The Magazine

What Abortionist Killers Believe

The consequences of a fringe theology.

Jun 22, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 38 • By JON A. SHIELDS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Nearly every evangelical leader who became prominent in the pro-life movement credited Schaeffer for clearing away the theological obstacles to activism. Among them was Randall Terry, an evangelical convert who turned the rescue movement into something big.

Terry succeeded where O'Keefe had failed. He founded Operation Rescue in 1986 and built it into the largest campaign of civil disobedience since the anti-Vietnam war movement, engineering massive blockades of abortion clinics in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Wichita. The National Abortion Federation estimates that between 1977 and 1993, the movement was responsible for more than 600 blockades leading to over 33,000 arrests.

The success of Operation Rescue turned on the power of particular religious appeals. Terry approached independent fundamentalist pastors and told them that evangelicals had blood on their hands because they had stayed out of the abortion conflict. Critics who disparaged the rescue movement as self-righteous misunderstood it: It was a way for evangelicals to show repentance for their sins. As Risen and Thomas explain, "Terry would sell the church on Operation Rescue as a form of atonement."

The fundamentalists in Operation Rescue did tend to be more militant than the early Catholic demonstrators. Rather than simply go limp and let police officers arrest them, for instance, many resisted by grabbing onto whatever they could. Nonetheless, they were far from violent. (Many, in fact, complained of police brutality.) Not all participants, however, were persuaded by Schaeffer's insistence that their agitation be peaceful. A handful radicalized his teachings to justify and inspire violence.

There is little in Michael Bray's early life to suggest that he would become the spiritual leader of the violent fringe. At Bowie High School in Maryland, he was a football player and state wrestling champion. He was an Eagle Scout. Following in his father's footsteps, he earned a spot at the U.S. Naval Academy.

But Bray dropped out of the academy and hitch-hiked across the country seeking adventure and direction. In Orlando he attended a Baptist tent revival and began thinking seriously about a life of faith. His search for God included flirtations with Mormonism and the Conservative Baptist Association. Under the influence of Schaeffer's writings, however, Bray was drawn to major figures of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, especially John Calvin and John Knox.

Calvin emphasized the biblical doctrine of predestination, that God determined who would be saved and damned before the creation of the world. Not only are the "elect" chosen by God for salvation, but, according to Calvin, they should also govern. Only public officials, however, could legitimately use force to punish crimes.

Knox disagreed. He suggested that any member of the elect, not just public officials, could use force to achieve God's justice. As Risen and Thomas underscore, Knox's teachings convinced Bray that "it was appropriate for the godly man to take the law into his own hands, because his hands were the tools of the Lord." Indeed, Bray actually "came to believe John Knox was speaking to him across the centuries, telling him that it was his duty as a Christian to fight abortion by any means necessary."

Bray soon began orchestrating clinic bombings, for which he would serve time in prison. In 1984 he and his impressionable protégés Michael Spinks and Kenneth Shields (no relation to the author) helped set an annual record for bombings that stands to this day. Abortion facilities were bombed in six cities in the Washington, D.C., region. These early attacks, however, were successfully timed to avoid human casualties.

In the early 1990s, Operation Rescue collapsed under the weight of its participants' exhaustion and Terry's authoritarian leadership. Then in 1994, a new federal law increased the penalties for blocking access to clinics. Now isolated, the seriously violence-prone were left to their own worst impulses. Violence escalated. For the first time, abortion providers were targeted for execution. In the period 1993-98, six people were killed by four shooters, and a seventh lost his life in a clinic bombing.

The extremists coalesced in what they called the Army of God and declared war: "We, the remnant of God fearing men and women of the United States of Amerika, do officially declare war on the entire child-killing industry." Army of God manuals contained instructions on how to acquire explosives and bomb clinics.