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The Return of Christian Terrorism

Threats of right-wing violence have doubled in the past year. What is behind the latest upsurge in the movement to create a Christian theocratic state?
 
 
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When Scott Roeder, the murderer of Wichita Kansas abortion clinic provider Dr. George Tiller, had his day in court, he spent much of his rambling self-defense quoting the words of another abortion clinic assassin, Reverend Paul Hill. In the 1990s my own research had brought me into conversation with others in the inner circle in which Hill and Roeder were at that time involved. So it was a chilling experience for me to realize that this awful mood of American Christian terrorism—culminating in the catastrophic attack on the Oklahoma City Federal Builiding—has now returned.

Christian terrorism has returned to America with a vengeance. And it is not just Roeder. When members of the Hutaree militia in Michigan and Ohio recently were arrested with plans to kill a random policeman and then plant Improvised Explosive Devices in the area where the funeral would be held to kill hundreds more, this was a terrorist plot of the sort that would impress Shi’ite militia and al Qaeda activists in Iraq. The Southern Poverty Law Center, founded by Morris Dees, which has closely watched the rise of right-wing extremism in this country for many decades, declares that threats and incidents of right-wing violence have risen 200% in this past year—unfortunately coinciding with the tenure of the first African-American president in US history. When Chip Berlet, one of this country’s best monitors of right-wing extremism, warned in a perceptive essay last week on RD that the hostile right-wing political climate in this country has created the groundwork for a demonic new form of violence and terrorism, I fear that he is correct.

Christian Warrior, Sacred Battle

Though these new forms of violence are undoubtedly political and probably racist, they also have a religious dimension. And this brings me back to what I know about Rev. Paul Hill, the assassin who the similarly misguided assassin, Scott Roeder, quoted at length in that Wichita court room last week. In 1994, Hill, a Presbyterian pastor at the extreme fringe of the anti-abortion activist movement, came armed to a clinic in Pensacola, Florida. He aimed at Dr. John Britton, who was entering the clinic along with his bodyguard, James Barrett. The shots killed both men and wounded Barrett’s wife, Joan. Hill immediately put down his weapon and was arrested; presenting an image of someone who knew that he would be arrested, convicted, and executed by the State of Florida for his actions, which he was in 2003. This would make Hill something of a Christian suicide attacker.

What is interesting about Hill and his supporters is not just his political views, but also his religious ones. As I reported in my book, Terror in the Mind of God, and in an essay for RD several months ago, Hill framed his actions as those of a Christian warrior engaged in sacred battle. “My eyes were opened to the enormous impact” such an event would have, he wrote, adding that “the effect would be incalculable.” Hill said that he opened his Bible and found sustenance in Psalms 91: “You will not be afraid of the terror by night, or of the arrow that flies by day.” Hill interpreted this as an affirmation that his act was biblically approved.

One of the supporters that Paul Hill had written these words to was Rev. Michael Bray, a Lutheran pastor in Bowie, Maryland, who had served prison time for his conviction of fire-bombing abortion-related clinics on the Eastern seaboard. Bray published a newsletter and then a Web site for his Christian anti-abortion movement, and published a book theologically justifying violence against abortion service providers, A Time to Kill. He is also alleged to be the author of the Army of God manual that provides details on how to conduct terrorist acts against abortion-related clinics.