My late father and I share the blame (with many others) for the murder of Dr. George Tiller the abortion doctor gunned down on Sunday. Until I got out of the religious right (in the mid-1980s) and repented of my former hate-filled rhetoric I was both a leader of the so-called pro-life movement and a part of a Republican Party hate machine masquerading as the moral conscience of America.
In the late 1970s my evangelical pro-life leader father Francis Schaeffer and Dr. C. Everett Koop (who soon become Surgeon General in the Reagan administration) went on the road with me taking the documentary antiabortion film series I produced and directed ( Whatever Happened to the Human Race?) to the evangelical public. The series and companion book eventually brought millions of heretofore non-political evangelical Americans into the antiabortion crusade. We personally also got people like Jerry Falwell, Ronald Reagan and countless Republican leaders involved in the "issue."
In the early 80s my father followed up with a book that sold over a million copies called A Christian Manifesto. In certain passages he advocated force if all other methods for rolling back the abortion ruling of Roe v. Wade failed. He compared America and its legalized abortion to Hitler's Germany and said that whatever tactics would have been morally justified in removing Hitler would be justified in trying to stop abortion. I said the same thing in a book I wrote (A Time For Anger) that right wing evangelicals made into a best seller. For instance Dr. James Dobson (of the Focus On the Family radio show) gave away over 100,000 copies.
Like many writers of moral/political/religious theories my father and I would have been shocked that someone took us at our word, walked into a Lutheran Church and pulled the trigger on an abortionist. But even if the murderer never read Dad's or my words we helped create the climate that made this murder likely to happen.
In fact that very thing has happened before. In 1994, Dr. John Bayard Britton and one of his volunteer escorts were shot and killed outside an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida. Paul Hill, a former minister, was convicted of the killings and executed in 2003. Paul Hill was an avid follower of my father's.
Hyperbole from the pulpit from religious leaders, be it from my father or from President Obama's former pastor the Rev. Wright, is par for the course. But once in a while someone "does something" about it and then everyone says that they were only speaking metaphorically or "spiritually" when they called for violence or for the overthrow the state or when they said things like "God damn America!" or that "abortionists are murderers like Hitler!"
Angry speech has become the norm in American religion from both the right and the left. Words are spoken which -- when taken seriously -- lead directly to violence by the unhinged and/or the truly committed.
When evangelicals on the right call President Obama a socialist, a racist, anti-American, an abortionist, not a real American, and, echoing the former Vice President, someone who is weakening America's defenses and making us less safe, the logical conclusion is violence. If you take these words literally you might pull the trigger to "make America safe" and/or free us from communism or to even protect us from -- what some "Christian" leaders claim -- Obama as the Antichrist.
Contributing to an extreme and sometimes violent climate has not only been the fault of the antiabortion crusaders. The Roe v. Wade decision went to far, too fast and was too sweeping. I believe that abortion should be legal. But I also believe that it should be re-regulated according to fetal development. It's the late term abortions that horrify most people. And for the sake of keeping abortion legal adjustments need to be made. Roe is far too all or nothing (as I explain in my book Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All -- or Almost All -- of It Back). As I say in my book today I believe that abortion should be legal but more regulated than Roe allows. I also think that we should do what President Obama calls for: use sex education and contraceptive distribution and programs to help women and children in a way that results in less abortions.
But the reason this issue will never go away is that the Roe ruling was an over broad court decision that makes abortion legal even in the last weeks of pregnancy. Take away the pictures of all those dead late term fetuses and everything changes emotionally. Democracy and civil debate is messy but if abortion had been argued state-by-state abortion would be legal in almost all our states today and probably the laws would be written more like those of Europe, where late-term abortions (of the kind Dr. Tiller specialized in performing) are illegal and/or highly discouraged.
The same hate machine I was part of is still attacking all abortionists as "murderers." And today once again the "pro-life" leaders are busy ducking their personal responsibility for people acting on their words. The people who stir up the fringe never take responsibility. But I'd like to say on this day after a man was murdered in cold blood for preforming abortions that I -- and the people I worked with in the religious right, the Republican Party, the pro-life movement and the Roman Catholic Church, all contributed to this killing by our foolish and incendiary words.
I am very sorry.
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. He is author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back and also author of the forthcoming Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism)