Hate Speech Leads to Violence: In Wake of Abortion Doc Murder, Religious Leaders Skirt the Issue

While everyone on both sides of the abortion issue seems to condemn the murder of George Tiller, few admit the malignant effects of “baby killer” rhetoric.

In the immediate aftermath of the murder of Dr. George Tiller, words came flowing forth from every conceivable direction. The media reported, longtime anti-abortion activists “condemned,” but few apologized for years of hate speech directed at Tiller.

In the hours following the murder of Dr, George Tiller, and the subsequent condemnations from Religious Right leaders, I remembered Jerry Falwell’s notorious post-9/11 remarks, blaming feminists and the ACLU, among others — and the uncomfortable flip-flopping that followed. It was clear that his comments represented what he was thinking. Yet it was also clear, as he tried to backtrack and apologize, that he realized he had monumentally goofed.

I was reminded of those wretched Falwell maneuverings on Monday evening while watching Frank Schaeffer — the son of the late Francis Schaeffer, one of the founding fathers and most revered figures on the Christian Right – point out during his appearance on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show that the condemnations of Tiller’s murder issued by leaders of the Christian Right seemed forced and empty.

The statements from anti-abortion leaders basically covered the same ground: they condemned the murder, expressed compassion for Tiller’s family, and hoped that the perpetrator would soon be captured and brought to justice.

“He reaped what he sowed”

It was left to Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, to pick up Falwell’s rhetorical baton. At a news conference at the National Press Club on Monday, June 1, Terry plainly stated that Tiller “was a mass murderer and, horrifically, he reaped what he sowed.”

Terry said that Tiller would be remembered as “one of the villains of history.” “I grieve for Dr. Tiller because he left this life, perhaps without proper preparation to face God,” Terry said. “The thought of him leaving this life with blood on his hands for having killed so many thousands of children and not having been prepared to meet his maker is a dreadful, terrifying thought.”

Terry appeared to be verbalizing what other, more “respected” Christian Right leaders couldn’t. Since Terry has been outside the mainstream for years, he had the license to say whatever he wanted; the more extremist his rhetoric, the more national media he would receive. For Dobson, Perkins, et al, they had the political realities to reckon with.

Sharing the blame

For Frank Schaeffer, the author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Live to Take it All (or Almost All) of it Back, and who had for years been privy to the backroom conversations of Christian Right operatives, the condemnations were a sham. Schaeffer dramatically opened an op-ed piece in the June 2 Baltimore Sun by writing: “My late father and I share part of the blame for the murder of Dr. George Tiller . . . ”

He pointed out how his father had “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.” And Frank Schaeffer also noted, quoting from his own book:

“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.”

While Schaeffer stated that abortion “should be legal,” he also believes “that it should be re-regulated according to fetal development.” Nevertheless, he recognizes that “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 that I, and the people I worked with in the pro-life movement, all contributed to this killing by our foolish and incendiary words.”

Common Ground?

Sometime during the day after Tiller’s murder, I received another condemnation in my in-box. This one was from Faith In Public Life, an organization working hard to establish “common ground” amongst conservative and liberal religious leaders. (Thus far, I have been agnostic about “common ground” efforts.) The headline read “Religious Leaders Seeking Common Ground on Abortion: Condemn George Tiller’s Murder, Say Act Offends Us All”:

In reaction to the tragic murder of Dr. George Tiller, religious leaders and groups who hold different views on the legality of abortion, but a shared commitment to working towards common ground solutions to reduce abortions by addressing its root causes issued the following statement this morning:

“We were shocked and saddened to hear that Dr. George Tiller was murdered at his church yesterday morning. Such violence is an affront to the teachings of all faith traditions and an attack on civil society. Houses of worship have served as sanctuaries providing a safe harbor even in times of widespread violence for millennia — that this act took place in Dr. Tiller’s church where he was serving as an usher on Sunday morning only underscores its abhorrence. We condemn it, and we pray for Dr. Tiller’s family, church and community.

“As people of faith working to create civility and common ground on abortion, this reprehensible attack reminds us of our moral obligation to respect the humanity of those on both sides of this issue. Wherever we stand, this act offends us all.”

The statement was signed by a host of religious leaders.

In this e-mail, Faith in Public Life asked if I had any questions. This was my (immediate, angry and not all that articulate) response:

In my mind, the statement does not go far enough. Why haven’t these highly respected religious leaders that are condemning the murder of Dr. George Tiller at the same time, also condemn the hate talk that is spewed daily against abortion providers by a number of so-called Christian groups?

What good is merely a condemnation of the murder if it doesn’t try to get to one of the reasons that ordinary people commit such acts — the hate speech (calling doctors baby killers or even calling the president a baby killer) that drives people to it. Keep in mind that even James Dobson and Tony Perkins have condemned the murder. What good is a condemnation of Tiller’s murder if the hate speech that often inspires — perhaps even drives — one to commit such murders is not also condemned?

Your thoughts?

No response yet.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column, "Conservative Watch," documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right. Read other articles by Bill, or visit Bill's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Garrett said on June 3rd, 2009 at 9:27am #

    As someone on unreasonablefaith.com pointed out, the “hate the sin, love the sinner” mantra poses a danger–many fail to make the distinction.

    The world would be a much better place if nobody believed in the supernatural (gods, demons, witches, etc.).

  2. bozh said on June 3rd, 2009 at 12:06pm #

    garret, right on
    or as i have written decades ago to private media, populating the world with nonexistent ‘beings’ such as angels, demons, devil, gods, archangels, seraphim, cherubim, othe ‘saviors’/bugbears in addition to the ones we see is a shame.
    natch, media never printed my letters on this subject. We have real ‘demons’: floods, storms, tsunamis, cancer, exploitations, wars, etc.
    so, why invent nonexistent ones; nonexistent, as far as our five senses are concerned. tnx

  3. lichen said on June 3rd, 2009 at 1:33pm #

    The last thing the world needs is more unwanted children, especially right now. If only insane religious people looked at how many people are killed by global warming and took great offense to that instead of trying to control other people’s reproductive life decisions…

  4. Barry99 said on June 3rd, 2009 at 2:19pm #

    As a bumper sticker I recently saw read: “Mind Your Own Uterus.”