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On Thursday, days after five innocent people were murdered at Club Q in Colorado Springs, vandals defaced the large “Focus on the Family” sign outside the Christian ministry’s headquarters in the same city. “Their blood is on your hands,” said the spray-painted words. “Five lives taken.”

Underneath the brick sign were two metal placards with a Bible verse written on them: “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. — 2 Corinthians 11:14-15.”

The @colpeoplespress Twitter account first publicized the incident and included a letter of explanation signed by the “Front Range Queer Community,” though there’s not much information on who’s in the group or what they do. (Based on a quick Google search, the group doesn’t appear to have existed before last week.)

That letter says that the fact the mass shooting occurred in Colorado Springs was “no accident” because it’s “a city steeped in homophobia, transphobia, and white supremacy.” They cited Focus on the Family as a group with a “desire to rid the world of all queer people,” noting the group’s support for anti-trans legislation, conversion therapy, and “falsified research.”

No one has been arrested yet for the vandalism. There are no suspects.

Focus on the Family president Jim Daly issued a basic statement in response to the vandals:

We recognize the community is hurting in the aftermath of the reckless and violent actions of a very disturbed individual. This is a time for prayer, grieving, and healing, not vandalism and the spreading of hate

Focus on the Family is privileged to be one of many organizations in our city positioned to help and support the needs of struggling individuals and families…

The families of the five individuals killed in Saturday night’s senseless attack are in our prayers. We urge everyone to pray for peace and we also pray for the individual or group responsible for this mischievous and unwarranted defacing of our ministry’s property.

I know, I know, it takes a lot of chutzpah for the head of Focus on the Family to accuse anyone else of spreading hate. It’s also ridiculous for him to “pray for peace” when his organization has lobbed grenade after grenade in the culture war. But regardless of his thoughtless statement, the whole incident raises an important question:

Was the vandalism a good idea?

My knee-jerk reaction is to say no. It may draw media attention, but most of that attention frames Focus on the Family as the victim. Headlines say that Focus on the Family was vandalized, not that the group experienced karma. It makes people sympathize with a monstrous organization. Even Daly’s statement read like a PR statement, calling for prayers for the victims at Club Q while ignoring any role his group has had in the national rhetoric against LGBTQ people. (As if any of the victims’ families or their friends are about to go to Focus on the Family for help.)

More than anything, there’s no direct link between Focus on the Family and the shooter. It’s not like the shooter was a member of the organization. There’s nothing suggesting he was inspired by the ministry to commit his heinous act. That means activists targeted an “innocent” organization to make a general point. It’s like looting a random store in the middle of a riot; what did the store owner ever do to you to deserve this?

But even if the idea of vandalism is off-putting to you, there are plenty of ways to defend what the culprits did. I think it’s useful to keep these in mind as you read stories about this incident, not because I want to see more Christian groups or churches vandalized but because it’s worth exploring the possible motives of the people who did this.

The graffiti puts a spotlight on a powerful Christian group famous for spreading anti-LGBTQ bigotry

Outside of gun safety measures, one way to prevent future hate crimes is by going after the sources of the hate, and white evangelical churches and their related ministries have been at the forefront of spreading lies about LGBTQ people for decades. We should all be talking about the significant role their religion, and their adherents, and the people they routinely elect play when it comes to the treatment of LGBTQ people in this country. From bathroom bills to opposing marriage equality and same-sex adoptions to making slippery slope arguments about bestiality and pedophilia, Focus on the Family has given evangelicals the tools they need to make the lives of LGBTQ people objectively worse. If nothing else, they sincerely believe gays and lesbians who aren’t celibate and aren’t ashamed of their orientation will spend eternity in Hell. They also believe trans people are lying to themselves and don’t actually exist.

Simply put, nothing symbolizes white evangelical Christianity in Colorado Springs (or anywhere else, really) more than Focus on the Family. If you want to make a statement against the harm caused by white evangelicals, it’s the obvious target. As one Joe. My. God. commenter put it, the sign wasn’t defaced. It was edited for honesty.

The graffiti is relatively harmless

It can be cleaned up. It’s, at best, a minor inconvenience for an organization that took in $131,186,652 in 2021 (according to its most recent financial statement). No Focus on the Family staffers were harmed in the making of the vandals’ message. More importantly, the “injury” to Focus on the Family is insignificant compared to the actual murders at Club Q.

Seeing the outrage from conservatives online, I’m reminded of the recent acts of vandalism by Just Stop Oil climate activists who’ve thrown soup and paint on famous works of art. Sure, it’s easy to dismiss the protesters as idiots focusing their outrage in the wrong direction. But what’s more concerning: The (temporary) damage they’re causing to the paintings, or the damage politicians and corporations are causing to the environment? If your instinct is to defend the art, perhaps you need to rethink your priorities.

Nothing else seems to be working

When it comes to the acceptance of LGBTQ people, things only seem to be getting worse. Christian nationalism is growing in the Republican Party. Social media sites, especially Facebook and Twitter, routinely allow anti-LGBTQ posts to spread. Right-wing propaganda outlets keep running segments designed to provoke outrage against trans people. Even mainstream media has a habit of publishing irresponsible, badly researched pieces that make it harder for younger trans people to get support. School boards are being overtaken by right-wing activists who want to ban books that portray LGBTQ people in a positive light. Congress is literally on the verge of passing an extremely basic bill just to protect marriage equality nearly a decade after it became legal nationwide because even that is under threat by a radicalized Supreme Court. Senate Democrats still won’t do what’s necessary to pass the Equality Act.

No amount of debunking or calls for love and tolerance and unity are enough to counter the constant firehose of hate coming from the Religious Right and their conservative allies. So when five people are murdered by a gunman in an LGBTQ bar, what the hell else can you do?

It’s not that vandals going after the Focus on the Family sign will change any minds. It’s more like an act of frustration from people who have tried to do things the “right” way for years and years, only to see things get progressively worse.

Writing about the climate activists throwing soup on art, Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs wrote a reaction that seems appropriate here:

There’s an awful lot that’s cringeworthy about social justice politics, especially as practiced by 20-year-olds. But I did some ill-conceived activism when I was in college, too. (I didn’t throw soup on anything, though, as far as I remember.) They’re not sure what to do, because it’s hard to know what to do. And I sympathize completely. They care about something that matters. Perhaps their approach isn’t that well-thought out. But what are you doing? Are you risking your freedom for a morally important cause? And what do you think they should be doing instead? People are trying what they can.

I’m far more sympathetic to those idealists who are trying to do something about the worst problems in the world than to people like Ben Shapiro who spend their entire lives downplaying those problems and doing nothing constructive for anyone. I don’t have to agree with the protesters’ choice of tactics to respect their commitment and values, and I would encourage those who are critical of them to think of better ways to motivate political action on the climate crisis and then take action. 

Given what the LGBTQ community has suffered, especially last week, the spray paint outside Focus on the Family’s headquarters is hardly worth the attention it’ll inevitably get. Even if the ministry didn’t cause the Club Q shooting, there’s no shortage of LGBTQ people who have suffered because of what the group actively promotes.

Notice that Jim Daly, in his statement, doesn’t say anything about Focus on the Family’s role in perpetuating LGBTQ lies. He won’t say anything in the future, either. That’s because, of course, he believes those lies. No matter how much Focus on the Family doesn’t want to be known for its bigotry, it will keep pushing the same anti-LGBTQ propaganda because it’s core to who they are. Everyone who works for them is complicit in the suffering that LGBTQ people have gone through, even if they don’t pull a trigger and even if they’re appalled by what happened last week. Daly will never acknowledge the role his organization plays in perpetuating anti-LGBTQ hate because his job depends on him being a genial spokesperson in defense of it.

This isn’t about some theological disagreement. One side wants to peacefully coexist; the other wants to deny LGBTQ people civil rights, turn society against them, and make their lives a living hell. The side that calls itself “Christian” isn’t the one working towards peace.

Yeah, Focus on the Family had its sign spray-painted by vandals. So what? They’re not the victims here. No one within that organization would ever want to switch places with the people they’ve bullied, directly and indirectly, over the years. That doesn’t mean another group should spray similar graffiti on other ministries or churches; this one is arguably effective only because it’s unique and it’s at this place.

If Focus on the Family really wants to make the most of this, they ought to issue a statement explaining how, in light of the massacre, they will stop using their resources to harm LGBTQ people. That’s not asking them to change their religious beliefs, only to “focus” elsewhere. They could, for example, prioritize another one of Daly’s pet issues: adoption. They could do everything in their power to make sure kids who need a home find loving parents willing to take them in, even if some of those parents (like ones in same-sex relationships) fall outside the ministry’s preferred options. Imagine what a positive impact that could have.

They won’t do it.

I have no faith in any Christian ministry to do the right thing especially when its donations come from people who want them to do the opposite. But if any group has the power to shift how white evangelicals treat LGBTQ people, it’s Focus on the Family. They could lead the way and change the organization’s awful legacy. It would be a win-win for everyone.

Or they could just complain about spray paint.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.