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Dog, pony and ass marching to Columbus to "Save America"

Mike Doughney and Lauren Sabina Kneisly

From The Columbus Free Press, July 2004

Operation Save America flag display in Wichita, July 2001 - Explain

Vigilante enforcers of the so-called "culture war" will be targeting the city of Columbus this summer. Operation Save America, the organization that once called itself Operation Rescue and was infamous for its actions targeting abortion clinics, has named Columbus as the target of its week-long national event beginning July 17.

Led by Flip Benham, his loosely-organized band of a few hundred Christian activists from all over the country, who ultimately believe that their version of "God's law" trumps over two hundred years of American secular legal tradition, brought its yearly national event to Dayton seven years ago. Teaming up with local anti-abortion activists there, they attempted to disrupt operations at three women's clinics there and in Cincinnati, resulting in four arrests, the ire of residents living in nearby neighborhoods, and ultimately, a stalemated Federal civil case against the organizers. They also held a theatrical performance in the middle of downtown Dayton that they called a "memorial service" for what they alleged were fetal remains.

This time, Benham and a few of his faithful band have been walking since March, from California to Washington, DC, with a donkey and white horse in tow, along with a broken Ten Commandments prop, a miniature casket, and of course, a dog. The meaning of this odd procession is probably lost on most bystanders, but for Benham and his crew, it is in fact something of an ultimatum: surrender to their broad demands for change and compliance with their peculiar interpretation of the Bible, in a grace period symbolized by an imaginary, merciful Jesus on the donkey, or face the wrath of their God, as symbolized by the militant, muscular, and equally mythical image of Christ with a sword mounted on the white horse.

Flip Benham in Wichita, July 2001

This traveling "living parable" of "God's judgment" carries a deliberately ambiguous message among those who make any sense of it at all, as does much of the rhetoric that Benham has spouted over more than a decade as the leader of Operation Save America. Will the entire country, including they themselves as believers, be the target of such "judgment," or only those who they compulsively label as "evildoers?" It's this fuzzy thinking that makes their self-appointed roles as bearers of a message they themselves interpreted and marketed suspect. Are they only working to see to it that people convert to their way of thinking? Or, to avoid liability for what others do, and other's business into which they must insert their nose, is their actual function is to incite onlookers to take vigilante action against those they name as "evildoers" to avoid retribution as the result of their own inaction?

It's with this knowledge of this particular brand of modern-day theology that OSA's plans for Columbus, and the sympathy if not outright participation of some Central Ohio churches and religious organizations, should be viewed, as it's a theology whose influence today runs from the street all the way to the Oval Office.

One of the early organizing meetings held to promote this summer's OSA event was held at the Potter's House Church of God in Columbus in late March. Minutemen United, a group founded by former London public high school football coach Dave Daubenmire, promoted this meeting of about one hundred people at which a pastor of Potter's House and its seniors' choir were active participants. A longtime participant in OSA's events from Cleveland, Tom Raddell, spoke rather vaguely of his group's plans for the summer, pointing out that a "rescue" - which has in the past been their term for blockading the doors of abortion clinics, or otherwise interfering with them - would be possible during the week.

Dave Daubenmire with Jonathan O'Toole, "apprentice" for the "Army of God," at the Columbus Gay Pride Parade, June 26, 2004

Daubenmire, you may remember, was sued by the ACLU in 1999 on behalf of parents who noted his insistence upon leading his players in prayer at games, practices and meetings, and his use of the Bible in class. He left teaching and coaching the following year and now hosts a weekly talk show on Columbus Christian radio station WRFD. Daubenmire writes on his web site that he founded the Minutemen in 2002 because he and his group "were sick and tired of watching America's foundation be destroyed." Interestingly, he writes this in an article that decries boredom among Christian men, where he says "the nature of man is to fight."

Daubenmire's Minutemen have since gone to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the removal of Roy Moore's Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building there, to Boston to likewise protest the legalization of gay marriages, and to Washington, DC to nip at the heels of participants in this spring's March for Women's Lives. A number of them were also present at an Operation Save America event in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC this past October, where they ran interference against Federal marshals and police who intervened when Raddell set a fire as part of their protest against key Supreme Court decisions.

Perhaps these wannabe warriors, dressed alike in matching black jackets and blue baseball caps with a prominent red cross, led by a washed-up former high school football coach, are bored exburbanites just looking for a convenient target to pick on?

In that search for targets of those who they think are destroying "America's foundation" as a bogus excuse for their need to make up something to fight against, anyone who doesn't subscribe to their peculiar brand of Christianity - almost everybody - qualifies as a potential target for harassment.

J. Patrick Johnston in Philadelphia, May 2004

James Patrick Johnston, one of the Minutemen who is a practicing physician based in Dresden, says he's "serving Flip Benham" in helping prepare for OSA's week in Columbus. We talked to Johnston on the street in Philadelphia, while he held posters of the usual anti-abortion pornographic images against the windows of a convention center where the annual convention of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists was in progress. He mentioned that German Village would be a focus of Operation Save America's actions, that there they would continue OSA's habit of parading through the streets of the cities they've targeted.

"We'll get a parade permit, just march through, preach and pass out literature," Johnston said when asked about his particular interest in German Village, because it's "a neighborhood that is known throughout the town for having a lot of homosexual couples residing in it." They have no interest in doing that in other Columbus neighborhoods, he says, because "none of those communities have the reputation of being a place where a certain class of sinners reside. German Village has that reputation."

"We wanted to hit the communities that are particularly notorious about celebrating their sin," Johnston added. "German Village would be that community. As far as Columbus, that is well known for a place that celebrates sin."

OSA leader Rusty Thomas in Wichita, July 2001

If Johnston's announcement sounds a lot like the Klan planning on marching through a black neighborhood, it is in fact something a bit different. They target a convenient city, its way of life, and thus everyone in it excepting themselves, and then create, in their own minds, a multitude of excuses, from gay bars, strip clubs, new age shops, and clinics throughout the city, as reasons to choose this particular place. Ultimately they may, of course, target any number of neighborhoods. Having only so many people and time in which to act, they begin to narrow their targets by "spiritual mapping," setting imaginary boundaries, priorities of certain kinds of "sin" and physical territories to be taken, then act by parading through them screaming dire warnings at anyone who they think might still be listening.

Eagle Rock Church in Pickerington has hosted both Flip Benham and Dave Daubenmire. A bit of digging through the church's web site reveals that this caustic view of Columbus, far from being confined to the imaginations of those far away who seldom visit this city, is shared by someone within this suburban church whose sermon was placed online. While reading like a paranoid rant against imaginary "demonic forces" ready to "trample" them, it is in fact the kind of thing that can be read in, and is spread by, books and teaching aids sold in most Christian bookstores. But this one is specific to Columbus, and while naming the usual targets - gay communities, pornography, other religions besides Christianity, and even Christians who aren't just like them - they extend the target list in ways that they don't often take out in public: "Demonic activity in our city includes the public education systems, the library and a local magazine distributed at various locations."

Those who would replace pretty much everything we see around us with a Biblical America are in no way conservative, and are not necessarily exclusively right wing, but are in fact revolutionaries seeking to destroy much of American culture and freedom as we know it. Among them there are few who can be dissuaded, thus debate with them is counter-productive and only serves to confirm for themselves their black-white, good-evil, Manichean view of the people around them. One of the few effective responses, we have found, is to clearly say "no," understanding that "no" is a complete sentence, and to speak from an understanding of what these Christian revolutionaries are actually demanding. We often attempt to respond to them from what we know about ourselves and what concerns us; we defend abortion access or queer rights or even public schools against their onslaught. We must also say that their insistence upon their vision of an effectively theocratic Christian nation, running under the cover of America's cultural assumption that churches are always a benign influence on society, is completely unacceptable.

George W. Bush recently said in an interview with editors of religious media that "the culture needs to be changed." During his recent speech on faith-based initiatives, he said "our society is going to change one heart and one soul at a time." He repetitively provides a glowing, broad, open-ended endorsement of the ultimate goals of those like Operation Save America and their local supporters, who often say that Bush hasn't gone far enough to support their destructive quest toward a Christian revolution from the ground up. Rejection of OSA, and organizing an effective response to them, can serve as a vehicle for a more general rejection of what we consider to be a braided cord: the anti-individual/corporatist, neo-conservative, Biblical American value set that has come to nearly dominate American governance today.

Mike Doughney and Lauren Sabina Kneisly are oppositional researchers who have studied Operation Save America and the evangelical Christian subculture for seven years. They operate the "Biblical America Resistance Front" website at http://www.barf.org/ and a website focusing on this summer's Columbus events, at http://www.theanswerisno.org/

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