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March 10, 2006

The Lord’s Ambulance Chaser


Now that Alabama’s serial church arsonists have been caught, I’m wondering why this never became a bigger story.  I’m sure Rob Schenck is wondering too.

If you’ve been following The BAG, you’ll remember Rob as one of the two characters I profiled performing an anointment ritual on the doors of the Senate Judiciary Committee Room (Consecrating The Room – link) on the eve of the Alito hearings.  (And guess what? It worked).  Back like a bad penny, the Rev. Rob is shown praying with Rehobeth Baptist Church Pastor Duane Schliep in front of his former church last month in Lawley, Alabama.

If these images suggest Rob is demonstrative, that’s not the half of it.

A former Jew, Shenck was cofounder of the radical anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue. (His brother Paul is known for having persistently drawn public attention to Barnett Slepian, the New York physician who was later killed for performing abortions.)  Rob and Paul were also arrested in ‘92 for trying to present Bill Clinton with a fetus during the Democratic Convention, and both were sentenced to Federal prison for lying under oath.

So, what’s the point — or the question?  The question is, how does a guy with that past end up with this kind of visual coverage?  (In my previous post, I outlined the difficulty of staging a religious ceremony for the press in front of a Senate hearing room.)

“Welcome to Faith and Action! I’m Rob Schenck, your missionary to Capitol Hill.” opens his website.

As president of the so-called National Clergy Council, Schenck has acquired some real pull with those vestments.  In the “Bush II” era, he has been a Pentecostal chaplain in D.C. for John Ashcroft, and is a regular at the National Prayer breakfast.  As an ordained minister in something called the Evangelical Church Alliance, his offices are across the street from the Supreme Court.

Considering how Schenck operates, what we’re looking at in the image above is not an incidental view so much as an arranged one — a promotional portrait.  These “throes of passion” could only have come about through some combination of effective stage management, PR management and media management.

(To provide a fuller idea how this guy commands visual media, I also offer you a couple more poses.  One shows Rob in front of the Supreme Court in June ‘03, protesting a decision to overturn the Texas sodomy ban.  Another shows Rob praying on a Washington street inspired by a lawsuit to bar the use of prayer at Bush’s second inaugural.  By the way, all four images referenced in this post were taken by different newswire photographers.)

Regarding the image itself, what could be more bizarre?  As a religious fanatic, a virulent political ideologue and a self-marketing machine, Rob turns the grieving local reverend into a prop while converting the charred remnants of the church into a perfectly framed promotional background.

God knows where Schenck turns if the fundies come out badly in ‘08.  I’m guessing Hollywood.

(image: Rob Carr/A.P. February 5, 2006. Lawley , Alabama.  Via YahooNews.)

  • futurebird

    Is he checking his watch?

  • Mark Spittle

    The real story here is the annointing of that guy’s combover.

  • Rafael

    Not so difficult if the person behind the camera is willing.

  • black dog barking

    Images, left to right, on the banner across the top of the Faith and Action website: vigorous wind-blown American flag, blackened cross seen from below, the White House, the US Capitol, the pillars fronting the Supreme Court.
    Blue skies behind all.

  • Darryl Pearce

    …how can a common, sensible, middle-of-the-road guy like me stay out of the stampede that “a religious fanatic, a virulent political ideologue and a self-marketing machine” like Rob is going to foment?

  • PTate in MN

    The fringed red stole catches my attention. Red is the color of martyrdom & saints. But you don’t normally see fundamentalists using stoles. Check out pictures of Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Pat Robertson–no stoles. Stoles are typical of the more liturgical branches of the Christian church.
    Plus, stoles aren’t worn by Christians over suits–they are a part of liturgical dress worn for worship, over robes or under chausables. Schenck is wearing it like a Jewish prayer shawl, blurring the visual markers between Judaism and Christianity.
    It is a fascinating fashion prop. It creates an image of religious authority, however unexpected and original its use may be in this context. I suspect his audience wouldn’t think to wonder about it: They would just think, Man doing God’s work.

  • PTate in Mn

    Oops, the linky didn’t post. Here it is again for those of you who like visuals.

  • PTate in MN

    Okay. The linky isn’t going well.
    My link was to a webpage on liturgical vestments: Scoll down the page to stole.

  • boloBert

    Perhaps Mr. Schenck is the Al Sharpton of the fundies. Wherever there is a christian in distress, there goes Rob Schenck and his holy red raiment of anointment. The fact that all the photographers were different, doesn’t necessarily mean that they (and/or their assignment editors) weren’t all xian sympathizers. PTate makes an interesting comment that he’s wearing the red ’stole’ as Jews wear the prayer shawl, and Schenck used to be a Jew. Perhaps blurring of the images is intentional: the color being from christian martyrdom and the wearing of it from Jewish custom. My recollections are that in both protestant and catholic churches, the ’stole’ is not donned until within the church and usually as a visual that the service is about to get serious.
    Notice that Schenck is the only one wearing the red stole, which gives him more weight, or gravitas. But I’m sure that’s not why he’s doing it. And what about that arm reaching from out of frame on the right, touching the shoulder of Pastor Schliep, is that an attempt to make the photo look spontaneous? It also blocks the face of the third man and indirectly points, once again, to Schenck.
    If the purpose was to mourn the loss of the church, the viewer can barely make out the remnants of the church. All the easier to focus on Schenck?

  • Asta

    What a circus. What a farce.
    These guys are carrying on like they just found out their mothers died or something. Geesh.
    When you get right down to it, a church really is just a building. Most buildings with mortgages have insurance, so as long as no one died in the fire, what’s with all the boo-hooing? I’m sorry, but if your faith is all tied up in the material world, it must feel pretty empty inside.
    Didn’t Jesus say something to the effect that whenever two or more of ye gather in my name… .

  • jt from BC

    PTate in MN, enjoyed your link, I think Robert has stolen his stole from his brother Paul. They are both shown on their Faith and Action web site but Paul’s resume is certainly devoid of his recent conversion and differences of faith from brother Bob.
    Bob has become more abrasive or in you face and an international crusader as well;
    Robert on meeting with the Afghan Ambassador to the US, one day before “W’’s” visit acquires some unpleasant information about Afghanistan and its constitution :
    Chapter X, Article 149 [Islam, Fundamental Rights] of the new constitution reads: “(1) The provisions of adherence to the fundamentals of the sacred religion of Islam and the regime of the Islamic Republic cannot be amended.”….
    “It is disheartening to think the terrible sacrifices made by Americans and Afghans to bring true freedom to that country could not achieve the greatest freedom of all, freedom of conscience and freedom of the soul,” said Rev. Schench
    Paul’s religious sojourn has taken him to Palestine and a meeting with the Pope in 2000.
    “I realized that the Church was universal – made of “every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation” it spanned East, West and the U.S. Put simply: the Body of Christ was far greater than evangelical Christians in U.S.” He has not been the same since.
    A Jewish Journey to the Fullness of Faith. a recent live interview
    Dr. Paul Schenck is interviewed by Fr. Giacomo Capoverdi on “Let the Fire Fall,” a radio program produced by North American Catholic Educational Programming Foundation (NACEPF).
    A pontifical brother with a twin doing the publicity stunts.

  • futurebird

    Schenck is wearing it like a Jewish prayer shawl, blurring the visual markers between Judaism and Christianity.
    Ah! This cleared up some confusion for me. I really doubt he did that on purpose. I think he just didn’t think it through and was to rushed/ fly-by-night/ etc. to change. But, yes, I did think “that’s a funny way for a christian to dress…” I just assumed it was some kind of non-Baptist thing.

  • zatopa

    Having learned about Rev. Schenck through this site and having seen him only in the linked photographs, I don’t know how he looks with his eyes open, but as shown here he distinctly resembles Columbus, Ohio’s Pastor Rod Parsley. When I was growing up in Parsley’s church, at times young girls like us used to take off our shoes during service and kind of casually leave them off, wandering around after the services socializing like everybody else but still in our pantyhosed feet. At the time, it seemed meaningful to me, in ways I could never articulate. Years later I noticed young girls doing the same and something about it struck me as territorial posing. There seemed something presumptuous about it, kind of punk rock even in its own peculiar context. Something about our cheerful impropriety seemed intended as a reminder to the older ladies in their dutiful heels of that moment when we had taken the shoes off: when we would dance before the Lord, which was an action that showed nerve, not everyone did it. Plus it was so much more comfortable to just leave them off, walking around like this megachurch was our living room.
    But that was kid stuff. What Shenk does here is similar only in its pointed disregard for boundaries of public and private. The stole, as boloBert points out, has strong associations with sacred spaces. The closed eyes, raised arms, the annointings with oil, the distribution of other intensely praying parties around him … these events are surgically precise in their visual significance to their intended audience. The message: We. Own. This. Place.
    The combover, made visually anonymous by his angle to the camera, centered beneath the embers of the church, which itself is right up next to the surrounding tombstones — all reminders of a down home faith, something stable as family, humble, enduring. Was this photo taken when they were still trying to pin this on the liberals? Do the Schencks do their own PR, or is Rove just outside the frame?

  • ummabdulla

    The guy with the red stole gets your attention, but the center of the photo is that comb-over. (It was one of the first things I noticed, but it took me a while to realize that tat’s what Mark was talking about – I was reading his comment as com-bover, and thinking it was some piece of religious paraphernalia that I wasn’t familiar with.)
    Rob reminds me of some guy in junior high school who’s loud and obnoxious but thinks he’s funny and clever.

  • readytoblowagasket

    Rafael, the guy behind the camera can be *made* willing if you pay him.
    Besides the wingnut factor, another important aspect of this photo to me has to do with race: Although plenty of churches with black congregations in Alabama have burned to the ground, Rev. Rob is consoling the poor white people. Conveniently for Rob, Baptist congregations in Alabama are predominantly racially separatist, so he doesn’t have to pray with or console people he doesn’t want to.
    The coverage of this story presents it as a recent event, and the 3 white boys in custody for the last 9 fires means case closed. Because they burned both “white” and “black” churches, these white arsonists won’t be charged with racially motivated hate crimes. Whew! Dodged a bullet there.
    In its usual unquestioning fashion, the NYT reports, “From the beginning, investigators had theorized that the fires had no racial motive, as there had been for many church fires throughout the Southeast in the mid-90’s. And that, they said, was borne out.” (It’s always nice when your conclusion fits your hypothesis!)
    By “From the beginning,” the reporter means from earlier this year, 2006. He’s not referring to the last *five* years (since Bush has been in office), when 59 churches (now 60, I believe) have been burned in the state of Alabama alone. It’s a number that rarely gets attention, especially in the U.S. Maybe it’s just me, but that number seems pretty noteworthy.,,-5601213,00.html
    If you search for Alabama “news,” you’ll find lots of coverage of college basketball and almost nothing about the arsons. As always, the NYT has its priorities in dubious order.

  • momly

    The stole worn by Protestant preachers denotes the yoke of service that ministers take upon themselves when ordained. It symoblizes Jesus rising from the table, taking a towel and washing his disciples feet. (John 13: 1-17) The stole is a visual sign that the pastor/preacher/minister is taking the role of servant upon his/her shoulders and will do humble service for those in his/her care without thought to how it plays in the papers.
    Yeah, the irony is thick.

  • boloBert

    Thanks momly… you can tell i’m a bit rusty as to the christian symbols.

  • futurebird

    These events are only confirming the idea that rich liberals want to feed christians to the lions. I see this rift forming and it scares me.

  • PTate in MN

    Regardless of what it symbolizes, the stole is not typically used outside of worship services. I verified this with two Episcopal priests today. By wearing the stole over his suit, Schenck is doing something visually original and has taken the stole out of context.
    One of the priests I spoke with observed that she had thought it was odd, but figured it was another example of fundamentalists embracing things they did not understand.

  • ummabdulla

    OK, so they caught some teenagers. I had no idea so many churches had been burned – are they supposed to have done all of them?

  • readytoblowagasket

    ummabdulla, the teenagers (one is 20, I think) are charged with burning 9 churches since February. There was a tenth burning in the state last month, but authorities have determined it’s not connected to the 9. So I guess someone else set that one!
    Of the remaining 51 burnings in Alabama, only 19 have been determined to be arson. I haven’t read anywhere that anyone has been charged in any of those.
    For some reason, the FBI and Bureau of ATF got involved this time (saying it was their # 1 national priority), and presto! Case solved. Talk about govt efficiency! (Well, there was also a $10,000 reward this time, although I haven’t read who, if anyone, collected it.) We haven’t seen the likes of such efficiency since, well, we haven’t *ever* seen such efficiency (I’m thinking of the 9/11 warnings, the Katrina aftermath, the unsolved anthrax mailings, the 18-year reign of the Unabomber, the 5-year hunt for Eric Rudolph . . .).
    I didn’t know this, but apparently rural church burnings are a frequent occurence in the South. Bill Clinton got skewered by the Right for calling the fires racially motivated (because, it turns out, many white churches have been torched too). That seems to be the only thing that interests people — whether it’s evenly divided between black and white churches. The fact that it happens at all doesn’t seem to generate any concern.

  • momly

    PTate, you are correct. Stoles, surplices (surplici?), cassocks, robes, etc. are worship attire. He could argue that he is leading an outdoor prayer service and possibly get some slack, but the presence of priestly garb just screams “LOOK AT ME!”

  • momly

    Also, red symbolizes the presence of the Holy Spirit. Make of that what you will…. ;)

  • readytoblowagasket

    momly, I’ll just make your Holy Spirit reference explicit for all the Sunday school dropouts (like myself): the color red is used because it connotes fire.

  • mreyn

    May look weird elsewhere, but Schenck is firmly fixed down here in Alabama. He’s got the creds. He was in on the ground floor with Roy Moore’s Ten Commandments crusade and is connected to John Giles & the Alabama Christain Coalition–a heavyduty GOP political force down here.

  • Notorious Apostate

    I find it very interesting how public figures are portrayed in photos. The fact is, in so far as I understand, that photojournalists take a lot of photos and then they and their editors choose one or more of them to provide the visual element of the story. However, as anyone who has ever taken any snaps knows, the same people will look completely different in photos taken seconds apart due to changing facial expressions being caught, some of those photos being favourable and some not so. So, the photo of Bush looking like a chimpanzee’s retarded cousin and the one in which he looks like a commanding authority figure may well be just a single exposure apart. This means that the choice of the photo to use is absolutely vital. What I would like to know is how the choice of image to use is made. One hears the line ‘an image that fits the story we’re telling’ but this seems to hide as much as it reveals.
    An interesting practical project to show how this sort of thing works would be to gather a collection of photos which catch famous people in poses we’re not used to seeing them depicted in. So, for example, Paris Hilton looking pensive or, to reach for a slightly more up-market example, Dick Cheney looking at ease. Either that or a series of images of the same person, all taken on one occasion but depicting very different emotions, states-of-mind. For me, a great example of the latter were the photos taken of John Paul II sitting at his window a few days before he died. In one of them, widely distributed, a white dove flies above his head as he looks up to that symbol of the Holy Ghost and, metaphorically, to the heaven he believed himself to be going to in the near future. In another of the same set of photos the dove is flying in his face as he weakly tries to pat it away with one of his hands and his face is twisted in an expression of displeasure. The two photos seem to depict different people but, in fact, only depict different images of the one person. ‘Images’ in the sense of how others thought of him.
    Whatever the means, Schenck seems very good at getting the choice of photo to depict him as he would he would wish to be depicted. I am sure that there were plenty enough that showed him looking ridiculous but which ended up on the cutting room floor, so to speak.

  • Cactus

    Notorious, you are absolutely right. Back in my day (as they say) the photographer was lucky if he got one shot out of an entire roll of film. In fact, there used to be a photo mag that took a famous photo and showed the contact sheet that included that shot and had the photographer talk about how the choice was made.
    And that’s why we often refer to the editorial choice in these comments. Rarely is the choice the photographers’ decision, although I’m sure if he/she is well known, they will be consulted. Perhaps current pros could enlighten us as to practice today.

  • Notorious Apostate

    My brother is a professional photographer but I hadn’t heard of that mag from him. I’ve e-mailed him about this and hopefully he’ll get back to me.

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