Charleston Massacre An Attack on Christianity? Yes, But Not How the Christian Right Says

This is a tricky time for the Christian Right. Immediately following the mass murder at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, some Christian Right leaders jumped onto the airwaves to claim the shooting was an example of the campaign against religious freedom in America. It turns out they were onto something, just not what they had thought it was. There has been an eerily-telling silence since then.

Rev. E.W. Jackson

Rev. E.W. Jackson said on Fox & Friends June 18th that the Charleston shooting was part of a “growing hostility” towards Christianity.

The horrific Charleston massacre in which nine people were killed has tended to derail the Christian Right’s narrative of how faith and Christianity are under attack in America. On its face, this would seem to be an unlikely consequence of the episode, since it happened at a Wednesday evening Bible study at the church. This is significant in part because the constellation of dubious claims about the persecution of Christians and the threat to religious liberty in America is at the center of the Christian Right’s approach to politics and public policy—and is increasingly the go-to gambit of conservative Republican politicians trying to demagogue their way into office – or out of a difficult issue of public policy.

Nevertheless, it would seem that this episode would fit the narrative: Christians killed right in their own church. Isn’t that in line with what the Christian Right is saying about Christianity being under a wide-ranging siege in America?

Several prominent Christian Right leaders have tried to cast the assassinations in these terms, but it was a hard case to make. The tragedy seemed to be so much more about race.  Surviving witnesses reported that the young White supremacist Dylann Roof simply said, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

Rick Santorum, GOP presidential candidate and a vocal conservative Catholic said the mass murder was a “crime of hate” but that it was also part of a broader “assault on our religious liberty.”

Rev. E.W. Jackson, Senior Fellow for Church Ministries at the Family Research Council, the 2012 GOP candidate for Lt. Governor of Virginia, and an African American, created a stir with his surprising reaction. He said that people shouldn’t “jump to conclusions” that the Charleston massacre was “some sort of racial hate crime.”  He also suggested the murders are part of the “growing hostility and antipathy to Christianity and what this stands for, the biblical worldview about sexual morality and other things.”

Other Christian Right leaders were more careful.  Their own hyperbole notwithstanding, they know conservative Christians are not being killed for their faith in the U.S.  It is obvious that the mass murder of African American Christians in their own church makes their claims of persecution appear shallow.

But arguably the murders of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston were indeed an attack on Christians for their faith, but not in a way that fits with the Christian Right narrative. The Charleston massacre is just the latest in a long line of White supremacist attacks on Black churches.  Arsons and bombings punctuated the Civil Rights Movement, but such attacks stretch through much of the length of American history. The Black church has historically been an institution where African Americans could organize on behalf of their own interests in relative safely. That is part of why the churches also became targets. The Emanuel AME itself was burned to the ground in 1822 in the years before all Black churches were banned and driven underground.

This poses problems for the Christian Right.  If they are going to say that this was an attack on Christianity, they have to say why this church and these particular Christians were attacked—just as they would if an evangelical or Catholic Church had been attacked. It was not random. In the explanatory manifesto he published on a web site created for the occasion, Dylann Roof wrote:

“I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

But the mostly-White leaders of the Christian Right can’t zero-in on the racist reasoning that led him to target the most prominent African American church in Charleston and its politically influential pastor – at least not without displacing themselves from the center of their own persecution narrative.

Clearly it was not just any Christian church, nor Christianity in general, that was under attack in Charleston. It was the Black church, African American Protestantism generally, and the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, pastored by Rev. Clementa Pinckney in particular. This church was involved in a planned slave rebellion in 1822, and the institution it has come to be in Charleston has epitomized the African American story in the South for nearly 200 years.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously preached there during the Civil Rights movement.

The Mother Emanuel congregation (as it is known locally) is part of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a member of the mainline National Council of Churches (NCC).  The NCC comprises 45 million people in 37 denominations, including, the Presbyterian Church (USA), The Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ.  What’s worse, these African American Christians tend to vote Democratic and their pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was a prominent Democratic State Senator and a rising star in state politics. The assassination of Pinckney and fellow members of his Bible study group undermines much of the Christian Right’s narrative because the narrative discounts as non-Christian many of those with whom they religiously and politically disagree. The Christian Right’s list of infidels often includes Democrats, liberals, and even mainline Christians – such as the members of Emanuel AME.

Indeed, these are the kinds of Christians that the Christian Right would rather not have to acknowledge even exist; let alone come to define the story anti-Christian persecution in America.

That this was a carefully planned political assassination is hard to dispute. But it is also hard to dispute that this was an attack on Christianity of the kind that believes in the empowerment and equality of all people, and advancing social justice is at the core of this particular church’s mission.  It is hard for the Christian Right to co-opt the legacy of the African American Civil Rights Movement, as is currently the fashion, while ignoring the assassination of nine Black Christians who were killed both for their race and for their progressive faith.

And that is why after some initial claims that the Charleston massacre was part of a wide ranging attack on Christianity and a threat to religious liberty in America, we just aren’t hearing such claims anymore.

Mass Shooters Have A Gender and a Race

A Closer Look at White Male Privilege

Although White individuals made up 69.2% of arrests for crimes in 20111, Black men still account for the majority of the prison population, more than six times as likely to be incarcerated than White men. Black men are also subjected, according to Lawrence Grossman, former President of CBS News and PBS, to media stereotyping where TV newscasts “disproportionately show African Americans under arrest, living in slums, on welfare, and in need of help from the community.” However, men of color do not represent the majority of school shooters or mass murderers.


Recent studies reveal that most school shooters are White males, with 97 percent being male and 79 percent White. Over the last three decades, 90 percent of high school or elementary school shootings were the result of White, often upper-middle class, perpetrators. These shootings are a direct reflection of White male privilege and the consequences that occur when groups like the NRA control influential conservative leaders.

Before his May 23rd premeditated killing spree, Elliot Rodger2 posted a YouTube video saying his intention was to “slaughter every single spoiled stuck up blonde slut I see” inside a sorority house, because they “all would have rejected [him] and looked down upon [him] as an inferior man if [he] ever made a sexual advance towards them.” These chilling comments cannot be simply regarded as nonsense from a “madman,” because they actually represent the deeply entrenched manifestation of our misogynistic society. Furthermore, the case of Elliot Rodger exposes the prevailing intersection between gender and race of gun violence.

There is a pattern in these school shootings that has been coined as “suicide-by-mass-murder,” and seems to be an almost-exclusively young-White-male phenomenon. Michael Kimmel, a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Stony Brook University and founder of the academic journal Men and Masculinity, has been conducting research on the intersection between race and gender of American school shooters, and observed that “victims of [young men of color] are usually those whom the shooter believes have wronged him. And it rarely ends with his suicide. .. White men, on the other hand, have a somewhat more grandiose purpose…’If I’m going to die, then so is everybody else,’ they seem to say. Yes, of course, this is mental illness speaking: but it is mental illness speaking with a voice that has a race and a gender.”

This “suicide-by-mass-murder” is a reflection of a combination of both White and male privilege—the ideology that White males have social, economic, and political advantages granted to them solely on the basis of their sex and race. In Elliot’s case, he believed he, as a White heterosexual male, was entitled to women and sex, and that their disinterest was “an injustice, a crime.” Misogyny is still alive and well in American society, provoking many men to still believe that women owe them obedience and adoration. Manhood and masculinity are defined and shaped from the early years of when a father or sports coach tells a boy to stop crying and “Man up, you sissy!” Boys become ‘men’ and gain respect from their peers when they lose their virginity or win their first fist-fight. Pop culture and movies drive home these not-so-subtle themes to young male audiences, teaching them that masculinity revolves around having a nice car, violently punching the bad guy, and saving the girl who would be nothing without their hero.

On top of all of this is the additional element of White privilege, furthering the notion that White males, as society tells them, are the alphas. These two elements combined invoke a sense of entitlement to jobs, education, power, and women. This embedded privilege within White American men becomes dangerous when they don’t get from women what they’ve been told they deserve or are entitled to. In many cases, this leads to incidents of domestic violence or rape. In cases where the man also suffers from mental illness, as was the case with Rodger, the feelings of worthlessness and suicidal thoughts drive a desire to reassert his presence and power above women before dying, by doing something catastrophic that will garner media attention.

RELATED: “Terror Network or Lone Wolf?” The disparate treatment of Muslims, African Americans, and White people in the U.S. justice system and media.

White male privilege is evident, but it is not something that is often pointed out or discussed. Perhaps it is easier to notice the disadvantages of racial minorities or females rather than the advantages of White males. Perhaps it is because they are taught not to recognize it because of the guilt or consequent self-doubt that comes with societal privilege. Nevertheless, as a result, school shootings are increasingly frequent and studies continue to reveal the correlation between guns and race and gender.

In the wake of the Elliot Rodger shooting, in which he allegedly exacted retribution against women for paying him no romantic interest, Congress passed a bill on May 29th that aims to increase funding for criminal background checks in a 260-145 vote. This is the only gun control legislation that has been considered since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, after powerful lobbyist organizations like the NRA cast any opposition to gun violence as opposition to gun ownership and successfully lobbied against gun control laws. In fact, at the behest of the NRA, Congressional Republicans passed a law in 1996 that prevents the Center for Disease Control and Prevention from using federal funding to research the effect of guns. Republicans are now targeting the National Institutes for Health for funding research on public health issues of guns.

If change is to come about, schools and parents should start facilitating conversations about race and gender in the 21st century, because our society is not past racism or sexism yet. Or perhaps we should start with illuminating how the NRA, with 5 million predominantly White male members and $205 million in annual revenue, blocks most of the attempts for gun control legislation for their own agenda purposes. 47 percent of males and 33 percent of Whites in America own guns, while only 18 percent of non-White Americans possess firearms. Rick Ector, a NRA-credentialed Firearms Trainer, readily admitted that “the NRA has not made any significant progress or inroads towards increasing the number of black people in the organization and its annual conventions. By my own personal accounting, I met twelve black persons in attendance at the conference in St Louis.” There were 86,000 total attendees at the conference and they were primarily older white men, “the gun-loving sector of American society,” as The Economist describes. 

The NRA’s lobbying efforts to support gun ownership truthfully supports White male privilege in America as well. It’s not enough that economic, social, and political inequalities exist in society. It’s not enough that Congress, as it did on April 9th, block the Paycheck Fairness Act for the third time so that women can continue to receive a lower wage than men. Americans must also own guns so that people can protect their White male privileges and, consequently, allow for anyone to wield these weapons and punish others when these men do not get what they are promised by society.

Please refer to Guns and Racism: The Critical Issue We’re Not Allowed To Discuss for further information.

1. This post originally stated that the 69.2% figure was of Whites arrested for violent crimes. According to FBI reports, the number actually reflects the percentage of Whites arrested for all crimes.
2. After this article was published, information became public that Elliot Rodger was of mixed race heritage. However, he self-identified as “half White.”

Remembering John Salvi and the Brookline Clinic Shootings

John Salvi III

John Salvi III

As the United States Supreme Court reviews Buffer Zone laws around healthcare clinics today, let’s take a moment to remember one of the worst moments in the fight for women’s reproductive autonomy.

On December 30, 1994, I was working late at Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York as part of a unit investigating, among other things, the violent, criminal element of the anti-abortion movement. That’s when I got the news that there had been a mass shooting at one of our clinics. A man had walked into a Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts, and killed receptionist Shannon Lowney and wounding three other clinic workers with a 22 caliber rifle. He then went to another nearby clinic, Pre-term Health Services, killing receptionist Lee Ann Nichols and wounding two other clinic workers. He had apparently been prepared to do much more because he dropped a second gun and 700 rounds of ammunition in his flight after a security guard returned fire at PreTerm.

It was the worst episode in a time of fierce anti-abortion violence in the U.S. and Canada, including a series of murders and attempted murders, hundreds of assaults, bombings and arsons, hundreds of bomb threats, and more. The previous year, federal agents had unearthed the Army of God Manual — a field guide to how to do arsons, bombings, chemical attacks, and clinic invasions.

Police soon identified the shooter as John Salvi III, who was captured a few days later while firing at the Hillcrest clinic in Norfolk, VA. When he was captured, he had the name and unlisted phone number of Donald Spitz, a local anti-abortion activist who was also the spokesman for the underground Army of God. (Many of those who have been convicted of violent crimes related to abortion were, and remain, publicly associated with the Army of God. Salvi was later convicted of the murders and committed suicide while in prison.

Salvi is still celebrated as a Hero of the Faith on the Army of God web site.

In 1996, PRA published an extensive examination of violence against abortion clinics, and the emerging conspiracism in the Catholic Right. Here’s a small excerpt from that publication:

Most of the news coverage of John C. Salvi 3d has portrayed him as a confused person making nonsensical statements alleging conspiracies against Catholics. In fact, almost all of Salvi’s conspiratorial statements echo paranoid scapegoating theories long circulated by a specific sector of right wing anti-abortion organizations active in the Boston area and nationwide. Some of these aggressive anti-abortion groups call abortion providers evil and claim to be fighting an “abortion Holocaust.” A few of these anti-abortion militants suggest that abortion providers deserve death.

While Salvi clearly shows signs of emotional disturbance, his view of himself as a crusader against an evil conspiracy is rooted in the small but militant wings of the Catholic and Protestant anti-abortion movements. Even though Salvi has been found guilty in the Brookline, Massachusetts clinic shootings that left two women dead and several persons injured, it is still difficult for many people to see the political side of the Salvi case. There is still a widespread lack of knowledge about the beliefs of the right wing conspiracist subculture-and there is still an attitude of denial that groups promoting conspiratorial worldviews have growing influence in our political system. This aspect of the Salvi case has not been adequately covered by the news media.

Before his arrest Salvi met with a Catholic priest and demanded to distribute lurid photographs of aborted fetuses, charging that the Catholic Church was not doing enough to stop abortions. He confronted his parish on Christmas Eve 1994 for failing to live up to his interpretation of the Catholic faith and its obligations. He quoted the Biblical book of Revelation; and told his parents of wanting to confront Satan. Shortly after his arrest he released a handwritten note alleging conspiracies of freemasons, conspiracies to manipulate paper currency, and conspiracies against Catholics. He told the court he supported the welfare state, Catholic labor unions, and opposed abortion. He has talked about the Vatican printing its own currency and a specific conspiracy of the Ku Klux Klan, the Freemasons, and the Mob. Far from being unique, all of these ideas appear in right-wing Catholic, Protestant, and secular political publications available in the Boston area.

Click here to read the full article John Salvi, Abortion Clinic Violence, and Catholic Right Conspiracism

John Salvi, Abortion Clinic Violence, and Catholic Right Conspiracism

Most of the news coverage of John C. Salvi 3d has portrayed him as a confused person making nonsensical statements alleging conspiracies against Catholics. In fact, almost all of Salvi’s conspiratorial statements echo paranoid scapegoating theories long circulated by a specific sector of right wing anti-abortion organizations active in the Boston area and nationwide. Some of these aggressive anti-abortion groups call abortion providers evil and claim to be fighting an “abortion Holocaust.” A few of these anti-abortion militants suggest that abortion providers deserve death.

While Salvi clearly shows signs of emotional disturbance, his view of himself as a crusader against an evil conspiracy is rooted in the small but militant wings of the Catholic and Protestant anti-abortion movements. Even though Salvi has been found guilty in the Brookline, Massachusetts clinic shootings that left two women dead and several persons injured, it is still difficult for many people to see the political side of the Salvi case. There is still a widespread lack of knowledge about the beliefs of the right wing conspiracist subculture-and there is still an attitude of denial that groups promoting conspiratorial worldviews have growing influence in our political system. This aspect of the Salvi case has not been adequately covered by the news media.

Before his arrest Salvi met with a Catholic priest and demanded to distribute lurid photographs of aborted fetuses, charging that the Catholic Church was not doing enough to stop abortions. He confronted his parish on Christmas Eve 1994 for failing to live up to his interpretation of the Catholic faith and its obligations. He quoted the Biblical book of Revelation; and told his parents of wanting to confront Satan. Shortly after his arrest he released a handwritten note alleging conspiracies of freemasons, conspiracies to manipulate paper currency, and conspiracies against Catholics. He told the court he supported the welfare state, Catholic labor unions, and opposed abortion. He has talked about the Vatican printing its own currency and a specific conspiracy of the Ku Klux Klan, the Freemasons, and the Mob. Far from being unique, all of these ideas appear in right-wing Catholic, Protestant, and secular political publications available in the Boston area.

Conspiracy theories range in their complexity, irrationality, and degree of bigotry. They are spread in a mild form by the John Birch Society-primarily through its magazine The New American; and in a more virulent racist and anti-Semitic form by the Liberty Lobby-primarily through its newspaper, The Spotlight, but also through a syndicated radio program, Radio Free America. Other leading purveyors of conspiracy theories include the Lyndon LaRouche network and a number of right-wing Christian groups. The whole spectrum of conspiracist allegations can be found on computer networks including the Internet, on radio and TV talk shows, on short-wave radio, through fax networks, and in hundreds of small books, pamphlets, and flyers available through the mail.

Magazines found in Salvi’s residence included The New American and The Fatima Crusader, both published by right-wing groups promoting conspiracist theories and vociferously opposing abortion and homosexuality. Allegations of a freemason conspiracy are contained in a book sold by Human Life International, a right-wing Catholic anti-abortion group that prints the photographs of fetuses Salvi distributed prior to his arrest. One Catholic right newspaper that promotes the Freemason conspiracy theory is The Michael Journal, published in Canada but distributed in the Boston area. The specific allegation of a conspiracy linking the Ku Klux Klan, the Freemasons, and the Mob is made in publications of the Lyndon LaRouche network. No one can claim to know the specific source of Salvi’s ideas, but at some point Salvi clearly intersected with persons who guided him to material from right-wing groups opposing abortion. One does not find issues of The New American or The Fatima Crusader, or material from Human Life International, at the corner newsstand. They are circulated in a distinct right-wing subculture.

The idea that a conspiracy of Freemasons controls the economy through the manipulation of paper money is based on conspiracy theories originally spread in the 1700’s and 1800’s. Salvi’s Freemason theory is one current variation of these earlier theories, and persons who embrace this theory often point to Masonic symbols on the dollar bill as evidence of the conspiracy. The basic premise of this worldview is that a conspiracy of secret wealthy elites controls the US. Variations on these themes include overtly bigoted theories concerning Jews, theories of a secular humanist conspiracy of liberals to take God out of society, One World Global Government theories, and many others. Symptoms of the corrosive nature of this alleged conspiracy are seen variously as abortion, homosexuality, the feminist movement, sex education, Outcomes Based Education, the environmental movement, and various others.

The freemason conspiracy theory is spread by persons who have real clout in the political arena. Pat Robertson is a leading conservative evangelical whose Christian Coalition is credited with helping elect many Republican US senators and representatives. Robertson promotes the freemason conspiracy theory and other forms of conspiracism in his books and on his TV program, “The 700 Club,” which is seen daily in the Boston area on the cable Family Channel. Robertson’s book The New World Order, published in 1992, is filled with right-wing conspiracist lore, much of it laced with references to Jewish bankers that contain, at the least, echoes of anti-Semitism. Some of the cites in Robertson’s book trace back to notoriously antisemitic sources. Discussions of freemason and other scapegoating conspiracies appear throughout Robertson’s book and will be discussed in detail later.

Salvi discussed his interest in the militia movement, the armed wing of the larger patriot movement, where conspiracy theories flourish. According to an article by Sarah Tippit of Reuters:

“While living in Florida in 1992, Salvi talked to a friend about joining a militia and once expressed interest in a particular camping trip with a militia from the Everglades, said his former employer, Mark Roberts of Naples, Florida. ‘Salvi had mentioned being affiliated with some bivouac thing in the Everglades. They were camping and he wanted to go,’ said Roberts, who employed Salvi for maintenance work. Shortly before moving to New England in 1992, Salvi stopped at Roberts’ house and showed his gun. He had sawed off its barrel and installed a silencer, Roberts said. ‘He said he was going to shoot cans in the woods, but he didn’t want to make any noise,’ Roberts said. ‘That worried me.'”

A major element of many conspiracy theories, including those circulated by the militias, is that the country is composed of two types of persons: parasites and producers. The parasites are at the top and the bottom, with the producers being the hard-working average citizen in the middle. This is the theory of right-wing populism. The parasites at the top are seen as lazy and corrupt government officials in league with wealthy elites who control banking and manipulate paper currency. The parasites at the bottom are the lazy and shiftless who do not deserve the assistance they receive from society. Salvi echoes this scapegoating refrain when he complains about persons on welfare. In the current political scene this dichotomy between parasites and producers takes on elements of racism because the people at the bottom who are seen as parasites are usually viewed as people of color, primarily Black and Hispanic, even though most persons who receive government assistance are White. Jews are frequently scapegoated as being part of the parasitic elite at the top.

That some persons who choose to act violently against the named scapegoats are also suffering from some form of emotional distress or mental illness does not negate the fact that they were groomed by a scapegoating social movement. Clinic violence is not the only result. In recent years there has been a disturbing number of threats and attacks against not only abortion providers, but also environmental activists, gays and lesbians, Jews, and even feminists. The scapegoating of welfare mothers and immigrants of color could also lead to similar acts of intimidation and injury. The pattern of violence against environmental activists has been chronicled in David Helvarg’s War Against the Greens, published by the Sierra Club.

In some cases scapegoating conspiracy theories are adopted by persons who believe we are in the Biblical “End Times” described in prophesies in the book of Revelations as a time when there will be literal confrontations pitting true Christians against Satan and the Antichrist. The idea that we are in the End Times is growing in right-wing Christian evangelical circles. While predominantly a Protestant phenomenon, there are small groups of orthodox and charismatic Catholics that also are embracing End Times theology. Like Salvi, they point to the book of Revelations and discuss actual struggles with Satan and the antichrist. These views are hardly marginal on the Christian right. End Times themes have appeared on Pat Robertson’s the “700 Club.” Just after Christmas 1994, the program carried a feature on new dollar bill designs being discussed to combat counterfeiting. The newscaster then cited Revelations 13 and suggested that if the Treasury Department put new codes on paper money it might be the Mark of the Beast.

In recent years, the most militant anti-abortion groups such as Operation Rescue have been influenced by the theology of Christian Reconstructionism, or dominion theology, which argues that true Christians must physically confront secular and sinful society and return it to God. Though predominantly composed of right-wing Protestants, a similar movement among doctrinaire Catholics has emerged. The trajectory of Philip Lawler from the editorship of the Boston Archdiocesian publication The Pilot, to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights to Operation Rescue is one example of this drift toward militancy. In the spring of 1994, Salvi joined with 300 anti-abortion demonstrators outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts where pamphlets were circulated that cited Operation Rescue as claiming that 18,000 abortions were performed annually at the facility.

The two main sectors of the US right that share a substantial degree of scapegoating conspiracism in their core ideology are the nativist right with its populist America First orientation; and the new Christian right, based primarily on Protestant evangelicalism but incorporating a growing segment of right-wing Catholics. Many in the new Christian right are in fact theocrats, in that they desire a government run by men seen as carrying out God’s will.

Both the theocratic right and nativist right have supporters and leaders that emerge from the Catholic right, and who have formed coalitions with the Protestant right and secular right over issues of morality and economic policy. Examples of leaders emerging from the Catholic right would be nativist Pat Buchanan, currently a presidential candidate running in the Republican primaries; and Paul Weyrich, a leading Catholic right figure with significant influence in the Republican Party. Weyrich’s main base of operations is the Free Congress Foundation (FCF) in Washington, DC which he founded and still leads. Weyrich commissioned a FCF study titled “The Homosexual Agenda” written by Fr. Enrique Rueda, another Catholic right ideologue, that alleged a vast conspiracy of homosexuals to infiltrate government agencies. Rightwing Catholic activism, however, is a relatively small phenomenon. According to Catholics for Free Choice, “Only a tiny fraction of US Catholics-less than 200,000 people out of a diverse community of more than 50 million-have deliberately and consciously aligned themselves with Catholic organizations on the ‘religious right.’

Certainly a person like John Salvi does not represent the mainstream of Catholicism, the anti-abortion movement, or the US political right, but he expresses the views of a durable subculture with conspiracist views that target scapegoats. Scapegoats can be injured or killed by persons-no matter what their mental state-who act out their conspiratorial beliefs in a zealous manner. The failure of political and religious leaders to take strong public stands against groups and individuals that demagogicly spread scapegoating conspiracist theories encourages this dangerous dynamic.

Human Life International

Human Life International (HLI) is a right-wing Catholic anti-abortion group with a chapter in Massachusetts. HLI promotes a highly orthodox vision of Catholicism that is critical of liberal Catholics around the issues of abortion, sex education, homosexuality, and feminism.

HLI publishes and distributes books that feature conspiracist thinking and misogyny with titles such as Sex Education: The Final PlagueThe Feminist Takeover, and Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism. As mentioned previously, HLI distributes the book New World Order: The Ancient Plan of Secret Societies, by William T. Still. The book attacks the Freemasons as part of a conspiracy to control the country through the issuing of paper money. The book is also sold by right-wing groups other than HLI. According to Still, his book:

“…[s]hows how an ancient plan has been hidden for centuries deep within secret societies. This scheme is designed to bring all of mankind under a single world government-a New World Order. This plan is of such antiquity that its result is even mentioned in the Revelation of Saint John the Divine.”

As the comment citing Revelations suggests, the battle against the conspiracy is the battle between good and evil. The back cover blurb of Still’s book confirms this by stating that the plan “to bring all nations under one-world government” is actually “the biblical rule of the Antichrist.”

In discussing the allegation that the Federal Reserve is part of the conspiracy, Still incorporates references to the Rothschild banking interests in a way that reflects historic antisemitic bigotry alleging Jewish control over the economy. Still’s book is endorsed in a back-cover blurb by D. James Kennedy, Ph.D., senior minister of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. According to Kennedy’s blurb:

“Regardless of your views about the coming of a world government, Bill Still’s new book will make you reassess the odds. He traces the historic role of secret societies and their influence on the “Great Plan” to erase nationalism in preparation for a global dictatorship. He allows the facts to speak for themselves, as he sounds an ominous warning for the 21st Century.”

Kennedy is an influential figure in the Protestant theocratic right, and his national conferences draw luminaries from the Republican Party such as former vice-president Dan Quayle. Kennedy is not the only leading figure in the Protestant right to dabble with conspiracy theories.

HLI founder Fr. Paul Marx and other authors published or distributed by HLI have made bigoted allegations about Jewish doctors and abortion that have drawn rebukes for anti-Semitism from more responsible leaders in the Catholic Church. Msgr. George G. Higgins took on this issue in a column published in Catholic New York:

“Over the years, Human Life International…has proven a divisive force within the pro-life movement, frequently attacking the Catholic Hierarchy of the United States both individually and as a conference for what Father Marx viewed as lapses from ideological purity. Alongside this, there has been what I would call a flirtation with anti-Semitism.”

Msgr. Higgins notes that the “official teaching of the Church…clearly condemns forays into anti-Semitism,” and that HLI’s practice of listing many bishops as advisers creates confusion among persons who might have difficulty distinguishing “the preachments of HLI from the official teaching of the Church, which clearly condemns forays into anti-Semitism.”

In a devastating critique of Human Life International in Planned Parenthood’s Front Lines Research, newsletter, investigative journalists Karen Branan and Frederick Clarkson review the routine promotion by HLI of conspiratorial, hard right, theocratic, and anti-Semitic ideas.

Although this report was issued in April of 1994, months before Salvi’s shootings, most mainstream accounts of Salvi’s allegations of a conspiracy against Catholics by freemasons were dismissed as unintelligible ravings, even though most of Salvi’s rhetoric is identical to the allegations made in publications distributed by HLI, or at workshops held at HLI conferences. This failure to conduct even the most rudimentary research into the conspiratorial allegations of the militant hard right anti-abortion movement allows reporters to sidestep the political content, and report each act of violence against reproductive health workers as an isolated, anecdotal occurrence. Ideology and motivation are thus dismissed through a combination of journalistic ignorance, disinterest, and lack of resources for the type of in-depth reporting that could expose the dangers posed by conspiratorial anti-abortion groups that promote scapegoating that motivates some to acts of violence.

John Birch Society

While Protestants make up the core membership of the JBS, there have always been Catholic and even a few Jewish members of the Society. Sexuality is one broad topic that provides a point of unity for Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish ultra-conservatives who often agree that comprehensive sexuality education, abortion rights, lesbian and gay rights, and gay-tolerant curricula. The spread of AIDS allowed the JBS to link their support for traditional patriarchal family relationships to their conspiracy theory of the Insiders. According to the Birchers, “AIDS is just one of the bad effects of removing all the moral barriers and allowing perversion to prosper;” and sex education in schools is “fundamentally subversive,” according to Birch literature. The JBS also distributes pamphlets titled “The Truth About Aids” and “What They Are Not Telling You About AIDS.” Statements by Catholic right activist Charles E. Rice in one of the Birch AIDS pamphlets demonstrate how far the society is willing to take its opposition as well as the use of veiled references:

“The natural law, instituted by God, is the story of how things work. Homosexual activity is not a civil right. It is contrary to nature, and AIDS is one of its harmful effects. The AIDS pandemic is a social evil; so is the homosexual conduct that causes it. It is past time for the law to deal with those evils. And a first step would be to recall the edict of the Supreme Legislator in Romans 1:26-32.”

That passage in Romans is widely interpreted in the Christian right to be an edict against homosexuals and others who engage in what is called “unnatural” sex…specifying that “those who do such things deserve death.”

Rice writes for the JBS magazine and sits on the US advisory board of Human Life International. Rice wrote an article for the April 4, 1994 issue of the John Birch Society’s magazine, New American, a copy of which was found in John Salvi’s possession.

Most of the issue is devoted to a look at the relationship between fear of crime and increasing government erosions of civil liberties, especially relating to the Second Amendment and gun ownership.

The article by Rice on capital punishment, however, is especially significant in light of recent clinic violence, especially the Salvi case. Titled “The Death Penalty Dilemma,” the article argues that it is legitimate to oppose abortion while still supporting the death penalty. Some Christians oppose both abortion and the death penalty, viewing the opposition to taking of all life as a philosophical seamless garment. But in the article “The Death Penalty Dilemma,” Rice, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, argues that being for the death penalty while opposing abortion as a “right-to-life” issue is philosophically consistent. Rice concludes his article on capital punishment with a section subtitled “A Right to Life Issue,” with the following three paragraphs:

“Capital punishment is obviously a `right to life’ issue. But it is often oversimplified. One could legitimately argue against both abortion and, on prudential grounds, capital punishment. But the two cases are not the same since the unborn child is innocent and the convicted murderer is not. One could therefore also legitimately argue against abortion and in favor of capital punishment. The liberal position today, however, is to oppose the killing of convicted criminals but to approve the killing of innocent children in the womb. It is a symptom of debased humanism to protest a murderer’s deserved punishment while acquiescing in the killing of innocent children through abortion.

“All human life is precious because we are all created in the image and likeness of God. But God also gave us free wills and made us by nature social beings with the inclination to live in community and the moral duty to act in accord with the common good of that community. It is fair to say that one pressing need of the human community, in the United States as elsewhere, is to restore respect for innocent life and to protect innocent members of the community against aggressors, whether abortionists or more conventional killers.

“In this context, the imposition of capital punishment can be seen as a means to restore respect for innocent life. The prudent use of the death penalty can emphasize, as no other penalty can, that malefactors are responsible for their own actions and that the deliberate, willful taking of innocent life is the most abhorrent of all crimes precisely because the right to life is the most precious of all rights.”

While the message is veiled, one way to read the above paragraphs would be to assume that imposing the death penalty on abortion providers was morally justifiable for a society, and that a person might justifiably choose to exercise their free will and carry out their “moral duty to act in accord with the common good of [the] community” by killing an abortion provider “to restore respect for innocent life and to protect innocent members of the community against aggressors, whether abortionists or more conventional killers.” Similar arguments have been made in some militant anti-abortion circles, and Rice certainly was suggesting Biblical support for the idea that homosexuals should be put to death in his earlier article for the JBS about AIDS.

The Fatima Crusader

The basic message of The Fatima Crusader is that we are in the apocalyptic end times and facing a direct struggle with Satan; and that the actions and religious devotions of true Catholics must be based on end times warnings and predictions from appearances by the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ before Catholic faithful. The Fatima Crusader is just one of many formations in the Catholic Church that focus their devotion on the Virgin Mary, in what constitutes a diverse Marianist subculture within the Church.

In the worldview of The Fatima Crusader the Russian tyranny can come in many forms. In The Fatima Crusaderthe clear editorial position is that the predictions at Fatima refer to the threat of a Russian-style collectivist One World Government ushered in by socialists, liberals, secular humanists, homosexuals, abortionists, and followers of the new age spirituality movement. As Father Gruner observes:

“Already the errors of Naziism and Communism have invaded this country by the kinds of things that took place in Waco, whereby banned gas, forbidden to be used in international warfare, was used on citizens of the United States.”

The Fatima Crusader also weaves in conspiracism references to the prophesies about the end times struggle against Satan and the Antichrist mentioned in the Book of Revelations. In an article in the Summer 1994 issue ofThe Fatima Crusader, Charles Martel writes in an article on “The Antichrist” that “The Church is in a shambles” characterized by:

  • Open rebellion against authority,
  • Enthusiasm for abortion, contraception, divorce, etc.,
  • Addition of many clerics to Marxism,
  • Presence of un-Catholic teachings in seminaries and universities,
  • Widespread and well-organized homosexual network,
  • Acceptance of New Age belief as the latest of ecumenism.

Michael Journal

One rightwing Catholic Journal that writes about the parasitic nature of financial elites is the Michael Journal which celebrates the memory of Father Coughlin “Who courageously denounced the bankers’ debt-money system.” According to the Michael Journal“The Illuminati are elite men, those on the top, who control the International Bankers to control, for evil purposes, the entire world.” Followers of the Michael Journal lobbied against the Massachusetts seat belt law, believing it was a step toward Satanic One World Government. Much of John Salvi’s rhetoric echoes themes in the Michael Journal. The Michael Journal also carries articles about “Tha Apparitions at Fatima.”

The Burlington Patriot Movement Meeting

There is no indication that Salvi attended patriot or militia meetings in Massachusetts, but the movements are active in the state, and overlap with anti-abortion militants. A patriot movement meeting was held in November 1994 at the high school auditorium in Burlington, MA. The seventy-five people who attended the public meeting heard speakers decry the failure of government to meet the needs of average Americans. Several speakers argued that this failure was driven by a vast and even satanic conspiracy. Attendees ranged in age from early 20s to late 60s and they came from Massachusetts and several surrounding states including New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

Leading anti-abortion organizer Dr. Mildred Jefferson, an African-American women, spoke about problems with the medical profession she witnessed as a surgeon. Jefferson’s speech tied groups such as NOW and Planned Parenthood to a conspiracy of secular humanists tracing back to the 1800s. Jefferson is a founder and former officer of the National Right to Life committee and a board member of Massachusetts Citizens for Life.

During the meeting, attendees browsed three tables of literature brought by Den’s Gun Shop in Lakeville, Massachusetts. One book offered instruction in the use of the Ruger .22 rifle. Other books contained diagrams on how to build bombs and incendiary devices. One title was Improvised Weapons of the American Underground.

You could even purchase the book Hunter by neo-Nazi William Pierce, leader of the National Alliance. Hunter is a book that describes parasitic Jews destroying America, and extols the virtues of armed civilians who carry out political assassinations of Jews and homosexuals to preserve the white race. Pierce’s previous book, The Turner Diaries, was the primary sourcebook of racist terror underground organizations, such as The Order, in the 1980s.The Turner Diaries still is circulated by the neo-Nazi movement, and includes a section describing the bombing of a federal building by the armed underground. Timothy McVeigh, charged with a role in bombing the federal building in Oklahoma, is reported to have passed out copies of the book The Turner Diaries. Leaflets from the National Alliance attacking the New World Order and “minority parasites” have appeared in Cambridge, Somerville, and other Boston-area communities.

One speaker, Ed Brown, runs the Constitutional Defense Militia of New Hampshire. Brown passed out brochures offering “Firearms Training, Combat Leadership, Close Combat, and Intelligence Measures.”

Persons concerned with anti-abortion violence have watched with growing alarm as persons affiliated with the most militant wing of the anti-abortion movement began to interact and link up with persons in the armed militia movement. An early example of this tendency was revealed by Planned Parenthood at a press conference in August of 1994 where a videotape documentary was released showing the Rev. Matthew Trewhella of the Missionaries to the Pre-Born calling for the formation of an armed citizen militias. Trewhella’s call came as he addressed a statewide meeting of the hard right US Taxpayers Party in Wisconsin.


Dominion theology is a relatively new current in Christian theology, which argues that godly men, no matter what their view of the end times, must assert control over secular society. Dominionists frequently assert that the US Constitution is superseded by Old Testament Biblical law. Christian Reconstructionism is the most extreme form of dominion theology.

Militant anti-abortion activist and Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry writes for the dominionist magazine,Crosswinds, and has signed their Manifesto for the Christian Church, which proclaims that America should “function as a Christian nation” and that the “world will not know how to live or which direction to go without the Church’s Biblical influence on its theories, laws, actions, and institutions,” including opposition to such “social moral evils” 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.”

Dominion theology plays the same role in urging militancy within rightwing Protestant circles as does the Fatima admonitions in rightwing Catholic circles. The central theme of stopping abortion in Protestant dominionism provides a common point of intersection with militant Catholic anti-abortion activists, so it is little surprise to find right-wing Protestant anti-abortion activist Randall Terry working closely with right-wing Catholic anti-abortion activist Joseph Scheidler. Schiedler in turn is on the US board of advisors to Human Life International, as is Charles E. Rice, who authored the previously-mentioned article comparing capital punishment and abortion in the issue of the John Birch Society’s magazine New American. The editor of HLI Reports is William Marshner, a right-wing charismatic Catholic who works closely with the Free Congress Foundation’s Paul Weyrich, himself an ultraconservative Catholic.

Marshner resigned from the editorial board of the ultra-conservative Catholic magazine Fidelity after that magazine criticized the far right Catholic lay group Tradition, Family, and Property for its anti-democratic and proto-fascist tendencies. Weyrich supports the work of Tradition, Family, and Property, long active in the anti-abortion movement, and has invited it into coalitions with the National Right to Life Committee and more mainstream conservative groups including the Republican National Committee.

Father Paul Marx, founder and chairman of Human Life International, launched the “Conversion Corps for Mary” to raise funds for the “continuing conversion of Russia,” and reminded his supporters in a fundraising letter that “When appearing to the children of Fatima, the Blessed Virgin Mary promised the world she would convert Russia. To do this Mary first brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union.” But Father Marx goes on to link the ending of abortion in Russia to its eventual conversion as prophesied by Mary. HLI opened an office in Russia to engage in that work. Paul Weyrich has also mentioned the prophesies of Our Lady of Fatima to raise funds for his work in Russia.

These connections and overlaps are cited not to suggest some sinister conspiracy, but to demonstrate that there is a milieu in which right-wing Catholicism, the Fatima prophesies, dominionism, end times beliefs, and anti-abortion activism are linked.


Social movements that embrace scapegoating make serious dialog within the democratic process difficult or impossible. Instead of engaging in a political struggle based on debate and compromise, those who believe in evil conspiracies want to expose and neutralize the enemy, rather than sit at the same table and negotiate. Our Constitutional democracy is based on informed consent, not hysteria and witch-hunts fueled by demagogic allegations of conspiracies. That persons who embrace paranoid conspiratorial worldviews will come into conflict with legitimate law enforcement seems inevitable, given that their perceptions of a vast conspiracy lead them to inappropriate assessments of even the most innocent interactions with government officials. It was the government’s failure to understand this dynamic that resulted in the tragic incidents of government over-reaction and excessive use of force against the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidians, in Waco. That both the Weaver family and the Branch Davidians embraced theological end times views is of great significance, and indicates that as we approach the millennium, the number of incidents with a potential for violence will increase. It seems clear that the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City was at least in part in retaliation for the government’s misconduct at Ruby Ridge and Waco.

At the same time, persons concerned about civil discourse and democratic dialogue must also oppose the attempt by government officials to use the incident of terrorism in Oklahoma City to justify a range of repressive legislative initiatives that grant law enforcement the power to use widespread surveillance and infiltration of noncriminal groups of dissidents, claiming this will help stop terrorism. A series of Congressional hearings, lawsuits, and media reports in the 1970’s demonstrated there was no evidence that widespread infiltration and surveillance of dissident groups had a significant effect on stopping criminal activity or terrorism, but did have a significant effect in abridging civil liberties and chilling free speech. In this volatile political moment, we must cautiously guard against the dangers of right-wing bigotry and violence, and government overreaction in response to these very real divisive and dangerous problems.

Demagogic right wing groups that spread conspiracy theories targeting scapegoats do not attract much attention as serious players on the US political scene. While these groups are relatively small compared to the general population, they are increasing in size and fervor. The primary reason for a lack of public awareness about these conspiratorial social movements is that few mainstream media outlets have reporters that have made a serious study of right-wing political and theological belief structures. Even when reporters have educated themselves and submitted in-depth articles, middle-level and senior-level editors resist serious coverage of these topics. Arguments given to reporters for not running text explaining the political-and often conspiratorial-contentions of militant right-wing groups cluster around five main arguments:

  • Giving coverage to these groups only builds their credibility;
  • Readers will find the material too complex and confusing;
  • Actually reporting the conspiratorial allegations will make it seem as if the media are trying to make fun of the group;
  • These groups are insignificant so explaining their worldview is pointless;
  • People who believe these things must be insane and thus don’t deserve serious coverage.

None of these reasons justify what is essentially self-censorship that denies citizens the ability to become informed about these groups and draw their own conclusions over the potential for violence these groups may be generating.

Political and religious leaders also frequently dismiss right wing groups with conspiracist views as marginal and irrelevant. Indeed, right wing conspiracist groups have little chance of achieving their goals in the long run, but in the short run they can temporarily acquire and employ real political power and disrupt the democratic process. On an individual basis the scapegoating unleashed by conspiracist groups too frequently results in physical attacks on persons seen to be in league with the scapegoated group of evil-doers. This lack of meaningful coverage is especially dangerous when it comes to the hard-right anti-abortion movement. Until these issues are explored thoroughly in the mainstream media, and public figures speak out against the conspiratorial scapegoating and dehumanization by right-wing Protestant and Catholic anti-abortion militants, there will be more people like John Salvi resorting to violence in the belief that they are carrying out God’s will.

Chip Berlet is an analyst at Political Research Associates in Somerville, Massachusetts. This study is adapted from the forthcoming book, Too Close for Comfort: Rightwing Populism, Scapegoating, and Fascist Potentials in US Political Traditions, by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons of the to be published next fall by South End Press.

Footnotes are contained in the full 40-page report available from Political Research Associates for $10. Title of full report: “The Increasing Popularity of Right Wing Conspiracy Theories. Including a discussion of statements by John C. Salvi, 3d. Allegations of a Freemason Conspiracy and Other Scapegoating Conspiracist Theories Within the Catholic Right, Protestant Right, Anti-Abortion Movement, Patriot Movement, and Armed Militia Movement.”

For More Information:

On Human Life International in general, on the book distributed by HLI, New World Order: The Ancient Plan of Secret Societies, and the relationship between anti-abortion militants and the militias: Contact Sandi Dubowski or Claire McCurdy, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, (212) 541-7800.

On the relationship of Human Life International to the anti-abortion movement: Contact Catholics for Free Choice, (202) 986-6093.

A version of Fred Clarkson’s two-part article on Christian Reconstructionism appears in the book Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, edited by Chip Berlet and available from bookstores or directly from South End Press.

On history of conspiracy theories and nativism, and spread of conspiracy theories into mainstream politics: SeeParty of Fear, by David H. Bennet. New York: Vintage, 1995 (revised second edition). See especially pp. 424-428, 472-475.

For a general overview of the political right: See Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States, by Sara Diamond. New York: Guilford., 1995

For conspiracy theories and the modern far right, see Bitter Harvest: Gordon Kahl and the Posse Comitatus, by James Corcoran. New York: Penguin, 1990.