Book Review: Wrath of Angels by James Risen and Judy Thomas

Book Review: Wrath of Angels by James Risen and Judy Thomas

In the last month, we have heard countless Republicans and anti-abortion advocates trying to use the recent uptick in vandalism against crisis pregnancy centers as proof that the pro-abortion side is the side of violence. James Risen and Judy Thomas’s 1998 book Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War blows that entire argument out of the water.

Who is the most violent?

As I’ve explained before, in a House Judiciary Committee meeting on July 14th, 2022,

Ohio Congressman and Ranking Member Jim Jordan spoke for 10 full minutes listing individual examples of violence against churches and CPCs following the leaked Dobbs opinion draft. Again, these actions are obviously wrong. But know that Jordan shared only 50 examples, almost all of which were merely property damage and/or vandalism. A handful involved fires, but as far as I know, no one was injured or killed.

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The worst part is that Jordan gave this list the day after California Congresswoman Jackie Speier had listed hundreds of examples of violence (actual violence) against abortion clinics and workers throughout the last thirty years, with an emphasis on the rise in 2021.

We also deplore violence against abortion clinics, and you have said nothing about the fact that 11 people have been murdered at those clinics. Four doctors, two clinic employees, one security guard, one police officer, and one clinic escort. Last year there were 186 arsons targeted at abortion centers, there were 123 acts of vandalism, 123 incidents of assault and battery. Stalking increased by 600 percent last year over 2020. Invasions of abortion facilities increased by 129 percent. Assault and batteries increased by 128 percent, and suspicious packages by 163 percent. I did not hear one word from any of you deploring and denouncing those acts of violence, so you have very selective memories.

Congresswoman Jackie Speier, House Oversight Committee

If you don’t listen closely, Jordan’s list can sound more damning than Speier’s because he lists individual examples one by one, while she simply states numbers (although this is also because she had only a five-minute time slot while he got a longer opening statement).

Wrath of Angels

Wrath of Angels goes into that detail, and it is horrifying. In chapters dedicated to specific people and events, Risen and Thomas document how the anti-abortion movement started off copying the sit-ins of the civil rights era and ended with the murders of numerous abortion doctors and clinic employees.

The first character that we meet is the oxymoronic Catholic anti-abortion liberal John O’Keefe, the mostly-forgotten anti-nuclear pacifist who catalyzed the entire movement. I started off wary of O’Keefe, since he was an anti-abortion activist, after all, but by the end of the book, I realized that by comparison, O’Keefe’s work was mere child’s play.

From O’Keefe’s nonviolent movement cropped up less patient players like Michael Bray, who was one of the first to bomb abortion clinics, and Joseph Scheidler, who managed to make violence against clinics more widespread while never putting himself in harm’s way by actually doing it himself.

Operation Rescue

Those familiar with this movement will know that the real star of the show is Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry. Terry began his career as a domestic terrorist in 1984 with his wife Cindy by harassing patients entering Southern Tier Women’s Services in Binghamton, New York. Terry would organize his movement into the anti-abortion behemoth Operation Rescue within two years of his days at Southern Tier.

It is hard to describe in one blog post what I now know about Operation Rescue; in fact, it’s hard to really convey the severity of their actions in words alone. Perhaps better than the entire book, this 11-minute 1991 news video encapsulates just how aggravating, if not dangerous, it can be when hundreds of Operation Rescue activists block clinic entrances.

Of course, what happens at the end of the book is magnitudes worse than protestors shouting in patients’ faces, bombing empty clinics, or harassing people with pictures of dead fetuses. Wrath of Angels tells the stories of the murders of abortion doctors David Gunn, John Britton, and George Tiller and importantly documents how their killers went from normal Christians to radical anti-abortion terrorists.

Christian Nationalism is domestic terrorism

The people in this book serve as crucial reminders that the fight for abortion rights is unequivocally a fight against Christian Nationalism, and it always has been. You can occasionally find anti-abortion activists who aren’t religious or who at least don’t use religion in their arguments, but historically the fight has been fully organized in the name of God. To say that there is no tie between religious fanaticism and the anti-abortion movement is to deny reality.

John O’Keefe took his inspiration directly from Catholic monk Thomas Merton. Michael Bray was a Baptist who converted to fundamentalist Protestantism upon reading works from theologians such as John Calvin and John Knox:

But it was Knox . . . who could convince impressionable readers like Michael Bray to fight with everything at their disposal—tools of politics as well as weapons of war—and that it was appropriate for the godly man to take the law into his own hands, because his hands were the tools of the Lord.

James Risen and Judy Thomas, Wrath of Angels, p. 82

Bray was also inspired into action after reading Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto, and it’s easy to see why. You can draw a direct line from Schaeffer’s works into Bray’s godly bombings:

It is time we consciously realize that when any office commands what is contrary to God’s Law, it abrogates its authority. And our loyalty to the God who gave this law then requires that we make the appropriate response in that situation to such a tyrannical usurping of power. . . . This brings us to a current issue that is crucial for the future of the church in the United States—the issue of abortion. What is involved is the whole issue of the value of human life. . . . This may include doing such things as sit-ins in legislatures and courts, including the Supreme Court, when other constitutional means fail.

Francis Shaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (quoted in Wrath of Angels)

Additionally, Joseph Scheidler was a lifelong Catholic who had very nearly become a Benedictine monk earlier in life. Activist Joan Andrews was also a lifelong Catholic whose prayers led her to take on the role of a martyr by serving an extended prison sentence after refusing to cooperate with authorities following an arrest.

The army of God

At the beginning, the movement relied almost exclusively on churches around the country sending congregants out to march. One associate pastor recalled to Risen and Thomas,

“Everybody was just sort of joining in,” recalls Zepp. “We would have an announcement at church that there would be a march at The Ladies Center, and we would get anywhere from thirty to one hundred people to come out. It was like that in all the churches, word of mouth from individual pastors and people getting involved and encouraging others.”

James Risen and Judy Thomas, Wrath of Angels, p. 82

The clearest tie between religious fanaticism and anti-abortion terrorism is the fact that the overwhelming majority of the characters in Wrath of Angels, including Michael Bray and the murderers of the three aforementioned doctors, were active members of the terrorist organization Army of God. AOG’s prime role in the book was members’ use of its anonymous bomb-making manual which Risen and Thomas are “almost certain” was written by someone arrested during Operation Rescue’s 1988 Siege of Atlanta.

I could go on and on. It is no mere hypothesis that Christian Nationalism has an influence on the anti-abortion movement. They are one and the same. Wrath of Angels is unique because it focuses on the side of the movement that uses physical force to intimidate abortion patients and incapacitate their doctors, but it is only one half of the fight. Better known is the force of politics in the anti-abortion war, popularized by Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority (who funded Operation Rescue) and given power by Ronald Reagan and the Religious Right.

It is still rare to find someone arguing against abortion when they are not motivated principally by faith. Wrath of Angels is just one more piece of evidence that we cannot fight to get our rights back without acknowledging that it is religious fanaticism that has taken them away.

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