The Army of God: More Religious Killers?

(Secular Humanist Bulletin, Fall 1997)

By James A. Haught

"The Army of God" is the latest extremist religious group in the spotlight. The shadowy clique took credit for two 1997 Atlanta bombings -- at an abortion clinic and a gay nightclub -- and is suspected of planting the nail-studded bomb that killed a woman and hurt 100 at last year's Olympics.

What is the Army of God? Nobody's sure, but the name has been used for 15 years. Here's the record:

In the early 1980s, a women's clinic at Granite City, Ill., was mobbed repeatedly by fundamentalist protesters. Then the clinic operator, Dr. Hector Zevallos, and his wife Rosalee were kidnapped by a gang of men calling themselves the Army of God. The couple was held eight days in an abandoned ammunition bunker. The captors said they'd kill both unless Dr. Zevallos pledged to stop performing abortions. He did, and they were released.

Three men later were convicted of the kidnapping. The leader, Don Benny Anderson, said God had told him to wage war against abortion. Anderson got a 30-year prison term. He also was convicted of torching two Florida abortion clinics, and drew a second 30-year term.

In 1984, when a Norfolk women's clinic was firebombed, the initials "AoG" were scrawled on a wall. Soon afterward, a clinic outside Washington was firebombed, and a man claiming to represent the Army of God called news media to take credit.

In 1993 an Oregon fundamentalist named Rachelle Shannon shot a clinic doctor at Wichita, Kan. She boasted that she was enforcing "God's will." She had written laudatory letters to an imprisoned "pro-life" killer, Michael Griffin, who had murdered a Pensacola doctor.

Buried in Shannon's back yard, police found an Army of God manual filled with Bible quotes, bomb-making instructions, and a "Declaration" saying abortion providers must be assassinated. The manual said Army of God units aren't told the identity of members elsewhere, so "the Feds will never stop us."

This year, two more nail-studded bombs struck Atlanta -- on Jan. 16 at a women's clinic, and on Feb. 21 at a gay nightclub. After the second blast, a crude, unsigned, semi-literate letter was sent to the Reuters news agency, which turned it over to the FBI.

The letter said both bombs were placed by "units of the Army of God." It said anyone involved with abortion "may become victims of retribution." As for the homosexual club, it said, ungrammatically: "We will target sodomites, there organizations, and all those who push there agenda."

In militia-like tones, the letter threatened both the United Nations and the U.S. government. With misspellings, it said:

"We declare and will wage total war on the ungodly communist regime in New York and your legaslative-bureaucratic lackey's in Washington. It is you who are responsible and preside over the murder of children and issue the policy of ungodly preversion thats destroying our people.... Death to the New World Orer."

Now the FBI has distributed the letter nationally, in hope that some citizen will recognize the language style and identify the bombers.

Sadly, the Army of God saga underscores an ugly fact of life: that the most dangerous people often are the most religious.