Next Step on the Road to Dominion
Why is Operation Rescue, known for more than a decade as an "anti-abortion" group, now targeting Disney and Barnes and Noble?
By Mike Doughney and Lauren Sabina Kneisly
Late last December Operation Rescue National (ORN) announced a "massive assault on the gates of hell" that they'd named the "Tragic Kingdom Tour." Unlike all previous events organized by ORN, a contentious visit to an abortion clinic never materialized. Instead, their targets were a Florida Barnes and Noble store, the main gate of Disney World, and nearby roadsides in Orlando and Kissimmee. In reality, their "massive assault" of less than one hundred people was turned away by Disney security during their one attempt to get one vanload of their people as close as the Magic Kingdom's parking lot. The most noteworthy incident was the arrest of ORN director Flip Benham for allegedly littering an Osceola County roadside.
In the aftermath of this event, perhaps the most persistent question heard from friends, acquaintances, and on the Internet was, "why is an anti-abortion group going after Disney?"
We have been asking, instead, what was the original purpose of Operation Rescue, as conceived by its first leader, Randall Terry? Was the selection of the abortion issue merely a matter of picking the most effective strategy to move toward some other goal? And how does Operation Rescue reflect some of the more aggressive elements of a broader, Bible-based social movement?
We're all familiar with the preacher's demand that people 'repent,' or that individuals be 'saved,' or the concept that those who don't convert and "accept Jesus as their savior" will inevitably perish and spend eternity in hell. For decades these messages have been commonly heard from evangelical Christians of every denomination, and popularized by high-profile preachers such as Billy Graham.
What may not be obvious is a slow mutation of this message over the course of the past few decades. The original primary focus of this movement - which we call, for lack of a more descriptive and precise term, the Biblical America movement - was on the growing of churches and converting large numbers of people. Throughout the late 1960's and '70's, aggressive strategies for recruitment and retention of churchgoers were developed, sometimes called "multiplication ministries" for the rapid rates of growth that were known to result from the application of these techniques.
Today we are hearing a somewhat different message from the leaders of Biblical America, with grave implications for our secular government and way of life should present trends continue. Now the message addresses not only individual change, now reflecting a perceived need for national political and cultural change; that the nation, as a whole, must 'repent' to avoid imminent destruction. The appeal to avoidance of punishment in the afterlife, or toward improvement of one's own personal life through spiritual conversion, is now accompanied by a demand for national repentance.
This message can be heard and seen hundreds if not thousands of times a day in the radio and television programs of Biblical America, and in thousands of books sold in Christian bookstores throughout the nation. One voice of many is that of Randall Terry:
Terry has noted that to understand Operation Rescue, one must read the works of Francis Schaeffer, a Christian theologian whose writings could well be called the foundation of the Biblical America movement.2
Schaeffer argued in A Christian Manifesto that the state that defies the 'law of God' is an illegitimate authority; he based his thinking on that of the fifteenth-century Christian revolutionary, Samuel Rutherford:
Later, Schaeffer writes, in a chapter entitled "The Use of Force," that direct action was necessary and appropriate on the issue of abortion:
Schaeffer and other thinkers of Biblical America effectively claim, by insisting that our government somehow violates their interpretation of Biblical law, that the leaders of today are tyrants. Terry himself has said, on his radio program, that President Clinton has violated nine of the Ten Commandments. The constant refrain throughout these media is that secular government and culture will result in the nation's destruction and must be resisted. The concept that America was founded in a covenant with God, and that breaking that covenant will bring about God's wrath, is shaping the attitudes of a growing subculture with an influence far greater than its relatively small size.
Were this nation to be facing true dangers that would warrant the warnings of Schaeffer, Terry and others, perhaps such methods would be justifiable; it's inconceivable, though, that a nation that banned religious tests for office at its founding should use a religious claim of a "covenant with God" as a basis for public policy.
The fact of the matter is that Biblical America has, for decades, created a series of paper tigers and scapegoats to fuel their need for conflict. While they seemingly express concern for real social problems, their explanation for the cause of those problems and their solutions only serve to recruit like-minded people to their effort, to gain authority and power, and to motivate their movement to action. They are purposefully oblivious to, or have constructed justifications that allow them to ignore or even support suffering of those around them, which often include the social acceptance of gay-bashing and the denial of reproductive choices to others.
Schaeffer and Terry have effectively set the stage for direct action in any sphere of life where the defiance of their interpretation and application of Biblical law is allowed by the state. Indeed, they have equated the existence of legalized abortion and advances in gay rights with oppression of their Biblical mandate. While they have both laid out a process by which force may only be used after a long process of escalation and demands for compliance, the final step inevitably involves violence. Terry writes, in "The Sword:"
The affluent and secure American nation of the late 20th century has few enemies; no territorial concerns, no ethnic warfare, few of the conflicts that plague other less-fortunate parts of the world. There are no existing causes around which one could form a true revolutionary army in this country. In this vacuum Biblical America has carefully chosen and crafted conflicts to organize and motivate its people, and every last one of them are fundamentally unresolvable. Unlike most other conflicts which might be eventually resolved through negotiation or conflict, there is no negotiating with Biblical America - since their rulebook is unchanging - and their targets, likewise, will not change. As has been true for millennia, women will by some means obtain abortions, most individuals will exercise their own preferences in choosing romantic and sexual partners, people will drink and use drugs despite prohibition, and some will gamble without concern for legalities. At least one prominent figure in Biblical America has admitted as much; prominent bioethicist and 'pro-life' advocate Dr. Bernard Nathanson has freely admitted that abortion prohibition will inevitably be unsuccessful, and will only drive it to the black market.6
It's therefore inevitable that, following the process laid out by Terry above - and by others, such as Christian Reconstructionist author, and early Operation Rescue supporter, Gary North7 - that, when it has become clear to all that change is impossible and that all peaceful means have been exhausted, violence will result.
In the meantime, we can expect to see an escalation of tactics, and the use of tactics that have been developed over the past 25 years in the anti-abortion movement in new venues. To the leaders of Operation Rescue National, a Barnes and Noble store is no different from an abortion clinic, as is Disney's Magic Kingdom. All represent to them an outright violation of their particular version of Biblical law and de facto evidence of man breaking his covenant with God. A picture of a naked child, an abortionist, a place where gays and lesbians may walk freely and openly, or a corporation that both offers positive portrayals of "non-Biblical" lifestyles and offers benefits to domestic partners regardless of their standing in "Biblical law" are equally abhorrent from the ORN viewpoint.
While it may seem that the primary motivation for the activists of Biblical America is an expectation of "cultural collapse" and "darkness" as punishment for inaction, there are other more insidious forces at work. One factor that has gone almost completely unnoticed is the notion of "collective sin," a term that was prominent in the purpose statement of the Promise Keepers' "Stand in the Gap" event in Washington, DC last October:
The implied assumption here is the notion that the perceived offenses of other people are cause for guilt and confession; that confession is necessary even for those who are blameless. What follows is a sense of responsibility for the perceived sinful actions of others, therefore resulting in another incentive to influence the actions of other people.
Once the members of a social movement have decided that they will be held responsible for the actions of everyone outside their movement, how far will they go to force their will on others? In all the contemporary literature of Biblical America that we have seen, there are no limits; in fact, some writers explicitly state that action to take "godly dominion" must be without restraint. Certainly the right to privacy or to some kind of 'safe space,' free of religious proselytization is completely absent, resulting in proposals such as the so-called "Religious Freedom Amendment" specifically permitting evangelism in public schools and in government spaces. Books and study guides frequently emphasize that evangelism in the workplace is good and necessary.
Another disturbing trend is the blurring of the distinction between "spiritual warfare" and actual conflict and the exploitation of this ambiguity in the education and training of youth. One example we've encountered is the "R.I.O.T. Manual" - the "Righteous Invasion of Truth" - co-authored by Carman, a popular Christian contemporary artist. He writes of his manual, "We wrote it to get you ready for battle and to send you into war." After a long description of the Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of Rodney King's assailants and a reminder that Webster's dictionary (often referred to as if it were Scriptual authority) defines riot as "an unrestrained uproar in a public place," Carman implores, "It's Time for a 20th Century Holy Riot!"9 The omission of the periods in the "riot" acronym seems quite intentional.
Flip Benham, director of Operation Rescue National, is another leader with an ambiguous message, claiming to lead a "gentle revolution" while calling for "violent men"10 to "crush the head of the enemy." He signs his newsletter with the coded salutation "in Christian love" after describing his upcoming visit to Orlando as a military assault by his revolutionary army:
Operation Rescue leadership, as well as much of Biblical America, seriously views everyday benign surroundings such as Disney World or a Barnes and Noble bookstore as a true battleground, a legitimate place for them to aggressively approach customers or vacationers and provoke conflict. The front of the ORN February 1998 newsletter displayed a photo of the Disney highway gate with the caption, "A tragic manifestation of the gates of hell."12 Clearly they see these "gates" as a physical presence of an enemy to be "crushed."
Another line of thought visible here is that their "victory" is not their own, but through obedience to God. When obeying God - in practice, through obedience to those in a position to be an authority on "God's word" - no thought is to be given to consequences or to the people that are harmed through their actions. Oswald Chambers, a Scottish preacher of the early 20th century, put it this way in My Utmost for His Highest, a Christian classic called "the most popular book of daily devotions ever published:"
Benham also expects suffering as a result of this 'obedience,' taken a step further - that overwhelming ruin is to be expected in the form of 'God's judgement,' and that the faithful should focus on what follows an anticipated great disaster. He recently paraphrased the Old Testament this way:
As if the language of warfare, the encouragement of blind obedience, the denial of consequences for others, and the expectation of full-scale destruction were not enough, Biblical America is operating on an absolute assumption of victory. We've heard it said by Operation Rescue participants that "we know how the book ends - we win." Prominent leaders, like Fort Lauderdale televangelist and Operation Rescue supporter D. James Kennedy, put it even more bluntly:
Benham and other leaders insist that they will not use violence to achieve their ends. His assistant wrote, "violence is never our weapon against the evil in our nation today,"16 in ORN's official response to the lethal bombing of a Birmingham abortion clinic. How seriously can we take one insignificant denial of violence in the middle of a torrent of references to war, battle, crushing, trampling, wounding, and death? We also note a subtle and possibly extreme redefinition of the word 'violence' in ORN's newsletter through claims that the rejection of Biblical America's revisionistic view of American history, secular education, and sex education are a form of violence perpetrated by their adversaries:
Children are explicitly seen, not as individuals with their own needs and desires, but as tools through which this battle will be carried on into the next generation. We have noticed, in our on-the-street interactions with these kids, that many have been completely sheltered and have had little to no experience with the real world. Some have publicly said that they expect to spend large parts of their lives in prison simply for being a Christian; we assume, from the expectations placed on them by their parents, that they equate constant warfare, serving in "an army for Christ," and eventual martyrdom with the Christian lifestyle:
It was inevitable that after decades of imposing itself on a marginalized profession, Operation Rescue would move on to bigger targets. Biblical America has grown to become an intimidating presence in American politics, and has quietly achieved thousands of small victories in its quest to compel America to comply with its Puritan standards. Operation Rescue is the hammer attached to the end of a long chain that connects them through the American Family Association and the Southern Baptist Convention to a vast social movement involving millions of people, billions of dollars a year, and hundreds if not thousands of hours of broadcast time every day. ORN's extremism is just the application of the mainstream thinking of this subculture that sells military 'dog tags' and camouflage-colored bracelets, both carrying the WWJD ("What Would Jesus Do?") thought-stopping acronym, in stores throughout America to its kids.
Many may ask, why would any group go to a place like Disney World to make what to those outside the movement appear to be obnoxious fools of themselves, performing a seemingly counter-productive, anti-social act in public? The explanation might be found by rephrasing the question. Why can we go into almost any Christian bookstore and find manuals on how to go about this very same anti-social behavior in our public schools, at work, in the streets in front of small businesses, in every place where coercion, intrusion and unwanted pursuit of this kind is unwelcome and disruptive?
Why would we then expect that any place - even those places that in our culture were designed to be safe and completely free of conflict - would someday, after decades of practice and toleration by the rest of us, become a battleground, a high-visibility venue for the promotion of a kind of small-scale civil war?
The tactics for targeting people who are vulnerable to influence and eventual conversion have been quietly honed for decades in front of marginalized businesses like abortion clinics and adult bookstores. We now see the growth of institutions throughout secular society designed to quietly and seemingly legitimately go about the business of conversion in the form of crisis pregnancy indoctrination centers, prison ministries, and "cancer treatment centers."
While the tactics used by Operation Rescue may seem counter-productive, they have been successful, as are all evangelists to some degree, in converting enough people to sustain their cause. Even extremist acts, such as their threatened invasion of the Disney property, will seem attractive to some people, and only a few people need join them every year both to sustain the movement and to generate the perception of a growing, sustainable movement.
Likewise, every such action is an affirmation by each participant of his or her dedication to the cause. Every intrusion into private space - a confrontation with their "gates of hell" - serves as a personal test of faith, a demonstration of loyalty, and a proof of accomplishment. It is the recognition of this need for self-aggrandizement that may provide a key element of an effective strategy for dealing with such actions.
The leaders of Operation Rescue will fail if they aren't given what they want: conflict on their enemy's turf. If they risk arrest, they want to be arrested on the enemy's doorstep - the symbol of the 'gate' - not at the property line or some other place. ORN's participants also think in terms of rules. If they are told, for instance, that they will be arrested at the edge of Barnes and Noble's parking lot at the moment they enter, and both the property owner and law enforcement follow through with action, we think that they are much less likely to intrude on the property to harass customers or to be arrested in the most disruptive way possible.
We expect ORN to quietly enter the 'Magic Kingdom,' and many of them will congregate in the area near the castle that has traditionally been a meeting place for gay youth. We've noted that many, if not most, articles in the Biblical American media on 'Gay Day' have reported on this location; here, confrontation will be inevitable. ORN will provoke those who long for one day of safe space by going after the most vulnerable - queer youth. Again, the key here is to avoid giving ORN participants the conflict that they crave. We're hoping that it will be difficult if not impossible for them to sustain any real action before being ejected by Disney Security; what they'll be able to do in the face of tens of thousands of people intent on having a good time remains to be seen.
The lesson that we hope will eventually be learned, as the everyday extremism of Biblical America gradually shows itself in high-profile ways, is that it's in no way unreasonable and perfectly justifiable to demand to be left alone, and that we needn't be nice, nor negotiate, nor discuss it to death. Operation Rescue leaders have clearly demonstrated by their own words that they are not here to negotiate nor discuss anything; their arrival at Disney's gates serves as a proclamation that all options are exhausted and they are out for blood.
The bullying tactics that are being promoted in Biblical American media and taught to their kids must not be tolerated, and when necessary, forcibly resisted. We need never surrender, nor submit, to those who see any form of personal autonomy as "evil" and who therefore wish to enslave the rest of us in the name of their "God."
Footnotes1 Randall A. Terry, Why Does A Nice Guy Like Me Keep Getting Thrown in Jail: How theological escapism and cultural retreatism in the Church have led to America#s demise (Lafayette, LA: Huntington House, 1993), pp. 158-159. 2 Frederick Clarkson, "Christian Reconstructionism: Theocratic Dominionism Gains Influence." The Public Eye Magazine, March 1994. 5 Randall A. Terry, The Sword: The Blessing of Righteous Government and the Overthrow of Tyrants. (Windsor, New York: Reformer Library, 1995), pp. 61-62. 6 Mike Doughney and Lauren Sabina Kneisly, "The Twisted Ethics of Dr. Bernard Nathanson." Biblical America Resistance Front Website, January 20, 1998.
7 Gary North, Trespassing for Dear Life: What is Operation Rescue Up To? (Fort Worth, Texas: Dominion Press, 1989), pp. 7-11.11 Operation Rescue National May 1998 Newsletter.
13 Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest: An Updated Edition in Today's Language. (Discovery House Publishers.) Devotional for January 11.15 D. James Kennedy with Jerry Newcombe. The gates of hell shall not prevail. (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson), p. 240. This book contains endorsements by Ralph Reed (former executive director of the Christian Coalition), Jay Sekulow (American Center for Law and Justice), Christian broadcaster Marlin Maddoux, Bill Bright, president of Orlando-based Campus Crusade for Christ International, and Donald Wildmon, president of the American Family Association. 16 Operation Rescue National April 1998 Newsletter.
Originally webpublished May 27, 1998