We will make this a circus’
Aaron Steiner | Monday, July 20, 2009
Randall Terry once arranged to have a dead fetus sent to Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.
This long-time pro-life activist is no stranger to controversy. His life – as an evangelical Christian, later a converted Catholic, once a Republican political candidate and foremost a warrior in the fight against abortion – has been filled with similarly appalling actions.
Terry likes to boast that he’s been arrested 40 times, spent a year of his life in jail and had cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He even claims that he has created “the largest civil disobedience movement in America.”
Now, he’s come to Notre Dame.
The decision to invite President Barack Obama to give the 2009 Commencement address at Notre Dame and receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree has attracted the attention of pro-lifers around the country and world. Calling the situation a “travesty,” pro-life leaders have denounced the University and its president, Fr. John Jenkins.
Terry said he first heard the news after a trip to Rome last month.
“When I was in Rome … I kept walking around, praying, and saying to people that were with me, ‘The pro-life movement has been overrun, and we have no fall back line,’” Terry said.
Using a military analogy to describe his mission to end abortion, he explained that the movement needed a place where troops could regroup, where he could bring new troops into battle and “defend and launch offensives into the enemy camp.”
“And when we came back, and I followed the news of President Obama’s invitation, a light went off in my head, that, that’s the line,” Terry said. It was the “golden opportunity,” as he called it, for the pro-life movement.
So Terry packed his bags and moved himself and his family – his wife and four children – to South Bend just a week after the announcement was made. And he’s staying, he said, until the Commencement ceremonies on May 17.
“We’ve already got over 20 local volunteers, within the next 10 days we will have six full time staff on the ground. Many local alumni are bending over backward to help us because of their outrage at this,” Terry said.
He and his supporters have wasted little time in organizing their response. Saturday, Terry held a press conference at the University’s southern gates, and Tuesday he and some 20 volunteers protested at the Chicago offices of two University Board of Trustees members.
The protesters visited the offices of Chair of the Board of Trustees Richard Notebaert and University Trustee Arthur Velasquez.
“We held up large signs … and we had a gentleman with an Obama mask. We put red paint on the cheeks of the Obama mask and all over his hands and then streaked the sign he was holding with finger blood, like a crime scene, and the sign he was holding said, ‘Thank you for confirming me,’” Terry told The Observer Tuesday on his way back from Chicago.
Terry said that he arranged to have a personal meeting with Velasquez.
“We asked him to use whatever influence he could, to cancel Obama’s invitation and to have Rev. Jenkins dismissed as the president,” Terry said. He also said he asked Velasquez to pray to Mary.
“He would take a very strong message back to the Board,” Terry said. A representative from Velasquez’s office could not confirm the meeting late Tuesday.
Terry said, and a representative from the Chicago office of Notebaert confirmed, that Notebaert was not in that office Tuesday.
Now, Terry is shifting his focus to protests on Thursday and Friday. Thursday, his supporters will gather at the corner of Angela and Notre Dame Aves. at the University’s gates to protest. Terry said he has coordinated protests around the country – including ones in Texas, California and Washington D.C. – on Friday.
Terry said this is only the beginning of protests from now until Commencement exercises in a few weeks.
“There’s a whole plethora of things, some of which I’m not at liberty to discuss yet,” he said.
One thing is certain, however. Terry will not shy away from employing whatever tactics he deems necessary to get his objectives – a cancellation of the Obama visit and the removal of Jenkins – accomplished.
“We will make this a circus,” he said.
From salesman to activist
Terry said he hasn’t always been involved in civil disobedience, nor has he always had such a strong faith.
“My upbringing was nominal Christian, practicing pagan,” he said. But in 1976 he had “a very strong conversion experience” and became an evangelical Christian.
He attended Elim Bible Institute in Lima, N.Y., graduating with his diploma in 1981 “with academic honors as the president of the student body,” he said.
In the years following, he was a practicing Christian and worked selling real estate and cars, he said.
Then, in 1983, he had an experience that led him to a full time job as a pro-life activist.
“I had a vision in a prayer meeting. I saw a scroll, it was a very unusual experience,” he said. “We were praying, about ending abortion, and I saw a scroll rolling down with instructions on what I was to do, to fight against child killing.
“It had to do with protests, and sit-ins, it was a very new for me, I had no background in that type of activity, and I didn’t share the vision with anybody, I just didn’t say anything, I was so shocked,” Terry said.
But after several months of prayer and study of scriptures, Terry said his mission to fight abortion became clear. He founded Operation Rescue, a pro-life organization, in 1984.
“And so I started standing in front of abortion mills by myself, I began to recruit people, I began to organize big events, and it grew and grew and grew,” Terry said.
He soon became notorious for his large-scale events and extreme tactics. According to some reports, his protests in front of abortion clinics included him and hundreds of supporters screaming at pregnant women, tossing their bodies against car doors to prevent them from getting out, waving crucifixes and screaming “Mommy, Mommy” at the women. When Terry sent command, hundreds fell limp and blockaded entrances to the clinics.
Terry said that Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement has had a strong influence on his work.
“When I started my pro-life work, I realized that the pro-life movement did not have the impact that it needed if it was going to end child killing,” he said. So he turned to a successful movement in America’s past for inspiration.
“I watched a TV series called ‘Eyes on the Prize,’ about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. I read the letter from the Birmingham jail, … I read Coretta Scott King’s biography,” he said. “I realized that if we were going to end child killing, we had to take our instructions from playbooks in the past that had been victorious.”
Since 1984, Terry has been involved in numerous lawsuits, Supreme Court cases, the Terri Schiavo case – serving as a spokesman for the Schindler family – and the battle over gay marriage legislation in Vermont in 2000. The state Legislature legalized gay marriage Tuesday with a veto override, nine years after it became the first in the nation to adopt civil unions laws.
Terry said his experience in 2000 in Vermont provides a good corollary to his plans for the Notre Dame situation.
“In 2000, there were groups all over the country that were outraged at what was happening in Vermont,” Terry said.
“They raised money on it, they sent press releases, they sent fundraising letters, but none of them sent staff or people on the ground in Vermont, none,” he said.
He wasn’t one to let the battle be fought from afar.
“I moved there, just like I moved here,” he said. He set up operations and found volunteers, and claims that he helped change the bill “so it was not as bad as it would have been.”
“The reason I did it was because I knew that what happened in Vermont would affect the nation, affect me. And it’s the same thing with South Bend. What happens here will affect the entire nation, will affect the world,” he said.
Bringing the ‘battle’ to ND
Terry has made clear his plans to use the Notre Dame situation for the benefit of the pro-life movement.
“[There] will be two great benefits, no matter what happens,” Terry said.
“Number one is, there will be very few if any Catholic universities that commit this type of treachery in the near future,” he said. “Number two is that we will so politically tar President Obama with the blood of the babies that he has condemned to die, that in 2012 he will not be able to seduce the Catholic and the evangelical vote like he was able to in 2008.”
Terry was critical of the actions of Notre Dame students condemning the administration’s decision, naming the Notre Dame Response coalition in particular.
The Notre Dame Response group has “proven that they are not equal to the task, and … unfortunately, they are deluded and diluted in their response,” Terry said.
Terry said that Sunday’s prayer rally “was a very nice first step, but fell short of the level of outrage that should be displayed.”
Leaders of Notre Dame Response have said they wish to respect the academic setting of the University. Terry said they aren’t being strong enough.
“The timidity of the response does not reflect the gravity of the crisis,” he said. “When someone is in the open defiance of the laws of God, you openly reprove them.”
The “treachery” and “betrayal” associated with the Notre Dame situation brings together much that Terry says he has fought against in the past.
“We’ve been fighting against treacherous elements of the Catholic Church for years, and this crystallizes the treachery, the betrayal, the cowardice in a way that I haven’t seen in years,” he said.
That, plus the opportunity to further the pro-life cause, Terry said, has created “a golden opportunity for the pro-life movement to have a focal point of activity. Not whining, not cyberspace, not sending e-mails, but genuine culture war activity.”
Elections and Supreme Court decisions aside, Terry said this situation “has the potential to rival” the impact of many of his past demonstrations and activities.
Terry described how opportune the Notre Dame and Obama situation is for his cause in this way:
“You have the most well-known Catholic university in the Western hemisphere inviting the most powerful political proponent of child killing in the Western hemisphere.
“That’s all you need.”