John Salvi, Abortion Clinic Violence, and Catholic Right Conspiracism
The Politics of John Salvi's Conspiracy TheoriesBy Chip Berlet
Political Research Associates
March 19, 1996
Conspiracy Theories in the John Salvi CaseMost 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.
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 Revelation; 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.
Conspiracy 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 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, homosexuality, 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 antisemitic sources. Discussions of freemason and other scapegoating conspiracies appear throughout Robertson's book and will be discussed in detail later.
Salvi 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.
That 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.
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 Archdiocesian publication The Pilot, to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights to Operation Rescue is one example of this drift toward militancy. 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 demagogicly 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 antisemitic 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 that the "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.
John Birch SocietyWhile 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 often agree that comprehensive sexuality education, abortion rights, lesbian and gay rights, and gay-tolerant curricula. 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. Homosexual 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. Rice wrote an article for the April 4, 1994 issue of 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 "The Death Penalty Dilemma," 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. Rice 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.
"All human life is precious because we are all created in the image and likeness of God. But God also gave us free wills 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."
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 "to restore respect for innocent life and to protect innocent members of the community against aggressors, whether abortionists or more conventional killers." 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 CrusaderThe 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.
In the worldview of The Fatima Crusader the Russian tyranny can come in many forms. In The Fatima Crusader 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 an article in the Summer 1994 issue of The Fatima Crusader, Charles Martel writes in an article on "The Antichrist" that "The Church is in a shambles" characterized by:
Michael JournalOne rightwing Catholic Journal that 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. The Michael Journal also carries articles about "Tha Apparitions at Fatima."
The Burlington Patriot Movement MeetingThere is no indication that 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, MA. 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 even 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. Jefferson's speech tied groups such as NOW and Planned Parenthood to a conspiracy of secular humanists tracing back to the 1800s. Jefferson is a founder and former officer of the National Right to Life committee and a board member of Massachusetts Citizens for Life.
During the meeting, attendees browsed three tables of literature brought by Den's Gun Shop in Lakeville, Massachusetts. 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 assassinations 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 The Turner Diaries. 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, runs the Constitutional Defense Militia of New Hampshire. Brown passed out brochures offering "Firearms Training, Combat Leadership, Close Combat, and Intelligence Measures."
Persons concerned with anti-abortion violence have 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 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. Schiedler in turn is on the US board of advisors to Human Life International, as is Charles E. Rice, who authored the previously-mentioned article comparing capital punishment and abortion in the issue of the John Birch Society's magazine New American. 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.
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:
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 of the to be published next fall 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. Including a discussion of statements by John C. Salvi, 3d. Allegations of a Freemason Conspiracy and Other Scapegoating Conspiracist Theories Within the Catholic Right, Protestant Right, Anti-Abortion Movement, Patriot Movement, and Armed Militia Movement."
For More Information:
On Human Life International in general, on the book distributed by HLI, New World Order: The Ancient Plan of Secret Societies, and the relationship between anti-abortion militants and the militias: Contact Sandi Dubowski or Claire McCurdy, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, (212) 541-7800.
On the relationship of Human Life International to the anti-abortion movement: Contact Catholics for Free Choice, (202) 986-6093.
A version of Fred Clarkson's two-part article on Christian Reconstructionism appears in the book Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, edited by Chip Berlet and available from bookstores or directly from South End Press.
On history of conspiracy theories and nativism, and spread of conspiracy theories into mainstream politics: See Party of Fear, by David H. Bennet. New York: Vintage, 1995 (revised second edition). See especially pp. 424-428, 472-475.
For a general overview of the political right: See Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States, by Sara Diamond. New York: Guilford., 1995
For conspiracy theories and the modern far right, see Bitter Harvest: Gordon
Kahl and the Posse Comitatus, by James Corcoran. New York: Penguin, 1990.
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