United States (OpenDemocracy) – Rising right-wing extremism in the United States appears to have breathed new life into militant Christian groups including the ‘Army of God’ (AOG) – a violent network which first rose to prominence in the early 1980s. Openly promoting the killing of abortion providers, it supports individuals jailed for the murders of healthcare workers, and it has been linked to a number of domestic terror attacks on targets across America.
The organization’s de facto religious leader, Reverend Donald Spitz, spoke to 50.50 in a rare interview from his home in Virginia late last year. “People are standing up more for the rights of the family,” he told us, claiming that with President Donald Trump in the White House, the AOG has been re-energized and has attracted more supporters, whilst allowing long-time allies to also be more open about their views.
“This group is growing and the election of Donald Trump has helped because before we were being crushed so much that nobody wanted to say anything, but now it’s OK to say these things,” he said, in comments that chime with the hate speech versus free speech debate that far-right activists are trying to push onto political agendas around the world. The ‘right to offend’ is being used to justify hate speech and harassment in many places.
The AOG is perhaps best-known for violence against abortion providers. The group’s most famous killer – ‘Olympic Park Bomber’ Eric Rudolph – was also convicted of injuring five people with a bomb he planted outside a lesbian bar in 1997. He evaded the FBI for seven years after another bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, which killed a spectator and injured 111 others. His 1998 attack on an abortion clinic killed a security guard and critically injured a nurse.
“Eric’s very popular,” said Spitz, explaining how he connects interested members of the public with AOG members behind bars. “People like him a lot because he evaded the authorities for so long – he was in North Carolina [which borders Virginia]… He knew how to live off the land; he was in the military; he had a little tent and he moved around and he was from the area as well, so he knew those mountains.”
Rudolph’s eventual capture was “an example of our government taking the side of the abortionists to persecute the Christians,” according to Spitz. Throughout our conversation, he claimed there was scriptural justification for violent “direct action” against abortion providers. “You would call it defensive action, justifiable homicide, you can’t call it murder,” he insisted, describing those responsible for deaths of healthcare workers as “martyrs.”
“We were the very first ones to go out to abortion clinics with big signs and pictures, calling out to people,” Spitz said proudly, of harassment tactics such as pickets and entrance blocking which have since been adopted by more mainstream anti-abortion groups across the US as well as in Europe. “Over time, Christians have come to recognize that these are babies being killed, and this is right to do, and they deserve to be protected.”
Such views, Spitz said, are now “more acceptable…more widespread.” He told us: “A lot of churches used to not let us in, but now most churches let us in. So it’s going very good, it’s going very well. But it will never be enough until it’s done, until the babies are protected and all the doctors and the nurses who are doing this are in prison.”
Spitz is dismissive of other, larger “pro-life” groups who distance themselves from the AOG whilst emulating their protest tactics. “We were ostracised and shunned, because we called for action, whereas people wanted to try and just have meetings and not get anywhere,” he said. “They didn’t want us talking about the Lord Jesus. They didn’t want us talking about the Bible.”
Fifteen years ago, the AOG militant Paul Hill was sentenced to death by lethal injection and executed for the 1994 murder of two people outside a women’s health facility in Pensacola, Florida. Spitz describes Hill as a “very close friend.”
Academic Jessica Stern’s book, Terror in the Name of God, was published in 2003, the year of Hill’s execution. It describes meeting Spitz and Hill, not long before the sentencing, and traces the AOG’s links to relatively obscure tradition of ‘Christian Reconstructionism,’ that Hill said formed the basis of his worldview.
‘Christian Reconstructionism’ is fundamentalist movement that advocates “theonomy”; government ruled by divine law, based on the Old Testament and economic liberalism. It’s founder Rousas Rushdoony called for a “regeneration” of society from the bottom up, “beginning with the individual and the family”.
This relatively small group of zealots is credited with starting the Christian homeschooling movement, based on the “rights” of the family to educate children, over those of the state or government. Its impact has been underestimated, argues Julie Ingersoll in her book Building God’s Kingdom; its ideology is now visible in the more widespread far-right trends movements that have engulfed much of America today.
In a 2015 interview with Salon.com, Ingersoll described an argument within Christian Reconstructionism, that predates the US civil war, “that equality itself is not a value, that people aren’t equal. That people are different; that God ordained some of that difference.” In other words: a theological argument against equality, and against democracy, which would be ‘against God.’
Domestic terrorism expert Daryl Johnson has meanwhile identified a certain reluctance among the counter-terrorism community to investigate or even acknowledge how Christian extremists use religion to recruit and radicalise supporters, much in the same way that Islamists do. His 2017 report Hate In God’s Name is among the few to have looked into this issue, sounding the alarm on links between such groups to current, and increasingly mainstream, far-right political momentum.
“Anti-abortion extremism has a long rooted history in violence and terrorism,” Johnson told 50.50, explaining the starring role that Spitz and the AOG have played in this. Among other things, the AOG produces how-to material for anti-abortion ‘direct action,’ which they also distribute online. “There are people who have murdered and carried out arson attacks who had his Army of God manual on them. Meaning they have read it and they have been indoctrinated by what he says and [that] what he believes is a viable solution to ending abortion.”
The latest upsurge in anti-abortion violence in America began in 2009, with Obama in the White House, says Johnson. This is broadly consistent long-term trends where threats from the far-right increase when a Democrat is power, and tend to decrease with a Republican president, he said.
Trump’s presidency however has upended this trend: murders by white supremacists doubled in 2017, according to Anti-Defamation League (ADL) research. “We were already at a heightened level under the previous administration,” said Johnson. He described “the continued threat from the far-right under a Republican administration” as a reality that “goes against the trend that we have seen over the past 40 years.”
Three were people killed and nine injured in an attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado in 2015. Threats against clinics across the country doubled between 2010 and 2014, according to a bi-annual survey from the Feminist Majority Foundation. It also found that 34% of clinics faced instances of ‘severe violence’ in 2016, compared to 20% in 2014.
The most common forms of such ‘severe violence’ are blocking women’s access to clinics, bomb threats, facility invasions and death threats, said the report. Arson, chemical attacks, and stalking are other forms, while less severe incidents include home-picketing of doctors, break-ins, robberies, and using glue to ruin locks and nails in driveways to puncture car tires.
Most clinics endure a number of different threats and a vulnerable minority experience a range of concentrated attacks by different anti-abortion groups working together, according to the data. The reports describe attackers’ aim to “force [facilities] to close their doors before moving on to the next set of targets.”
Between 2011-2016, a quarter of US clinics providing abortions reportedly shut their doors, with financial trouble and “hostile legislative environments” cited as factors. The most dramatic escalation in threats has been against healthcare workers. Since 2010, the percentage of US clinics reporting intimidation and threats against staff almost doubled, increasing from 27% to 46%.
This is particularly worrying for reproductive rights advocates as such personal attacks are often the precursor to deadly violence. Ten percent of clinics surveyed for the Feminist Majority Foundation’s report said that their doctors’ faces had been featured in WANTED-style posters – a tactic used by Army of God members in the past. Several doctors were murdered in the 1990s after their faces and addresses appeared on similar posters.
These kind of threats put huge strains on clinics that are already thinly stretched, according to Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation – not to mention the personal toll on staff members. She noted an increase in threats under President Trump.
Has Trump’s alt-right White House ‘resurrected’ the Army of God’s brand of anti-abortion militancy? “What we are seeing and hearing from our partners in clinics all over the US: an upsurge in violence this last year,” Smeal told 50.50 from Arlington, Virginia. “New methods and tactics [are] being used, and ongoing threats against medical staff – and this is an upsurge coming on the end of an upsurge – clinics were already at heightened alert levels.”
In the UK, the targeting of clinics providing abortion services has become increasingly commonplace as well – with protests often scheduled to coincide with Christian events. Rachael Clarke, from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service told 50.50 that almost a quarter (34) of the UK’s 140 clinics experienced some form of protest in the last year. Two clinics, which have not seen such protests before, have demonstrations scheduled during the 40 Days for Life campaign planned for Lent (starting 14 February).
“In recent years protests outside clinics have become more entrenched and more women are encountering and being negatively affected by them. In one London clinic alone, we estimate that almost 6000 women were affected by protests in 2017,” she said.
Back in America, Spitz told us that he divides his time between his “ministry” supporting AOG “martyrs” in prison, and running a group called Pro-Life Virginia. He had just returned from picketing an abortion clinic when we talked. “I try to go out a few times a week,” he said.
For his “martyrs,” Spitz added, the biggest problem they have behind bars or facing the death penalty is not regret, nor any kind of Christian remorse for breaking the commandment that thou shalt not kill – it’s their close proximity to “homosexual sex” in prison. “There’s a lot of immorality and its not appreciated,” he said. “Homosexual sex is going on in a lot of prisons, and they just don’t want to be around all the sex and whatever going on.”
Trump’s alt-right White House has promised to defund Planned Parenthood. This is just one development that has made Spitz more optimistic about his struggle than he has been for decades. Trump, he said, “is very outspoken about being pro-life and that’s wonderful. Now we have a voice, and before we didn’t have one.”
The extremist was coy, however, about his own plans for the future. There is no “grand masterplan” (beyond that of God, presumably), he said. “We are just going out to save individual babies. There are people trying to get legislation [against abortion] passed and that’s good, but that’s not us. It’s all good, whatever anyone is doing to save the babies.”
He told us: “We are what you call the grunts, the soldiers, trying to do our best. We will just continue to be on the frontline.”