The Politics of John Salvi's Conspiracy Theories -- Part I
by Chip Berlet
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.
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.
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 Revelations; 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.
The Conspiracy PressConspiracy 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 Freemason "Menace"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, homosexu- ality, 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 anti-semitic sources. Discussions of Freemason and other scapegoating conspiracies appear throughout Robertson's book and will be discussed in detail later.
The Militia ConnectionSalvi 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.
Of Scapegoating and End TimesThat 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.
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.
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 Archdiocesan publication The Pilot, to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights to Operation Rescue is one example of this drift toward militancy.
Theocrats Unite!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 demagogically spread scapegoating conspiracist theories encourages this dangerous dynamic.
Human Life InternationalHuman 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 Plague, The 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 anti-semitic 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, "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.
Next month we continue with Mr. Berlet's report on right-wing conspiracy theories, publications, and their influence in a democratic society.
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 to be published in the Fall of 1997 by South End Press.