Dave Cullen describes Colorado—and Jeffco in particular—as “the heart of Evangelical country.” As the attack on Columbine unfolded, the intense religious atmosphere in the community contributed to the spread of rumors of martyrdom and warrior-like defiance in the name of God occurring during the attack. The escapism provided by religious narratives was a comfort to many witnesses and victims alike, not to mention their friends and families. By recounting the ways in which the area megachurches pandered to suffering survivors in order to grow their congregations, Cullen demonstrates the opportunism that exists not just within religious organizations, but in all of society after an attack of Columbine’s magnitude. When people are at their most vulnerable, Cullen argues, they are desperate for answers. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold left no answers in their wake, and the opportunistic churches in the area had their chance—just as the media had theirs—to claim they could provide the answers people sought.
Cassie Bernall, one of the thirteen victims of the shooting, was an Evangelical Columbine student with a troubled past who had transferred there from a private Christian school in order to “enlighten nonbelievers.” In the aftermath of the attack, Cassie became a major recruiting tool of the churches who sought to “pack [the] ark with as many people as possible.” Craig Scott, a survivor of the library massacre and the older brother of Rachel Scott (one of the first victims,) professed to have heard Eric Harris ask Cassie whether or not she believed in God. When Cassie answered “yes,” Craig said, Eric shot her. The story gained enormous traction in the local Evangelical community. Cassie’s status as “the martyr of Columbine” nearly led to her official martyrdom within the church. Her mother, Misty Bernall, wrote and published a book based on her daughter’s life and terrifying final moments which has—as of 2017—sold over one million copies. The story of Cassie’s martyrdom, however, was false.
At least two witnesses tell a different story—Emily Wyant testified that Eric Harris approached the desk Cassie was hiding underneath, ducked his head to her level, said “peekaboo,” and shot her in the head, killing her almost instantly. Another student in the library, Val Schnurr, did actually profess her faith in God to the killers—they left her alive, though, after becoming distracted by a far-off noise. The anecdote of Cassie’s martyrdom thus ties in with themes of misinformation and sensationalism, as Cassie’s story symbolized hope, redemption, and grace in the face of unspeakable violence. People desperate for a glimmer of hope clung to her tale. Because of this, the story became difficult to debunk—even when stripped of its factual value, its emotional value (judging by the book’s continued sales and the story’s existence throughout the Evangelical community to this day) could not—or would not—be so easily purged.
“The kids are turning to God!” one member of the Denver clergy exclaimed during a service in the aftermath of the massacre. He was speaking opportunistically, but not incorrectly. In the wake of the attacks, Columbine students did “pour” into local churches, which were “just a place to go” for some. Church, for many survivors, became a neutral space that wasn’t home and wasn’t school, and that offered free snacks to boot. Many members of the local clergy—specifically non-Evangelicals—were actually appalled by the blatant opportunism, though several still believed that if the “recruitment” in the wake of the massacre was “truly [being] done for God,” it was more than acceptable. The cornerstone of Evangelical belief is recruitment of others in the name of Jesus as the “only way” to salvation—so despite the Evangelicals’ opportunism, they were behaving opportunistically out of “obligation” to the tenets of their religion.
Dylan Klebold’s funeral was arranged by Reverend Don Marxhausen after the Klebolds begged him for their help. The redemptive nature of the rite allowed Marxhausen, when interviewed by the media, to describe the Klebolds as “the loneliest people on the planet”—an opportunity to humanize the confused and grieving but publicly reviled Klebold family. While the Evangelical community may have behaved opportunistically, their mission of recruitment was indeed given a tremendous opportunity after the attacks—an opportunity that many believed just could not be “wasted.” The church’s insistence that it could provide community, refuge, and understanding in the wake of the attacks—and even the answers as to why the attacks occurred—was a port in the storm to many. Cullen never offers his opinion as to whether a symbiotic relationship between the grieving public and the crusading Evangelicals was morally beneficial, or whether it reeked too heavily of blind opportunism. However, just as “awe is proportional to grandeur” in the case of spectacle killings and mass murders, he implies, grief is proportional to vulnerability and desperation.