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7th place: Grad student essay contest — Katherine Ferran 

Katherine Ferran

Robert Aaron Long is a religious extremist

FFRF awarded Katherine $750.

By Katherine Ferran 

On March 16, 2021, Robert Aaron Long killed eight people in Atlanta, targeting Asian employees of three different spas from which he may have frequented in the past to solicit sex work. Thus, the narrative emerged that Robert struggled with sex addiction, and his rampage was an expression of guilt over his uncontrollable urges. Even the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office leaned heavily on this narrative. A spokesperson described the mass shooter as a troubled-but-upright young man just having a “bad day.” He was even seeking treatment with his church, and sympathy from evangelicals everywhere poured in upon the discovery of this detail. Meanwhile, following this one mass shooting of many that shook the United States in 2021, outcry for gun control was this time accompanied by pleas for empathy and justice from the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities, as well as from sex worker advocates. It baffled many of us that their outrage was matched with seemingly earnest sympathies for the killer. 

But, as Slate reporter Kelsy Burke pointed out, one may interpret “sex addiction” in this case to be a largely manufactured ailment created by evangelical Christian organizations to sell an entire industry of abstinence and control to young Christian men like Robert. The true ailment underlying sexual frustration and dysfunction in young white American men is the natural result of a culture that teaches them shame and entitlement in equal parts. The entitlement to objects of desire can perhaps be traced to the capitalist and patriarchal pillars of American culture, but I would argue that the shame has nearly exclusive roots in religion, namely Christianity. In the case of the sex addiction myth, the evangelical church has taken advantage of this legacy to take purity culture to its religious extreme.

What makes this a case of religious extremism is debatable. Defining religious extremism itself is already a complex debate waged between religious scholars, historians, sociologists, political scientists, etc. Some argue it is done at the individual level to seek martyrdom, others that it must be performed as a group toward a political goal. Most challengingly, there is difficulty in assessing if a belief is actually extreme within a community. I am choosing to emphasize the dimension of religious extremism that is identifiable by the normative restriction of behaviors as imposed by a religious group. In this way, Long’s actions are in line with an act of extremism in that he perceived his own deviation from his group’s teachings and took it upon himself to both correct himself and attempt to correct the world in honor of his beliefs. 

To clarify, the beliefs at the root of the violence are that sexual indulgence is wrong, and that simultaneously men cannot be expected to control their urges, topped off with racist notions of women of color being inherently more sexual than white women, and therefore greater sources of temptation. If Long had perceived his sexual desires as socially deviant and instead pursued therapy from a sex therapist without religious affinities, these beliefs may have been challenged. The objectification of women, the xenophobia surrounding AAPI people, and the use of violence as self-expression are symptoms of an American psychosis that secular scholars, doctors and activists work tirelessly to treat. I do not believe it is religion’s place to do the same. For a church to attempt to shape a multicultural society toward its own moral ideals under the guise of mental health and community support is now demonstrably a pathway by which religious extremism may flourish. 

Katherine, 26, attends Michigan State University. “I am a conservation ecologist seeking further education to break into the world of nature-based climate change solutions,” Katherine writes. “Don’t worry, my environmental science degree from a Catholic university was surprisingly secular. I currently work at a wildlife preserve in southeast Michigan and volunteer regularly as a corporate accountability researcher with Change the Chamber.”