The shooting of abortion physician George Tiller continued a long, dark tradition in American politics. Radicalism on the fringes of social movements has been a surprisingly enduring phenomenon in American politics. There were violent abolitionists, axe-wielding temperance crusaders, Black Panthers in the civil rights movement, Weathermen in the New Left, and eco-terrorists in the environmental movement.
Such bloodshed has been one of the tragic consequences of political liberty. The American Founders were particularly sensitive to the relationship between freedom and factional violence. James Madison famously designed our Constitution to "break and control the violence of faction." Tiller's murder should remind us that the Madisonian Constitution has not always succeeded.
But such crimes should also not lead us to view political factions as negatively as Madison did. Although radical factions have often existed in social movements, they have almost always been marginal. This fact is constantly obscured by the media's attentive vigil over the most sensational and militant activists. Currently, for example, one of the most prominent radical organizations in the pro-life movement is Operation Rescue West, a group that has devoted itself to harassing the late Dr. Tiller. Nonetheless, Troy Newman, the director of Operation Rescue West (ORW), confessed to me, "We have no base."
Despite the fact that it is hardly an organizational secret that Operation Rescue West has no members, an internet search of ORW yields more than twice as many hits as Birthright International, a pro-life organization that manages more than 400 crisis pregnancy centers with thousands of volunteers. Nor has Birthright attracted exposés in popular magazines like Rolling Stone. Like most other organizations in the pro-life movement, crisis pregnancy centers quietly keep making a civil and reasonable case well below the media's radar.
Thus, if Americans have a dim view of the "culture wars" and pro-lifers in particular, it is not simply because of militants like alleged shooter Scott Roeder—it is also partly because the media highlights the most strident and marginal activists. Yet, radical right-to-life groups have been so moribund partly because they offend the vast majority of pro-life activists. Newman reports with great frustration that Christians usually give him this response: "I'm Christian and pro-life, but what you people are doing is not loving."
Radicalism, in fact, is often embraced as a self-conscious reaction to the more deliberative tendencies that tend to dominate movement politics. The rescue movement, for example, was pioneered by pro-life activists who became impatient with the quiet lobbying efforts of the National Right to Life Committee, especially after Roe v. Wade rendered it far more difficult to shape abortion laws through normal, electoral politics. Such disaffection with mainstream pro-lifers was expressed more recently by another fringe group, Operation Save America. Its leadership lamented that the more deliberative right-to-life organizations have caused supporters "to believe that we can legislate this evil out of our culture slowly but surely by education [and] sound reasoning."
Yet if radicalism has been fueled by the civility and patience of mainstream movement organizations, militant radicals have also inspired greater moderation in those same movements. This has been especially true in the pro-life movement, which has long been trying to escape the shadow of crusading fundamentalists like Randall Terry.
As I found in my field work, pro-life organizations have never been more committed to training activists to engage the wider public in a civil and reasonable way, even as fringe radicals have escalated their assaults on human life. Stand to Reason, for instance, trains some 40,000 activists every year and draws on the best pro-life philosophy. Meanwhile, groups such as Justice for All and The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform have drawn thousands of students on college campuses into philosophical discussions about the moral status of the embryo. Some 2,000 crisis pregnancy centers also continue building intimate relationships with women considering abortion, while the National Right to Life Committee and its state affiliates teach citizens how to persuade legislators.
Thus, in a curious way, radicals inspire moderation, while moderates excite radicalism. Both the radical and moderate wings of movements strangely drive one another in a cycle that is simultaneously vicious and virtuous. We can only hope that imprisoning Tiller's killer will put an end to abortion-related murders, and that Tiller's death will encourage the pro-life mainstream to redouble its commitment to civility and public reason once again.
Jon A. Shields is assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the author of The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right (Princeton University Press, 2009).
The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right is available at Amazon.com and other book retailers.
Shields also wrote a piece for The New Republic on the Tiller murder: "A Time To Kill: Why is anti-abortion violence at an all-time high when radical pro-life activism is on the decline?"
Reversing Roe v. Wade | It may take more than a single court decision to counter abortion on demand. (January 1, 2003)
The Abortion Wars | What most Christians don't know about the history of prolife struggles. (January 1, 2003)
You Say Choice, I Say Murder | Before prolife arguments can reach the undecided American, we have got to look at the language we use. (June 24, 1991)