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The American Jihadist and the Supreme Court Nominee

This column originally appeared as part of the Way of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project, an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) created by former members of Kerry-Edwards 2004 blog team. The Way of Politics attempted to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, and politics from a contemporary Deistic or secular and spiritual perspective.

As I go to a prison cell for a lifetime, I know that I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”

These are the words Eric R. Rudolph, son of a former Catholic nun, and unrepentant American jihadist, upon being given two life sentences on July 18th for the murder of Robert Sanderson, an off-duty police officer. Rudolph pleaded guilty in April to the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama abortion clinic, and three bombings in Atlanta, including that of a gay club and the 1996 Olympic Centennial Park incident.

In a statement that accompanied his plea-bargain in April – a deal that allowed Rudolph to escape the death penalty – he offered the following rationale for his faith-based activism.

“Because I believe that abortion is murder, I also believe that force is justified in an attempt to stop it. Because this government is committed to maintaining the policy of abortion, and protecting it, the agents of this government are the agents of mass murder, whether knowingly or unknowingly.“

Rudolph continued later in his manifesto:

There are those who would say to me that the system in Washington works. They say that the pro-life forces are making progress, that eventuallyRoe v. Wade will be overturned, that the culture of life will ultimately win over the majority of Americans and that the horror of abortion will be outlawed. Yet, in the meantime thousands die everyday. They say that the mechanism through which this will be achieved is the Republican Party, and under the benevolent leadership of men like George W. Bush the wholesale slaughter of children will be a thing of the past. But with every day that passes another pile of corpses is added to the pyre. George W. will appoint the necessary justices to the Supreme Court and Roe will be finished, they say. All of this will be achieved through the lawful, legitimate democratic process. And every year a million and a half more die. I ask these peaceful, Christian, law-abiding Pro-Life citizens, is there any point at which all of the legal remedies will not suffice and you would fight to end the massacre of these children? How many decades have to pass, how many millions have to die? Is there any point when the cries of the children will not go unanswered? I think that your inaction after three decades of slaughter is a sufficient answer to all of these questions.“

Rudolph was sentenced on Monday. The very next day, President Bush introduced his pick to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court. Judge John G. Roberts is considered an eminently qualified candidate with both unmistakable conservative inclinations, and little in the way of a paper trail that might lead to problems during his confirmation hearings.

As a former clerk of Chief Justice Rehnquist, some have speculated that Roberts is likely to share key positions with his mentor. Consequently, the smart money is betting that this new justice represents a fourth vote for overturning Roe v. Wade – although in his 2003 confirmation hearing for the DC District Court, he pledged himself to upholding judicial precedent, as least from the Federal Bench.

The juxtaposition of Eric Rudolph's sentencing and Judge Roberts' nomination have me again thinking about the America that will emerge if President Bush is successful in his plan to ideologically pack the highest Court in the land. As I ponder this possible future, I don't much like the images that I see coalescing in the distance.

For instance, as I wrote in my column linking the President's choice with the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg (A House Divided), abortion will not magically disappear if Roe is overturned. Yes, the fervor of abortion opponents will likely lead to a near-total ban of the procedure in a majority of Red States – with a only narrowly drawn “life-of-the-mother” provision perhaps surviving; but pro-choice proponents in Blue States will similarly unite to guarantee that abortion remains safe and legal. We will have become that “house divided”.

There will doubtless be attempts at passing constitutional amendments either banning or protecting abortion, and even Federal statues that might propose some compromise. I note, for instance, a recent poll in which sixty-eight percent of Americans took the position that abortion should remain legal. But in light of the intense passions of partisans on both sides of this fight, these attempts at a reasonable national legislative solution will likely go nowhere.

I wonder: if having seen the overturning of Roe not lead to the hoped for abolition of abortion everywhere in the United States, will faith-based abolitionists find themselves advocating even more radical approaches? With the legislative process having proven a dead end in Blue America, and emotion-laden, incendiary rhetoric directed towards pro-choice advocates and legislators accelerating at an exponential rate, will greater numbers of them choose to follow in Eric Rudolph's footsteps?

In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, conservative politicians and pundits were quick to assert that their often-savage denunciations of Janet Reno, the Clinton Administration, and what they claimed was an overly invasive Federal Government (especially after Waco), played no role is pushing Timothy McVeigh over the edge. But to argue that, one must also be prepared to argue that fiery tirades by Muslim clerics against the Jewish State and the values of its western allies have no role in the conversion process that transforms borderline personalities into suicide bombers. Either incendiary rhetoric materially impacts the psychology of human beings or it doesn't. You can't have it both ways – and claim that one kind of rhetoric is somehow "righteous" and another "Satanic". An unbalanced psyche is unlikely to be capable of distinguishing one from the other – but is very likely to feed off intense rhetorical emotion in an attempt to transform mental suffering into "redemptive action".

According to Ralph Neas, of People For the American Way, the replacement of Justice O'Conner with a more ideologically conservative judge is likely to have an impact on as many as one hundred closely decided Supreme Court decisions. It would not immediately jeopardize Lawrence et al v. Texas, the 2003 decision that threw out the Texas sodomy law – and which some claim paved the way for gay marriage – since that decision had six Justices forming its majority. But this ruling is definitely on the hit list of both cultural conservatives activists like Pat Buchanan (who recently suggested on MSNBC that this decision should be overturned) and Christian jihadists like Rudolph.

In fact, Rudolph had quite a bit to say about his opposition to the “homosexual lifestyle” in his April apologia.

“Along with abortion, another assault upon the integrity of American society is the concerted effort to legitimize the practice of homosexuality. Homosexuality is an aberrant sexual behavior, and as such I have complete sympathy and understanding for those who are suffering from this condition. Practiced by consenting adults within the confines of their own private lives, homosexuality is not a threat to society. Those, consenting adults practicing this behavior in privacy should not be hassled by a society which respects the sanctity of private sexual life. But when the attempt is made to drag this practice out of the closet and into the public square in an "in your face" attempt to force society to accept and recognize this behavior as being just as legitimate and normal as the natural man/woman relationship, every effort should be made, including force if necessary, to halt this effort.

“This effort is commonly known as the homosexual agenda. Whether it is gay marriage, homosexual adoption, hate crimes laws including gays, or the attempt to introduce a homosexual normalizing curriculum into our schools, all of these efforts should be ruthlessly opposed. The existence of our culture depends upon it. It is the duty of the state to promote the public welfare and this includes holding up values and model behaviors which tend to create a healthy society capable of reproducing itself by the natural means of the family unit. This model behavior which lies at the heart of a healthy society is the marriage between a man and a woman. To place the homosexual relationship along side of the model and pronounce it to be just as legitimate a lifestyle choice is a direct assault upon the long term health and integrity of civilization and a vital threat to the very foundation of society — and this foundation is the family hearth.“

As with abortion, the views of the spiritual community are not uniform when it comes to gay rights. Only a few weeks ago, the United Church of Christ, a major liberal congregation, endorsed same sex unions. Thus, gay marriage can no longer be considered a “secular” versus “religious” controversy. People of faith and spirit are taking sides, with liberals and spiritual progressives increasingly endorsing the idea of "equal partnership rights for all" as strongly as conservatives oppose it. While allies like Spain and Canada have either endorsed gay marriage, or are on the verge of doing so, America more and more resembles that "house divided".

If we are becoming a "house divided", is there a defining line around which these armies are aligning? Returning to Mr. Rudolph's manifesto, perhaps there is:

“The very dregs of modernity raised on a culture of selfishness and death find their ways to the abortion mills. Some are there just for money being indifferent to the moral questions involved or the politics surrounding the issue of abortion. Many of these are mediocre mercenary doctors wanting to receive as much money as possible for performing a relatively simple procedure. Then there are the ideologue abortionists. They are the lowest common denominator of extreme egalitarianism, the off scouring of liberalism. These people hate life, and they see maternity as a disability, placed upon women by nature and used by men to keep women in subjection. They see themselves as liberators breaking the chains of patriarchal slavery.

“Nothing is more demonstrative of the degenerate nature of American society than the portrayal of the abortionist Lyons as an heroic victim. Abortion is the vomitorium of modernity, and the abortionist is the attendant who helps the bloated partiers disgorge themselves so they can return to the rotten feast of materialism and self-indulgence. And here the celebrants lionize, their wounded attendant.

“But I have compassion for the environmental factors that go into the psychological makeup of these lost souls, and see them more as the products of a rotten society poisoned by bad ideals.”

So, in the end, Rudolph's jihad is against modernity itself, and a society that he sees as decadent and depraved. He rails against a “culture of selfishness”, and “the rotten feast of materialism and self-indulgence”. He evidently never attended a Republican fundraiser, where the values he rails against are conspicuously celebrated. Perhaps he would prefer an America where everyone forages for lunch in the forest, like he did (when not aided by misguided neighbors) during the years that he chose to evade capture rather than take responsibility for the impact of his faith-based activism.

Rudolph has bought into the notion that society was once good, and now has become evil. It's a nostalgic, deeply mistaken formulation that has been with us since the beginning of recorded history. Any honest reading of the facts suggests that the good old days were often objectively worse in innumerable, easily documented ways. Now that Rudolph will be having his meals served to him in his cell, perhaps he'll have enough free time to do some rudimentary research.

For instance, advocates of modernity would argue that humanity has been amazingly successful in saving and extending the lives of children who, in an earlier, more faithful era, would never have survived past infancy or into adolescence.

We would argue that at a moment when conscious human intervention in the birth-death equation has been so successful that overpopulation now threatens the planet's ecosystem, and with it, the fragile thread of life itself, reproductive prudence should be seen as a twenty-first century spiritual virtue.

We would argue that with modern medicine having essentially guaranteed the continuation of the species (barring a nuclear, biological, or ecological catastrophe), human beings have earned the right to exercise a reasonable degree of autonomy when making the decision about bringing a child into the world.

Of course, to even offer such a challenge to the prevailing "wisdom" in an earlier, more faithful era, might have earned one a date with the auto de fe, gallows, or executioner's blade. History demonstrates that, like Rudolph, religious authorities were always willing to retroactively abort men and women whom they deemed a threat to their intellectual and political hegemony.

Those are the good old days that Rudolph, and perhaps the ultra-conservative minority on the Supreme Court, Justices Scalia and Thomas, long to restore – a de-facto dictatorship of a hopelessly subjectivist clergy, orchestrated through the tyranny of a carefully manipulated and emotion-driven mob. This is exactly the scenario that the Founders and Framers, Enlightenment era thinkers to the core, did everything in their power to prevent.

Will Judge Roberts, if he becomes Justice Roberts, join the Scalia-Thomas camp? Or will he become a voice of reason and moderation, of a true, and potentially healing, conservatism? These are two questions that I think must be on everyone's mind as we head into Roberts' confirmation hearing. Should he be confirmed, they are questions that I pray remain paramount in Justice Roberts' mind for as long as he serves our imperfect Union.

Matthew Carnicelli, © 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on July 24, 2005, as part of The Way of Politics series.