Attacks against churches in the United States have been steadily rising over the past five years. According to a report from the Family Research Council, there have already been 69 incidents just this year, ranging from arson to vandalism. Unfortunately, North Carolina had seven of these incidents, making us the top state for church attacks so far in 2023.
This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes back Arielle Del Turco, Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council, to discuss the rise in these attacks, how they are impacting religious liberty, and what we can do about it.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. In this time of high tensions and polarization, American churches have at times found themselves in the crosshairs of increasing violence. Sadly, so far in 2023, North Carolina has had more incidents of violence committed against churches than any other state.
Well, Arielle Del Turco joins us today to talk about these growing attacks against America’s houses of worship. Del Turco serves as Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council in Washington, DC, and she authored FRC’s new report, which analyzes incidents of violence against churches since 2018.
Arielle Del Turco, welcome back to Family Policy Matters.
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Thank you for having me.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. Well, start with the raw numbers, if you would. Just how dramatic of an increase in violent acts against churches have we seen in the last five years?
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Yeah. So last year we were really seeing in the news a lot of incidents just here and there of violence against churches, of vandalisms, of just odd displays happening at churches, and it was our impression that these were increasing. So we really wanted to put numbers to that feeling and see if, in fact, there was a documented increase.
So we went back to the year 2018, and we found just publicly documented — these are in news reports, police reports that are public, church statements — a massive increase over the last at the time five years, and now we’re in our sixth year and it’s still on the rise. So since 2018, we found 543 publicly documented incidents against churches, but, really, we updated the report just in April looking at the first quarter of 2023. And even just this first quarter, these first three months of the year, we saw almost three times the number of incidents in the same timeframe last year. So just from January to March, we already saw 69 what we’re calling acts of hostility against churches. That includes vandalism, arson, gun-related incidents, attacks that take place on church property.
So really, this is building focused, and we think this is a grave concern for anyone who cares about religious freedom.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Regarding these attacks then, at this point, most of these you said, I think, were building focused, so attacks not necessarily on individuals but on the building itself.
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Correct. And really we think this is a measurement — obviously, it affects people because when your church is vandalized, there’s a certain level of intimidation that you can react with. And I think that’s perfectly natural, and sometimes that’s even the intent of the attacker. But it also just represents a growing hostility towards Christianity, towards these very public representations of Christianity in the public square. Especially we have these beautiful Catholic churches, they have statues outside, even when people are coming and spray painting horrendous things on the side of churches, when they are destroying statues for no apparent reason, and there’s such an increase over the last several years, to us that represents a real growing hostility towards the Christian faith.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So what about patterns — location, denomination, demographics — are you seeing any pattern at all and the attacks?
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Well, the most notable pattern is just that this is so widespread. So in our previous report that covered the last five years, from 2018 to 2022, we found incidents in 45 states plus DC. This year it was a little bit less because we’re only covering the first quarter, but they weren’t just in blue states, maybe we might have expected to see a pattern there, but they really somewhat correlated with the amount of population in a given state. So we’re looking at this as really a widespread issue that is leaving few states untouched.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: I know you mentioned that it seems to signify a growing hostility toward churches and religion. Do you have any sense of what a more specific motivation might be?
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Well, the most obvious reason took place last year. So around the time that the Supreme Court Dobbs decision was leaked in May, and this was the decision that would overturn Roe v. Wadejust one month later when it was released in June, just from the point of that leak and really through the rest of the end of the year, we saw a massive uptick in attacks on churches, interruption of worship services, that were specifically and clearly a pro-abortion protest. You would have people spray painting pro-abortion messages onto churches. So really we see a strong correlation between the Dobbs decision and leak and a rise in attacks against churches, and it makes sense when you think about how the other side is viewing it from their lens.
So we see the Dobbs decision and we say, oh my goodness, this is amazing, this is allowing more lives to be protected in America and that’s great. But when the left is looking at this, they see, oh, my goodness, these Christians were instrumental in the pro-life movement, and they led this horrendous attack against a woman’s fundamental human right to abort her child, which, of course, is not a human right and is a terrible way to look at this situation. But this is what’s motivating a lot of the hostility towards Christianity, this idea that Christians are coming after their rights. And, sadly, all these new faux rights that the left are trying to protect are rooted in the sexual revolution. They’re things like abortion, like same-sex marriage, like the transgender ideology, which as Christians, we know are deeply harmful for people. But any Christian articulation of why these ideas are wrong is increasingly met with hysterical attacks.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So I was surprised to read that North Carolina led the country with the most incidents so far this year. Tell us about that.
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Yeah, so most of the incidents that occurred in North Carolina were in Winston Salem. There was a particular rash of vandalism earlier this year, but, yeah, I was surprised to see this state come out as the top leader in acts of hostility against churches this year. You would think of maybe bigger and even less Christian places like maybe New York or California as states that would top this list, but for us it really points to just how widespread the problem is. And even for those of us who live in red states and think, well, this is a problem for other states, it’s actually not. It’s actually something we should be looking at as well.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What about law enforcement response? Are you thinking that these incidents are being taken seriously enough?
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Well, on one level, many of the incidents we looked into they were under investigation, at least, by police departments. We don’t know what happened in all of those cases. We did see some prosecutions, especially in some of the more egregious cases like arson. However, there’s clearly a disconnect where there’s not enough reason for these would be attackers to be deterred. If maybe the punishments aren’t harsh enough, or maybe the vandals or the people that are committing these crimes just aren’t being found, aren’t being prosecuted to the full extent of the law, there’s clearly a disconnect if these cases continue to rise. We would like to see more action in this area for sure.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So what about churches? Are you seeing that churches, and do you know, if churches are generally responding more with their own security teams? And, if not, do you think that’s a direction churches need to be thinking?
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Yeah, for sure, especially some of the churches that were featured in our report that had experienced an incident. For them it was a wake-up call. Many of these churches they had never been targeted by anything like this before. I’m recalling one smaller church led by a sweet immigrant pastor from Africa who just had his church completely ransacked, just absolutely wanton destruction, and he was really hurt. He was shocked that anyone would single out his church for this kind of senseless destruction is what he saw it, but at the same time, we’ve seen both this pastor and many others who experience these types of crimes, their responses are very — they’re very gracious — not gracious in a way that is inappropriate or wouldn’t hold these vandals or criminals accountable, but gracious in just that they know there’s more going on here, that it’s not always about that specific church that was attacked. It’s often about these larger problems that these people are facing. People are angry. They just don’t know where to turn. There’s clearly mental illness as a factor.
At least a few pastors thought that drug use in their cities, like increasing rampant drug use, was a major problem that was leading to some of these incidences. So, yeah, pastors are looking at security for themselves, for sure, but also at some of these larger social issues, this lack of respect for Christianity that we see in mainstream culture, and also more practical, citywide issues like drug use.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Do you have some suggestions on how we as individuals could respond to some of this kind of hateful speech or mischaracterization of Christians that we may be seeing on the mainstream media, but also just on social media pages?
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Yeah, absolutely. Well, there’s inherent tension because Christian ideas often are in direct conflict with some of these secular ideas. However, what I would really love to see more widespread in culture is this affirmation of religious freedom. America has a long, beautiful tradition of a strong articulation of religious freedom, both in our law, but also in our culture. And I think we’re losing some of that. We’re losing some of this respect for pluralism, this respect that Americans have for other people’s religions. Even though we might not agree we can agree that, oh, they’re churches shouldn’t be attacked, they shouldn’t be threatened when they go to worship services. This used to be non-controversial not very long ago, and I would like to get back to a place where that is true, where we can all affirm religious freedom, and that all people deserve to be able to go to their house of worship and not feel like they’re being targeted by their community.
And the simple reality is that religious freedom doesn’t just rely on these legal protections enshrined in law, although we have those, we need those, those are deeply important, but there’s also a sense in which it relies on cultural support. So we really need to be doing what we can to build this cultural support. Everyone, regardless of their faith, should be condemning these attacks whenever they occur and affirming the right of all people to practice their religious freedom.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So what do you say to people, though, who say that, hey, they’re fine with religious freedom, as long as — people can worship whatever God they want, but keep religion out of politics and public policy?
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Yeah, that’s a tough one. I had an experience not long ago, myself, where I was talking to an Uber driver about I was going to a meeting about this report. He was asking what I was doing and I mentioned this, and he talked about how he had spent decades as a progressive activist, had fought for a long time for abortion rights, and was very angry at Christians for, in his mind, what Christian and other conservatives had done through the Dobbs decision was give his daughters less rights than his mother had. Now, what I would say is that, oh, I think your grandchildren have more rights. They have the right to live in many states, thanks to the Dobbs decision. But there’s an element here where there’s just a fundamental, different worldview, so many people simply are going to think that we are the bad guys, that we are hateful, that we are any number of things. But we need to continue to do what God has called us to do, and that is be a witness in our culture, to express our beliefs with both love and respect, but also with the truth. We can’t have the truth without love and love without the truth, so we really need to not back down, not let these attacks intimidate us or affect what we do, but really just continue to do what the Lord has called us to do in our daily lives.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right. I do appreciate that last comment about continuing to engage in saying things in a way that are, as you said, loving, respectful, but also truthful. So thank you so much for those really great points. We’re about out of time. Before we go, Arielle Del Turco, where can our listeners go to read your report that you authored for the Family Research Council and that’s entitled, “Hostility against churches is on the rise in the United States,” and also to follow your good work?
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Yeah, so listeners can go to our main website, and it’s on the homepage at frc.org, and that stands for Family Research Council.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Arielle Del Turco, Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council in Washington, DC, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.