Uncivil Religion And a Doctor's Death

ONE of the saddest aspects of the assassination of Dr. John Britton of the Pensacola, Fla., Ladies Center this month is the alleged assassin's use of religion to justify such acts. John Barrett, his escort was also killed.

Paul Hill, a former minister who was indicted on two counts of first-degree murder on Tuesday, is part of an extremist group of Roman Catholics and Protestants who advocate a ``new theology'' of ``justifiable homicide'' as a way of stopping abortion. Politicians (including President Clinton and his staff) and judges who are pro-choice are considered legitimate targets to be hunted ``as vermin.''

Hill is no John Brown

Sadly, this group and other sympathizers in the anti-abortion movement compare Mr. Hill to John Brown, the fiery anti-slavery Kansan whose martyrdom at Harper's Ferry in 1860 helped touch off the Civil War. These groups feel a cultural civil war is shaping over abortion.

Most sensible people know that using immoral means - murder - in search of moral ends is antithetical to the message preached by nearly all Christians. Rather than being a ``new theology,'' this seems more a failure of theology - one confirming the views of those already biased against religion, while undercutting the earnest, often intelligent concern of those good people who feel, on moral grounds, that abortion is wrong.

Churches and religions in America are vital in maintaining a civil society, as author Stephen Carter has noted in his book ``The Culture of Disbelief.'' They exist separately from the state and provide ground on which to inform as well as to disagree. Yet hate rhetoric and acts of terror in the name of religion will not enrich that ground but will impoverish it. While so far ``only'' two doctors have been murdered in recent years, and by a small group, the climate for such violence is already too prevalent. It is ironic that the very kinds of breakdown in civil society and moral discourse that Dr. Carter also laments in his book may itself feed a theology of hate and extremism - stopping abortion ``by any means necessary.'' Such an attitude will bring not a healthy resolution, but polarization and strife.

Of course, a civil war over abortion is what some would like. Even so, Hill is not an heir to John Brown's legacy. Brown was a zealot, but Harper's Ferry was an effort to liberate slaves, not assassinate pro-slavery politicians. Hill, by contrast, allegedly waited in the bushes, shot three people in cold blood, and ran away.

Add to this that Brown had support among some of the finest intellects of the day, including Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Today, no significant thinkers we know of argue to end abortion via homicide. Most anti-abortionists abhor the idea.

For some, the question is simply how to protect doctors. This is hardly enough. A sector of society believes life begins at conception and that 1.5 million unborn are murdered each year. Others feel that the opportunity to choose an abortion during the first trimester is a matter of reproductive rights.

It is possible to wholeheartedly adhere at an individual level to the moral and spiritual teachings of the Bible, yet also support, at this time and at a constitutional and public level, a woman's right to choose. There is an inner logic to scriptural teachings of purity, moral behavior, and family that, were they accepted through education and understanding, would make abortions largely unnecessary. We advocate this stand.

However, we also recognize that many in society are not yet ready to accept the authority or implications of such teaching. Roe v. Wade was an affirmative step for women's rights, but it also was a recognition of enormous changes brought by modernization in America - secularization, urbanization, the breakdown of traditional community and family, and of the many women who, despite all strictures, felt they had to endure unsafe and demeaning procedures rather than have a child.

Yet many wonder whether Roe has removed a moral questioning of abortion, making it simply another form of birth control. It must not be seen this way. At this point, we can't imagine a return to a federal ban. The problems that lead women to seek abortion remain unresolved.

Dangerous divides

To avoid dangerous divides, more awareness of deeply felt views is needed. Killing people in a ``holy war'' and in the name of God doesn't forward this cause.

The self-discipline that promotes purity and moral behavior is the same self-discipline that prevents murder. As this newspaper said at the time of the Roe v. Wade decision, nothing ``can ever take the place of the discipline and self-control that come from an understanding of man's relationship to his divine source, and from love and respect for the good, pure, and noble in one's self and in one's neighbor.''

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