Analysts on Fox News floated the theory on Thursday that the shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday night was motivated by religious animosity toward Christians, rather than by racism.
Host Steve Doocy suggested on "Fox & Friends" that religion was the likely motivation for the terrorist attack.
"Extraordinarily, they called it a hate crime," Doocy said in an interview with a pastor Thursday morning. "And some look at it as, well, it's because it was a white guy, apparently, and a black church. But you made a great point just a moment ago about the hostility toward Christians, and it was in a church, so maybe that's what it was about."
Doocy's co-host, Brian Kilmeade, also tried to cast doubt on the idea that the gunman, whom authorities believe to be 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, was motivated by race, asking a guest, "Is it a church that has white congregants as well as black?"
Early Thursday morning, Fox News host Heather Childers acknowledged that officials are treating the shooting as a hate crime, but wondered, "Could the shooter have been motivated by pure hatred for religion?"
The Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office plan to participate in a hate crime investigation of the attack.
White supremacists who convened on the neo-Nazi site Stormfront.org voiced similarly aspirational speculation, suggesting that the shooting's location might indicate anti-Christian violence. They also expressed worries that if the shooting did turn out to be an act of racism, the white nationalist movement would suffer.
It's understandable that actual, outspoken white supremacists would need to believe that the killer was not one of their own. But the gymnastics that Fox commentators engaged in to find some other motive is disconcerting. Why were they so afraid the attack might prove to be racially motivated?
Roof, the alleged killer, is known to have sported the flags of the white supremacist Rhodesian and apartheid-era South African governments. He also reportedly said during the attack that he was there "to shoot black people."
"You rape our women and are taking over our country and you have to go," Roof told his victims, according to a witness.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the shooting took place, is a historic black church, founded in the early 1800s.
Presidential candidate Rick Santorum offered his own thoughts on New York's AM 970. "It’s obviously a crime of hate. Again, we don’t know the rationale, but what other rationale could there be?" Santorum said. "You talk about the importance of prayer in this time and we’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before. It’s a time for deeper reflection beyond this horrible situation."
President Barack Obama spoke on Thursday about the tragedy, making clear that he had no doubt that racist hatred motivated the shooting, just as it has so many times throughout history.
"The fact that this took place in a black church obviously also raises questions about a dark part of our history," said Obama. "This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked, and we know that hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals."
The president invoked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words nearly 52 years ago, the day after four young black girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
"They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution," quoted Obama. "They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream."
Sign up to get an email when reporter Ryan Grim publishes a new story.
Want more updates from Amanda? Sign up for her newsletter, Piping Hot Truth.