In 1994, as now, the mainstream evangelical groups responded to the slayings in Pensacola by saying all the right things -- offering a raft of statements unambiguously denouncing the violence and condemning Paul Hill's actions.
I remember those statements very well because I wrote one of them. In the '90s, I was the staff writer for an evangelical -- and, therefore, anti-abortion -- nonprofit, and so it fell to me to write the first draft of a statement after Paul Hill's killing spree.
The statement we wrote was consistent with what our group had been saying all along. My boss, in whose name this statement was released, was a lifelong pacifist, a devout Mennonite who has, for decades, unfailingly opposed all forms of violence. And as a good Mennonite, his rhetoric too was always studiously nonviolent -- peaceable to the point of blandness, actually.
But at the same time we were drafting and issuing this statement, I was reading dozens of similar statements from other evangelical groups whose rhetoric had never been marked by anything like my boss's Mennonite pacifism. These were groups that routinely spoke of abortion as "murder" or "mass-murder," and that routinely spoke of legalized abortion as an "American Holocaust." They had, for years, been using precisely the same rhetoric and making exactly the same arguments that Paul Hill was now using to attempt to justify his double homicide.
Those groups' condemnations of Paul Hill then -- like their condemnations of Scott Roeder now -- ring hollow. Such condemnations seem to be self-refuting. How can they condemn men like Hill or Roeder just for taking their own arguments seriously?
Paul Hill argued that abortion was the moral equivalent of the Nazi Holocaust -- just like the National Right to Life Committee, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family and dozens of other evangelical groups said it was. If that's true, Hill said, then he wasn't merely justified, but obligated to take up arms against abortionists. If you're confronted with an evil equal in magnitude to that of Adolf Hitler -- as all these groups insisted was the case -- then surely one is obliged to do more than vote Republican every four years in the hopes of one day appointing enough judges to change the law of the land. Confronted with what all of these groups assured him was the Holocaust, he decided to become Claus von Stauffenberg.
Yet when Hill repeated their own argument and their own rhetoric back to them, these groups all recoiled. They all claimed to share Hill's premise, but not to share his conclusion. That won't work. Hill's violent conclusion arose logically from that shared premise. If he was a madman to be condemned -- as all those groups suddenly insisted he was -- it was because of the madness of that premise. So how was it possible they could repudiate him without also repudiating that rhetoric that compelled him to act?
Now here we are again, 15 years later, as the arguments of the anti-abortion movement are again being proved disingenuous by their own self-refuting statements condemning the latest lethal fruit of their rhetoric of "mass-murder" and "Holocaust." Once again some sad, disturbed man has committed the error of taking their rhetoric more seriously than it was ever meant by the people who supposedly believed it to be true.
Didn't Scott Roeder realize that it was all just a game? Didn't he appreciate that all this talk of Holocaust was just a gimmick to get his fellow Kansans to support a repeal of the estate tax? Didn't he understand the difference between really believing that abortion is "mass-murder" and just indulging in the smug posturing of self-righteousness that makes the members of the Anti Kitten-Burning Coalition feel a little better about themselves?
No, apparently, he didn't. Apparently he was just crazy enough to believe that these people meant what they said, crazy enough to believe that they believed their own words and that he should believe them too.
To believe these people -- to believe that their words matter or that their words are truthful or that their arguments are made in good faith -- is madness indeed.
I'm not as comfortable flinging about charges of hypocrisy because I like to give people credit for actually believing what they say they believe. But Fred Clark knows these people in a way we don't, so who am I to say he's wrong? Maybe it is all just a game. You know, abortion's "murder" until somebody gets murdered over it, and then it's back to "Well now we're not saying you should murder someone just because they're a murderer."
Will Saletan also tries to address this conundrum in his Slate column, with less success:
So is Roeder getting support from the nation's leading pro-life groups? Not a bit. They have roundly denounced the murder. The National Right to Life Committee says it opposes "any form of violence to fight the violence of abortion," preferring instead "to work through educational and legislative activities to ensure the right to life for unborn children, people with disabilities and older people." Americans United for Life agrees that it was wrong to kill Tiller because "the foundational right to life that our work is dedicated to extends to everyone."
I applaud these statements. They affirm the value of life and nonviolence, two principles that should unite us. But they don't square with what these organizations purport to espouse: a strict moral equation between the unborn and the born. If a doctor in Kansas were butchering hundreds of old or disabled people, and legal authorities failed to intervene, I doubt most members of the National Right to Life Committee would stand by waiting for "educational and legislative activities" to stop him. Somebody would use force.
The reason these pro-life groups have held their fire, both rhetorically and literally, is that they don't really equate fetuses with old or disabled people. They oppose abortion, as most of us do. But they don't treat abortionists the way they'd treat mass murderers of the old or disabled. And this self-restraint can't simply be chalked up to nonviolence or respect for the law. Look up the bills these organizations have written, pushed, or passed to restrict abortions. I challenge you to find a single bill that treats a woman who procures an abortion as a murderer. They don't even propose that she go to jail.
The people who kill abortion providers are the ones who don't flinch. They're like the veterans you sometimes see in war documentaries, quietly recounting what they faced and did. You think you're pro-life. You tell yourself that abortion is murder. Maybe you even say that when a pollster calls. But like most of the other people who say such things in polls, you don't mean it literally. There's you, and then there are the people who lock arms outside the clinics. And then there are the people who bomb them. And at the end of the line, there's the guy who killed George Tiller.
If you don't accept what he did, then maybe it's time to ask yourself what you really believe. Is abortion murder? Or is it something less, a tragedy that would be better avoided? Most of us think it's the latter. We're looking for ways to prevent abortions—not just a few this month, but millions down the line—without killing or prosecuting people. Come and join us.
Unfortunately Saletan also manages to create a false equivalence between Tiller and his murderer, as opposing soldiers in the "battleground" that is abortion in this country. But you get his point. If you really believe that abortion is mass murder, then you should also believe that it's okay to murder those who administer abortions. However, there are those whom you cannot accuse of harboring any hypocrisy, at least not on their abortion stance:
While most pro-life leaders condemned the May 31 murder of a controversial abortion provider inside his Wichita, Kan., church, one former Southern Baptist Convention official called it an answer to prayer.
"I am glad George Tiller is dead," Wiley Drake, the SBC's former second vice president, said on his Crusade Radio program June 1.
Tiller, one of only a few doctors in America who still performed a controversial late-term procedure termed "partial-birth" abortion by critics, was gunned down in the foyer of Reformation Lutheran Church just after the morning worship service began. He was serving as an usher for the congregation, where he was a long-time member.
Drake, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, Calif., called Tiller "a brutal, murdering monster" and said he is "grateful to God" that the physician is no longer around.
"There may be a lot who would say, 'Oh that is mean. You shouldn't be that way,'" Drake said. "Well, no, it's an answer to prayer."
Now you can accuse the man of being a fraudulent representative of the religion he purports to preach, but you certainly can't accuse him of hypocrisy on abortion. Abortion providers are murderers, and deserve death. But people like Drake only highlight the problem for the rest of his ilk, who are comfortable with the rhetoric but not with what naturally follows from such rhetoric. People whom, after the tragic death of Tiller, are forced to issue standard repudiations of the all-too-logical violence of their fellow believers.