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The Gospel According to Randall Terry

For the head of Operation Rescue, abortion isn’t an issue; it’s a crime

Anti-abortion, campaigners, demonstration, National March For Women's Lives

Anti-abortion campaigners stage a counter-demonstration at a National March For Women's Lives in Washington DC, March 9th, 1986.

Barbara Alper/Getty

I feel like we’re in a massive bomber behind enemy lines, and we’re taking some hits. We’ve got damage on both wings. But I’m going to keep flying the plane until it crashes. I just hope to get deep enough into enemy territory and pick up enough ground support to do some damage. Maybe this plane will crash, but others will go on to win the war. –Randall Terry

The combat pilot who rides a bomber to oblivion for the betterment of the whole darn world: That’s just the kind of guy Randall Terry is. Epic, strictly big screen, a doer; the kind of guy who can take hold of a dizzy dame like History and slap her around until that lazy, meandering, good-for-nothin’ brain of hers slips back into line. ‘Til she gets it straight with Truth. With Justice. With God. With Randall Terry.

Sometimes it seems that Terry walked straight out of a Ronald Reagan daydream–one of those embarrassing ”real life” Reagan anecdotes in which the hero inevitably turns out to be made of celluloid. Only unlike some of Reagan’s more selfless creations, Terry, the nation’s premier cape-less crusader against abortion, is clearly a hero for our time.

Forty-eight hours after the U.S. Supreme Court’s July 3rd blow to abortion rights and the ensuing pandemonium, Terry eagerly rattled off to me the list of his recent appearances on the television news as well as on Crossfire and Nightline. ”Did you see any of my sound bites?” he wished to know.

A former vendor of Big Macs, ice-cream cones, gasoline, tires and–yes–used cars, Terry, 30, is the spearhead of Operation Rescue, a militant anti-abortion organization that fuses Christian fervor with 1960s-style civil disobedience to blockade and temporarily shut down abortion clinics across the nation. Terry’s movement, which seems to grow stronger daily, is readying ”the death blow to this whole murder industry,” he says.

Although Terry has a more ambitious, long-range agenda, more or less requiring the burial of American culture as we know it, he says his immediate goal is the passage of a constitutional amendment banning all abortions.

Operation Rescue, which Terry founded in 1987, claims a biblical mandate to ”rescue those who are unjustly sentenced to death.” From its early days, when Terry and a few church friends made trespassing pilgrimages to their local Binghamton, New York, abortion clinic, the organization has grown into a powerful engine of civil protest and a meddlesome source of disruption and division in cities from Los Angeles to Atlanta.

With his dramatic raids on abortion facilities, in which sometimes hundreds of ”rescuers” sit down and blockade clinic doors until the police cart them away, Terry has earned support from legions of hardcore abortion opponents and given the most committed among them a poignant means of expression. More than 30,000 arrests have been made at hundreds of ”rescues” in the past two years. (Terry himself has been arrested dozens of times.)

Local ”rescue” groups, technically unaffiliated with Terry’s organization but clearly bearing the imprint of his message, methods and approval, have sprouted in every state. Terry has been riding high on a wave of frustration nearly two decades in the making. He has managed to translate into action the anger and resentment of millions of Americans who say they cannot morally abide legalized abortion.

”He speaks with passion and compassion, and he’s willing to pay the price himself,” says Operation Rescue press secretary Barbara Magera. ”He’s not afraid of anyone. I think people respond to that.”

Terry, who has an almost Jacksonesque knack for pithy phrases turned with a sort of evangelical jive, has turned his followers’ dejection into zeal. ”By our inaction we have sided with the death industry in America,” he says. ”Rescue missions are the upheaval that will help produce political change.”

Terry’s wave is just beginning to crest. The Supreme Court’s July 3rd ruling in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, which upheld several restrictions on abortion in Missouri, essentially scuttled the concept of abortion as a fundamental right. The high court’s agreement to hear three more abortion cases in its fall term appears to indicate an intent to further undermine abortion rights previously guaranteed by Roe v. Wade and other court decisions.

But a constitutional ban on abortion would require even pro-choice states such as New York and Vermont to succumb unconditionally to anti-abortion fervor. ”I am very excited because of the turmoil and anguish that our enemies are in,” says Terry, reflecting on the ruling. ”But I am mourning for the children who continue to die. I feel like a fireman who comes to a building that’s on fire and there are five children inside. I rescue one, but the other four die in the fire.” Even heroes have bad days. 

***

Civil disobedience was used in an abortion protest at least as long ago as 1975, a year when Terry was more interested in rock & roll, drugs and hanging out with the guys than in crusading against ”child killing.”

Those early protesters were largely of Catholic or Quaker backgrounds, and their politics leaned earnestly toward pacifism and determinedly to the left. They were adherents of what later found voice as the ”seamless garment” doctrine, an idea credited to Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, who espouses a uniformly ”pro-life” stance on issues ranging from abortion to the death penalty and nuclear weapons.

You won’t find a seamless garment hanging in Terry’s closet, however. In his ideal world–where men are men and women serve them well, where there’s a Bible in every hand in every classroom and where America has been ”restored” to its original biblical principles, which, providentially, mirror Terry’s own–you will likely find miscreants dangling in the public square.

Sitting at a picnic table in a park near Operation Rescue’s Binghamton headquarters, his shirt unbuttoned to let the sun drench his bare, white chest, Terry contemplates a pastoral scene of ducks swimming in a stream. Murderers should be publicly hanged, he asserts. Child pornographers merit no less. ”Execute them,” he demands, his mouth gently curving around each syllable. A few moments later, however, the ominous tone recedes from Terry’s voice as he amiably describes himself with neither reservation nor humor as a ”progressive moderate.”

Subtlety is not a Terry characteristic. ”The thing we noticed right away was how much more aggressive he was [than previous protesters],” says Peg Johnston, the administrator of the Binghamton abortion clinic where Terry cut his teeth. ”For instance, I would see him elsewhere in town, at the post office, and he would shout, ‘How many babies did you kill today, Peg?’ and ‘There’s hope for you–Jesus loves you.’ He was willing to do anything. People notice when you start screaming in a public place.”

Terry’s Morton Downey Jr. manners and virulent anti-abortion message are, however, a balm to his followers. And his zeal, the trademark of a successful evangelist, is a source of inspiration and pride. ”There’s a lot of people out there who feel the way I do about the liberal agenda being rammed down our throats by the liberal media for the past 20 years,” Terry says.

Indeed, Terry is presently recognized by two mothers out strolling with their children. ”Are you Randall Terry?” asks one of the women as she approaches him. ”Well, we think you’re doing a great job. We just wanted to tell you.”

Before departing, the other woman also approaches Terry. Pointing to her baby carriage, where a black-haired infant slumbers peacefully, she speaks in a voice laden with emotion. ”We had to get one from Korea because they were killing them in America,” she says, shaking her head. ”God bless you, ladies,” Terry replies. ”I appreciate the encouragement. Hey, stop by 234 Chenango Street if you ever want to help us do a mailing or something. We’d love your help.”

Terry preaches solely to the converted, finding most of his recruits in the kinds of churches where bumper-sticker Christianity reigns. Though many anti-abortion clergymen refuse to support Terry because of his insistence on trespassing and other misdemeanors, Operation Rescue’s leadership network is composed primarily of Evangelical pastors who are willing to lead their congregations into the fight.

A single speaking engagement before an Evangelical congregation–with the endorsement of its pastor–can reap Terry a bus load of volunteers for the next ”rescue.”

”If you think abortion is murder,” Terry repeats time and again, ”then act like it’s murder.”

Operation Rescue is almost entirely white and Christian, and few women have risen to leadership positions, partly due to the reliance on pastors, partly due to the adherence of Terry and his followers to strictly traditional roles. ”It takes leadership that can inspire confidence, and women can do this,” Terry says. ”But most people, men and women included, are more comfortable following men into a highly volatile situation. It’s just human nature. It’s history.”

Terry says there are two women in the top echelon of Operation Rescue’s leadership, but he declines to discuss their roles or even the structure of the organization. That secret is known only by Terry, his accountants, his lawyers and a few trusted aides.

Because of its avowed commitment to breaking the law, Operation Rescue cannot legally function as a not-for-profit institution to which tax-deductible contributions may be made. In fact, in an effort to shield the greatest number of people from liability, the organization is run as a for-profit business with a sole proprietor: Randall Terry.

According to court documents from one of the 17 lawsuits filed against Terry and Operation Rescue thus far, the group took in some $300,000 in donations in the last half of 1988. Terry, court documents show, draws a salary of $30,000. Plaintiff lawyers contend that in an effort to stay one step ahead of his ”enemies,” Terry moves bank accounts from state to state. (According to an informed source, his enemies may soon include the IRS, which has expressed interest in auditing the group’s complex finances.)

Of the checks written to Operation Rescue, Terry cashes only enough to cover immediate expenses–his 15-person payroll, for instance. Thus the bulk of his funds is usually in the form of uncashed checks, which can be destroyed or returned if a lien is placed on the organization’s assets. All of the group’s office equipment, even Terry’s car, is leased or borrowed. If the authorities come to seize Operation Rescue’s assets, says Terry, they will get nothing.

There are currently several judgments outstanding against the organization, largely resulting from its repeated failure to obey court injunctions. All are on appeal. None have been paid. For instance, as a result of its defiance of a court injunction prohibiting ”rescues” in New York City, Operation Rescue was ordered to pay a $50,000 fine to the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other women’s groups, which would then disburse the funds to abortion clinics that have suffered from Operation Rescue blockades.

”That’s like asking the civil-rights people to give $50,000 to the Ku Klux Klan,” says Terry, who vows never to pay. (Terry sees no irony in the fact that while he derides the ”judicial tyranny” of the courts in matters of criminal trespass, he has no qualms about entrusting these same courts with the judicious dispensation of death sentences for pornographers.) 

Terry’s confrontational approach to the law is largely responsible for the distance most mainstream anti-abortion groups place between themselves and Operation Rescue. The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), by far the most prominent anti-abortion organization, has labored patiently through the legislative process and has little enthusiasm for Terry’s antics. ”I wouldn’t say we’re supportive [of Operation Rescue], and I wouldn’t say that we’re negative,” says NRLC president John Willke. ”We’re just not a part of it.” 

Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, an abortion opponent who writes frequently on the topic, says, ”[The NRLC] is very meticulous in avoiding the kind of stuff that Operation Rescue does.”

Ironically, given the volatile, emotional nature of Terry’s crusade, his activism springs as much from one stark logical deduction as from the sum of his reactionary yearnings. It is not outlandish to believe, as Terry does, that human life begins at conception. Nor is it uncommon to view abortion as akin to murder; indeed, despite the fact that a majority of Americans support a woman’s right to choose abortion. According to a Los Angeles Times national survey, 57 percent of the nation says abortion is murder.

What distinguishes Terry from the millions of Americans who passively oppose abortion is a deceptively modest leap of imagination: ”If you think abortion is murder,” Terry repeats time and again, ”then act like it’s murder.” Inherent in this call to arms is the understanding that those whose primary response to the abortion ”holocaust” has been to lob telegrams at Congress are guilty of the most egregious hypocrisy.

”If your child or my child were in danger, we would physically intervene, with violence, if necessary, or–I should say–force,” Terry told an audience of supporters. ”If abortion is murder,” he asks, ”then why are you people being so nice?”

***

Stomping through Operation Rescue’s worn storefront office, dressed in soiled high-top sneakers, the better part of his shirttail hanging out, Randall Terry does not exactly cast an image of sophisticated leadership–or even of maturity.

Nearly everything about Terry seems adolescent. His quirky, wrinkled intelligence has been only slightly pressed by education; his youthful zeal races virtually unchecked. Life, for Terry, has all the complexity of a high-school football game, and the sides are as neatly drawn.

Like the kamikaze pilot on his last run, Terry seems to infuse every second with drama. He has a habit of making an emotion-tight fist and dramatically raising it to his face when he feels particularly inspired by his thoughts, in the way a teenage boy might express the bliss induced by an awesomely noisy batch of heavy metal.

His vocabulary sports an array of in-group slang–terms like abortuary–to set off his gang from the rivals over at Planned Parenthood (and delegitimize everything tied to the ”proaborts”). Even his ”rescues” are organized like a boy’s war fantasy, embellished with ”covert” and ”intelligence” operations and requiring the stealthy maneuver of ”troops,” the use of walkie-talkies and a solemn chain of command. (”Rescues” are always surprise attacks, with only the leaders knowing for sure which clinic is the target. This delays the response of the clinic and counter-demonstrators.)

As if all this weren’t sufficient to make Terry seem like a character out of some Evangelical Porky’s movie, smack in the middle of an interview for this article, he committed the consummate teen transgression: He farted.

The son of two Rochester, New York, public school teachers of fairly secular bent, Terry seems to have lived a routinely suburban childhood, playing games in the fields behind the tract-housing development in which his family lived or swimming in the family pool. He pointedly alludes to his teenage habits of smoking pot and playing rock music in a neighborhood garage band, almost as if to revel momentarily in the sin he has so fully expunged. (Terry still plays rock — the Christian kind – and has even produced his own tape.) Asked if he ever engaged in premarital sex, Terry responds, ”Well, I was a product of my times. I was delivered from the whole rock & roll culture.”

Shortly before his high-school graduation, Terry, seemingly for no reason, dropped out of school. Soon after, he embarked on a four-month trip with a friend whose name he recalls only as Don, hitchhiking through the Midwest and on to Galveston, Texas. Terry was a half-baked teenage dharma bum groping for salvation on the road–or at least an end to boredom. ”While we were high, we would talk about God,” he recalls. ”When we met new people, we would try and talk to them about it. We had some wild conversations.”

After Terry returned home to Rochester, his gradual religious conversion intensified. Ultimately, he peeled out on full-throttle, born-again Christianity, kneeling in prayer one afternoon on a roadside. ”I just cried out to God, ‘God, Jesus, I’m a sinner. Please forgive me. I don’t want to go to hell. Take my life,”’ Terry remembers. ”And it was like a ton of bricks taken off my shoulders. I mean, the presence of God just enveloped me. I knew that I was forgiven.” Later, he says, he phoned home to share the good news. ”I called my mom, I said, ‘Mom, I’m saved,”’ says Terry. ”She said, ‘Saved from what?”’

It’s unclear which was the greater rebellion: Terry’s telling his schoolteacher parents he wasn’t going to graduate or his informing his irreligious family that he had become a holy-rolling Christian. In both cases, Terry set out for uncharted territory. Though Terry says he has a good relationship with his parents and his brother, the roots of evangelicalism do not appear to run deep beneath the family tree. (One of Terry’s maternal aunts, Dawn Marvin, is a former communications director for Planned Parenthood in Rochester and an adamant supporter of abortion rights.)

Forgoing further secular education, Terry entered Elim Bible Institute, in Lima, New York, about 20 miles south of Rochester. The school, housed in the quaint brick buildings of an early 19th century Wesleyan seminary, serves as both a training ground for missionaries and a matchmaking pool for young Evangelicals. ”Ring by spring or your money back” is the joke passed among Elim’s unmarried female students.

While at Elim, Terry set his sights on mission work, learning Spanish and traveling to Central America in preparation for a ministry in the region. He graduated from Bible school in 1981 and married his wife, Cindy, whom he had met at church, and the couple moved to Binghamton. Terry says they intended to move to Mexico until 1983, ”when God interrupted our lives.”

At about that time, Terry began contemplating and praying about abortion. He talked with his fellow churchgoers about it. He spoke to his pastor about it. And, eventually, he decided to do something about it. It was at first a very lonely campaign, with Terry, who was selling tires at the time, standing alone in front of the local abortion clinic, aggressively attempting to dissuade clients from entering. ”He wasn’t satisfied until a patient was reduced to tears,” says the clinic’s Peg Johnston.

”The first month I was there alone on my lunch hours and my days off, and then [my wife] joined me,” Terry says. ”Then my wife went out there full time, 40 hours a week for like four months, which was an incredible display of stamina. Finally what happened was the abortion mill started to get these –what we call ‘death-scorts.’ They called themselves ‘escorts.’ They were jumping in front of my wife and trying to trip her and [being] really obnoxious. And the people of our church rallied, made a whole bunch of pickets and came down and started standing with us. And that’s how things really started to get off the ground.”

One pregnant woman, whom the Terrys persuaded to bring her pregnancy to term, was unable to cope with the newborn, her third child. The Terrys took both the infant and the woman’s older children, all fathered by different men, into their home, where they are being raised alongside the Terrys’ own daughter. On his resumé, Terry conspicuously lists ”Children: One by birth and three black foster children.” (The foster children, whose mother is white, are all of mixed race.)

Terry says he talked to antiabortion activists in other cities and adopted some of their tactics. He also read Coretta Scott King’s memoir of her life with Martin Luther King Jr. ”That really solidified in my mind the peripheral benefits of nonviolent direct action,” says Terry.

While civil disobedience was familiar territory to the relatively few anti-abortion activists with pacifist backgrounds, it was completely alien to the conservative Evangelical mindset from which Terry drew his convictions. Terry believes in the inerrancy of Scripture, which is to say he interprets the Bible as the literal truth. Although like-minded Evangelicals and fundamentalists have become increasingly involved in the political process in recent years, social activism on the scale of civil disobedience was virtually unheard of in such circles until the dawn of Operation Rescue.

***

Terry first took his ”rescues” on the road in November 1987, with a trial raid on a clinic in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Then he focused on an ambitious plan to attack abortion in its stone-cold heart: the headquarters of NOW, Planned Parenthood and countless other ”enemies” in New York City.

The fact that New York, perhaps not coincidentally, was also the capital of the ”liberal media” made the location all the more enticing. Bus loads of antiabortion demonstrators converged on New York in the first week of May 1988. The demonstration was a brilliant success. Roughly 1,600 protesters, including many clergymen, were arrested as they squatted in front of clinic doors, barring entry and refusing to move.

A July 4th ”rescue” in Philadelphia followed, and then, heartened by the growing strength of the movement, Terry decided to attack Atlanta during the Democratic National Convention. Atlanta, inundated with reporters covering the convention, became a giant soapbox for Terry and his cause.

”The Siege of Atlanta” continued for weeks, and thousands joined it. Many of those arrested identified themselves to the police only as Baby Doe, complicating booking. The publicity opened a spigot of financial contributions, as well, including a $10,000 check from Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.

Terry’s victory in Atlanta was also symbolic: Having adopted King’s nonviolent tactics and grounded them–as King did–in the Gospels, Terry’s success on King’s home turf must have seemed a vindication of the struggle. As his movement of committed, nonviolent social protest has burgeoned, Terry has often heard supporters compare him to King. ”I try to discourage it,” says Terry, a veil of modesty stretched tautly over his expansive ego.

Moments later, however, Terry has the temerity to explain that his proper place will be a matter determined by history. ”The applause or contempt of contemporaries means very little,” he adds with a flourish.

Like King, Terry has made jail time a badge of honor in the movement, and he has spent weeks behind bars himself. He has written extensively from jail; not with the eloquence of King’s ”Letter from Birmingham Jail,” but certainly with its same sense of urgency. And there is no question that he inspires his followers to sacrifice. ”There were enormous risks” taken during the civil-rights struggle, says Ann Baker, an abortion-rights activist who tracks Operation Rescue demonstrations. ”There’s no risk involved in [Operation Rescue], no physical, life-threatening risks.”

Certainly, Terry’s lily-white followers will never experience the fate of black protesters sequestered for a night in a jail run by members of the Ku Klux Klan. But bones have been broken, employment jeopardized and fundamental beliefs in law and order put to the torch of Operation Rescue’s militancy. Carrying a picket or blockading a doorway is a radicalizing event for the thousands of conservative Christians who follow Terry’s lead. Being dragged by the neck to a paddy wagon is an epiphany.

Still, the comparisons to King, whom Terry refers to as a ”mentor”–as if he had somehow been called to discipleship by more intimate means than a secondhand memoir and a couple of reprinted sermons–are grotesquely distended. Terry’s activism owes more to the standard rites of Evangelical revivalism than to any considered study of the civil-rights movement. His intellectual and spiritual heritage is evident not in the brooding self-doubt, political maturity and physical and moral courage of King but in those old-time, Bible-thumping revivalists who shared Terry’s comfort in knowing all of life’s answers without condescending to ponder its questions.

”I would rather have zeal without knowledge,” said the great 19th-century evangelist Dwight Moody, whom Terry cited in his book Operation Rescue as a particularly inspiring hero. In one conversation, Terry referred to himself as a ”visionary.”

Though he owes his organization’s success to the passions aroused by a single issue–abortion–Terry, as might be expected of such an ambitious young man, has already begun looking down the road. In an Operation Rescue training audiotape, Terry assures his listeners that ”rescuing America from the path of destruction it’s on” is his ultimate goal. ”The future of America…will depend…in part upon the rescue movement,” he announces. ”If we do not bring this nation back to moral sanity through rescues, through upheaval, through repentance, then America is not going to make it.”

Terry hopes to fashion his anti-abortion shock troops into an organized political force for the state-by-state legislative battles that lie ahead. ”We are launching a whole political wing,” Terry says. ”We have thousands of people who have risked their freedom, had their arms broken [being arrested]. For them to work a precinct to get a prolife official elected is a piece of cake. We have an army of people.”

Terry has a kind of domino theory about the product of his labors. He fully expects to achieve a comprehensive ban on abortion within the next decade. ”Child killing will fall, child pornography and pornography will follow, euthanasia, infanticide–we’ll totally reform the public-education system,” he says, his mind racing ahead of his fingers as he taps the death knell of each travesty. Eradicating legal abortion will set in motion a political and cultural reformation in which, he says, ”we will take back the culture.”

That’s a tall order. Especially for a leader whose movement has yet to corral even the 10 percent of Americans that agree with him that all abortions should be outlawed. But Terry is a progressive moderate with a mission, and self-confidence is not in short supply.

Sitting in a booth in a cruddy Chinese restaurant in Binghamton, having blessed and then devastated the plate of food before him, Terry reaches for a fortune cookie to seal the repast. ”’It would be wise to cut expectations in half,”’ he reads aloud. ”Humph, that’s a good one.”

In This Article: Abortion, Coverwall

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