Bush’s “faith-based” initiative has been running into problems. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell expressed alarm about just who might get funding: The Nation of Islam? The Church of Scientology? The Hare Krishnas? Heaven forbid. Other church groups are dubious about the possible strings attached to government cash.
But liberals have been quiet, or worse. Columnist Ellen Goodman and law professor David Cole (writing in the New York Times) have argued that the needs are so great that religious outfits should be “given a chance.” Don’t listen to them. Progressives should unite to kill the Bush plan dead. The program is not only a gift to those keen on privatizing public jobs and a strike against the secular state, but it could also end up subsidizing the violent fringe of the religious right.
Jerry Reiter is a former Christian Coalition activist and insider at Operation Rescue, the militant anti-abortion group that pioneered blocking access to abortion clinic doors. Reiter, who wrote of his experiences on the fringes of the anti-abortion movement in Live from the Gates of Hell and now works for the American Humanist, says that it’s easy for religious extremists to set up front groups that look like charities. They do it all the time.
Legitimate-looking social service front groups are a good way to raise cash, Reiter says. They’re called “para-church ministries,” and they’ve been a staple of the religious scene for years. Reiter says he collected thousands of dollars at weekly Christian Coalition rallies for local causes. But he believes Operation Rescue (which ran its campaign from the Buffalo Christian Coalition’s basement) was at least partially funded by the Christian Coalition’s collection cash.
At the national level, Operation Rescue ran an adoption service supported by charitable donations. Did Operation Rescue raise money for its adoption service that actually went to fund the blockade movement? It’s likely, Reiter says, but there’s no way to know for sure.
Then there is John Burt, a former Ku Klux Klansman turned anti-abortion radical, who ran Our Father’s House, a home for unwed mothers that Reiter visited in Pensacola, Florida. Burt, who led the blockade movement in Pensacola, would get his clients onto welfare, “then he’d send out solicitations” for money to care for the unwed mothers and their “rescued” kids, Reiter says. In a bucket in the pantry, Burt kept a 20-week-old aborted fetus in formaldehyde (for use as a “counseling tool,” he told a journalist). It was at Our Father’s House that Michael Griffin, a volunteer, was shown his first video of aborted fetuses. After he was convicted in 1993 of murdering Dr. David Gunn outside a nearby Pensacola women’s clinic, Griffin claimed he’d been brainwashed by Burt.
Among those who praised Bush’s faith-based initiative this January was Reiter’s former pastor, Rob Schenck, the man who first introduced him to the Christian Coalition, Operation Rescue and the anti-abortion underground. “President Bush is to be commended in the highest possible way,” Schenck told CBS This Morning on January 25. “Religiously based social programs typically have the highest success rates, lowest costs and most personally interested staff.”
In a press release, Schenck, who attended the National Prayer Breakfast to commend the Bush plan, described himself as an evangelical minister and former executive director of Teen Challenge, a church-sponsored rehabilitation program for troubled youth and a favorite Bush charity. With his twin brother Paul, Schenck founded Operation Serve, something he calls “a humanitarian relief agency that deploys medical and dental volunteers to serve the poor” and Hearts for the Homeless, “a mobile advocacy program for indigent women, children and men.”
Schenck left some things off his resumé. At the 1992 Democratic Convention, Schenck was arrested and detained by the Secret Service for rushing Bill Clinton with a dead fetus in his hands, screaming about abortion. He and his brother were the people who first invited Operation Rescue to Buffalo to picket Dr. Barnett Slepian, a local abortion provider. For years, they marched outside Slepian’s home and office with threatening signs, some of which called the doctor “pig.” In 1998, Slepian was shot dead at his home. His alleged murderer, James Kopp, was arrested in France in late March.
Now the brothers say that killing is a sin. They both left Operation Rescue after serving short prison sentences for lying in federal court, and Schenck went on to work for Teen Challenge in New York.
Bush’s initiative should raise hackles, Reiter says, and not just among secular constitutionalists or those concerned about government interference with the church. Anyone who pays taxes should worry because cash for social services provided by the likes of the Schencks may not suit any social agenda except the advancement of extreme, supremacist views. “Even if in the main, the money goes to good causes,” he says. “there is a clear and present danger that some of it will go to groups closely affiliated with, if not controlled by, terrorists.”