The Religious Right Didn't Kill George Tiller
The left tries to smear ‘Christianists’ as akin to Islamic extremists.
On Sunday, abortion doctor George Tiller was murdered at his church in Wichita, Kan. He was one of a handful of doctors in the U.S. who performed late-term abortions and for decades had been a target of virulent criticism from antiabortion activists. His clinic had been bombed and vandalized, and in 1993 he was shot in both arms in a failed assassination attempt. Tiller’s alleged killer, Scott Roeder, is a long-time radical antiabortion activist with reported ties to a militant antigovernment organization called the Freemen.
Within hours after the murder, every antiabortion group in the country denounced the attack. Robert P. George, a leading Catholic intellectual opponent of abortion, wrote that “George Tiller’s life was precious” and characterized his murder as “a gravely wicked thing.” He called on his fellow abortion opponents to “teach that violence against abortionists is not the answer to the violence of abortion.”
Even Operation Rescue, the extreme antiabortion group that organized a six-week blockade of Tiller’s office in 1991, issued a statement condemning the murder. “We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning,” Troy Newman, the organization’s president, said.
These unqualified reproaches are nothing new. The organized antiabortion movement has always opposed violence against abortion providers. That has never stopped opportunistic prochoice activists, however, from conflating their passionate rhetoric with the behavior of individual criminals. True to form, on Sunday, Mike Hendricks of the Kansas City Star accused anyone who had criticized Tiller as a murderer (Tiller aborted healthy, nine-month old fetuses) of being an “accomplice” to his death.
Over the past decade this argumentative tactic has taken on an even more insidious twist. In addition to fighting violent, Muslim jihadists abroad, some liberals argue that America must deal with its own, homegrown terrorists. These are not just people who commit violence but millions of socially conservative evangelicals and Catholics — “Christianists” — who comprise the base of the Republican Party and threaten the stability of the country.
In 2007, former New York Times Middle East Bureau Chief Chris Hedges published a book called “American Fascists” that compared conservative evangelicals to European brownshirts of the 1920s and 1930s. That same year, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour hosted a three-part series, “God’s Warriors,” that equated Christian (and Jewish) fundamentalists with Muslim extremists.
The comparison between the religious right and Islamic extremists is invariably partisan so as to smear the GOP as being held hostage to forces as dangerous as Hamas or Hezbollah. “Even as the Bush administration denounces and battles Islamic religious zealotry abroad, fundamental Christian zealotry is taking hold here at home,” wrote Stephen Pizzo on the liberal Alternet Web site in 2004. On his popular HBO program, comedian Bill Maher frequently compares murderous Islamists to censorious Christians.
But if the reactions to the death of Tiller mean anything, the “Christian Taliban,” as conservative religious figures are often called, isn’t living up to its namesake. If “Christianists” were anything like actual religious fascists they would applaud Tiller’s murder as a “heroic martyrdom operation” and suborn further mayhem.
Radical Islamists revel in death. Just witness the videos that suicide bombers record before they carry out their murderous task or listen to the homicidal exhortations of extremist imams. Murder — particularly of the unarmed and innocent — is a righteous deed for these people. The manifestos of Islamic militant groups are replete with paeans to killing infidels. When a suicide bomb goes off in Israel, Palestinian terrorist factions compete to claim responsibility for the carnage.
There is no appreciable number of people in this country, religious Christians or otherwise, who support the murder of abortion doctors. The same cannot be said of Muslims who support suicide bombings in the name of their religion.
Yet speak of the disproportionately violent strain in Islam to a “progressive” person and you’ll be met with sneering recitations of millennia-old Christian crusades or Jewish settlements in the West Bank. As for conservative Christians’ contemporary political endeavors, lobbying to ban the teaching of evolution in schools or forbidding same-sex marriage simply does not threaten society in quite the same way as the genital mutilation of young girls or the bombing of the London transit system.
I happen to support a legal regime that would, in Bill Clinton’s famous words, keep abortion safe, legal and rare. I hold no brief for the religious right, and its views on homosexuality in particular offend (and affect) me personally. But it’s precisely because of my identity that I consider comparisons between so-called Christianists (who seek to limit my rights via the ballot box) and Islamic fundamentalists (who seek to limit my rights via decapitation) to be fatuous.
In the coming days, we will hear more about how mainstream conservative organizations and media personalities created an “environment” in which the murder of an abortion doctor became an inevitability. Just as talk radio was blamed for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, an attempt will be made to extend the guilt for this crime from the individual who pulled the trigger to the conservative movement writ large. But the Christian right’s responsible reaction to the death of George Tiller should put to rest the lie that Judeo-Christian extremists are anywhere near as numerous or dangerous as those of the Muslim variety.