The Politics of John Salvi's Conspiracy Theories -- Part II
by Chip Berlet
In May we began an abbreviated version of a 40 page article written by Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates. Mr. Berlet was explaining that the conspiracy theories of John Salvi, convicted murderer of two Brookline, Massachusetts clinic workers, were not the ravings of a confused man, but typical paranoid scapegoating theories long circulated by a specific group of right-wing anti-abortion organizations.
"It is fair to say that one pressing need of the human community... is to restore respect for innocent life and to protect innocent members of the community against aggressors, whether abortionists or more conventional killers."
-- Prof. Charles Rice
John Birch Society
While Protestants make up the core membership of the JBS, there have always been Catholic and even a few Jewish members of the Society. Sexuality is one broad topic that provides a point of unity for Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish ultra-conservatives who oppose comprehensive sexuality education, abortion rights, lesbian and gay rights, and the gay-tolerant curricula in some schools.
The spread of AIDS allowed the JBS to link their support for traditional patriarchal family relationships to their conspiracy theory of the Insiders. According to the Birchers, "AIDS is just one of the bad effects of removing all the moral barriers and allowing perversion to prosper;" and sex education in schools is "fundamentally subversive," according to Birch literature. The JBS also distributes pamphlets titled The Truth About AIDS and What They Are Not Telling You about AIDS. Statements by Catholic right activist Charles E. Rice in one of the Birch AIDS pamphlets demonstrate how far the society is willing to take its opposition as well as the use of veiled references:"The natural law, instituted by God, is the story of how things work. Homo-sexual activity is not a civil right. It is contrary to nature, and AIDS is one of its harmful effects. The AIDS pandemic is a social evil; so is the homosexual conduct that causes it. It is past time for the law to deal with those evils. And a first step would be to recall the edict of the Supreme Legislator in Romans 1:26-32."That passage in Romans is widely interpreted in the Christian right to be an edict against homosexuals and others who engage in what is called "unnatural" sex...specifying that "those who do such things deserve death." Rice writes for the JBS magazine and sits on the US advisory board of Human Life International. In April 4, 1994 he wrote an article for the John Birch Society's magazine, New American, a copy of which was found in John Salvi's possession. Most of the issue is devoted to a look at the relationship between fear of crime and increasing government erosions of civil liberties, especially relating to the Second Amendment and gun ownership.
The article by Rice on capital punishment, however, is especially significant in light of recent clinic violence, especially the Salvi case. Titled The Death Penalty Dilemma, the article argues that it is legitimate to oppose abortion while still supporting the death penalty. Some Christians oppose both abortion and the death penalty, viewing the opposition to taking of all life as a philosophical seamless garment. But in the article, Rice, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, argues that being for the death penalty while opposing abortion as a "right-to-life" issue is philosophically consistent. He concludes his article on capital punishment with a section subtitled A Right to Life Issue, with the following three paragraphs:"Capital punishment is obviously a `right to life' issue. But it is often oversimplified. One could legitimately argue against both abortion and, on prudential grounds, capital punishment. But the two cases are not the same since the unborn child is innocent and the convicted murderer is not. One could therefore also legitimately argue against abortion and in favor of capital punishment. The liberal position today, however, is to oppose the killing of convicted criminals but to approve the killing of innocent children in the womb. It is a symptom of debased humanism to protest a murderer's deserved punishment while acquiescing in the killing of innocent children through abortion."While the message is veiled, one way to read the above paragraphs would be to assume that imposing the death penalty on abortion providers was morally justifiable for a society, and that a person might justifiably choose to exercise their free will and carry out their "moral duty to act in accord with the common good of [the] community" by killing an abortion provider.
"All human life is precious because we are all created in the image and likeness of God. But God also gave us free will and made us by nature social beings with the inclination to live in community and the moral duty to act in accord with the common good of that community. It is fair to say that one pressing need of the human community, in the United States as elsewhere, is to restore respect for innocent life and to protect innocent members of the community against aggressors, whether abortionists or more conventional killers."
"In this context, the imposition of capital punishment can be seen as a means to restore respect for innocent life. The prudent use of the death penalty can emphasize, as no other penalty can, that malefactors are responsible for their own actions and that the deliberate, willful taking of innocent life is the most abhorrent of all crimes precisely because the right to life is the most precious of all rights."
Similar arguments have been made in some militant anti-abortion circles, and Rice certainly was suggesting Biblical support for the idea that homosexuals should be put to death in his earlier article for the JBS about AIDS.
The Fatima Crusader
The basic message of The Fatima Crusader is that we are in the apocalyptic end times and facing a direct struggle with Satan; and that the actions and religious devotions of true Catholics must be based on end times warnings and predictions from appearances by the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ before Catholic faithful. The Fatima Crusader is just one of many formations in the Catholic Church that focus their devotion on the Virgin Mary, in what constitutes a diverse Marianist subculture within the Church.
Our Constitutional democracy is based on informed consent, not hysteria and witch-hunts fueled by demagogic allegations of conspiracies.
In the worldview of The Fatima Crusader the Russian tyranny can come in many forms. The clear editorial position is that the predictions at Fatima refer to the threat of a Russian-style collectivist One World Government ushered in by socialists, liberals, secular humanists, homosexuals, abortionists, and followers of the new age spirituality movement. As Father Gruner observes:"Already the errors of Naziism and Communism have invaded this country by the kinds of things that took place in Waco, whereby banned gas, forbidden to be used in international warfare, was used on citizens of the United States."The Fatima Crusader also weaves in conspiracism references to the prophesies about the end times struggle against Satan and the Antichrist mentioned in the Book of Revelations. In the Summer, 1994 issue, Charles Martel writes in an article on The Antichrist that the Church is in a "shambles" characterized by:
- Open rebellion against authority,
- Enthusiasm for abortion, contraception, divorce, etc.
- Addition of many clerics to Marxism,
- Presence of un-Catholic teachings in seminaries and universities,
- Widespread and well-organized homosexual network,
- Acceptance of New Age belief as the latest of ecumenism.
Michael JournalAnother right-wing Catholic Journal which writes about the parasitic nature of financial elites is the Michael Journal which celebrates the memory of Father Coughlin "Who courageously denounced the bankers' debt-money system." According to the Michael Journal, "The Illuminati are elite men, those on the top, who control the International Bankers to control, for evil purposes, the entire world." Followers of the Michael Journal lobbied against the Massachusetts seat belt law, believing it was a step toward Satanic One World Government. Much of John Salvi's rhetoric echoes themes in the Michael Journal which also carries articles about The Apparitions at Fatima.
The Burlington Patriot Movement MeetingThere is no indication that John Salvi attended patriot or militia meetings in Massachusetts, but the movements are active in the state, and overlap with anti-abortion militants. A patriot movement meeting was held in November 1994 at the high school auditorium in Burlington, Massachusetts. The seventy-five people who attended the public meeting heard speakers decry the failure of government to meet the needs of average Americans. Several speakers argued that this failure was driven by a vast and evil satanic conspiracy. Attendees ranged in age from early 20s to late 60s and they came from Massachusetts and several surrounding states including New Hampshire and Rhode Island.
Leading anti-abortion organizer Dr. Mildred Jefferson, an African-American women, spoke about problems with the medical profession she witnessed as a surgeon. In her speech, Jefferson, a founder and former officer of the National Right to Life committee and a board member of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, tied groups such as NOW and Planned Parenthood to a conspiracy of secular humanists tracing back to the 1800s.
During the meeting, attendees browsed three tables of literature brought by Den's Gun Shop in Lakeville. One book offered instruction in the use of the Ruger .22 rifle. Other books contained diagrams on how to build bombs and incendiary devices. One title was Improvised Weapons of the American Underground.
You could even purchase the book Hunter by neo-Nazi William Pierce, leader of the National Alliance. Hunter is a book that describes parasitic Jews destroying America, and extols the virtues of armed civilians who carry out political assassin-ations of Jews and homosexuals to preserve the white race. Pierce's previous book, The Turner Diaries, was the primary sourcebook of racist terror underground organizations, such as The Order, in the 1980s. The Turner Diaries still is circulated by the neo-Nazi movement, and includes a section describing the bombing of a federal building by the armed underground. (Timothy McVeigh, charged with a role in bombing the federal building in Oklahoma, is reported to have passed out copies of the book). Leaflets from the National Alliance attacking the New World Order and "minority parasites" have appeared in Cambridge, Somerville, and other Boston-area communities.
One speaker, Ed Brown, who runs the Constitutional Defense Militia of New Hampshire, passed out brochures offering Firearms Training, Combat Leadership, Close Combat, and Intelligence Measures. The pro-choice community has watched with growing alarm as persons affiliated with the most militant wing of the anti-abortion movement began to interact and link up with persons in the armed militia movement. An early example of this tendency was revealed by Planned Parenthood at a press conference in August of 1994 where a videotape documentary was released showing the Rev. Matthew Trewhella of the Missionaries to the Pre-Born calling for the formation of an armed citizen militias. Trewhella's call came as he addressed a statewide meeting of the hard right US Taxpayers Party in Wisconsin.
DominionismDominion theology is a relatively new current in Christian theology, which argues that godly men, no matter what their view of the end times, must assert control over secular society. Dominionists frequently assert that the US Constitution is superseded by Old Testament Biblical law. Christian Reconstructionism is the most extreme form of dominion theology.
Militant anti-abortion activist and Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry writes for the dominionist magazine, Crosswinds, and has signed their Manifesto for the Christian Church, which proclaims that America should "function as a Christian nation" and that the "world will not know how to live or which direction to go without the Church's Biblical influence on its theories, laws, actions, and institutions," including opposition to such "social moral evils" as "abortion on demand, fornication, homosexuality, sexual entertainment, state usurpation of parental rights and God-given liberties, statist-collectivist theft from citizens through devaluation of their money and redistribution of their wealth, and evolutionism taught as a monopoly viewpoint in the public schools."
Dominion theology plays the same role in urging militancy within rightwing Protestant circles as does The Fatima Crusader's admonitions in rightwing Catholic circles. The central theme of stopping abortion in Protestant dominionism provides a common point of intersection with militant Catholic anti-abortion activists, so it is little surprise to find right-wing Protestant anti-abortion activist Randall Terry working closely with right-wing Catholic anti-abortion activist Joseph Scheidler. Scheidler in turn is on the US board of advisors to Human Life International, as is Charles E. Rice, who authored the previously-mentioned article The editor of HLI Reports is William Marshner, a right-wing charismatic Catholic who works closely with the Free Congress Foundation's Paul Weyrich, himself an ultraconservative Catholic.
Marshner resigned from the editorial board of the ultra-conservative Catholic magazine Fidelity after that magazine criticized the far right Catholic lay group Tradition, Family, and Property for its anti-democratic and proto-fascist tendencies. Weyrich supports the work of Tradition, Family, and Property, long active in the anti-abortion movement, and has invited it into coalitions with the National Right to Life Committee and more mainstream conservative groups including the Republican National Committee.
Father Paul Marx, founder and chairman of Human Life International, launched the "Conversion Corps for Mary" to raise funds for the "continuing conversion of Russia," and reminded his supporters in a fundraising letter that "When appearing to the children of Fatima, the Blessed Virgin Mary promised the world she would convert Russia. To do this Mary first brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union." But Father Marx goes on to link the ending of abortion in Russia to its eventual conversion as prophesied by Mary. HLI opened an office in Russia to engage in that work. Paul Weyrich has also mentioned the prophesies of Our Lady of Fatima to raise funds for his work in Russia.
These connections and overlaps are cited not to suggest some sinister conspiracy, but to demonstrate that there is a milieu in which right-wing Catholicism, the Fatima prophesies, dominionism, end times beliefs, and anti-abortion activism are linked.
ConclusionsSocial movements that embrace scapegoating make serious dialog within the democratic process difficult or impossible. Instead of engaging in a political struggle based on debate and compromise, those who believe in evil conspiracies want to expose and neutralize the enemy, rather than sit at the same table and negotiate. Our Constitutional democracy is based on informed consent, not hysteria and witch-hunts fueled by demagogic allegations of conspiracies.
That persons who embrace paranoid conspiratorial worldviews will come into conflict with legitimate law enforcement seems inevitable, given that their perceptions of a vast conspiracy lead them to inappropriate assessments of even the most innocent interactions with government officials. It was the government's failure to understand this dynamic that resulted in the tragic incidents of government over-reaction and excessive use of force against the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidians, in Waco. That both the Weaver family and the Branch Davidians embraced theological end times views is of great significance, and indicates that as we approach the millennium, the number of incidents with a potential for violence will increase. It seems clear that the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City was at least in part in retaliation for the government's misconduct at Ruby Ridge and Waco.
... right wing conspiracist groups have little chance of achieving their goals in the long run, but in the short run they can temporarily acquire and employ real political power and disrupt the democratic process.
At the same time, persons concerned about civil discourse and democratic dialogue must also oppose the attempt by government officials to use the incident of terrorism in Oklahoma City to justify a range of repressive legislative initiatives that grant law enforcement the power to use widespread surveillance and infiltration of noncriminal groups of dissidents, claiming this will help stop terrorism. A series of Congressional hearings, lawsuits, and media reports in the 1970's demonstrated there was no evidence that widespread infiltration and surveillance of dissident groups had a significant effect on stopping criminal activity or terrorism, but did have a significant effect in abridging civil liberties and chilling free speech. In this volatile political moment, we must cautiously guard against the dangers of right-wing bigotry and violence, and government overreaction in response to these very real divisive and dangerous problems.
Demagogic right wing groups that spread conspiracy theories targeting scapegoats do not attract much attention as serious players on the US political scene. While these groups are relatively small compared to the general population, they are increasing in size and fervor. The primary reason for a lack of public awareness about these conspiratorial social movements is that few mainstream media outlets have reporters that have made a serious study of right-wing political and theological belief structures. Even when reporters have educated themselves and submitted in-depth articles, middle-level and senior-level editors resist serious coverage of these topics. Arguments given to reporters for not running text explaining the political and often conspiratorial contentions of militant right-wing groups cluster around five main arguments:
- Giving coverage to these groups only builds their credibility;
- Readers will find the material too complex and confusing;
- Actually reporting the conspiratorial allegations will make it seem as if the media are trying to make fun of the group;
- These groups are insignificant so explaining their worldview is pointless;
- People who believe these things must be insane and thus don't deserve serious coverage.
None of these reasons justify what is essentially self-censorship that denies citizens the ability to become informed about these groups and draw their own conclusions over the potential for violence these groups may be generating.
Political and religious leaders also frequently dismiss right wing groups with conspiracist views as marginal and irrelevant. Indeed, right wing conspiracist groups have little chance of achieving their goals in the long run, but in the short run they can temporarily acquire and employ real political power and disrupt the democratic process.
On an individual basis the scapegoating unleashed by conspiracist groups too frequently results in physical attacks on persons seen to be in league with the scapegoated group of evil-doers. This lack of meaningful coverage is especially dangerous when it comes to the hard-right anti-abortion movement. Until these issues are explored thoroughly in the mainstream media, and public figures speak out against the conspiratorial scapegoating and dehumanization by right-wing Protestant and Catholic anti-abortion militants, there will be more people like John Salvi resorting to violence in the belief that they are carrying out God's will.
Chip Berlet is an analyst at Political Research Associates in Somerville, Massachusetts. 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 if 1997 by South End Press.
Footnotes are contained in the full 40-page report available from Political Research Associates for $10. Title of full report: The Increasing Popularity of Right Wing Conspiracy Theories.
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