Book Review

A Conservative Challenge to Operation Rescue

The Rhetoric of Operation Rescue: Projecting the Christian Pro-Life Message

Mark Allen Steiner
T & T Clark, 2006.
$29.00 paperback, $95.00 cloth; 226 pages.

Reviewed by Eleanor J. Bader
The Public Eye Magazine - Fall 2006

Mark Allen Steiner describes himself as a conservative, evangelical Christian and at first blush, his credentials seem stellar. An assistant professor at Pat Robertson's Regent University, he appears to walk the walk and talk the talk.

What a shock, then, to read his critique of Operation Rescue's rhetoric and hear his close-to-stunning plea to tone down the histrionics in favor of civility and respect.

Steiner's assessment of the meteoric rise of the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue and the language that propelled group founder Randall Terry into a sustained limelight is fascinating. He starts by articulating the role rhetoric plays in community life. "Rhetoric does function as persuasion in the traditionally understood sense. More fundamentally, though, rhetoric also engages fundamental aspects of worldview and community. It helps shape what we think is good, and what we think is worth thinking about. And for Christians, more specifically, it helps shape not only what they think the faith means, but also their vision of how to grow and become more mature in that faith; how, in other words, to be true to the faith that they profess."

Interesting, but practically speaking, what does this mean for evangelical Christians vis--vis abortion?

While Steiner never reveals his opinion of legalized abortion, he is clearly no fan of either Operation Rescue or of Terry. Indeed, his distaste for the anti-abortion group's tactics likely propelled this in-depth look at its ascension and decline.

So why did Operation Rescue have such appeal?

Steiner believes that two flaws in contemporary evangelical thinking led people to respond favorably to Terry's rhetoric and involve themselves in the blockades, clinic invasions and protests that wreaked havoc on reproductive health centers from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s. The first is anti-intellectualism and the second is the "impulse to hegemony."

In the first, Steiner cites a confluence of errors: the notion that faith is antithetical to analysis or interpretation; the concept that theological deconstruction of texts is both irrelevant and elitist; and the belief that the Bible should be read in a literal, oversimplified way. These beliefs, he argues, made it easy for Terry's followers to accept language that merged abortion with child killing.

The hegemonic impulse -- the idea that there is one, and only one, way to be an "authentic" Christian -- posed other problems, Steiner writes. Pluralism becomes impossible, and acceptance of diversity becomes little more than the condoning of immoral behavior. Not surprisingly, when Terry said, "If you believe abortion is murder, you have to act like it's murder," the troops mobilized.

The upshot is that the "rhetoric of Operation Rescue encourages a particular view of abortion history, one that frames the abortion issue as an acute and severe crisis," he continues. Stir in Francis Schaeffer's diatribe about the evil of secular humanism, and much of the evangelical community was prepped for action.

Randall Terry's often-eloquent and impassioned demand to save the babies, stop the bloodbath and end the holocaust, proved effective. Thousands of previously apolitical churchgoers decided it was time to defend themselves, their families and their churches from encroaching infidels. "Satan receives the blood of these little ones as human sacrifice, and he is not going to give up his stronghold and demonic altar without a fight," Terry told adherents. The flipside of this is redemptive. The United States can regain its moral stature, he exhorted, if people turn back to God and reject abortion, homosexuality and pre-and-extra-marital liaisons.

By stressing America's moral crisis, Terry gave Operation Rescue members a common purpose. For a time, this glued them together and offered their lives meaning. In addition, they were collectively repentant, serving as exemplars of sacrifice for the rest of the country.

And then the violence began. Once Michael Griffin, Paul Hill and Shelley Shannon came on the scene in 1993 and 1994 -- killing two doctors and a clinic escort and wounding Dr. George Tiller -- the rhetoric of the "holy war" began to sour. Both the public and the media, once eager to hear what Terry had to say, began to characterize Operation Rescue as insensitive, intolerant and fanatical. Suddenly, Operation Rescue was not a legitimate protest group, but a horde of crazies.

This shift caused the group's rhetoric to become even more inflamed. "You're going to have to sacrifice everything," Rev. Pat Mahoney told protesters in Wichita. "There's [sic] going to be people wounded...It's about whose will shall rule on this planet, God's or man's." Joseph Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League, an ardent Operation Rescue supporter, called the abortion controversy "a battle between good and evil." Leaders dubbed pro-choice activists witches and feminazis. "They hate God," Scheidler announced.

This over-the-top language, Steiner says, contributed to Operation Rescue's downfall. But it was not the sole cause. Increasing violence, as well as the passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act [FACE] in 1994, played a role in its demise. The Act made it a criminal offense to block clinic doors. The punishment, a year in jail and fines of up to $10,000, stymied all but the most devoted. Fines forced Operation Rescue into bankruptcy, although the movement eventually regrouped under the name Operation Save America (see Goldberg, this issue). Unfortunately, Steiner steers clear of the muck surrounding Randall Terry's high-profile divorce, rumors of extramarital dalliances, and rejection of his homosexual son, sidestepping both Terry's hypocrisy and its deleterious impact on the organization's faithful.

Despite this, and despite a few gratuitous snarks about prochoice rhetoric, Steiner's recommendations are nothing short of remarkable.

First, he calls on evangelicals to "acknowledge the diverse ideas, values, experiences and moral commitments held by those whom they seek to influence." He further asks that they consider "the sacred" in different communities. Secondly, he urges evangelicals to "cultivate the life of the mind and critical thinking as values." He further stresses the need to avoid rigid or dogmatic thinking and to consider alternative perspectives. Third, he writes, "evangelicals need to cultivate a greater appreciation for humility as an overarching attitude." Laughter, at oneself and at others, is a central tenet of humility and Steiner stresses it as an antidote to ideological ossification. Fourth, he continues, "evangelicals need to be more fully cognizant of the fundamental power of rhetoric in its generative, perspective shaping capacities." Lastly, he calls on evangelicals to cultivate nuanced perspectives on faith, practice and civic involvement.

In the end, Steiner hopes to enhance democracy by maximizing tolerance for, and recognition of, the ethical differences inherent in a pluralistic society. One can only wonder what Pat Robertson, Randall Terry and other conservative evangelicals think of his arguments.

Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer, and activist, and coauthor of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism.

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