A Conservative Challenge to Operation Rescue
The Rhetoric of Operation Rescue: Projecting the Christian Pro-Life Message
Mark Allen Steiner
T & T Clark, 2006.
$29.00 paperback, $95.00 cloth; 226 pages.
Reviewed by Eleanor J. Bader
The Public Eye Magazine - Fall 2006
Mark Allen Steiner describes himself as a conservative, evangelical
Christian and at first blush, his credentials seem stellar.
An assistant professor at Pat Robertson's Regent University, he
appears to walk the walk and talk the talk.
What a shock, then, to read his critique of Operation Rescue's
rhetoric and hear his close-to-stunning plea to tone down
the histrionics in favor of civility and respect.
Steiner's assessment of the meteoric rise of
the militant anti-abortion group Operation
Rescue and the language that propelled group
founder Randall Terry into a sustained limelight
is fascinating. He starts by articulating
the role rhetoric plays in community life.
"Rhetoric does function as persuasion in the
traditionally understood sense. More fundamentally,
though, rhetoric also engages
fundamental aspects of worldview and community.
It helps shape what we think is good,
and what we think is worth thinking about.
And for Christians, more specifically, it helps
shape not only what they think the faith
means, but also their vision of how to grow
and become more mature in that faith; how,
in other words, to be true to the faith that they
Interesting, but practically speaking, what does this mean for
evangelical Christians vis-à-vis abortion?
While Steiner never reveals his opinion of legalized abortion,
he is clearly no fan of either Operation Rescue or of Terry. Indeed,
his distaste for the anti-abortion group's tactics likely propelled
this in-depth look at its ascension and decline.
So why did Operation Rescue have such appeal?
Steiner believes that two flaws in contemporary evangelical
thinking led people to respond favorably to Terry's rhetoric and
involve themselves in the blockades, clinic invasions and protests
that wreaked havoc on reproductive health centers from the late
1980s to the mid-1990s. The first is anti-intellectualism and the
second is the "impulse to hegemony."
In the first, Steiner cites a confluence of errors: the notion that
faith is antithetical to analysis or interpretation; the concept that
theological deconstruction of texts is both irrelevant and elitist;
and the belief that the Bible should be read in a literal, oversimplified
way. These beliefs, he argues, made it easy for Terry's
followers to accept language that merged abortion with child
The hegemonic impulse -- the idea that there is one, and only
one, way to be an "authentic" Christian -- posed other problems,
Steiner writes. Pluralism becomes impossible, and acceptance
of diversity becomes little more than the condoning of immoral
behavior. Not surprisingly, when Terry said, "If you believe abortion
is murder, you have to act like it's murder," the troops mobilized.
The upshot is that the "rhetoric of Operation Rescue encourages
a particular view of abortion history, one that frames the
abortion issue as an acute and severe crisis," he continues. Stir
in Francis Schaeffer's diatribe about the evil of secular humanism,
and much of the evangelical community
was prepped for action.
Randall Terry's often-eloquent and impassioned
demand to save the babies, stop the
bloodbath and end the holocaust, proved effective.
Thousands of previously apolitical
churchgoers decided it was time to defend
themselves, their families and their churches
from encroaching infidels. "Satan receives the
blood of these little ones as human sacrifice,
and he is not going to give up his stronghold
and demonic altar without a fight," Terry told
adherents. The flipside of this is redemptive.
The United States can regain its moral
stature, he exhorted, if people turn back to
God and reject abortion, homosexuality and
By stressing America's moral crisis, Terry
gave Operation Rescue members a common purpose. For a time,
this glued them together and offered their lives meaning. In addition,
they were collectively repentant, serving as exemplars of
sacrifice for the rest of the country.
And then the violence began. Once Michael Griffin, Paul Hill
and Shelley Shannon came on the scene in 1993 and 1994 --
killing two doctors and a clinic escort and wounding Dr. George
Tiller -- the rhetoric of the "holy war" began to sour. Both the
public and the media, once eager to hear what Terry had to say,
began to characterize Operation Rescue as insensitive, intolerant
and fanatical. Suddenly, Operation Rescue was not a legitimate
protest group, but a horde of crazies.
This shift caused the group's rhetoric to become even more
inflamed. "You're going to have to sacrifice everything," Rev. Pat
Mahoney told protesters in Wichita. "There's [sic] going to be
people wounded...It's about whose will shall rule on this
planet, God's or man's." Joseph Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action
League, an ardent Operation Rescue supporter, called the abortion
controversy "a battle between good and evil." Leaders
dubbed pro-choice activists witches and feminazis. "They hate
God," Scheidler announced.
This over-the-top language, Steiner says, contributed to
Operation Rescue's downfall. But it was not the sole cause.
Increasing violence, as well as the passage of the Freedom of Access
to Clinic Entrances Act [FACE] in 1994, played a role in its
demise. The Act made it a criminal offense to block clinic doors.
The punishment, a year in jail and fines of up to $10,000, stymied
all but the most devoted. Fines forced Operation Rescue into
bankruptcy, although the movement eventually regrouped
under the name Operation Save America (see Goldberg, this
issue). Unfortunately, Steiner steers clear of the muck surrounding
Randall Terry's high-profile divorce, rumors of extramarital
dalliances, and rejection of his homosexual son,
sidestepping both Terry's hypocrisy and its deleterious impact
on the organization's faithful.
Despite this, and despite a few gratuitous snarks about prochoice
rhetoric, Steiner's recommendations are nothing short
First, he calls on evangelicals to "acknowledge the diverse ideas,
values, experiences and moral commitments held by those
whom they seek to influence." He further asks that they consider
"the sacred" in different communities. Secondly, he urges
evangelicals to "cultivate the life of the mind and critical thinking
as values." He further stresses the need to avoid rigid or dogmatic
thinking and to consider alternative perspectives. Third,
he writes, "evangelicals need to cultivate a greater appreciation
for humility as an overarching attitude." Laughter, at oneself and
at others, is a central tenet of humility and Steiner stresses it as
an antidote to ideological ossification. Fourth, he continues,
"evangelicals need to be more fully cognizant of the fundamental
power of rhetoric in its generative, perspective shaping capacities."
Lastly, he calls on evangelicals to cultivate nuanced perspectives
on faith, practice and civic involvement.
In the end, Steiner hopes to enhance democracy by maximizing
tolerance for, and recognition of, the ethical differences
inherent in a pluralistic society. One can only wonder what Pat
Robertson, Randall Terry and other conservative evangelicals
think of his arguments.
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer, and activist, and coauthor of
Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism.