is a legitimate reason to believe Matthews did not intentionally burn down those three churches because of their place in the African American community, it has not yet been disclosed to the public.
What has been revealed, however, is that Holden Matthews wrote on Facebook specifically about his disgust with black Baptist churches. In a thread about “afrikan spirituality,” Matthews, writing under a pseudonym, said he could not “stand all these baptists around here, bunch of brainwashed people trying to find happiness in a religion that was forced on their ancestors just as it was on mine.” He subsequently elaborated on his belief that “blacks people” should instead adopt the beliefs held by those in pre-colonial Africa.
On social media, Matthews expressed a generalized preoccupation with Norse mythology, and some have suggested that his “faith” in an esoteric paganism was more of a factor than any racial antipathy he may have harbored. But this obscures the fact that groups like the Ku Klux Klan have been appropriating and distorting pagan rituals, symbols, and mythology since the early 19th century.
Even if one were to suspend all disbelief and assert Matthews was motivated by religious hatred and not racial antipathy, that’s still a hate crime.
Thus far, Matthews has been charged with three counts of simple arson of a religious building, which carry a maximum sentence of fifteen years behind bars. If prosecutors ultimately decide to add three counts of hate crimes, his sentence could be doubled to thirty years.
Just as we should be outraged and repulsed by those who seek to terrorize the institution of the black church, we must also guard against anyone who would attempt to obfuscate or excuse racial hatred.
In the past three days, the arrest of Holden Matthews has received coverage in every major national news publication and network and cable news channel, and much of the coverage has exposed the resurgent acceptability of white supremacy and the ways in which the Trump presidency has provided validation to people like David Duke.
Make no mistake: Matthews exclusively destroyed historic, African American churches. This was not intended to merely send a message against Christianity, and it’s unlikely that Matthews’ distorted understanding of pagan mythology was ever anything other than a manifestation of social alienation. No, this was about sending a message to black people.
Yesterday, a white conservative blogger in Baton Rouge, after expressing his frustration with “the usual racially-charged controversy we’re all so tired of enduring,” sought to reframe these burnings as an attack against Christianity by “hostile cultural forces,” even suggesting that white supremacist Dylann Roof’s mass murder of nine African Americans at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, South Carolina was really just an example of anti-Christian brutality.
A day before, a Republican Louisiana state senator criticized the governor for not also condemning murderers when he denounced the destruction of the three churches.
The impulse to deflect from confronting the realities of racial violence and hatred is not because any of these critics feel vulnerable as a result of attacks on their Christian faith; it’s because their support of Donald Trump requires “alternative facts” in order to explain away people like Holden Matthews.
It’s far easier to blame the music than it is to face the music.