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Justin Watson, visiting assistant professor of religion at Lafayette and author of The Christian Coalition: Dreams of Restoration, Demands for Recognition, will speak on “Murdered or Martyred?: Columbine Two Years Later,” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 19, in the auditorium of Lafayette’s William E. Simon Center for Economics and Business Administration.

Sponsored by the department of religion and supported by the Lyman Coleman Fund, the talk is free and open to the public. It will take place on the eve of the second anniversary of the fatal shootings by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of 12 fellow students, a teacher, and themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

Watson says one of the victims, student Cassie Bernall, reportedly was asked by the gunmen if she believed in God. She supposedly answered “Yes,” and then was killed. Within days of her death, Bernall was being hailed as a martyr and seen by many American evangelicals as the spark of a religious revival among teenagers.

“Cassie, as an innocent martyred for faith, also became a useful political symbol for religious conservatives who argue that Harris and Klebold were the products of liberalism’s aggressively anti-religious ‘culture of death,'” says Watson. “The cult of the Columbine martyr, however, has encountered a fundamental problem. According to police investigators, Cassie may never have been asked by her killer about God. She may have been simply a victim of a senseless crime rather than a martyr to a cause.”

Many used Bernall’s alleged martyrdom to argue for the return of prayer in schools, and said such incidents were not issues of gun control, but rather cultural decline.

“When the story of her martyrdom is called into question, it’s not just the facts of the case, but the whole meaning attached to it, which has cultural and political implications,” says Watson.

However, the question of whether Bernall was a martyr is only of secondary importance, he notes: “Instead, I want to understand how this event is remembered and interpreted through the prism of martyrdom — what it has come and will come to mean in American religion, politics, and culture.”

Watson has been teaching the classes Introduction to Religion, Contemporary Religious Issues, and Alternative Religious Movements at Lafayette this school year. He was a lecturer in Florida State University’s (FSU) department of religion from 1996-2000, and a teaching assistant there from 1992-1995. He received an FSU Dissertation Fellowship, 1995-1996; an FSU University Fellowship, 1994-1995; and was a teaching associate in the FSU Program for Instructional Excellence, 1991-1992 and 1993-1994. He also was a National Merit Scholar from 1975-1979.

Watson earned his doctorate and master’s degrees at Florida State University in 1996 and 1992, respectively, and his bachelor’s degree cum laude from the University of the South in 1979.

His book, The Christian Coalition: Dreams of Restoration and Demands for Recognition, also deals with the conservative Christian movement in the United States. Watson provides insight into the underpinnings of the Christian Coalition, a powerful, politically conservative lobbying force in the late 20th century founded by talk show host and past presidential candidate Pat Robertson. The book examines the Christian Coalition in the context of religious and political history in the United States, offering theories that help to explain its purpose, its popularity, and its power. Watson argues that its main motive is a longing for the restoration of America to a “purer,” homogeneous nation under God and a desire for widespread recognition of conservative Christians as a minority victimized by a socially liberal world.

Watson’s published articles include “How Pat Finally Gets Even: Apocalyptic Asteroids and American Politics in Pat Robertson’s The End of the Age,” Journal of Millennial Studies, winter 2000; “Epilogue: After Ralph,” in The Christian Coalition: Dreams of Restoration and Demands for Recognition, St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999; and “What the Christian Coalition Really Wants,” Louvain Studies, 1998. Another book, The Martyrs of Columbine: Tragedy, Faith, and Politics, is under contract with St. Martin’s Press, with publication expected in March 2002.

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