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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.

Recently Bray has publicly defended Paul Roeder, the Wichita assassin, saying that he acted with “righteousness and mercy.” Several years earlier, another member of Bray’s network of associates, Rachelle (“Shelly”) Shannon, a housewife from rural Oregon, had also attacked Dr. George Tiller as he drove away from his clinic in Wichita. She was arrested for attempted murder.

When I interviewed Bray on several occasions in the 1990s, he provided a theological defense of this kind of violence from two different Christian perspectives. In the remainder of this essay, I’ll summarize from Terror in the Mind of Godsome of my observations about these theological strands behind their terrorism in the 1990s—and which, amazingly, are surfacing again today.

Theological Illogic

The more traditional Christian justification that Bray used for his violence was just-war theory. He was fond of quoting two of my own heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr, in what I regard as perverse ways. Bray thought that their justification of military action against the Nazis (and an attempted assassination plot on Hitler’s life Bonhoeffer was involved in) was an appropriate parallel to his terrorism against the US government’s sanctioning of legal abortions. It seemed highly unlikely to me that Bray’s positions would have been accepted by these or any other theologian within mainstream Protestant thought. Bonhoeffer and Niebuhr, like most modern theologians, supported the principle of the separation of church and state, and were wary of what Niebuhr called “moralism”—the intrusion of religious or other ideological values into the political calculations of statecraft. Moreover, Bray did not rely on mainstream theologians for his most earnest theological justification.

The more significant Christian position that Bray and Hill advanced is related to the End-Time theology of the Rapture as thought to be envisaged by the New Testament book of Revelation. These are ideas related, in turn, to Dominion Theology, the position that Christianity must reassert the dominion of God over all things, including secular politics and society. This point of view, articulated by such right-wing Protestant spokespersons as Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, have been part of the ideology of the Christian Right since at least the 1980s and 1990s.

At its hardest edge, the movement requires the creation of a kind of Christian politics to set the stage for America’s acceptance of the second coming of Christ. In this context, it is significant today that in some parts of the United States, over one-third of the opponents of the policies of President Barack Obama believe he is the Antichrist as characterized in the End-Times Rapture scenario.

The Christian anti-abortion movement is permeated with ideas from Dominion Theology. Randall Terry (founder of the militant anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue and a writer for the Dominion magazine Crosswinds) signed the magazine’s “Manifesto for the Christian Church,” which asserted that America should “function as a Christian nation.” The Manifesto said that America should therefore oppose “social moral evils” of secular society such as “abortion on demand, fornication, homosexuality, sexual entertainment, state usurpation of parental rights and God-given liberties, statist-collectivist theft from citizens through devaluation of their money and redistribution of their wealth, and evolutionism taught as a monopoly viewpoint in the public schools.”

At the extreme right wing of Dominion Theology is a relatively obscure theological movement that Mike Bray found particularly appealing: Reconstruction Theology, whose exponents long to create a Christian theocratic state. Bray had studied their writings extensively and possessed a shelf of books written by Reconstruction authors. The convicted anti-abortion killer Paul Hill cited Reconstruction theologians in his own writings and once studied with a founder of the movement, Greg Bahnsen, at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.

Leaders of the Reconstruction movement trace their ideas, which they sometimes called “theonomy,” to Cornelius Van Til, a twentieth-century Presbyterian professor of theology at Princeton Seminary who took seriously the sixteenth-century ideas of the Reformation theologian John Calvin regarding the necessity for presupposing the authority of God in all worldly matters. Followers of Van Til (including his former students Bahnsen and Rousas John Rushdoony, and Rushdoony’s son-in-law, Gary North) adopted this “presuppositionalism” as a doctrine, with all its implications for the role of religion in political life.

Recapturing Institutions for Jesus

Reconstruction writers regard the history of Protestant politics since the early years of the Reformation as having taken a bad turn, and they are especially unhappy with the Enlightenment formulation of church-state separation. They feel it necessary to “reconstruct” Christian society by turning to the Bible as the basis for a nation’s law and social order. To propagate these views, the Reconstructionists established the Institute for Christian Economics in Tyler, Texas, and the Chalcedon Foundation in Vallecito, California. They have published a journal and a steady stream of books and booklets on the theological justification for interjecting Christian ideas into economic, legal, and political life.

According to the most prolific Reconstruction writer, Gary North, it is “the moral obligation of Christians to recapture every institution for Jesus Christ." He feels this to be especially so in the United States, where secular law as construed by the Supreme Court and defended by liberal politicians is moving in what Rushdoony and others regard as a decidedly un-Christian direction; particularly in matters regarding abortion and homosexuality. What the Reconstructionists ultimately want, however, is more than the rejection of secularism. Like other theologians who utilize the biblical concept of “dominion,” they reason that Christians, as the new chosen people of God, are destined to dominate the world.

The Reconstructionists possess a “postmillennial” view of history. That is, they believe that Christ will return to earth only after the thousand years of religious rule that characterizes the Christian idea of the millennium, and therefore Christians have an obligation to provide the political and social conditions that will make Christ’s return possible. “Premillennialists,” on the other hand, hold the view that the thousand years of Christendom will come only after Christ returns, an event that will occur in a cataclysmic moment of world history. Therefore they tend to be much less active politically.

Rev. Paul Hill, Rev. Michael Bray, and other Reconstructionists—along with Dominion theologians such as the American politician and television host Pat Robertson and many other right-wing Christian activists today—are postmillenialists. Hence they believe that a Christian kingdom must be established on Earth before Christ’s return. They take  seriously the idea of a Christian society and a form of religious politics that will make biblical code the law of the United States.

These activists are quite serious about bringing Christian politics into power. Bray said that it is possible, under the right conditions, for a Christian revolution to sweep across the United States and bring in its wake Constitutional changes that would allow for biblical law to be the basis of social legislation. Failing that, Bray envisaged a new federalism that would allow individual states to experiment with religious politics on their own. When I asked Bray what state might be ready for such an experiment, he hesitated and then suggested Louisiana and Mississippi, or, he added, “maybe one of the Dakotas.”

Not all Reconstruction thinkers have endorsed the  use of violence, especially the kind that Bray and Hill have justified. As Reconstruction author Gary North admitted, “there is a division in the theonomic camp” over violence, especially with regard to anti-abortion activities. Some months before Paul Hill killed Dr. Britton and his escort, Hill (apparently hoping for Gary North’s approval in advance) sent a letter to North along with a draft of an essay he had written justifying the possibility of such killings in part on theonomic grounds. North ultimately responded, but only after the murders had been committed.

North regretted that he was too late to deter Hill from his “terrible direction” and chastised Hill in an open letter, published as a booklet, denouncing Hill’s views as “vigilante theology.” According to North, biblical law provides exceptions to the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex 20:13), but in terms similar to just-war doctrine: when one is authorized to do so by “a covenantal agent” in wartime, to defend one’s household, to execute a convicted criminal, to avenge the death of one’s kin, to save an entire nation, or to stop moral transgressors from bringing bloodguilt on an entire community.

Hill, joined by Bray, responded to North’s letter. They argued that many of those conditions applied to the abortion situation in the United States. Writing from his prison cell in Starke, Florida, Paul Hill said that the biblical commandment against murder also “requires using the means necessary to defend against murder—including lethal force.” He went on to say that he regarded “the cutting edge of Satan’s current attack” to be “the abortionist’s knife,” and therefore his actions had ultimate theological significance.

Bray, in his book, A Time to Kill, spoke to North’s concern about the authorization of violence by a legitimate authority or “a covenental agent,” as North put it. Bray raised the possibility of a “righteous rebellion.” Just as liberation theologians justify the use of unauthorized force for the sake of their vision of a moral order, Bray saw the legitimacy of using violence not only to resist what he regarded as murder—abortion—but also to help bring about the Christian political order envisioned by the radical dominion theology thinkers. In Bray’s mind, a little violence was a small price to pay for the possibility of fulfilling God’s law and establishing His kingdom on earth.

For most of the rest of us, even a little violence is a price too high to pay for these fantastic visions of Christian politics and for America’s recent return to Christian terrorism. 

Mark Juergensmeyer is Professor of Sociology and Director of Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the winner of the Grawemeyer Award for his book Terror in the Mind of God (UC Press). He is the editor of Global Religions: An Introduction and is also the author of The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State and Gandhi's Way: A Handbook of Conflict Resolution, both from UC Press.