An intimate history of Buffalo’s abortion wars neglects reason’s role in the faith of a killer.

By Jeff Sharlet

(First published in the March/April issue of Columbia Journalism Review)

Absolute Convictions
My Father, a City, and the Conflict That Divided America

by Eyal Press
Henry Holt. 292 pp. $25

Absolute Convictions begins with a murder, that of the abortion provider Dr. Barnett Slepian, on October 23, 1998, and ends with an earnest plea for civility. “In the long run of history,” Eyal Press writes, quoting from an anticommunist speech given by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1961, “ ‘immoral destructive means cannot bring about moral and constructive ends.’ ” Exactly, one can imagine Slepian’s killer saying. That’s why abortion must stop. One of the ironies lost on too many observers of right-wing politics is that Christian conservatives consider King their model, his appeal to “moral clarity,” as Christian Right heavy Rod Parsley puts it, serving as one of their justifications for seizing power.

Press, however, polishes up King’s words to make them an endorsement of reason rather than spiritual force, as if King beat Bull Connor by convincing the sheriff that he was wrong. “Words and principled action,” writes Press, “not bullets or bombs” are the “only method with the true power to persuade.” Perhaps. But matters of ultimate concern often drive true believers to the conclusion that compulsion, not persuasion, is sometimes an obligation. In Absolute Convictions, Press attempts to tell the story of that sentiment and the actions it spawned — most notably the murder of Barnett Slepian by an antiabortion activist — in Press’s hometown of Buffalo, New York.

Press should be the ideal writer for the job. A talented investigative reporter who has published in The Atlantic, Mother Jones, and The Nation, he’s also the son of another abortion provider targeted for assassination, Dr. Shalom Press, a former colleague of Slepian’s. A deeply ethical journalist, Press is deliberately transparent in his sympathy with the abortion-rights “side” of the “the conflict that divided America,” as well as scrupulous in his attempts to represent fairly the motivations of those who describe themselves as “pro-life” — even those who accept killing as an acceptable method in their advocacy of that position.

That balance, however, nearly obscures the animating forces of his story. Plotted on a neat narrative line from murder to nonviolence, Press’s account is nonetheless framed by rawer emotions, neither lofty nor easily dismissed: his fear for the life of his father, and the belief, held by millions, including the anti-abortion activists who swarmed the Buffalo of Press’s youth, that abortion has turned the United States into the site of a holocaust even worse than the one that Press’s maternal Jewish grandparents survived.

And yet, even with such sturm und drang as its subject, the story Press tells lacks drama. In lieu of narrative complexity, it depends on the reader’s good faith that “fundamentalism” results purely from a small-brained constriction of vision. When, late in the book, we finally meet Slepian’s killer, James Kopp, Press explains him away in a few pages with the theories of Kathleen Puckett, a former FBI profiler who dumps Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, and abortion-clinic bombers in the same dirty barrel and decrees that their problem, in essence, was that they couldn’t get laid. “A striking aspect of the lives of the men Puckett examined,” writes Press, “was the frustration and powerlessness most felt in the presence of women.”

Such thin description is beneath a careful reporter such as Press, but when it comes to exploring the stuff of his title — convictions — he too often defers unnecessarily to hokumpeddlers like Puckett. Kopp, Press writes, was a shy child who grew into a shy man unable to “sustain the intimate relationships” that would, apparently, have immunized him from “ideology” — used here as a synonym for extremism. Betrayed as a boy by an adulterous father who wrecked his family, Kopp naturally concluded that “the world was a profoundly broken place . . . where the line separating the sacred and the profane was clear.”

Forget the fact that activist Christians don’t need broken homes in their past to believe the world is fallen, one of the most basic tenets of the faith. What’s confusing is Press’s contention that fervent belief draws stark lines between the sacred and the profane. More often, and certainly in Kopp’s case, such belief greatly expands the empire of the sacred, placing the profane within its borders and thus under its jurisdiction.

That’s what Francis Schaeffer, the late “guru” of American Christian conservatism’s 1970s revival, called a “worldview.” For Schaeffer, “worldview” didn’t denote a perspective so much as a position from which to launch a crusade. He did so with a series of erudite books written to spur evangelicals out of their self-imposed isolation and into the political sphere. The lever he pulled to make that happen was abortion, an issue of such moral obviousness, he decreed, that it imposed on Christians “not only the right, but the duty to disobey the state.”

Press reports that Schaeffer’s work was an inspiration to Kopp, who once made a pilgrimage to Schaeffer’s Swiss mountain retreat. But Press lets the connection fizzle, reducing Schaeffer’s influence on Christian conservatism — arguably greater than that of any intellectual in the last forty years — to Kopp’s willingness to take up arms. Schaeffer’s ambitions were much grander. He sketched a philosophy of politics in which the actions of men such as Kopp were nothing but ground-clearing, preparation for a complex vision that wasn’t so much theocratic as “theocentric,” a government ruled not by clergy but by ordinary people who view everything through the lens of God. Because this lens purportedly enables not just the best and the brightest but anyone to govern, the Christian Right believes itself to be radically democratic. It’s a populist justification for the elitism by which the movement’s most militant members believe they’re called for special heroics, such as shooting an abortion provider.

Press limits Schaeffer to the fringe of both the evangelical movement and his analysis of it. He instead leans on the conservative contrarian Andrew Sullivan for his theology, quoting with approval Sullivan’s self-satisfied declaration that the religious wars of our time are not those of one faith against another but of “fundamentalism against faiths of all kinds that are at peace with freedom and modernity.” This proposition sets religious beliefs on a shaky timeline. Good religion is modern, a faith for the future; bad religion is from the past. Such a formulation ignores the obvious fact that both coexist in the present.

There’s something about religion that seems to incite otherwise excellent journalists to use the kind of truisms they’d scorn were they offered up by a politician. Consider what is perhaps Press’s most wayward digression: his suggestion of a cosmic resonance between the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the abortion conflict in America. Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, and Paul Hill, the murderer of an abortion provider in Florida, “were not isolated crackpots,” he writes, “they were products of the militant strains of piety that took root within their respective subcultures. In these radical pockets of pure belief, the logic of violence flowed from a set of absolutes.”

Press’s recourse to a “logic of violence” — that the piety of the killers is identical — to explain political murders is not unlike the thinking that equates abortion with the Holocaust — which, if believed, really might justify the killing of Barnett Slepian. Such logic, in fact, doesn’t flow from any set of absolutes, and it is not an adequate explanation for why Kopp killed Slepian or Amir murdered Rabin because it ignores the nuances of history. When one considers the totality of why extremists decide to kill in the name of religion, the circumstances, and the motives of the killers end up being very different.

To be fair, Press introduces this idea through the story of his father. But Dr. Press, we learn repeatedly, is not given to subtle thinking. When Press asks him why he began offering abortions, “he flashed me a look that suggested he’d never really thought about it before.” Even after protesters started targeting his practice in 1985 with picket lines, raucous sit-ins, and noisy protests outside the Press home, Press’s father “didn’t consider the political implications at all.” He believed in “moderation,” Press tells us, and was suspicious of “extremism.”

Press devotes much attention to his father’s biography, but instead of making Absolute Convictions more personal, this focus puts a vacuum at the book’s core. Press seems mystified by his father, reduced by the man’s reticence to interviewing former employees who can do no more than confirm that “he wasn’t the chattiest person in the office.” But even had Shalom Press been more expansive, he still wouldn’t have been the heart of this story. Its pulse is not the abortion providers, who were simply doing their job (“It was work,” Dr. Press tries to explain to his son), but the activists who discovered that doctors were the “weak links” in the system.

Press remains too committed to the false dichotomy of reason and religion to explore the ways in which activists used the former to benefit the latter. As a result, his portrait of the Rev. Rob Schenck, a brilliant and eccentric man who helped lead the anti-abortion movement in Buffalo, makes this deeply conflicted, even paradoxical character nothing more than a source of data, an informant. His profile of Marilynn Buckham, meanwhile, an abortion provider whose dedication to the cause is more politicized than Press’s father’s, is better because she arrives at her position by a route that Press recognizes. And his sketch of Karen Swallow Prior, an anti-abortion activist who’s also an academic and thus capable of speaking in terms with which Press is more comfortable, is compelling, if too brief.

***

Although its history of antiabortion activism and violence is hindered by Press’s faith in balance, Absolute Convictions remains a useful book, especially in its depiction of the struggle over abortion as a series of intensely local battles rather than a political war of words in Washington. Press is most insightful when he examines his home turf through a historical telescope, charting the decline of the city’s once-strong labor community and the subsequent rise of a politician named Jimmy Griffin, “a former grain scooper who knocked back his share of beers and rarely minced words. ‘I’m just like one of you,’ he would tell his supporters, and you didn’t have to ask what color skin (white), religion (Catholic), or ethnicity (Irish) this implied.” Press’s capsule history of Griffin’s career and the convergence of deindustrialization, racial tension, and the long-term revival of religious sentiment in America is perceptive and valuable, a contribution to our understanding of the evolution of the “Reagan Democrat,” a species more responsible for the development of anti-abortion politics in America than any Republicans of that era.

Griffin was a Democrat, but in 1977 he ran for mayor of Buffalo on the Conservative Party line and beat a popular black politician who supported abortion rights and whose Democratic nomination once would have guaranteed him the mayoralty. In 1982, Griffin declared the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision “Right-to-Life Day.” Later he welcomed to Buffalo the militant anti- abortion group Operation Rescue. In many regards a competent mayor, Griffin faced the impossible task of saving Buffalo from federal policies that were, even before Reagan, heavily weighted against urban cores, much less blue-collar, industrial cities. In lieu of jobs, Griffin offered moral indignation, directed less at the causes of Buffalo’s economic demise than at the practice that he insisted was destroying the last purely good thing many Buffaloans could imagine — babies.

That’s not false consciousness, however. It’s a “worldview.” A dangerous one, perhaps, but not the simple substitution of “moral values” for material concerns. Press attempts from the beginning to avoid that analytical pitfall, but his narrow view of religion prevents him from doing so when he moves from men such as Griffin to those like James Kopp. Wrestling with the theologies, plural, that produce killers such as Kopp requires that we not pathologize people like him but examine them with as much nuance as Press brings to his portrait of Griffin. It’s not enough to note, as Press does, that Kopp’s thinking was coherent within its own crazy confines. Rather, as reporters we must mix material analysis with religious imagination. We must inhabit, for at least a moment, the souls as well as the minds of killers.

Jeff Sharlet, editor of The Revealer, teaches journalism and religious studies at New York University. This review is re-published here with the permission of Columbia Journalism Review.