Luther Amos Dunphy, a carpenter, takes his evangelical faith so seriously that he secretly joins the Army of God. His polar opposite is the naive Dr. Gus Voorhees, who performs abortions at an Ohio clinic.
Both men are characters in "A Book of American Martyrs," a new novel by Joyce Carol Oates.
This richly nuanced novel humanizes people in the anti-abortion and pro-choice movements. The character of Voorhees was inspired, in part, by Dr. George Tiller, who was killed on May 31, 2009, while attending a church service in Wichita, Kan. Tiller, a physician who performed late-term abortions, was shot in the head. The following year, Scott Roeder was convicted of the killing and sentenced to life in prison.
"George Tiller was a partial model for Dr. Gus Voorhees, though Tiller was far more provocative than Dr. Voorhees, who saw himself as one who is helping women in various ways, rather than exclusively providing abortions," Oates wrote in response to emailed questions.
Luther Dunphy is "like many individuals whose background has been evangelical Christianity, which frowns upon higher education and questioning of inherited values," the author said.
Dunphy is portrayed as a devoted husband, father and Christian.
"He does not take pleasure in harming others but sincerely believes that he is following God's will. .... Luther would be puzzled to be told that his very righteousness has been fanned and magnified by his church, in thrall to right-wing politicians who, in turn, are in thrall to wealthy corporations seeking tax breaks," Oates wrote.
Dunphy "is a martyr to a cause he scarcely comprehends."
Oates was brought up Catholic but no longer practices that faith.
"I think of myself as inquisitive and sympathetic with the urge to 'believe' – especially with experiences that might be called mystical," she said.
"It is not unusual to seriously doubt the authenticity of religious experience when it is codified into structures that benefit a very few, namely the (male) priestly caste.
"Virtually all organized religions are power structures with hierarchical biases. The "ordinary" believer is presumably at the very bottom, to believe without question, to take orders, and to provide donations," Oates added.
The novel examines the pro-choice and anti-abortion movements through the experiences of the Dunphy and Voorhees families. After writing it, Oates said she realized the story had two martyrs.
"Though ideologically I am not identified with Luther Dunphy, I respected his integrity and wanted to give him as much space as needed to represent his position."