The recent murder of late-term abortion specialist Dr. George Tiller cast a spotlight once again on the violent fringe of the pro-life movement. What motivates them? How do they differ from the law-abiding citizens who work and demonstrate against abortion?
Some critics of the pro-life movement have recycled the old charge that what sets the handful of violent pro-lifers apart is their moral seriousness. Unlike the hypocrites who content themselves with protests and lobbying, the argument goes, those who bomb clinics and assassinate abortionists have the courage of their conviction that abortion is murder. Writes William Saletan in Slate, "If a doctor in Kansas were butchering hundreds of old or disabled people . . . I doubt most members of the National Right to Life Committee would stand by. . . . Somebody would use force." The fringe who kill expose the mainstream of pro-lifers as frauds.
The reality is much more interesting. The best studies of pro-life extremism--notably James Risen and Judy L. Thomas's Wrath of Angels--make clear that what distinguishes pro-life bombers and assassins is not the degree of their moral conviction, but their fanatical commitment to a certain understanding of political theology.
When abortion emerged as a public issue in the 1960s, most of those who fought to keep the practice illegal were Catholics. Most Protestants, including virtually all evangelicals, stayed on the sidelines. The Southern Baptist Convention even tacitly blessed Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision by which the Supreme Court held abortion to be an individual right, overturning the laws of 50 states.
Roe divided the pro-lifers. Most continued to work through political channels, joining state affiliates of the National Right to Life Committee. But some concluded that either amending the Constitution or transforming the composition of the Supreme Court might not be achievable in their lifetime. In frustration, they began a campaign of sit-ins. Thus, Roe energized pro-lifers, pushing many activists into the streets.
From the beginning, their civil disobedience was shaped by their theology. The early Catholic activists came out of the antiwar left and were inspired by liberal Christians. John O'Keefe, the founder of the rescue movement (whose name derives from Proverbs 24:11: "Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter"), was deeply influenced by Martin Luther King Jr. and especially the Catholic monk Thomas Merton. O'Keefe wrote a recruiting pamphlet, A Peaceful Presence (1978), that encouraged pro-lifers to practice nonviolent civil disobedience (blocking clinic entrances, for example, and going limp when arrested) as a spiritual act and a symbolic sharing in the helplessness of unborn children.
Early rescuers asked their friends in the antiwar movement and other liberal causes to join them but were roundly rebuffed. Yet even as those pleas fell on deaf ears, conservative evangelicals were rethinking their own political theology in ways that would forever change the rescue movement.
Given the recent history of the evangelical right, it is easy to forget just how apolitical large numbers of conservative Protestants were during most of the 20th century. Evangelicals, in particular, tended to believe that saving souls by spreading the gospel should take priority over political engagement. Most also accepted a view of the end times known as premillennialism, which teaches that the world must fall even deeper into sin before Christ returns to establish his thousand-year reign. This eschatological view encouraged separation from the world and made social reform seem futile at best.
By the late sixties liberals were criticizing evangelicals for neglecting the great public questions of the day. The conservative Presbyterian Francis Schaeffer agreed. More than any other thinker, Schaeffer mobilized evangelicals to join the pro-life movement by changing the way they thought about politics. Contrary to the prevailing emphasis in evangelical churches, Schaeffer insisted that Christians had a duty to make the world better rather than barricade themselves in subcultures. He further taught that political quietism did not follow from premillennialism. As he put it, "Even if I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today."
Schaeffer advocated defiance of government in the matter of abortion. In A Christian Manifesto (1981), he concluded, "At a certain point there is not only the right, but the duty, to disobey the state." This was heady stuff for a subculture that had long insisted that any social movement was a distraction from the Great Commission, Jesus' command to his followers to "go and make disciples of all nations."
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.
For inspiration, the radicals turned to Bray's A Time to Kill (1994), a book that could not have been more different from O'Keefe's A Peaceful Presence. As Risen and Thomas report, Bray became the "national spokesperson for violence and retribution" and his book "must reading among extremists."
One of these was Paul Hill, a radical Presbyterian minister, a graduate of the Reformed Theological Seminary, who quickly rose to leadership in the Army of God. He was the author of the group's infamous 1994 "Defensive Action Statement," a petition endorsing violence that was signed by 29 radicals. Hill would be executed by the state of Florida in 2003 for killing an abortion doctor and a clinic escort.
Shelly Shannon also found inspiration in Bray's writings. A housewife, Shannon bombed clinics in four states before wounding George Tiller in an attempt on his life in 1993. She is now in prison. In her diary, Shannon described her religious experiences just prior to various acts of violence. Hours before she bombed a clinic, for instance, she wrote: "If I die doing this, I die in Christ, walking obediently in a work He gave me." And hours before shooting Tiller, she reflected, "This morning in bed it seemed God asked, Is there any doubt?" "No, Lord. Please help me do it right."
Others, whether or not they were directly influenced by Bray's writings, shared his disregard for the legitimacy and authority of the American government. Scott Roeder, who has been charged with Tiller's murder, is a member of the Montana Freemen, a Christian organization that has declared itself outside the authority of the government and engaged in an armed conflict with the FBI in 1996.
Whatever the shades of difference among them, virtually all the radicals have cherished a bellicose reading of a handful of Old Testament verses, especially Genesis 9:6: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man." The fringe seemingly ignore the New Testament, particularly the passages enjoining respect for civil authorities.
In the aftermath of Tiller's shooting, pro-life organizations were quick to denounce vigilante justice and reaffirm their well-established fidelity to American democracy. As post-1960s activism goes, the pro-life movement is unusually patriotic. Its many Catholic and Protestant participants, moreover, obviously do not understand their faith to require them to kill doctors or nurses--or mothers or fathers--involved in the great evil of abortion. On the contrary, their behavior is generally consonant with orthodox Christian teaching on murder ("Thou shalt not . . ."), civil government ("Render unto Caesar . . ."), and the duty of believers to do good and resist evil by all legitimate means.
Jon A. Shields is assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the author of The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right (Princeton University Press, 2009).