Listening to the buzz around the "Green Room," the backstage celebrity holding-pen at ABC's Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, it's easy to tell which guest panelists are liberals: Heather Tom (The Young and the Restless), John Fugelsang (America's Funniest Home Videos), Jim Rose (a circus impresario whose bizarre acts include Mexican transvestite wrestling). What's hard to tell is which Politically Incorrect panelist at the June 10 taping more aptly personifies the show's title-the Reverend Jerry Falwell or Bryan Kemper of the Gen-X group Rock for Life (RFL). True, Mr. Falwell is the bogeyman of choice for many secularists, but Mr. Kemper is so in-your-liberal-face that producers actually make him change his clothes before OK'ing his appearance on the program.
The problem is his T-shirt. The burly, tattooed Mr. Kemper lumbers out of the producer's office and plops down on a sofa near a plate of mini-quiches, smiling. "I knew they wouldn't go for it," he says of the black shirt that screams "ABORTION IS HOMICIDE" in four-inch white letters. "That's why I brought a spare." Mr. Kemper's biker-style wallet chain jingles faintly as he plunges emerald-painted fingernails into a travel bag to rummage for the replacement. He produces a T-shirt with a tamer logo-"UNASHAMED"-and, after a quick change, pins on a button-"Proud New Daddy"-in honor of his daughter Kimberlee, three weeks old. "At least they're consistent," says Mr. Kemper of ABC's policy on ideological promotion. "When Pamela Anderson was on, they wouldn't let her wear her 'People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' shirt either."
Unlike Ms. Anderson, Mr. Kemper is more concerned with the ethical treatment of people. As national director of RFL, a division of Virginia-based American Life League, he leads a posse of young musicians who crusade against abortion. Through rock concerts, compilation albums, education booths at concert venues, and a network of pro-life bands, RFL reaches out to youth with a message designed to provoke a collective national cry: "Stop killing our generation!"
Mr. Kemper co-founded RFL with fellow rocker and pro-life activist Erik Whittington in 1996. For two years, the pair operated from a basement office in Portland, Ore., living on donations and the support of friends. In 1998, Rock for Life fused with Why Life?, another pro-life youth group, and together the two groups formed a youth division of American Life League. Since then, RFL has spun off 34 chapters in 19 states.
But, despite demographic growth, the silent chasm separating Rock for Life and its member bands from mainstream secular music still yawned wide-until RFL went for the wallet. Last fall, the group began publicly "outing" and calling for boycotts against mainstream artists who financially support the abortion industry.
The first targets: singer Joan Osborne (whose career isn't exactly skyrocketing), and singers Paula Cole and Jewel (whose careers are). Following Ms. Osborne's recording of public service announcements for Planned Parenthood, RFL chastised the singer in print and urged consumers to boycott her concerts and records. In January, RFL issued another release slamming Ms. Cole, Jewel, and others for a benefit concert for Zero Population Growth (ZPG), a population-control advocacy group.
Then, on May 25, RFL fired a media bullet that really jangled record industry nerves-and drew return fire. When Lilith Fair, the ultra-hip and hugely popular summer concert series founded by singer Sarah McLachlan, advertised Planned Parenthood as one of its charity beneficiaries, RFL's news release was a dead-on hit: "New Lilith Fair CD Helps Pay for Deaths of Future Fans."
Instead of ignoring RFL's broadside, Lilith Fair organizers struck back. Lilith Fair fired off a press release denying that it gives money to Planned Parenthood; the release contended that the tour merely allows the group "to have a presence on the tour" to "distribute educational material." But soon journalists who picked up the story pointed out that Lilith Fair's website lists Planned Parenthood among three organizations that benefit financially from the concert series.
"Money is going from Lilith Fair to Planned Parenthood, that's all there is to it," Mr. Kemper says. "I want to know why they're ashamed of it."
But RFL's most significant breach in the dividing wall between secular, pro-abort bands and pro-life musicians was an open letter on Spin magazine's website from Van Halen lead singer Gary Cherone, who is pro-life, to Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder, who is avidly pro-abortion.
After hearing Mr. Kemper speak, Mr. Cherone, who says he is in the process of returning to a close relationship with God, decided he could no longer keep silent about his pro-life views. He approached Rock for Life with the idea of writing the open letter to Mr. Vedder, a high-profile abortion supporter whose band has ridden high on the charts throughout the 1990s.
Wrote the hard-rocking Mr. Cherone to the hard-rocking Mr. Vedder: "When is a woman not a woman, a right not a right? When she doesn't exist.... When is a woman not a woman? ... The answer can never be a matter of opinion or choice. This is not a metaphysical contention. This is biology 101. [A woman's] ability to pursue happiness is contingent upon liberty-her liberty, and her freedom is solely dependent upon the mother of all human rights ... the right of life."
Pearl Jam fans have called Mr. Cherone's missive "a cheap ploy to get press," but the letter has also kicked up a buzz in the entertainment industry. Talk shows like Politically Incorrect are bouncing it around on camera. Hollywood glitterati are discussing it over cappuccino. Other musicians want to know what Mr. Cherone's bandmates think, particularly guitar wizard Eddie Van Halen and his wife, actress Valerie Bertinelli. Says Mr. Kemper, "They're cool with it."
So why is Mr. Cherone's coming out such a big deal? "Because the music industry doesn't hear 'I oppose abortion,'" says Mr. Kemper. "They hear 'I oppose a woman's right to do what she wants to with her body.' They don't hear 'pro-life,' they hear 'anti-woman, anti-women's rights, anti-women's choice.' No one in music talks about a pro-life view because it invites ridicule. It's easy for me to take the ridicule, because I'm a pro-life activist; that's what I do. But it's not easy for Gary Cherone of Van Halen, because he can literally risk his career."
Which may explain Mr. Cherone's reticence about granting interviews. Not only wouldn't he grant one to WORLD, he's not talking to any press about the grenade he tossed to Mr. Vedder. Mr. Vedder's not talking about it either. Whether Mr. Cherone ventures farther out of the pro-life closet, or stops with the note he slipped under the door, remains to be seen. Still, it's a start, and Rock for Life will acknowledge Mr. Cherone's decidedly un-P.C. move with the third annual Rock for Life/Why Life? Courage Award in August.
But what if no other mainstream musicians follow Mr. Cherone across the abortion divide? By Mr. Kemper's own account, much of RFL's recent success-especially the TV attention-has been due to the Van Halen rocker's public stand. If RFL's list of pro-life bands continues to include only Christian bands, will the public continue paying attention?
"I'm not going to worry about whether we get another secular band," says Mr. Kemper. "I'm not going worry about whether so-and-so's heard of me. I'm going to worry about doing the work that God has put before me ... the results are up to God."
"I don't think personality-wise that Rock for Life is set up to be a flash-in-the-pan fad," says Doug Van Pelt, editor in chief of HM magazine, an Austin-based magazine serving hard rock and alternative Christian musicians. "I think a lot of people thought Operation Rescue would turn the tide more than it did, but I think they lost the battle in the media. What really needed to happen was for college students to become a part of the movement. Rock for Life has that going for it. It's geared toward young people. When the media see young people standing up for something, it makes them stop and think. Rock for Life has the potential to overcome the hurdle that Operation Rescue didn't."
It's easy to see why Mr. Kemper connects with youth: Buzzed, barely there hair, trendy goatee, an earring in his eyebrow, and tattoos ("God Rules," "Radicals for Christ," "Fuel-Injected for Christ") everywhere. And don't forget the green fingernails-although at 31, Mr. Kemper may be pushing the edge of that particular envelope.
"Bryan brings a street credibility to pro-life activism," Mr. Van Pelt says. "He's meek as a lamb, but has a street-tough look to him. Being pro-life isn't cool with the hip, MTV crowd, so having someone who is pro-life and still looks cool throws people off who oppose the pro-life message-it disarms them in a sense."
Disarm would be one word-intimidate, another. As cameras roll on the Politically Incorrect soundstage, E! Entertainment Television personality John Henson, host of the talk show roundup program Talk Soup, is one of Mr. Kemper's fellow panelists. When host Bill Maher throws out the topic of America's national disdain for Christianity, Mr. Henson jokingly tells Mr. Kemper he's afraid to say too much for fear Mr. Kemper will "stomp" him in the Green Room after the show.