With his distinctive New York accent, a style of dress more befitting of a Wall Street banker than a minister, and a relaxed demeanor–even opponents describe him as friendly and likable–Schenck is not the type you’d expect to find in a revival tent or on a pulpit. Indeed, he was raised in a liberal, secular household by Reform Jewish parents, and only converted to Christianity when he was 17. When I dropped by to visit with him in August, Schenck had just returned from Montgomery, Ala., where he organized daily rallies outside the state’s supreme court building to protest the removal of Chief Justice Roy Moore’s own monument–a 5,300-pound monolith carved from granite–to the Ten Commandments. And though Moore’s monument was carted away, Schenck told me, by successfully directing the media spotlight on the removal and Moore’s subsequent suspension, the protest was “an enormous success.” Moore has become a martyr to a mounting coalition of conservative religious groups “incensed” by the debacle, says Schenck, who spent months planning for the rallies. Now, a sleeping elephant has awoken–and Schenck hopes to precipitate a stampede.
The Moore protests signal the beginning of a new day for religious conservatives. Until recently, the movement was in decline, with organizations like the Christian Coalition bleeding members and contributions. But with born-again Christians in the Oval Office and leadership positions in Congress, and a hard-right Pentecostal heading the Justice Department, religious conservatives have more access to the corridors of power than they have had in a decade. And recent setbacks–like the Supreme Court’s sodomy ruling and Canada’s legalization of gay marriage–have served to energize their ranks.
That rising tide is lifting even the boats of people like Schenck, who in his beliefs and actions has long been on the outer edge of the Christian right. As a leader of the radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, Schenck was regarded as something of an embarrassment even by other religious conservatives. Now Schenck is counting on issues like the Ten Commandments to build his clout and respectability.
The National Clergy Council has nothing like the Beltway muscle of, say, James Dobson’s Family Research Council. But its members lead a particularly vocal and energized minority among religious conservatives: those who favor the substitution of Biblical literalism for civil law. Fittingly, the most visible manifestation of Schenck’s influence are the small, polished stone plaques, inscribed with the Ten Commandments, that he has distributed to more than 400 politicians in Washington and across the country. They include Rep. Tom Delay (R-Texas)–“His response was extremely positive”–Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Bush’s “Ambassador for Religious Liberty,” John V. Hanford, who hand-delivered Schenck’s plaque to the president. Schenck asks those who accept the plaque to “display it and obey it,” suggesting that in their acceptance, they pledge to work toward a government rooted in Mosaic moral law and “Judeo-Christian ethics.” And with so many lawmakers already displaying their plaques, Schenck is optimistic that as his new movement increases its activity and gathers support, his influence in Washington will help release a wave of Christian fervor upon the seats of power nationwide. “We have the president, both leaders of Congress, Hastert and Delay, all of whom share what I would call an orthodox Christian worldview. All of them display the Ten Commandments,” he told me. “That’s something we dare not take lightly.”
As a young man studying at the Elim Bible Institute in Lima, N.Y., in the early 1980’s, Schenck was introduced to political activism through the teachings of Francis Schaeffer, a theologian credited with mobilizing evangelical action against abortion. His best-selling 1980 book, A Christian Manifesto, advocated abortion protest as a means to undermine the credibility of a secular law. “Schaeffer showed us [evangelicals] that these Biblical truths apply to all of culture and society,” Schenck explained. “He taught us the responsibility–and I use this very guardedly–to enforce those truths in the sense that we should be confident enough about them to know that they are good for us and other people…. Ultimately, this should be reflected in the highest law of the land.” During the early 1990s, Schenck put those ideas into practice. He was arrested a dozen times during protests outside women’s health clinics and abortion doctors’ homes, and is renowned for outrageous publicity stunts, including dangling an aborted fetus in Bill Clinton’s face outside the 1992 Democratic National Convention. With former Elim classmate Randall Terry, Schenck helped start Operation Rescue, a hardline anti-abortion group that embraced “direct action” in an effort to shut down reproductive health clinics and prevent doctors from practicing abortion.
Meanwhile, Schenck was making inroads into Washington. He had first met John Ashcroft during the 1980s, while taking part in a fellowship at a Pentecostal church outside Buffalo; the two reconnected in 1994, when Ashcroft moved to Washington to serve as the junior senator from Missouri. Meeting at Ashcroft’s home, a small apartment above a garage on Capitol Hill, the two would sing hymns and pray for the country with a small group of other ministers. A year later, Schenck “planted,” as he puts it, the National Community Church, a charismatic Pentecostal congregation, in order to “reach out to the subculture on Capitol Hill.” Beginning, Schenck recalls, in a dilapidated building in a crime-ridden neighborhood of Southeast Washington, lack of air conditioning during the capital’s notoriously sultry summers prompted the congregation’s relocation to an even more unorthodox location–the AMC movie theatre in Washington’s Union Station. The congregation soon came to include Ashcroft and his family, as well as a number of congressional staffers.
But just as Schenck’s star was rising in Washington, some Operation Rescue members decided to take their direct action to the next level. In 1998, while cooking dinner for his wife and four children, Barnett Slepian–an abortion doctor whose home had been the site of protests by Schenck and his followers years before–was shot to death through his kitchen window by James Kopp, a former student of Schaeffer’s and a volunteer at Operation Rescue’s Binghamton, N.Y., office. Slepian’s assassination became a public relations disaster for the organizations, and even though Schenck denounced the killing, the organization’s more extremist members insisted that it was justified. When Schenck placed flowers at the doorstep of Slepian’s office, they were returned abruptly by his infuriated wife along with a letter–later made public–that read, “It’s your ‘passive’ following that incited the violence that killed Bart [Barnett Slepian] and took away both my and my children’s future.” By the end of Clinton’s second term, the organization had spiraled into oblivion as militant factions seized the reins of the movement, leaving it shrunken and spent. Schenck is still haunted by the memory of Slepian’s murder. “My brother and I felt very badly about the shooting that occurred in the wake of the massive pro-life demonstrations,” he said. “We asked ourselves–where did we go wrong in communicating truth?”
Such communication became much easier in 2001, however, after George W. Bush won back the White House. Today, conservative Republicans control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and Schenck has gone from an outsider to part of the establishment. In the past, he used the National Clergy Council as a surrogate funding mechanism for Operation Rescue; today, it’s his platform to lobby for legislation like the Ten Commandments Defense Act, a bill introduced on the House floor this May to permit the commandments’ display on state-owned property. And when it comes to the abortion debate, he’s counting on his longtime acquaintance and occasional prayer-partner Ashcroft, who once waved a sonogram of his granddaughter’s fetus on the Senate floor during a fiery speech against abortion, and now occupies the nation’s highest law-enforcement office. Ashcroft continues to attend services at the National Community Church, though Schenck worries that, as attorney general, he may be tempted to stray from the flock. “Lately, [Ashcroft] has said that he will uphold the laws as interpreted by the Supreme Court, which means defending Roe v. Wade,” Schenck observed gravely. “To be honest, I think John Ashcroft is in conflict with his conscience.”
Schenck is also on a “massive mission” to rally support for a constitutional amendment, sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), that would ban gay marriage. Santorum–who in a May commencement speech urged grads of Christendom College to “be a radical, be a rebel, to rebel against the popular culture”–is a close associate of Schenck, serving with him on the board of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, a conservative think tank. Santorum was instrumental in advancing recent legislation to ban late-term abortions, legislation which was signed into law this year–a dream come true for Schenck, who was so upset by Clinton’s veto of a similar bill in 1996 that he confronted the president during a Christmas Eve service at the National Cathedral and whispered in his ear, “God will hold you to ac-count, Mr. President.” (He was then removed from the chapel and interrogated by Secret Service agents.)
He takes a different view, however, of the current president, believing that his own ongoing struggle to usher in a new era of overt religious commitment in American government hinges upon Bush’s political future. “We are literally at a crisis point. Things could go much further toward religious conservatism, which we’d like to see. Or there could be a reactionary development where it goes decidedly opposite of that, to a restless secularism. It all comes down to the next election.”