New York clergyman Rob Schenck, known for his activism against abortion with Operation Rescue in the 1990s, has released a new book in which he outlines what he calls his “three conversions” in his lifetime. While still identifying as “pro-life,” Schenck now believes that the government should stay out of the issue of abortion and leave safe “space” for the woman to “resolve their crisis personally,” and has come to affirm homosexuals “in their totality.” Schenck’s abandonment of his former beliefs has startled many, including the organization he founded over a decade ago, which he abruptly left this past week.
In his memoir “Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love,” Schenck outlines that his change in attitude toward mothers who have had an abortion was influenced in part by Abby Disney, a filmmaker, Planned Parenthood supporter and great-niece of Walt Disney, who revealed to him that she herself had an abortion.
Disney worked with Schenck on a film about gun violence entitled “The Armor of Light,” the Buffalo native’s new focus under his organization The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, named after the German pastor and Hitler resister who determined that it was the duty of the Church to fight injustice.
He said as Disney posed the question of what he would have done in her situation as a 21-year-old woman, it caused him to place himself in the abortive mother’s shoes and admit that he would have likely made the same sinful choice.
“I think I would have had the abortion,” he said.
Schenck remarked that since Disney was his friend, it forced him to “face his own attitude and behavior toward others like her” and “understand and appreciate” why she made the decision—all the while recognizing his “own capacity for failure—sin,” which put him at the “foot of the cross” with her.
The situation and others turned Schenck about-face so much that as of Thursday, he is no longer with his longtime organization Faith and Action, which he founded and led for 15 years. The organization tells Christian News Network that Schenck didn’t advise staff that he was resigning, but did so via a Facebook post. However, his departure was expected due to his focus on The Bonhoeffer Institute.
After finding the post online, Faith and Action accepted the resignation, and soon also released a statement, which reads in part, “Rob is pursuing other avenues for himself and has recently made statements that reflect neither the values nor the mission of Faith and Action. At this point, Rob speaks only for himself and not for this ministry.”
While declining to comment on Schenck’s book or whether she saw any such changes in Schenck, Vice President Peggy Nienaber told Christian News Network that she will remain friends with Schenck, and will pray for him. When asked if the organization considered abortion “murder,” Nienaber would not say as she considered the term to be an issue of “legislation,” and instead said that Faith and Action is “pro-life.”
A MATTER OF CONSCIENCE?
The concerning statements referred to by Faith and Action are those made on NPR’s broadcast “Fresh Air” this past week. Listen here. Schenck was asked forthrightly by host Terry Gross, “[I]n terms of your own position, you probably personally oppose abortion but support other people’s right to choose it. Is that correct?”
“Certainly I think there must be space for people to safely emotionally and physically resolve their crisis personally,” he replied.
“Reality is, that even if abortion were to be criminalized, to be made illegal across the United States, there would still be abortion, and it would be supremely unsafe. It would be criminal. It would be exploitative. It would be extremely dangerous. And that’s a reality all of us must face,” Schenck asserted.
He said that he doesn’t believe that overturning Roe v. Wade will solve the issue of abortion because women will still find a way to end the child’s life, legal or not. Schenck, who was once very vocal about politics, giving plaques of the Ten Commandments to members of Congress and confronting Bill Clinton about abortion, now believes that lawmakers should stay out of the issue.
“I’m convinced of this one thing: that politicians and those who are politically-motivated are not the people to be dealing with this question. And I would say, for many reasons, but among them because when your end goal is a political one, you will without exception exploit the pain and the suffering and the agony of those who face the issue in their daily reality, in their real life. So this is not a question for politicians,” Schenck stated.
“[R]eally, there’s no legal solution to it,” he said. “And I think everyone—even on my side, though, we would say over and over again that if only Roe v. Wade could be overturned, we could end abortion in America. Quietly, there’s an admission that that just isn’t the case. It won’t be the panacea for the problem. So, you know, it will go on for a long time.”
If America’s laws shouldn’t protect the unborn, then what should be done?
“I think the place to resolve it is in terms of a social consensus,” Schenck opined. “And I think this is a moral and ethical question more than it is anything else, that this is an individual and his or her conscience—I would add before God. That’s the best arena in which to resolve that question.”
One listener asked Schenck to clarify his remarks, which some have found to be obscure. He said that he still believes in the sanctity of human life, but is “convinced that laws, courts, street theater, and disrespect for anyone in the equation of abortion will not turn our culture pro-life.”
“As Justice Scalia once told me and a group of pro-life activists, ‘Don’t expect this institution (the Supreme Court) to do YOUR work. We’re not going to solve this problem by judicial fiat. You must go out and change hearts and minds. That will solve this problem!’ I believe that—fully,” he said.
The listener replied that while the courts alone won’t change hearts, it doesn’t mean that abortion should remain legal just because some women will do it anyway.
“I agree that government and politicians cannot save us or entirely solve this problem, but we can’t be silent about our nation making murder legal. It is important to make it illegal AND change hearts and minds,” she contended. “If people are going to ‘do it anyway,’ then we could apply this to anything. Why not make theft, rape, murder of a born person, etc. legal if people are going to ‘do it anyway’? Laws are not the only answer, but it is important our laws protect innocent life.”
Dennis Green of Life and Liberty Ministries, like Schenck, was active during what is referred to as the “Rescue Movement” of the 1990s, in which pro-lifers peacefully blocked the doors of abortion facilities to prevent murder. While his efforts focused mainly on the Philadelphia area, he participated in at least one rescue effort in Buffalo, New York and one in Wichita, Kansas, where Schenck was also present.
Green, who has continued to reach abortion-minded women for over 20 years alongside his children, providing counsel, literature and other assistance, similarly told Christian News Network that Schenck’s logic of leaving the matter of abortion up to the woman’s individual conscience isn’t logical—or biblical.
“You could draw your parallels throughout history. … Why should I oppose the slave trade? Why not leave it up to the slave owner and his own ethics and his own morality? And, if he happens to be a Christian, maybe he ought to consider God into the mix too, … and God forbid we would have a Supreme Court decision to outlaw slavery because it’s not the role of the courts to get involved in those matters. The same thing could be said about all ethical issues,” Green noted.
“God’s word sets the standard. … God has already said, ‘Thou shalt not murder.’ And God set up government as a biblical institution to protect innocent people, those who are being bullied or run over by the powerful. And the most innocent and weak among us is the preborn child who is right now being killed in America,” he explained.
Green stated that it is also ironic that Schenck has placed his newfound focus on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who “based his dealings with the Nazis solely on and squarely on God’s law in opposition to man’s law.”
He said that Schenck’s remarks that abortion is best resolved by a woman and her conscience before God, and that judges and lawmakers should stay out of it, “could have easily been said by the current or any past leader by Planned Parenthood.”
“[D]ecisions about whether to choose adoption, end a pregnancy, or raise a child must be left to a woman, her family, and her faith, with the counsel of her doctor or health care provider—not to politicians,” the Planned Parenthood Action Fund website reads. “It’s a personal decision. Nobody knows a woman’s specific situation—we’re not in her shoes.”
“I made my decision and that is between me and God,” also stated illegal immigrant teenager “Jane Doe” who was at the center of a legal battle earlier this year to obtain an abortion, as being aided by the ACLU. “No one should be shamed for making the right decision for themselves. I would not tell any other girl in my situation what they should do. That decision is hers and hers alone.”
THE HEART AND SOUL OF IT
While opining that society must be won over and that hearts and minds must be changed, Schenck concurrently states that that he regrets a lot of his past pro-life efforts because he felt that his mentality and spirit were wrong, lacking compassion and empathy.
Schenck worked closely with Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition, and the two would often make a display of their public prayers at national events and in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, donning religious garb they deemed “symbolic,” striking poses in certain positions and making a spectacle of their religion for reporters. The pair would also often make it a point to announce themselves as “reverend” during the many press conferences they held over the years, as well as in written material.
Schenck told NPR on Tuesday that during this time, he “became very narrow and very contemptuous of other people, and very self-righteous, very self-affirming at the expense of others.” In regard to abortion, he has therefore turned away from the phraseology and strategies that were used outside abortion facilities, feeling that they “dehumanize” women, from conducting sit-ins to referring to abortionists as murderers.
In 2015, Schenck also penned an article entitled “I Used to Confront Abortion Doctors—Until One Got Murdered.” In the piece, he stated that he felt remorse about confronting Buffalo abortionist Barnett Slepian about the murder of the unborn after someone not affiliated with Operation Rescue fatally shot the abortionist.
“I led numerous large-scale blockades of the clinic, on several occasions personally confronting Dr. Slepian. I denounced him to his face for ‘the killing of unborn children,’ and accused him of ‘murder,’” Schenck wrote. “In 1998, Dr. Slepian was shot through a kitchen window at his home and died in front of his children. … It took a decade for me to realize the damage I had done.”
He said that over the next 10 years, as he sought spiritual and psychological counseling for various issues, “I discovered my own propensity for treating others with contempt. That’s what I did with Barnett Slepian, and it was expressed in my language.”
In his book, amidst telling his story about Disney, a friend of former Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, Schenck also claims that referring to mothers as “post-abortive women” is dehumanizing and relegates them to being a special kind of sinner.
However, Green—who accepted that Schenck might have indeed had a heart issue that needed to be corrected—said that Schenck should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. He finds nothing wrong with speaking truth and calling abortion what it is—murder—as long as it is done in the right spirit, and says that just because the attitude behind what Schenck did might have been askew, not everyone conducting outreach outside of abortion facilities should be painted with the same brush.
“Our group was very committed to loving the mothers and saving the babies, and following up with anyone who decided to let the baby live. We didn’t wrestle with pride and these things that Rob is wrestling with,” he outlined.
“His involvement may very well have been unbiblical and with a wrong spirit. That may have been where he was. Other people who were there simply to save innocent babies from being mutilated and to offer help to women who would be committing that act and finding themselves guilty before God of murder, the rest of us that I know had the heart to save those children, to offer help in a very biblical way, ‘to rescue those that are being led away to slaughter,’ ‘to show mercy to the fatherless,’” Green outlined.
He said that Schenck can’t discount and disown all efforts past and present as being wrong just because his personal attitudes weren’t right.
“He’s saying that because he had wrong motives and he had a wrong heart, therefore, that which was done was wrong. … The fact that people do selflessly go into burning buildings to rescue people, you can’t say that was wrong because someone else did it with selfish motives,” Green stated.
“I think the word of God is clear that we need to protect those who are being killed that are innocent who can’t speak up for themselves, and to say now it’s wrong to do that would be to say it’s wrong to obey Christ,” he explained. “Tactically you can say, ‘I won’t do that particular activity,’ okay, that’s fine; no problem. But we should still be about protecting our innocent neighbors.”
Green stated that pure motivations and humble attitudes are a must for any ministry.
“We all should have right motives and led by God, and in humility. And if we’re not doing that, first of all, we should never be elevated to a place of leadership by anybody,” he outlined. “If someone in leadership, in any form of ministry, is found to be proud and egotistical and doing things with wrong motives, they should quickly lose that position. … God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. And that should be how we live in every area of ministry.”
Schenck’s philosophy, which he believes is about being more loving and merciful, now affects all areas of thinking—not just abortion, and he compares his “conversion” to that of Paul on the road to Damascus. He says in his memoir that he has come to see the world as a common humanity, and that there is no “us vs. them,” but just “we.”
Schenck believes that everyone is a mix of pro-life and pro-choice “to one degree or another,” providing the example that while some would fight for the unborn, they don’t support helping children in other dire plights.
“Could it be that evangelicals like me might find points of agreement with Barack Obama and points of disagreement with George Bush? Could we face the possibility that people in the Democratic Party lived out some Christian values the Republican Party had yet to discover? Could we find common ground with Muslims that perhaps we did not share with some of our fellow Christians?” he asks in one chapter, sharing the questions he posed to himself.
Schenck also chronicles the road his wife, Cheryl, an occupational therapist turned professional psychotherapist, was traveling and the mental and philosophical “journey” that he took with her. He recalls that Cheryl had a student who identified as a “gay evangelical,” who “began to change her mind not only about gay people, but how to read passages we had always seen as non-negotiable condemnations of homosexuality.”
Schenck further explains that “as if telling me about gay Christians wasn’t enough,” she also decided to read the writings of Karl Barth, a controversial Swiss theologian who believed that the Bible could have errors because humans helped pen it.
“[S]he was beginning to see there was a large and accepting strain of evangelicalism outside our hyper-conservative community. Would we venture toward that world? I wasn’t sure, but again could feel more open to the possibility than I had ever imagined possible,” Schenck explains, also noting in the book that he let his wife “lead” in permitting her to go to school out west to study psychology.
He additionally details his resignation from the Evangelical Church Alliance after they would not cave to his call “to model more than tolerance for gays and lesbians,” but “find authentic love and affirmation for them in their totality.” And in a section about the Clinton years, he notes that the Church eventually accepted those who have been through divorce and remarriage, using it as a parallel to suggest that homosexuals should be next, as he laments that “there were no such attempts to accommodate gay couples.” He states that over time, he has come to look “critically at (his) own attitudes on the way our churches treat LGBTQ people.”
A call to Schenck at the phone number listed on The Bonhoeffer Institute website was not returned by press time.
Those who have endorsed Schenck’s “Costly Grace” include Suzan Johnson Cook, the first African-American woman ordained in the apostate American Baptist Church USA, and who served as the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom under the Obama administration; and Joel Hunter, former spiritual advisor to Barack Obama and former leader of Northland Church in Florida. Hunter wrote an article last year following the Orlando Pulse tragedy asserting that Christians “have an extra obligation to learn from and love people who interpret Scripture differently than we do” (referring to homosexuality).
“When we want to condemn others instead of trusting God to judge them, we are not being people of faith. We are being people who just want to fight with someone who is different than we are,” Hunter wrote.
Most recently, Schenck became an executive advisor to Bishop Ephraim Tendero of the World Evangelical Alliance, a global organization that according to its website, “is a network of churches in 129 nations that have each formed an evangelical alliance and over 100 international organizations joining together to give a worldwide identity, voice, and platform to more than 600 million evangelical Christians.”
Schenck states that he has undergone three conversions that have brought him to this point: the first converting from Judaism to a profession of Christianity, the second becoming a Reagan Republican, and the third being a revamp of his attitude and motivations—or as he calls it, being brought back to the “Jesus that empathized with others, that felt the anguish of others.”
“I no longer believe you’re excluded from God’s grace if you’re a homosexual or if you’ve had an abortion or if you perform them. I no longer believe Muslims are dangerous marauders or that Democrats and liberals are apostates,” he writes.
But, “Why would he ever believe someone was beyond God’s grace?” Green asked. “That shows he didn’t understand the gospel to begin with.”
And while Green believes that Schenck did indeed need to turn from past mindsets, aspects of his present statements remain a significant concern, as he pointed to evidence of Schenck being “tossed about with every wind and wave.”
“In regard to his several conversions, I would just say that he should have one more, where he repents of his sins, puts his faith solely upon Christ, and seeks to obey God,” he said. “… That’s the only conversion he ever needed, and everything else falls into place.”