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Evangels of Abortion

Overnight fame can unsteady a twenty-nine-year-old, especially when the fame stirs as much resentment as admiration. Randall Terry is becoming famous for leading attacks on abortion clinics throughout the US. “Why do you think I don’t read most of the things written about me?” Terry asks after I have just watched him read and reread with ferocious attentiveness an unfavorable article about him in a California paper. The question, he shows by waiting for an answer, is not rhetorical but almost inquisitorial. “I don’t know,” I answer. “Perhaps to preserve your equanimity.” He looks blank. “What’s equanimity?” He does not go into the storm of publicity ballasted by much knowledge.

We have been talking on a plane about to land in Long Beach, California, where Terry and his associates will lead what they call “rescues” at several abortion clinics, sealing all entrances with layer upon layer of their bodies. A member of the crew comes from the flight deck to tell Terry there are demonstrators against him massed outside the airport; the airport security will meet him at the plane, take his luggage off, and spirit him out a side fence. He nods agreement to this, then worries that the demonstrators will think him and his associates “wimps,” and discusses the idea of returning to the demonstrators from the outside. He does not flee from attention, even of the most hostile sort.

There are no casual encounters with Randall Terry. He turns them all into contests of some sort—clashes of moral standards, games, probings. Buying a ticket in an airport, he asks the airline employee to remove a travel poster showing (from the back) a woman in Hawaii wearing nothing but a hula skirt. “It is demeaning to women.” The man takes it down. On the plane, he lets a flight attendant know that he is going to be on television and asks if there is a brush to remove the lint from his suit. She ends up removing the lint herself, by dabbing Scotch tape at it. With another flight attendant he banters over getting extra food. He asks a third if she is wearing tinted contact lenses (she is). None of them will forget Randall Terry was on her plane. In a deposition being taken by a woman lawyer for the National Organization for Women, when questioned about his wife’s name, Terry asked the lawyer if her last name is her husband’s (as it ought to be).

He interviews his interviewers. Asked what I do when I am not writing articles about him, I tell him I teach American history. “Do you think the American Revolution was influenced more by the Renaissance or by the Reformation?” I am not aware it was the product of either. “Do you believe in providence in history?” Not, I reply, in a manifest providence. “What does that mean?” Adopting terms I thought would make sense in his world, I point out that Saint Augustine denied that God’s intent could be read in historical developments. “Oh, well, Saint Augustine was a forerunner of the Renaissance.” His tone tells me that this is a bad thing to be, a point soon confirmed: “I despise the Renaissance.”

Only later, after reading the works of the American evangelical writer Francis Schaeffer, did I realize that Terry was confusing Augustine with Aquinas. Aquinas as a harbinger of the Renaissance is one of Schaeffer’s trademark notions. (The twin to that concept is that Kierkegaard is the fulfillment of the Renaissance in all its evil.)

You have to read Schaeffer’s Christian Manifesto if you want to understand Operation Rescue [Terry’s anti-abortion organization].” It seems odd that a man like Schaeffer, who before he died in 1984 lived obscurely in Switzerland writing what he fondly hoped was a philosophy of culture, could produce so many volunteers blockading the doors of abortion clinics; but one does not need to be a profound thinker in order to have an impact on society. Schaeffer, toward the end of his life, emerged as a prophetic voice for young evangelicals just when Terry and his contemporaries entered Bible school in the late Seventies. Their America was quite different from the one Schaeffer had encountered forty years earlier during evangelicism’s darkest period in modern America.

Evangelical Protestantism—the “born again” belief fed, ecumenically, from revivals in all the pietistic (“low church”) denominations—was the reigning religious force in nineteenth-century America. Its scholarly base was largely Presbyterian, because of the eminence of the Princeton Theological Seminary, which upheld the orthodox “Princeton Theology” for over a century (1812-1921).1 But the rising tides of theological liberalism, and especially of biblical criticism, defeated the Princetonians on their own ground at the beginning of the 1920s, a decade that saw the more populist forms of evangelical belief put to flight by Mencken’s assaults, the Scopes trial, and the death of William Jennings Bryan.

Presbyterianism, “splintery” in the best of cases, bred competitively purist reactions to the defeat at Princeton, forming new enclaves of resistance, each with a new name to signify the true old faith. Schaeffer was a Presbyterian trained in the bitter Thirties, and he followed the “separatist” Carl McIntire, later famous for his savage anticommunism during the 1950s. By the late Fifties, however, Schaeffer had broken with McIntire (breaking with whom, and with each other, became his followers’ favorite activity).2 Schaeffer, reversing the direction of other missionaries, wanted to go back to Europe and re-Christianize that place—which involved studying the culture of the “natives” in the way that evangelicals approached South Sea islanders.

He arrived in Europe in 1947, when postwar demoralization convinced him of the godlessness of modern civilization. But unlike other evangelicals, who had withdrawn from worldly culture in the wake of their setbacks in the 1920s, Schaeffer thought European culture should be studied, if only to attack it. He treated modern art and philosophy as a search for God or a confession of emptiness without God. Living among Catholics in Switzerland, and clashing with them, he nonetheless tried an approach resembling that of Jacques Maritain or Etienne Gilson, who were fashioning a Christian existentialism that would address postwar problems. No forms of existentialism were welcomed by Schaeffer, who made Kierkegaard the demon figure behind modern despair, but Schaeffer set up a Christian retreat and study house called L’Abri, where he talked with visiting adolescents at their own level about modern movies and spiritual fads. He developed a glib outline of the whole of Western culture’s history, one he would later offer to Americans in a film series called How Should We Then Live? (1977). Leftover “Jesus people” thought this represented the solid wisdom of a man who was still “with it.” In the brief (seven-page) chronology of major cultural events that accompanies the written version of the film, 1970 is marked as the year Jimi Hendrix died.

The year that film came out was the year of Randall Terry’s conversion (at age seventeen). The son of schoolteachers perfunctory in their religion, Terry grew up in Rochester, New York, and ran away from home when he was sixteen to live on the road, a Kerouac from the wrong decade seeking druggy beatitude. He was back home within three months, after a superficial acquaintance with Oriental and other mystical writings, having talked a great deal and read a little about competing spiritualities. He went through the Bible with the awe of someone discovering the obvious and was “born again.” He joined a charismatic church, one that believes in apostolic “gifts” (charismata) like faith healing, and was devout enough for his pastor to assure Elim Bible Institute on the school’s most important entry requirement, that Terry had been “born again” at least a year before his enrollment in 1978.

Elim (the word comes from an “oasis” Moses stopped at in the desert) stands on a height above the crossroads township of Lima, New York. Handsome classical buildings on campus housed, in the nineteenth century, the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary, which spawned Genesee College, which later moved to become part of Syracuse University. The college had for its women’s preceptress the famous nineteenth-century reformer Frances Willard, and its graduates include Henry Raymond, founder of The New York Times, and Senator Kenneth Keating, Lima’s most famous son. The abandonment of the great seminary in this century is emblematic of the fall of evangelicals from their days of influence. The campus became a home in 1951 for the modest missionary-training school that had been moving from place to place since 1924, when I. Q. Spencer started training people to go to the Orient.

About a quarter of the graduates of Elim’s three-year program still go to foreign missions, and Randall Terry had planned to go to Mexico, improving his Spanish while he concentrated on the one major offered at the school, Bible. Fulltime students of the three-year course are required to live on campus, to take part in the prayer life that goes on all day, in and out of class. I asked a student to direct me to the library, and he took me there, whispering occasionally under his breath, “Jesus.” So it is not merely a private quirk that Terry will, in the midst of conversation on a plane or elsewhere, interject a groaned “Help us, Jesus” into even the most bantering conversation.

Terry graduated fourth in his class of thirty-nine seniors, but more emphasis is placed on spiritual development than on academic proficiency at Elim. A recent president of the school told a Christian magazine: “This is not to disparage academic achievement, but if a student is earning As and we detect a weakness morally or spiritually; that student will not graduate until that weakness is dealt with…. And there have been times when Elim has been obliged to be merciful to those who were disqualified elsewhere because the students desperately needed someone.”

This undemanding approach to things of the mind helps explain the gaps in Terry’s knowledge. (He told me he was reading a life of Lincoln “written by someone at the turn of the century” whose name was “Sand-something.” When I suggested the author might be Carl Sandburg, he agreed that was probably it, but the name meant nothing to him.) Terry has a quick mind for puns and quips and debaters’ replies; he dropped out of high school in his junior year, with enough credits to have graduated a year ahead of time. (He took his equivalency degree that summer, after his conversion.) Thus unballasted, at Elim he found his sails suddenly filling with the bluster of Francis Schaeffer. A homiletics teacher assigned three of Schaeffer’s books, and “The film made a great impact on me.”

It was a heady experience, to be dealing with the world’s great thinkers in a confident and urbane way, giving grades to Aristotle and Picasso in terms of their biblical acceptability. Better students than Terry have testified to the liberating effect Schaeffer had on the cramped curriculum of disputes over the exact schedule of the biblical “end times.” At last American evangelicals had their own C. S. Lewis, an author Schaeffer admired and whose popularity with evangelicals grew along with his. An entire book of essays has been composed by evangelicals who were inspired by Schaeffer but have come, with better training, to see how empty were his claims of familiarity with the authors whose names he tossed around.3 Schaeffer, they maintain, was a healthy influence on evangelicals, but one that should be quickly outgrown. That seems to have happened even at Elim. The school’s bookstore still has most of Schaeffer’s works for sale, but faculty members tell me he is not much taught in classes anymore.

  1. 1

    See The Princeton Theology, 1812–1921, edited by Mark A. Noll (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1983).

  2. 2

    Schaeffer’s later admirers do not like to remember his long time of service with McIntire. In the misnamed Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, pretentiously published in five large volumes in 1982 (by Crossway Books, Westchester, Illinois), his mentor’s name does not occur. One looks for McIntire in the index and finds McLuhan, Marshall, with seven entries.

  3. 3

    Reflections on Francis Schaeffer, edited by Ronald W. Ruegsegger (Zondervan Publishing House, 1986). For a collection of essays by those who remain disciples, cf. Francis A. Schaeffer: Portraits of the Man and His Work (Crossway Books, 1986).

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