When Betsy Bury agreed to run for a seat on the central committee of the Democratic Party in Maryland’s suburban Anne Arundel County, she expected to run unopposed for a job typically considered to be thankless among the offices of political parties. Then, on Monday, from seemingly out of nowhere, she attracted a challenger: Pastor David Whitney of the Cornerstone Evangelical Church in Pasadena, Maryland, a proponent of a “justifiable homicide” doctrine that could be understood to include a rationale for killing abortion doctors.
At the same time that Whitney stepped up to run for the county committee office in the Democratic Party, reports Frederick Clarkson of Political Research Associates (PRA), Michael Peroutka, Whitney’s business partner and ideological fellow traveler, threw in for a seat on the Anne Arundel County committee of the Republican Party.
And both men are running for seats on the county council, the governing body of county government.
While members of the theocratic Constitution Party, for which Peroutka served as the 2004 presidential candidate, both men belonged to a party, founded by the late Howard Phillips, that denounced both the Republicans and Democrats as corrupt, leaving Clarkson scratching his head when considering the intention of the two anti-choice activists.
In an interview with Rewire, Whitney reiterated that denouncement of the parties, but added, “The reality is, we’re in a two-party system and the odds are stacked” against third parties such as the Constitution Party, on whose ticket Whitney ran in 2006 for a seat in the Maryland state legislature. Because of his third-party status, he said, he was excluded from debates “even in my own neighborhood.”
“So, if you’re gonna play in the game,” he said, “sometimes you’ve got to adopt their tactics.”
In addition to their anti-choice extremism, both Peroutka and Whitney are members of the League of the South, which advocates secession from the United States and is described as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Peroutka sits on the League’s board, and Whitney is chaplain of the Maryland chapter.
“They are the premier neo-Confederate organization, and have been for a long time,” Clarkson told Rewire, a group he says is made up of “people who identify with the Southern cause and think it was right, and think that Abraham Lincoln was a tyrant and a despot, and who, to this day, think [the South] got a raw deal, and it ought to rise again.”
The right to enslave people of African descent, of course, was an integral part of “the Southern cause” during the U.S. Civil War.
In a statement provided to Rewire by her campaign, Bury writes, “When I filed for a seat on the county Democratic Central Committee, to strengthen the party and promote progressive solutions to the problems facing our communities, I didn’t imagine I’d be facing off against a Neo-Confederate theocrat whose values are radically out of sync with the Democratic party.”
A recent graduate of the Emerge Maryland program that trains Democratic women to run for political office, Bury expected to follow the tried-and-true path of taking on the least glamorous and least controversial work of party politics before attempting to make a bid for public office. Now her race is emerging as a face-off between a progressive woman and a theocrat so far to the right that he has preached sermons advocating the formation of church-based Christian militias whose members should be prepared to take on the “tyranny” of the federal government.
I asked Whitney why, looking at both parties, he would choose the Democratic Party, and not the GOP.
“Well, I hope to see that the Democratic Party lives up to its motto, ‘We’re all-inclusive.’ You know, ‘We’re the party of diversity,’” Whitney said. “Well if that’s true, then they can tolerate somebody who may disagree with them on many different principles because, after all, they want everybody to have an opportunity to have their say.”
He said he hopes to push an agenda of smaller government, and reduced regulation and taxation. But Whitney’s anti-choice rhetoric veers to the extreme. So, I asked, wouldn’t that make the Republican Party a better fit for him?
“Well, there’s a significant number of pro-aborts in the Republican Party,” he said. When I said I couldn’t see many pro-choice members of the GOP through my lens, he replied, “Well, OK, from your lens, of course, but there are a significant number of pro-sodomites all over that party—Log Cabin Republicans and so on.”
He went on to describe a transgender rights bill that had passed in the Maryland Senate the day before our interview as a “bathroom bill” that will subject “young girls” to the sight of men in the ladies’ room.
In a sermon preached on June 2, Clarkson reports, Whitney lays out a case for the “justifiable homicide” of those who would “shed innocent life.”
In an audio clip from Whitney’s June sermon posted by PRA to YouTube, Whitney states, “We live in increasingly perilous times in America, and what is unthinkable today is likely to be tomorrow’s headlines. In such times as these, we need to understand that there is such a thing as Biblically justifiable homicide. It certainly never is to be taken lightly, but with deliberate and sober evaluation, based upon the Biblical principles of God’s word.”
In fact, Whitney contends that God demands the execution of anyone who kills a person in a “premeditated” fashion.
Although he never expressly mentions the word “abortion” in the sermon, earlier in the talk, which was framed in response to the Maryland legislature’s overturning of the state’s death penalty, Whitney uses the code words common to the anti-choice movement.
In his sermon, Whitney complains that even when the death penalty was on the state’s books, it was rarely used, having been invoked only five times since 1978, during which time Whitney asserts that thousands of murders had taken place in the state. “That means there’s a lot of innocent blood shed in this state,” he says. “Now that’s just talking about adults, and murder in that case—not to mention the millions of babies murdered as well.”
Since there have not been millions of babies murdered in Maryland, it is likely that Whitney is using the language of the anti-choice movement, in which fertilized ova, zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are all described as “babies.” In other words, Whitney appears to be talking about abortion.
When I raised the subject of his “justifiable homicide” sermon, before I could finish my question, Whitney interrupted.
“Well, let me ask you: Do you believe in a woman’s right to choose?” he asked.
“Oh, yes,” I replied.
“You think that a woman has a right to terminate the life of her baby as long as that baby is still in her womb?” he asked.
“I believe that she has a right to terminate a pregnancy; I do, yes,” I said.
“A baby,” he said. “Terminate a baby. Then you believe in justifiable homicide. You just say that the restrictions on justifiable homicide are in the womb, and the baby can be murdered.”
I steered the conversation back to his sermon, and he complained that Clarkson, in his PRA, article, had posted only a short clip. When I told Whitney that I had gone to his church website and listened to the whole thing (audio), he replied, “Good. Hopefully God’s word will make an impact on your life and lead you to repent and faith and salvation in Jesus Christ, so that when you die, which will happen to all of us, when you die, you will go to Heaven. So, I’ll pray for your soul that that would happen—that you would not leave this life not having placed your faith in Jesus Christ as the savior who can pay for the penalty that otherwise you will have to pay for your own sins.”
But is he saying that it’s justifiable to kill a doctor who performs abortions, I asked.
“No—I’m not saying that,” Whitney said. “I’m saying that there is a right of self-defense where you can use self-defense to defend yourself and those who you are obligated to defend. If you are in a position where you are obligated to defend people in your own family—”
I interrupted him. “So, if you had sired that fetus, would it mean that you would be justified in killing anyone who would would be performing an abortion [on the woman who was carrying it]?” I asked.
“I will not say that that’s the case,” Whitney replied. But he wouldn’t deny it, either.
Clarkson likens Whitney’s rhetoric to that of Paul Hill, who was executed in 2003 for the 1994 murders of Dr. John Britton, a physician who performed abortions, and Britton’s bodyguard, James Herman Barrett, in Pensacola, Florida.
“Paul Hill was the original public theorist of [the belief] that murdering doctors could be called justifiable homicide. He thought it was the idea of protecting innocent life from imminent death—the doctrine of what they call ‘interposition,’” said Clarkson.
It was Hill, said Clarkson, who, as a prominent anti-choice activist, promoted the “justifiable homicide” theory in defense of Michael Griffin, who in 1993, killed Dr. David Gunn, another Pensacola abortion provider.
Whitney is also known for his vocal opposition to equal rights for LGBTQ people, according to Clarkson.
Peroutka, too, is an anti-LGBTQ rights activist, to the point that he was one of the top three contributors to the Maryland Alliance for Marriage (MAM), a group that campaigned against the 2012 referendum that ultimately legalized marriage equality in the Old Line State. The Human Rights Campaign, in calling on MAM to return Peroutka’s $10,000 contribution, described him as “an active white supremacist and secessionist sympathizer.”
The Constitution Party, for which Peroutka served as the 2004 standard-bearer, has a platform derived from the Christian Reconstructionist ideas of Rousas John Rushdoony, which call for institution of Biblical law as the law of the land. The party platform is explicitly anti-abortion. In 2006, Whitney ran as a Constitution Party candidate for the Maryland state legislature.
The gambit being played by Peroutka and Whitney in the county committees of the Republican and Democratic Parties is vaguely reminiscent of the stealth takeover of the party apparatus of the Republican Party by more mainstream religious right outfits such as the Christian Coalition, in the 1990s. But there’s one major catch in the Peroutka-Whitney version.
“[The Christian Coalition was] an organization that was primarily building a Christian conservative movement that would be of benefit to the Republican Party,” Clarkson explained to Rewire. “These guys have no use for the Republican Party. They’ve both been in the Republican Party in the past and have held offices in the Republican Party, but as far as they’re concerned, there’s a plague on both houses; each party is [seen as] equally corrupt.”
“These guys are infiltrators,” Clarkson continued. “They have an agenda that is out of keeping with the Republican Party and the Democratic Party agendas, even in the broadest sense of either party. And it would be fair to say that even the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats have more in common with each other than either of them have to do with the theocratic vision of Peroutka and Whitney.”
When I asked Whitney why Peroutka, his close associate and member of his congregation, chose to run for a similar office but in the opposite party from the one Whitney chose, he simply said, “He’s chosen a different path than I have chosen. And I commend him, I appreciate him, but he and I have chosen different paths.”
However tempting it may be to write off the pair as too far on the fringe to warrant concern, Clarkson cautions against ignoring them.
“[T]hey are part of national networks of like-minded people,” Clarkson said. Some of those people, such as the pastor Michael Bray and the late Paul Hill, Clarkson notes, “have committed acts of terrorism against abortion facilities, assassinated doctors based on similar ideas that are theocratic in nature and the idea of taking vigilante action to advance God’s law as they understand it.”
In her statement, Bury noted that while “[i]t would be tempting to dismiss Pastor Whitney’s chances of winning election,” Peroutka, who has amassed some wealth through his work as a debt attorney, is also Whitney’s business partner. “These partners are also both running for Anne Arundel County Council. Their slate has access to substantial funds and both are experienced in running for office,” she writes, promising to run a hard race.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly noted that Pastor David Whitney filed on Wednesday to run for office, but it was actually Monday of that week. The description of Whitney also was updated following Stan’s interview with the pastor on Tuesday, March 4.