I’ve seen people claim that Robert Dear, the planned Parenthood shooter, was not a Christian. This despite the fact that he had crosses in his dwelling, reportedly was devoted to the Bible, and posted Bible verses and apocalyptic warnings on an online message board a decade ago. Frankly, I’m tired of this. When a Christian commits an act of religious violence, that does not implicate all Christians, just like when a Muslim commits an act of religious violence, that does not implicate all Muslims. But maybe that’s the problem. Many conservatives do jump to implicate all Muslims when a Muslim commits an act of terror. Perhaps that is why so many conservatives are eager to argue that Robert Dear was not a Christian.
There’s more to this, though. I grew up in an evangelical home and church. We didn’t consider mainline Christians to be real Christians, and if an evangelical Christian committed some heinous act, that was taken as evidence that they had fallen away from Christianity. By definition, a Christian did not steal, or kill, or commit adultery. We believed that we were saved by faith, yes, and by a verbal profession of trusting Jesus as our savior, but there also had to be fruits (not to be confused with works). If we lived worldly, unchanged lives, the belief went, we must not have actually been saved.
The idea that true Christians will show specific fruit enables conservative Christians to write off anyone not abiding by their moral code as not a real Christian. Perversely, I am reminded of ISIS’s declaration that all other Muslims are apostate. Who is the arbiter of who is truly Christian or truly Muslim? I’ve seen people argue that Robert Dear was clearly not following the Bible, and even that he had rejected it, because Christianity is a religion of peace. Now I am reminded of those Muslims who say that Muslims who commit acts of terror are not truly Muslims, because Islam is a religion of peace.
Both Christianity and Islam are diverse traditions based in holy books that contain diverse messages. One Christian may read the Bible and come away with a message of peace while another may read the same book and come away with a message of vengeance—and the same is true for Islam. Both traditions have diverse records and histories, with some adherents running soup kitchens and others plotting acts of terror, and diverse histories.
Aside from the murder of George Tiller in 2009, we haven’t seen Christian anti-abortion violence escalate this far since the 1990s, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a history of such violence, in both deed and act. And this violence is inextricably tied to Christianity. There’s this idea held by many, I think, that there is no Christian terrorism. This is false. No one is saying every Christian is a terrorist or even that most are or that all or most anti-abortion activists are terrorists. All we’re saying is that there’s a history of Christian anti-abortion terrorism that does exist and is very real.
The U.S. has a decades-long history of anti-abortion violence. In 1993, abortion doctor David Gunn was fatally shot after Operation Rescue distributed wanted posters with his name on it. In 1994, abortion doctor John Britton and clinic escort James Barrett were fatally shot in Pensacola. In 1994, two abortion clinic receptionists were fatally shot. In 1998, a security guard at an abortion clinic died in a bombing. That same year. abortion doctor Barnett Slepian was fatally shot in his home. There wasn’t another death until 2009, when abortion doctor George Tiller was shot in his church, and then now, but there has been plenty of other violence, including bombings and arson.
But it’s more than this. At one point, this violence was endorsed by the leadership of the Christian anti-abortion movement. Surely this is enough to make it clear that there is indeed such a thing as Christian terrorism. Below is a 2003 press release from Operation Rescue, probably the most prominent group of anti-abortion activists.
Execution of Paul Hill Nothing Less than Murder
Paul Jennings Hill is scheduled to die by lethal injection today in the state of Florida for the murder of a Pensacola abortionist and his security guard in 1994. The following is a joint statement released by Operation Rescue West and the California Life Coalition regarding today’s execution:
“Today’s scheduled execution of Paul Hill is not justice, but is another example of the judicial tyranny that is gripping our nation. A Florida judge denied Rev. Hill his right to present a defense that claimed that the killing of the abortionist was necessary to save the lives of the pre-born babies that were scheduled to be killed by abortion that day. Our system of justice is based upon ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ but in Rev. Hill’s case, there was no justice because the court prevented him from presenting the legal defense that his conduct was justifiable defensive action.
“There are many examples where taking the life in defense of innocent human beings is legally justified and permissible under the law. Paul Hill should have been given the opportunity to defend himself with the defense of his choosing in a court of law. Because he was denied this right, the full truth and motivations behind Hill’s actions were kept hidden from the jury. If Paul Hill’s life can be taken by the state without the full advantage of the protections afforded him by due process simply because of the unpopularity of his views, then we have to wonder who is next? No one is safe from being denied a defense by an out-of-control and biased judicial system. Execution under these circumstances is nothing less than murder of a political prisoner.“We pray for Paul Hill today, for his wife and children, and for our nation that sees no value in the lives of the innocent victims of abortion that Hill endeavored to rescue, but instead protects and defends their killers. Today, it is justice that has been aborted. May God have mercy on us!”
Troy Newman, the contact listed on that press release, is still around, and still the director of Operation Rescue. He is still using the same rhetoric and still speaking of “blood guilt” and oh, by the way, he just endorsed Ted Cruz. While Newman publicly condemned George Tiller’s 2009 murder, Scott Roeder, the shooter, reported that he had met with Newman and that Newman had told him he was comfortable with murder in the defense of the unborn. Randall Terry, another big name among Christian anti-abortion activists, refused to condemn Roeder, comparing his murder of Tiller to Nat Turner’s rebellion or an act to save Jews from the Holocaust.
While most anti-abortion groups today publicly condemn violence, their rhetoric continues to feed it.
Some of the most fascinating recollections I’ve seen on the anti-abortion movement of the 1990s are those written by blogger Kathryn Elizabeth. Kathryn was a teenage anti-aboriton activists in the think of the anti-abortion movement of the 1990s, and the way she looks back on those years is fascinating. See her reflection here, for instance:
I was twelve when David Gunn was murdered. This was early 1993 and news traveled a lot slower in those days. I didn’t know when I stepped in front of a bank of news cameras and microphones that day in Tallahassee to argue that the pro-life movement was peaceful that it had turned deadly earlier that morning. Wendy Wright had gotten word but she sent me out in front of the cameras anyway, even though she knew everything I had planned to say was now a lie.
I wasn’t quite fourteen the day I was standing in front of an abortion clinic handing out literature when two clinic escorts came over and started screaming at me about two people being killed in Pensacola. I had no idea what they were talking about but soon learned that Paul Hill had decided to make his rhetoric a reality that day and two people were dead as a result.
May 2009, I’m living in Vietnam and news travels faster to the other side of the planet than it did the two hundred miles between Pensacola and Tallahassee sixteen years before. I see the news online that George Tiller was murdered as he served as an usher at his church and I read on in horror as I realize that I recognize the names of his killer’s associates, who are running their mouths to the press; people I’d met in my past life as a teenage activist.
The ‘90s were a terrible time, and because the story has never been written, few people know just how close the anti-abortion movement came to a point of no return. My skin crawls just thinking about it, but if a few key moments had tipped in the other direction it would have gotten bad, terrifyingly bad. I’ve made no secret that I don’t like Flip Benham, but the one thing I have to give him credit for is that he pulled the movement back from the brink. That’s another story for another day though.
People have written books and blogs about leaving cults, leaving fundamentalism, doing a 180 on their political beliefs, but there is no template for how to write about watching a movement become radicalized around you, watching it walk right up to the point of no return before everything splintered.
And her reflection there, in the wake of Friday’s shooting:
I lived through that time, and the knowledge that I was lobbying the Florida legislature arguing that pro-lifers were non-violent pacifists when, unbeknownst to me, the movement had just turned deadly is something I’ll never forget. I’ll also never forget just how terrifying that time was, and there is little that scares me more than the prospect of living through it again. Hindsight and looking at that time through adult eyes, I can see how close we came to full on terrorist warfare back then.
These attitudes haven’t disappeared. In the wake of Friday’s violence, many abortion opponents took to twitter, writing of the babies whose lives Dear had saved.
I’m sure we will learn much more about Robert Dear in the coming weeks and months, but I would urge any of those arguing that he was not a Christian because a Christian would not do what he did to reconsider. Our country has a history of Christian anti-abortion violence and campaigns of intimidation that can only be termed terrorism. We need to be as vocal about condemning Christian anti-abortion terrorism as we are in condemning Muslim terrorism. We also need to be able to own up to this history, and this present, and admit it exists.
Christians, too, can be terrorists.