Once Militantly Anti-Abortion, Evangelical Minister Now Lives 'With Regret'

Jul 11, 2018
Originally published on July 13, 2018 10:31 am

Evangelical minister Rob Schenck was once a militant leader of the anti-abortion movement, blockading access to clinics to prevent doctors and patients from entering.

But after more than 20 years in the movement, Schenck experienced a change of heart. Though firm in his evangelicalism, he has disavowed his militant anti-abortion stance.

"I live with regret," he says of some of his former tactics. "I remember women — some of them quite young — being very distraught, very frightened, some very angry. Over time, I became very callous to that."

Schenck now sees abortion as a moral and ethical issue that should be resolved by "an individual and his or her conscience" — rather than by legislation.

"This is not a question for politicians," he says. "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."

Schenck describes his change in outlook as one of several "conversions" he has experienced as an evangelical Christian.

"Change is a part of the spiritual life," he explains. "Anytime we stop changing, we stagnate spiritually, emotionally, intellectually; we stop growing."

Schenck's new memoir, Costly Grace, tells the story of the different phases of his religious and political life and explains why he changed — and how he now preaches a more inclusive message, embracing the people he once demonized.


Interview Highlights

On becoming an anti-abortion activist in 1988

There was a very close identification with the civil rights struggle, and I came to see this as a kind of civil rights struggle for the most vulnerable of human beings, those in the womb. And so as time went on, I embraced that. It took me a little while to become totally convinced of the rightness of that cause and I would take that into more than 20 years, actually 25 years, of activism.

On ways he and his fellow anti-abortion activists made it difficult for women seeking abortion

We engaged in mass blockades. Sometimes, we would have a dozen people in front of the doorways to a clinic. Other times, it would be hundreds. On occasion, we actually had thousands. And so we created human obstacles for those coming and going, whether they were the abortion providers themselves, their staff members, of course, women and sometimes men accompanying them that would come to the clinics. And it created a very intimidating encounter.

There were, of course, exceptions. There were women who would later thank us for being there. There were adoptions arranged where women would go through with their pregnancy, deliver their child, the child would be adopted through the pro-life network, but that was a relatively rare exception to the rule.

On reflecting on how his rhetoric while protesting abortion clinics and doctors may have contributed to the violence toward abortion providers, such as Dr. David Gunn, who was murdered in 1993; Dr. George Tiller, who was was wounded in 1993 and murdered in 2009; and Dr. Barnett Slepian, who was murdered in 1998

This became more about us, about me, about our need to win, to win the argument, to win on legislation, to win in the courts. I will tell you that my acceptance of that responsibility had to come only after a long period of reflective prayer, of listening deeply to those who were gravely affected by those murders, in therapy with my own — I will be careful to say — Christian therapist, who helped me come to terms with what really happened and how I may have contributed to those acts of violence through my rhetoric, and eventually in a confrontation, a very loving one but nonetheless an encounter, a very strong, very powerful encounter, with the relative of one of the doctors shot and stabbed. ... And it was ... actually at a Passover Seder table when I was confronted very gently and very lovingly by a relative who happened to be a rabbi of that one abortion provider. In that moment, I realized my own culpability in those in those terrible, terrible events.

On the evangelical support of Donald Trump

I think it's a grave error. I think it has compromised our spiritual and moral integrity. In fact, I entitled my chapter on Donald Trump, "Donald Trump and the moral collapse of American evangelicalism." I think it's a Faustian bargain with Donald Trump, and I think it may lead to the demise of American evangelicalism as we have known it. But my hopeful thought is that, that as the phoenix arises out of the ashes, so a new evangelicalism will emerge, mostly led by a new younger generation of evangelicals that are truer to the faith that is at the center of evangelicalism.

On what he hears from some politicians who voted for Trump but have doubts

I would never name names ... but I have heard that many times over. You know, "I can't embrace him," sometimes even say very vulgar things about him, certainly paint him as a reckless, irresponsible and deeply offensive individual. I've heard even top level officials including members of Congress call him "insane, crazy, a lunatic — but he's our lunatic, and he's going to help us achieve our objectives," and they're willing to make that deal. To me, that equates to selling one's soul.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Reverend Rob Schenck writes that for more than 30 years, he espoused and embodied the type of born-again evangelical Christianity that had become almost synonymous with a right wing and increasingly aggressive Republican Party. After becoming convinced that abortion was a form of genocide, he became a leader of the militant wing of the anti-abortion movement and led blockades in front of clinics providing abortions, trying to prevent doctors and patients from entering.

In 1995, Schenck moved from his hometown Buffalo, N.Y., to Washington, D.C., where he founded Faith and Action in the nation's capital with the mission of challenging Capitol Hill with biblical truth and to change the nation one policymaker at a time. As part of his mission, he handed out plaques of the Ten Commandments to members of Congress. But as we'll hear, he's come to a different understanding of what it means to preach the gospel. In his new memoir, "Costly Grace," he writes, 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.

Reverend Schenck, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ROB SCHENCK: Thank you. I'm honored to be with you.

GROSS: So candidate Donald Trump pledged to nominate Supreme Court justices that would overturn Roe v. Wade. Early in his presidency, he appointed Judge Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Now, he's nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh. One of the biggest questions is, will the court overturn Roe, and if not, would tighten restrictions on access to abortion? As someone who had been a longtime militant anti-abortion activist, are you surprised that it's still such a central and divisive political issue?

SCHENCK: Well, no. I'm not only because of course I've kept company with folks on one side of the equation who feel very passionately about this. And really, there's no legal solution to it. 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. These are very, very deep feelings and beliefs, I believe, on both sides and quite sincerely and authentically, not entirely cynically.

At the same time, I do think that a new generation of evangelicals - speaking for my own community - will see this very differently. And they will see that, in fact, the court - that is the Supreme Court - is not the place to resolve this moral question. And I'm putting that on the table more and more these days. But no, I'm not surprised. But I'm disappointed that we're revisiting the intensity of that conflict.

GROSS: So if you think the Supreme Court isn't the place to resolve this, what is? And on a related note, where do you stand now?

SCHENCK: Well, I think the place to resolve it is in terms of a social consensus. 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.

And where I am now? 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.

GROSS: So in terms of your own position, you probably personally oppose abortion but support other people's right to choose it. Is that correct?

SCHENCK: Certainly, I think there must be space for people to safely emotionally and physically resolve their crisis personally. 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. We can deny it. We can wish that it weren't so. We can imagine that it won't be. But reality proves - and I'm going back millennia. We don't have to go back to the 1960s. We can go back to ancient Rome and Greece and find evidence that there will always be a way to procure abortion, and that should be a reality all of us care deeply about.

GROSS: You have such an interesting, complicated story which I'm going to try to sum up part of. So your father was Jewish. Your mother converted to Judaism. But your father, you say, lost interest in pursuing faith at about the time of your bar mitzvah. You have a twin brother, Paul, who became a Christian before you did and encouraged you to follow. And then Paul became an activist in the anti-abortion movement, and that inspired you to follow. Before that, you had started off in your missionary work working with children in the garbage dumps of Mexico. What drew you to the militant end of the anti-abortion movement? And what year did you start becoming an activist in that movement?

SCHENCK: It was 1988. I had just returned from making a 2,000-mile walk from the border of Canada into Mexico to raise money and awareness for the children who live in the inhabited garbage dumps. There we were building clinics and schools and chapels for them, providing ways for them to escape that terrible - what was essentially indentured servitude. And while I was on that walk, my brother went to the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, engaged in a blockade of an abortion facility and was arrested. I saw that in the newspaper. I was shocked. I was horrified, scandalized seeing him in the back of a police transport wagon.

And I called home. I found out what had happened. And when I returned after my project back home to Buffalo, N.Y., he insisted that I go with him and experience this. And I have to say, there was a certain exhilaration in engaging in a cause larger than myself. And I came to see this as a kind of civil rights struggle for the most vulnerable of human beings, those in the womb. And so as time went on, I embraced that. Took me a little while to become totally convinced of, you know, the rightness of that cause. And I would take that into more than 20 years - actually, 25 years of activism.

GROSS: So you worked closely with Randall Terry, who became the star of the militant wing of the anti-abortion movement. Two years before you joined the movement, he founded Operation Rescue which staged protests and blockades in front of clinics, trying to prevent women from entering. He called doctors who performed abortions murderers. And so to get a sense of the rhetoric that he was using in the movement, since that's what I have in our archive because I interviewed him in 1993, I thought I'd play a brief excerpt of that interview. So this is Randall Terry in 1993 on FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Would it be fair to say that recently Operation Rescue has been targeting individual doctors and medical workers? You're picketing their homes. Would you describe that as a, you know, fairly recent tactic?

RANDALL TERRY: It's recent in the sense of about two and a half years. We determined over two years ago that the child-killer himself - the abortionist, the physician - that they are the weak link. And let's face it, a man goes to medical school - a woman goes to medical school for all those years, he wants to be respected in his community. He doesn't want to be seen as a murderer who's paying for his nice house with blood money.

So when we go into a neighborhood, say, and do residential picketing, which is perfectly constitutional under Frisby v. Schultz, we're exposing these abortionists, and many of them quit. They say, look, I don't want this bad publicity. I don't want my neighbors to think of me as an abortionist. So they bow out, and they return to the practice of medicine. This has worked for literally scores of abortionists around the country, and we're going to keep using this tactic.

GROSS: Well, some of them quit out of fear because they feel that their lives are in jeopardy or that their children are being harassed.

TERRY: Well, first of all, if they feel their lives are in jeopardy, I think it's either a lie or it's the delusion that is brought on someone who kills for a living. I mean, paranoia is a real state of mind even if the thing that someone is afraid of isn't real. So I have no doubt that some of these doctors are paranoid. But the reason they're paranoid is because they are haunted by their own conscience. They know that they have murdered for a living, and they're afraid that someone is going to take their life. Although, obviously, with the horrifying exception of David Gunn, the pro-life movement is a movement of nonviolence.

GROSS: So let me ask you what your goals are besides outlawing abortion.

TERRY: You pick the arena. Schooling - we would want parents to be able to have the right to choose where to put their kids. We want Planned Parenthood to be completely obliterated, them and their homosexual-recruiting friends. We don't want kids having condoms distributed in school. We want children to be taught abstinence before marriage and fidelity afterwards. Homosexuals will get no special privileges, but the perverse acts of sex between men and men or women and women will continue to be criminal offenses. We will not have the messianic state funding every little person who whines that they have a special need or a special interest. People will be required to provide for their own. And it will be the churches and the communities that help people who are in need, not the government.

GROSS: Reverend Schenck, what goes through your mind when you hear that?

SCHENCK: Well, lots of memories because of course I was with Randall in those times. And I used some of that very same rhetoric that he just employed. I always liked to think that I was a bit more winsome, a little less, you know, contemptuous in my tone. I'm not sure I always was. And then at night when I was alone with my conscience, I would wonder whether that was consistent with my Christian principles, with the model of Jesus Christ who I knew mostly from the Sermon on the Mount.

And I talk about the transition I went through in my book, "Costly Grace." I write about three conversions. And my first conversion was to a very loving, very expansive, very warm and welcoming Christ. Later on, I would convert to what I now call Ronald Reagan Republican Religion, which is distinctly different from Christianity, and, over time, became very narrow and very contemptuous of other people - and very self-righteous, very self-affirming at the expense of others. And I spent a long time there.

And during those years when I was a spokesperson for the same movement, Operation Rescue, that Randall Terry was, you know, the lead personality for in those days, I would have tinges of conscience. But I'm sorry to say I compartmentalized them. I dismissed them. There wasn't a lot of permission in those days to explore self-doubt. So I really didn't come to that place until much, much later - in fact, only relatively recently.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us my guest is Reverend Rob Schenck. And he's the author of a new memoir which is called "Costly Grace." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED HEART THE TICKER'S "SLIGHTLY UNDER WATER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Reverend Rob Schenck, who's written a new memoir called "Costly Grace" about how he became an evangelical missionary and then became very active in the militant wing of the anti-abortion movement; moved to Washington, became very political, started ministering to congressmen and judges and then decided that politics and religion should be kept separately. He changed his views on a lot of things. And the book is about his three - (laughter) his three different conversions, as he puts it.

Let's talk about some of the tactics that you and others used in trying to prevent women from having abortions and trying to prevent doctors from performing them. You write, for example, that young women from your churches were recruited and coached in how to make appointments that would never be kept at these clinics but would burden the clinics' calendars. What are some of the other tactics that you and others used to try to make life difficult at the clinics and make life difficult or impossible for the doctors working there and make it difficult for the women who wanted abortions to actually get them?

SCHENCK: Well, of course we engaged in mass blockades. Sometimes we would have a dozen people in front of the doorways to a clinic. Other times, it would be hundreds. On occasion, we actually had thousands. And so, you know, we created human obstacles for those coming and going, whether they were the abortion providers themselves, their staff members, of course women and sometimes men accompanying them that would come to the clinics. And it created a very intimidating encounter.

There were of course exceptions. There were women who would later thank us for being there. There were adoptions arranged where women, you know, would go through with their pregnancy, deliver their child. The child would be adopted through the pro-life network, but that was a relatively rare exception to the rule. I remember women - some of them quite young - being very distraught.

GROSS: Because you were blocking them?

SCHENCK: Of course. Very frightened - some very angry. Over time, I became very callous to that. They were more objects than they were human beings with real feelings in real personal crisis.

GROSS: So one of the things that you used to do - you had a metapathologist (ph) whose job was, in part, to dispose of aborted fetuses, and he wanted your help in giving them a Christian burial. So you ended up taking a couple of preserve fetuses and using them in your speeches and in your protests. Tell us how you managed to take fetuses with you, and how you used them in your work?

SCHENCK: Yeah. That's a bit of an unpleasant telling, but of course we were aware that they would be detected in the X-ray machines at the airport. So on occasion - and I did this myself, but we would tape the fetal remains to our own bodies using duct tape and under our clothing. And that way we would pass through the magnetometers. This was before, you know, there was the scanning equipment. So if it wasn't metal, it wouldn't be detected. If it was in a separate carrier, it would be seen in the X-ray unit. So we would carry those remains on our bodies to different cities, and then we would unveil them mostly - you know, again, this is all relative but relatively respectfully.

You know, off - we were accused of throwing around fetal remains. I don't remember ever doing that. We would cradle them, prepare - sometimes - a box to look like, you know, a coffin. And we would put them on display, either during a news conference or - on one occasion - I took one of those remains out and paraded them literally under the noses of pro-choice activists who were protesting at an abortion facility site. And that was for me of course the most extreme use. And I would later in life come to regret that because of course the child was being used as a prop. I was using that child as a prop. And no human being alive or dead should be used in that way, and I live with regret about that to this very moment.

GROSS: My guest is Reverend Rob Schenck, author of the new memoir "Costly Grace." After a break, we'll talk about how the militant anti-abortion movement also campaigned against homosexuality, which the reverend now regrets. We'll discuss his regrets about having handed out Ten Commandments plaques on Capitol Hill, and we'll talk about why he thinks the alliance between President Trump and evangelical leaders may dismantle evangelical Christianity as we know it. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DARRELL GRANT'S "FILS DU SOLEIL (FOR TONY WILLIAMS)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Reverend Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister who was a militant anti-abortion activist in the '80s and '90s, and then took his mission to Washington, D.C., where he handed out Ten Commandments plaques to members of Congress, determined to bring biblical truth to our government. But in the past few years, he's come to a different understanding of what it means to preach the Gospel - a more inclusive understanding. He writes, (reading) 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. As part of his mission now, he's working against gun violence and advocating for a ban on assault weapons.

The anti-abortion movement - when you were a part of it in the '80s and '90s - it linked, like, the immorality of abortion and the immorality of homosexuality. And, you know, like, Randall Terry would condemn them both in the same sentence like they were all in the same category. So how did homosexuality and abortion get linked?

SCHENCK: Well, that's a good question because when it first was, it shocked me. It surprised me. I wasn't sure why our spokespersons at the time, Randall being the loudest and the best known, were stringing these things together. I - even though, at the time, I would have looked at homosexuality as an immoral lifestyle, I still didn't necessarily lump them together. I think that started when some gay and lesbian rights groups joined in common cause with pro-choice groups - if for nothing else - I think, just as morale building and sympathizing with of course threatened limitations on personal freedom, which they would've shared in common.

So, you know, seeing that, our people jumped on it and said, you know, these people are, you know, in bed with each other politically and socially because - and this is how I would've explained it at the time - that both abortion and homosexual behavior spring from a contempt for God and for all things good. It's an act of defiance against the creator who creates life in the womb and who creates male and female as sexual compliments of one another.

And that, you know, both of these vices, if you will, violate the creators' intention for humanity. And so after a while, it became one or the other or both being denounced in the same way. We were in every way rejecting the woman in crisis who felt her only relief was abortion. And individuals who were gay and lesbian - we saw them as unwelcome by God who condemned them. And it was our duty to do the same.

GROSS: So I want to play an example of the rhetoric of the period. This is from July 1993 when I interviewed Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, which was the most famous of the anti-abortion groups and probably the most effective in the blockade strategies that are practiced. And this is just an example of the rhetoric that was being used about how abortion providers were murderers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY: The bottom line is there are 30 million children who have been killed, and their blood right now is crying out from the ground for vengeance to almighty God. And God is slow to wrath. But once he begins to move in judgment, he won't relent. And I can tell you that God has a hundred hurricanes and a hundred droughts and a hundred floods and a hundred terrorists at his disposal. I believe even that the recent beginning stages of terrorism against our nation are the judgment of God against us. It's like God saying, OK, look, you want to terrorize babies in the womb? I'm going to let you taste what terrorism really feels like.

GROSS: OK. So this interview was recorded in July of 1993. That was four months after Dr. David Gunn, who performed abortions, was murdered by an anti-abortion activist. Your thoughts listening to that? And, again, I'll mention for people just tuning in - you worked very closely with Randall Terry during this period.

SCHENCK: It's just amazing to me how all - how certain all of us were that we spoke for God. Today that seems, to me, to be terribly audacious that we essentially declared ourselves to be God's spokesperson. I think we had forgotten our own theology because there are a myriad of verses in the Bible that would contradict what Randall said in that quote. For example, the Scripture speaks very clearly in saying, what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God?

GROSS: Well, you know, on Randall Terry's website now, he describes himself as a lethal weapon to the enemies of God. And the rhetoric that he uses in that interview excerpt that I just played compares, you know, doctors who perform abortions to murderers. And he - you know, he says that God has terrorists that he can unleash. And this is the kind of language, it seems to me, that could easily incite somebody to murder.

And at least three doctors who performed abortions that I'm aware of were murdered - Dr. David Gunn in 1993. George Tiller was wounded in 1993 and murdered in 2009. Barnett Slepian murdered in Buffalo, your hometown, in 1998. And George Tiller who was murdered in 2009 - you had blockaded one of the places where he performed abortions. And your group called him Tiller the killer. And Barnett Slepian, who was from Buffalo where you were an anti-abortion organizer - that was like your hometown.

Randall Terry for Dr. Gunn - he created a wanted poster for him that was distributed at a rally in Montgomery, Ala. - one of the places Gunn worked - with his face, his phone number and other identifying information clearly displayed. And you describe all this in your book. Did you feel any personal responsibility for their murders?

SCHENCK: Not at the time. I justified myself by reminding people that I had denounced - thunderously denounced violence both before and after.

GROSS: So did Randall Terry. He, like, officially would denounce violence. We're a nonviolent group, but there was so much violent language in what he was saying.

SCHENCK: I can certainly speak for myself in those times, and say that I was not the most self-aware (laughter). I really didn't understand myself, and this was really a critical moment for me. When I came to realize that for me - and I think for many of my colleagues in the movement - this became more about us - about me, about our need to win, to win the argument, to win on legislation, to win in the courts.

I will tell you that my acceptance of that responsibility had to come only after a long period of reflective prayer, of listening deeply to those who were gravely affected by those murders, in therapy with my own - I will be careful to say - Christian therapist who helped me come to terms with what really happened and how I may have contributed to those acts of violence through my rhetoric and eventually in a confrontation - a very loving one but nonetheless an encounter, a very strong, very powerful encounter - with the relative of one of the doctors shot and stabbed. He survived. But of course it would be a lasting trauma all of his life for him and for his family - would end his medical career.

And I talk about that in the last chapter of the book, that moment of truth. And it was in that moment actually at a Passover Seder table when I was confronted very gently and very lovingly by a relative who happened to be a rabbi of that one abortion provider. In that moment, I realized my own culpability in those terrible, terrible events.

GROSS: Since we were talking here about the murders of doctors who provided abortions, I should mention here that you've become an activist against gun violence, working on behalf of some kind of control, some kind of regulation on the gun industry and gun ownership.

SCHENCK: Certainly that. I've approached it in the first instance as an ethical question. I see particularly the evangelical embrace of popular gun culture and our infatuation with the Second Amendment as a great moral failing in my community when we have people now who are coming to church armed. I know pastors, friends of mine that I've had long relationships with, clergy who are in the pulpit now, armed and ready to shoot from what we call the sacred desk. I had one pastor friend say to me if someone comes into my church and stands up and yells, they'll be sorry they ever did because I'll take them out right from the pulpit. That to me is a terrible moral, ethical and spiritual crisis. It may be a doctrinal crisis because of our espousal of - our principle of the sanctity of human life. So I've taken that on. I saw it firsthand.

I became involved in a documentary film project called "The Armor Of Light," which was directed by Abigail Disney. And I went on an odyssey across the country talking to fellow evangelical pastors about this. And what I saw and heard and experienced was shocking to me. I saw it in my pro-life days how easy it is for someone to justify the murder of another and particularly when they have access to a firearm. So that has become a real concern to me. And yes, I've worked on it on all levels but particularly on a spiritual level. I think it contradicts the very gospel that we, you know, ostensibly espouse.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Reverend Rob Schenck. He's the author of a new memoir called "Costly Grace." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEE TRIO'S "LOLA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Reverend Rob Schenck. He's an evangelical minister who started off as a missionary working with the poor in Mexico. He then moved into the militant wing of the anti-abortion movement, working there actively for about 20 years. Then he moved to Washington and started ministering to people in politics, to congressmen and to judges, handing out Ten Commandments plaques. And then he decided that there is a difference between religion and politics, and he was going to stay on the spiritual side. So this is all in his memoir, "Costly Grace."

Let me talk about 1995, which is when you decided to move to Washington, D.C., and, as you put it, challenge Capitol Hill with biblical truth and to change the nation one policy at a time. You started a group called Faith & Action In The Nation's Capital. One of the things you would do in this - you say this became your calling card - was that you'd hand out Ten Commandment plaques to people in Congress and to judges. Mike Pence in his early days in Congress had one on his wall that you gave him. Who were some of the other people who accepted your plaques?

SCHENCK: Oh, my goodness, hundreds of them. In fact, I think we stopped cataloging them after more than 500 had accepted those plaques but, you know, just about every Republican leader. It would be hard for me to actually recall the names. There were just so many of them. It was a routine event for us. And I would remind the recipients that, you know, these great words of Sinai represented the timeless moral principles that we expected them to use their office to promote both in legislation and in policy and in their private and in their public lives.

And of course it became a symbol if you hung one of these plaques on the wall. And they were literally stone tablets with the name of the recipient inscribed on the bottom. It suggested that they were on our team. So I don't know how spiritually meaningful it was. I know it was for some. But for others, I think it was simply a way of tagging themselves as on our side.

GROSS: I'd be interested in hearing what you think about this. And I think, sometimes, like, if you hang the Ten Commandments in your office as a congressman or as a judge, it's kind of - it can be interpreted as saying, yeah, there's the laws of the land but I'm here to honor the laws of my religion. And, you know, it's one thing to say your religion motivates you, but it's another thing to try to put the religion ahead of the laws that you were elected or appointed to serve and the Constitution that you were appointed to serve. And a lot of the things - I mean, it's not legal to kill, you know? A lot of the things in the Ten Commandments are illegal. So it's a kind of moot point.

SCHENCK: I think if this is a matter of personal expression, and it's in personal space, it's one thing. If it's a public declaration in a public space, it's another thing.

GROSS: So do you think there are any Ten Commandments plaques that you handed out that are still hanging in offices in Washington?

SCHENCK: There are many Ten Commandments plaques that I handed out that are still standing.

GROSS: How do you feel when you see them there on the wall?

SCHENCK: Sometimes, I feel regret. Sometimes, I feel like asking for a deeper conversation. And sometimes. I ask - I consider asking for them to be returned.

GROSS: Have you ever asked that?

SCHENCK: I haven't yet. I considered doing it with the attorney general after his use of Scripture, Romans 13, to defend the indefensible and supremely immoral policy of politicizing the separation of children from their families at the southern border. I'm still considering asking for him to return that plaque.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Reverend Rob Schenck. He's the author of a new memoir called "Costly Grace." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUY MINTUS TRIO'S "OUR JOURNEY TOGETHER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us my guest is Reverend Rob Schenck, who's written a new memoir called "Costly Grace" about how he became an evangelical missionary and then became very active in the militant wing of the anti-abortion movement. Then he moved to Washington and started ministering to people in politics - to congressmen and judges - and then decided that there is a difference between religion and politics, and he was going to stay on their spiritual side.

So let's talk about politics today. You write that in the Operation Rescue days, when you were part of the militant anti-abortion wing - that you considered Donald Trump to be a one-man - I'm quoting here - "to be a one-man promotional operation for a hedonistic New York culture that needed abortion on demand as a safety net for their reckless lifestyles." Now that man is president of the United States. And a lot of evangelicals support him. What do you think of the evangelical support for Donald Trump?

SCHENCK: I think it's a grave error. I think it has compromised our spiritual and moral integrity. In fact, I entitled my chapter on Donald Trump Donald Trump and the Moral Collapse of American Evangelicalism. I think it's a Faustian bargain with Donald Trump. And I think it may lead to the demise of American evangelicalism as we have known it. But my hopeful thought in that - that as the phoenix arises out of the ashes, so a new evangelicalism will emerge mostly led by a new, younger generation of evangelicals that are truer to the faith that is at the center of evangelicalism.

GROSS: Why do you think that the alliance between Trump and evangelicals might lead to the demise of the evangelical community as we know it?

SCHENCK: Because Donald Trump is a deal-maker, and he made a deal with evangelicals. He said, I will give you everything you want if you give me everything I want. And what I want is a religious imprimatur. I want a pass on moral accountability. And I want a full-throttled embrace of my policies and my movement - my political movements. And you will give that to me. And in return, I will give you your laundry list of demands. That's the deal that's being worked out right now. And that's supremely demoralizing to a faith that is to speak to the conscience of the political realm - not to be its errand agents, to be subservient to and subject to the political forces. It's to speak to the conscience of the nation - not to be its agent for carrying out what, in many cases, is an immoral agenda.

GROSS: You said that you've heard politicians express their doubts and concerns about Donald Trump in private and then offer support in public. Tell us more.

SCHENCK: Yes, I've heard that many times - a sort of confession. I would never name names because the confessional booth to me is sacred. But I have heard that many times over. You know, I can't embrace him. They'll sometimes even say very vulgar things about him - certainly paint him as a reckless, irresponsible and deeply offensive individual. They'll say - I've heard even top-level officials, including members of Congress, call him insane, crazy, a lunatic. But he's our lunatic, and he's going to help us achieve our objectives. And they're willing to make that deal. To me, that equates to selling one's soul.

GROSS: So you have changed so much in terms of your points of view, from when you were on the far end of the religious right to now. Is it hard to allow yourself to change because, when you change a lot in your view, you are rejecting a part of yourself? You're rejecting your own beliefs. You're rejecting part of your past. You're rejecting part of your actions. And it's very painful to do that. You're turning against yourself in some way.

SCHENCK: Yes, it's really the hardest thing that I've done. It's sometimes the scariest thing to do. It certainly requires more of me than anything. But it shouldn't be something strange particularly - to any individual, to any human being - but particularly to evangelicals because that's where we begin our faith journey - is a point of change, when we turn. Change is a part of the spiritual life. We'll often say in a church lobby, well, you know, the Lord, he's not done with me. He's still changing me.

Yes, and change is a lifelong process. And anytime we stop changing, we stagnate spiritually, emotionally. We stop growing. And part of the spiritual life, part of the human experience is growth. We continue to grow through all different phases. And for me, that's why - when I outlined three conversions, there's probably many more. And there will be more because life is a process of change.

GROSS: Reverend Schenck, thank you so much for talking with us.

SCHENCK: Thank you.

GROSS: Reverend Rob Schenck is the author of the new memoir "Costly Grace." He's the founding president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the growing connections between Fox News and President Trump. Trump's new deputy chief of staff for communications, Bill Shine, was Roger Ailes vice president when Ailes was president of Fox News. Shine was considered Ailes' enforcer. Shine is alleged to have helped enable a climate of sexual harassment at Fox. My guest will be Gabriel Sherman, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair and author of a book about Ailes and Fox called "The Loudest Voice In The Room." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

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