The late Norma McCorvey, aka Jane Roe, is back in the news, thanks to the report of her “death bed confession.” In a new documentary about her life, McCorvey, the plaintiff in the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, admitted that her 1995 conversion to evangelical Christianity was not only fraudulent, but that she was paid by antiabortion leader Rev. Phillip “Flip” Benham with the complicity of others.
“I was the big fish,” she said. “I think it was a mutual thing. I took their money and they’d put me out in front of the cameras and tell me what to say, and that’s what I’d say.” The documentary reports that in the years following her “conversion” and during her role as an antiabortion pawn, she received at least $456,911 from the anti-abortion movement. Rev. Flip Benham of Operation Save America, who led McCorvey’s conversion, denied paying her (although the documentary surfaced financial documents that his organization did). But Benham also said, “…but she chose to be used. That’s called work. That’s what you’re paid to be doing!” Former Benham associate Rev. Rob Schenk admits to the camera, “the jig is up.”
But this story is about more than grift. It’s about how, when the history is written, it may record that what we call the culture war wasn’t just a metaphor or a handy term for a set of contemporary issues du jour. In fact, various expressions of conservative evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism are allied in a long-term war with everyone else. And in this war, lies are a feature, not a bug.
The theorist-in-chief of this war is 20th century theologian, R.J. Rushdoony whose influence on the development and the eschatology of the evangelical wing of the Christian Right makes him a figure of historical consequence. His school of thought is called Christian Reconstructionism and the wider movement he principally engendered is generally called Dominionism. Most avatars of this theocratic vision of the Kingdom of God on Earth see themselves as engaged in a kind of low-intensity religious war, not only against sin and proponents of other religions, but against such foundational U.S. constitutional values as religious freedom, pluralism, and separation of church and state.
While mendacity is hardly new in politics, lying still seems hypocritical coming from religious leaders who profess a higher standard. But for the leaders for whom politics is actually part of the low-intensity religious war that’s been underway for at least a half century, there’s nothing hypocritical about it. And for many of them, the biblical story of Rahab provides the justification for lies like McCorvey’s—lies foisted on the world by a cabal of theocratic anti-abortion campaigners who in turn tell us that Rahab is a model of righteousness.
In my book Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, I discuss Rushdoony’s rationale for the righteous lie. Rahab is a lauded figure in much of the Jewish and Christian tradition. She hid two Israelite military spies in her home during the siege of the Canaanite city of Jericho by the army of Joshua—and lied to Canaanite soldiers who were searching for the spies. For her service, she and her family were spared when Joshua sacked the city and massacred everyone in it. There are a variety of understandings of the meaning of Rahab’s acts—like just about any other biblical figure. But Rushdoony’s interpretation is foundational for the contemporary Christian Right.
Rushdoony rationalizes Rahab’s lies as having saved the lives of “Godly men.” He further argues that the Christian requirement to tell the truth under normal circumstances “does not apply to acts of war. Spying is legitimate, as are deceptive acts in warfare.” Since, in Rushdoony’s view, Christianity is in a permanent state of war with the rest of society, lies are not only justifiable but are by definition a Christian requirement and a necessity. Fellow Christian Reconstructionist theorist Gary North agrees, calling Rahab a “righteous revolutionary” against “Satan’s kingdom.”
Thus, it’s not surprising that lies in pursuit of the contemporary theocratic goals of the Christian Right are legion. A more recent example, from earlier this year, was when pastor and State Representative Timothy Ginter (R-Ohio) lied to reporter Jessica Glenza from The Guardian that he had “no knowledge” of the Christian Right state legislative campaign Project Blitz when, in fact, he was its Ohio co-chair. Project Blitz had been trying to lay low in the face of public opposition and unwanted press coverage. Both the founders and the state leaders of Project Blitz are explicit about the Dominionist and Christian Nationalist goals that drive their legislative actions.
Will a Gideon or a Rahab please stand?
David Lane of the influential Christian Right political organization, American Renewal Project is also a Rahab fan. The organization, an affiliate of the Mississippi-based American Family Association, plays a quiet role in organizing and indoctrinating conservative clergy, especially in election years. They provide all-expense-paid trips for thousands of clergy and spouses to hear from the likes of Dominionist and Christian Nationalist author David Barton, and senior Republican office holders and candidates for state and federal office.
Like Rushdoony, Lane looks to Rahab as a role model for righteous revolutionaries. In June 2013 Lane published an essay titled, “Wage War to Restore a Christian Nation.” It was so controversial that the far right news site that published it, World Net Daily quickly took it down (though it appears to have been quietly reposted at some point).
In it, Lane expressed doubts about the ability of the Christian Right to establish theocratic governance via the tools of democracy alone and thus suggested that violence and elections are not mutually exclusive, and that horrific confrontations, including acts of Christian martyrdom, lie ahead.
“You ask, ‘What is our goal?’ To wage war to restore America to our Judeo-Christian heritage with all of our might and strength that God will give us. You ask, ‘What is our aim?’ One word only: victory, in spite of all intimidation and terror.”
Lane’s call for religious war ended with his signature refrain: “Will a Gideon or Rahab the Harlot please stand?” (Gideon, of course, is the Biblical figure who leads an Israelite army in an ethnic cleansing of the Midianites who were oppressors and worshiped false gods.)
In another World Net Daily essay with the same refrain, Lane quotes Christian Reconstructionist theologian, Peter J. Leithart:
“Until American churches actually function as outposts of Jesus’ heavenly empire rather than as cheerleaders for America—until the churches produce martyrs rather than patriots—the political witness of Christians will continue to be diluted and co-opted.”
All of which brings us back to Flip Benham and Norma McCorvey.
Burning for Jesus
In 1995, Flip Benham and Operation Save America (formerly called Operation Rescue) moved into an office next to the Dallas clinic where McCorvey was working. Eventually, after Benham led her conversion to evangelical Christianity, McCorvey left her job at the clinic and became a fixture of anti-abortion public life
And this public life was not limited to the politics of abortion. Being on the Operation Save America payroll, meant participating in the wider war.
To that end, Benham staged at least two Qur’an burnings. The first may have been his 2004 “Burning of the Abominations” demonstration at the Columbus, Ohio City Hall. There, he both tore and burned the Qur’an, the Rainbow Flag, and the Roe v. Wade decision. The United States, he said, is defying “the God of our forefathers” by embracing “false religions and gods.”
He attempted another one in 2006 at the Mississippi state capitol. After the cops thwarted Benham’s attempt to torch the Qur’an, the Rainbow flag, and Supreme Court decisions that he considered violative of God’s laws, he ripped them up and declared, according to Operation Save America’s own report (which was subsequently scrubbed from the website): “we have three choices with Muslims, kill them, be killed by them, or convert them. Which is your choice?”
“While not all Muslims are terrorists, all terrorist [sic] are Muslims,” he continued. “We destroy the Koran, not to desecrate their religion, but to set them free.”
Benham, according to a report by Michelle Goldberg, then a staff writer at Salon, reconvened his group at the Making Jesus Real Church in the nearby town of Pearl where they once again burned a Qu’ran, a rainbow flag, and Supreme Court decisions, including, in addition to Roe, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Lawrence v. Texas, and Everson v. Board of Education. In his Everson decision Justice Hugo Black wrote, “In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between Church and State.”
“The Operation Save America members put the grill in the church parking lot,” Goldberg wrote. “McCorvey struck the match that burned the shredded symbols.” According to Goldberg, Benham had a couple of dozen kids gather around the grill. “There’s coming a time when it might cost you your life to stand up for King Jesus,” Benham told the children. “It is our prayer that if you go down, you go down standing up in the name of Jesus.”
Rushdoony saw that Rahabian lies would be needed in order to lay siege to the bastions of the non-Christian (or insufficiently Christian) world, including the democratic institutions and values of the government of the United States, which remain an obstacle to their theocratic goals, as the burnings staged by Benham and McCorvey make clear. Many such sieges in the religious war for the world are well underway. And, as Rob Schenk so eloquently put it, the jig is up.