IFAS | Freedom Writer | October 1996 | militias.html

Militias and the religious right

By Kenneth S. Stern

"Hit and run tactics will be our method of fighting... We will destroy targets such as telephone relay centers, bridges, fuel storage tanks, communication towers, radio stations, airports... human targets will be engaged." These words were found on a computer disk belonging to a Virginia-based militia group. Guns, silencers, explosives, fuses, blasting caps and hand grenades were also recovered.

American militias are private armies preparing for war. Present in all 50 states and numbering anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 members, militias define themselves as the true "patriots," latter-day Sam Adamses and George Washingtons. The enemy is the United States government, recast into the role of King George. Militias reject the normal democratic processes of change: election, petition, assembly, constitutional amendment. Instead they believe that they and their guns are the sole defenders of our freedom. The system no longer works, they believe, because it has been taken over by the "New World Order," a secret group (some say it's "the Jews") which actually runs the world (some say through the UN). Among the strongest driving forces in the militia movement are racists and anti-Semites, including key Christian Identity adherents, who seek to "mainstream" their agenda through opposition to gun control, federal regulations, environmental regulation and, to a lesser extent, abortion. Christian Identity teaches that Aryans are God's chosen people, that Jews are the offspring of Satan, and that minorities are not human.

Some commentators, focusing on the many overlapping concerns of the Religious Right1 and the militias, have linked them together. Morris Dees, chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, defines the "`patriot' movement... [as going] all the way from the more moderate elements, Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition... to the Christian Identity extremists."2 Norman Olson, a leader of the militia movement in Michigan, agrees with Dees. He says, "[T]he militia is the militant or the right wing, if you will, the front line, the hard line, of the patriot community. The patriot community is a broad spectrum... involving the militia all the way down to the Religious Right and the political action groups and jury reform legislative action groups."3

There is some logic behind a linkage between the Religious Right and the militias. After all, Pat Robertson wrote a book entitled The New World Order, and a similar New World Order phobia empowered Christian Identity adherent Randy Weaver. Weaver's remote Ruby Ridge cabin had no running water or electricty, but it sported a sign with a red circle and a diagonal slash superimposed over the words, "New World Order."

In my view, however, painting with that broad a brush - seeing militias and the Religious Right as different points on the same continuum - obscures more than it illuminates. The militias are more complex than "Anti-New World Order/Get the Guns," and the Religious Right is much more dangerous than "Anti-New World Order/Lite."

The fundamental difference between the two - and it is fundamental - is that the Religious Right wants to impose its way on American society within the rules, even if it frequently stretches them. After Pat Robertson's failed 1988 presidential bid, the Christian Coalition set about to take over the Republican Party and elect candidates who shared its vision of a Christian America. The militia movement, on the other hand, is neither printing election day guides nor coordinating with the League of Women Voters. Its manuals are not about running "stealth" candidates, but about how to construct well-armed stealth guerilla cells to engage in acts of domestic terrorism. Both groups pose threats to democratic, pluralistic, and tolerant societies. But they are different dangers, requiring different responses. No militia leader is going to be elected to Congress; no Christian Coalition leader contemplates poisoning a city's water supply.

This key distinction, reform versus armed revolution, is clear when the Religious Right and the militias are examined in a national perspective. But in many small communities, the difference becomes cloudier. People who show up at Christian Coalition meetings or circulate anti-gay petitions may also be part of the local militia. Although there are no sociological surveys to document the other political associations of militia members, it would not be surprising to see some people moving from the Religious Right into militias, as many of the issues and images that drive one resonate with the other. This overlap is exploited by the militias and condoned by the Religious Right, because both benefit from it. And that is the real danger of the linkages between the two: by ideological cross-fertilization, both movements are seen as not only "legitimate," but as the repositories of the true "American way."

Christian Identity religion is an anathema to legitimate Christian groups. It preaches hate instead of love, and distorts the Book of Genesis, among its other blasphemies. But Christian Patriotism, also a key ideological/theological tenet of many in the militia movement, is not all that different from the belief system of the Religious Right.

Christian Patriotism teaches that the United States is the biblical promised land, promised to white/Aryan/Nordic types.4 It preaches that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are divinely inspired and have to be treated like Scripture.5 The amendments to the Constitution following the first ten, such as equality under the law, votes for blacks and women, freeing the slaves, et cetera, are seen as "man-made" and a derogation of the "original" or "organic" Constitution. Borrowing heavily from the political program of the 1970s and 1980s far-right group Posse Comitatus, Christian Patriots frequently file documents announcing that they are "sovereign citizens" with no linkage to the "corporal entity" known as the United States of America, that evil government that elects its senators directly (Seventeenth Amendment) and otherwise pays attention to those troubling post-Bill of Rights amendments. Accused Oklahoma City-bomber Terry Nichols and Militia of Montana leader John Trochmann made such "sovereign citizen" pronouncements. The Freemen group in its self-proclaimed "Just Us" township in Montana also subscribed to Christian Patriot beliefs. They were not holed up because they simply did not want to pay their taxes. For Christian Patriots, America is promised to the white race, and by opposing and severing connections to an evil government that tolerates equal rights for minorities,6 white Americans can reclaim their birthright.

Most Christian Coalition members would not agree with a Freeman like Rodney Skurdal, who bases his belief that he owes no taxes on a theological premise: "[If] we the white race are God's chosen people... and our Lord God stated that 'the earth is mine,' why are we paying taxes on 'His Land?'" But many in the Religious Right and the militias share a belief in an America where some have preeminent rights. For the Christian Patriots it is white people, for the Christian Coalition it is Christian people. For those who would want to remake America into a white Christian country, sustenance is available both from the Christian right and the militia movement.

Dean Compton, for example, is a California militia leader who said that "The Mayflower Compact was by Christians and for Christians, and when they said 'God Bless America' they didn't mean 'God Bless Gandhi.'"7 How different is this from Pat Robertson, who said on his "The 700 Club" program, "The Constitution of the United States... is a marvelous document for self-government by Christian people. But the minute you turn the document into the hands of non-Christians and atheistic people they can use it to destroy the very foundation of our society."8

The idea that certain Americans have a greater claim on the country's traditions and rights than others becomes more attractive in a time of uncertainty, when people fear that "our" society is under attack. Both the Religious Right and the militias have grown since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our old, comfortable "evil empire" upon which we could project our worst fears, no longer exists. For those who believe in Christian supremacy and those who believe in white supremacy, the enemy has become internal: the United States government. This shared new enemy has helped create ideological images which empowers both the Religious Right and the far right.

"There was for a long time a very clear difference between evangelicals and Christian Identity based on the logical disagreements," said Michael Barkun, a political science professor from Syracuse University. "But what is happening now is you are getting variations on the so-called New World Order idea that are... beginning to bridge that theological gap."9

When George Bush recycled an old phrase, "the New World Order," he was referring to the shifting of alliances after the end of the Soviet Union, as witnessed in the war against Iraq. To Pat Robertson and many other fundamentalist Christians who believe in the End Times (the apocalyptic battle between good and evil that will herald the return of Jesus Christ), the "New World Order" was Satan's tool. To make his case, Robertson relied on the rich tapestry of political conspiracy theories throughout American history, many coming from the far right. For example, he wrote about a Bavarian intellectual named Adam Weishaupt who, on May 1, 1776, "launched a small secret society called the Order of the Illuminati [in order] to establish a new world order."10 Robertson traced the supposed influence of this secret group through the Freemasons, the communists, and other groups, borrowing heavily from the anti-Semitic images that resonate on the far right. In his book and on his television program, Robertson us ed anti-Semitic code words to define who was behind this plot. US presidents, he professed, serve "a tightly knit cabal whose goal is nothing less than a new order for the human race under the domination of Lucifer."11 Robertson, whether by design or not, was articulating the premise behind the anti-Semitic forgery, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." Not surprisingly, Robertson cited longtime anti-Semite Eustace Mullins and his book Secrets of the Federal Reserve as a source. Conversely, militia members and others on the far right hear an important premise of their own world view validated by Robertson.12

This cross-fertilization also applies to the conspiracy theories held by many in the militias and in the Religious Right. Robertson wrote about technology being used as the "Mark of the Beast." Militia leader Mark Koernke spoke of biochips as the mark of the "Beast." The similarities go beyond substance to style. Both groups tend toward the strongly-stated "good versus evil" verbiage. Words like battle, victory, weapons, strengthen our army, maneuvers, slug it out in the trenches, revolution, fight, call to arms, and long civil war seem like militia-speak. They were contained in a Religious Right newsletter.13

The Religious Right and the militia movement also share political alliances. The militias' number one mainstream "wedge" issue is opposition to gun control. They attract members who are primed by the NRA to believe that there is an individual right of Americans to own firearms (there is not), and who are then told by the militias that gun control is only for one reason, control over people by an evil government bent on enslaving patriotic Americans. Shortly before the Oklahoma City bombing, Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA, put out a fundraising letter referring to federal agents as thugs wearing "Nazi bucket helmets."14 It is not surprising that Robertson (who called federal law enforcement officials "Nazis" on his "The 700 Club")15 and LaPierre would use similar terminology. According to Frank Rich, the NRA and Robertson are joined "at the hip."

But the connections go way beyond the NRA. Larry Pratt, who is active in the antiabortion movement, is also head of the 100,000-member Gun Owners of America, which touts itself as the "no compromise" alternative to the NRA. Pratt attended a 1992 meeting convened by Christian Identity leader Pete Peters in Estes Park, Colorado. Held shortly after Randy Weaver surrendered, the meeting was a who's who in the white supremacist world. It also attracted kindred spirits such as Pratt, who advocated that Americans should form militia groups. Many observers believe that this 1992 meeting was the birthplace of the militias.

Pratt was in the news during the 1996 presidential primary season when he took a leave of absence from his post as cochair of Pat Buchanan's campaign after the Estes Park meeting was exposed, raising questions about the connections between militias and mainstream politicians. For while most militia members do not believe that the political process is anything other than a sham, some will gravitate to the political figures who speak in the language of the fringe, whether it be Pat Buchanan who uses coded anti-Semitism and also blasts the "New World Order," or Congressman (the title she prefers) Helen Chenoweth, who said, "We have democracy when the government is afraid of the people," who claimed that "It's the white Anglo-Saxon male that's endangered," and who held hearings into those pesky black helicopters.

There is also an overlap between militias and the antiabortion movement, and this, at least so far, is good news. One would expect that if there was an increasing alliance between the Religious Right and the militias it would be driven by the main issue of the larger group, abortion. But while there are some links between the two (Matt Trewhella, a co-founder of Missionaries to the Preborn from Wisconsin has advocated militias), abortion remains a low-level concern, if not an afterthought, to most in the militia movement. Despite his indulgence in conspiratorial thinking, Pat Robertson does not advocate armed citizen militias to defend fetuses. Robertson urges political action. Again, this is the great divide between those who envision change within the system and those committed to warring against it.

Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates, speaking on National Public Radio, said, "I watched a show over Christmas on 'The 700 Club,' where they talked about currency redesign and whether or not currency redesign was the sign of the "Mark of the Beast." This is much closer to the mainstream than people care to admit, because if we admit it, then we have to admit that a person who purveys conspiracy theories rooting in anti-Semitism helped elect members of Congress.... The people who have had it with the system entirely move [from groups such as the Christian Coalition] into the patriot movement. And the armed militia movement is just the armed wing of the patriot movement."16

"I call it recruiting out of the cultural sneer," says Ken Toole, research director for the Montana Human Rights Network. "For instance, one of the big themes of the Religious Right is that government has gone too far, that the federal government is out of control, that government is bad, bad, bad and you're getting the short end of the stick."17

But while there is anecdotal evidence of people moving from the Religious Right into the militias,18 as they come to believe that armed conflict is a better alternative than political organizing, it would be wrong to suggest that the Religious Right is a conveyor belt into the militias.19 It may be that the conspiracy theories and apocalyptic images of the Religious Right move some people closer to these private armies, but it still requires a great leap, a born-again type of conversion, to believe that American political institutions have been so thoroughly infected by evil conspirators that the only answer is civil war. That was a large leap in the 1960s for the few who went from the John Birch Society to the Minutemen, and it remains a large jump for those who would go from the Christian Coalition to the Militia of Montana - but a shorter step for those who would go to the militias from Christian Identity.

This distinction between those who seek change through politics or through war is important not only in understanding the landscape of the far right and Religious Right, but also in determining what to do about the dangers they pose. To lump them together as simply different points along a political spectrum suggests that our response should be similar in both cases. While it is true that both the far right and Religious Right have to be countered with political organizing that shows why democracy, pluralism, equal rights, and tolerance are the real American traditions - and why conspiracy theories and preferences for certain Americans above others are harmful to those traditions - the far right poses law enforcement problems that the Religious Right does not. Confusion on this point, combined with racism, is what has given the militias a free ride for far too long.

Imagine, for the sake of argument, that the two people charged with the Oklahoma City bombing were black and were connected to a movement of 10,000 to 40,000 armed Americans talking about civil war. Would Congress have held major hearings into militias, something that has not yet occurred?20 You bet. And might members of Congress have been sympathetic to the call by Congressmen Nadler to pass a bill outlawing private armies? Perhaps. Because while all Americans have the right to say what they want about government, and to possess guns consistent with the gun laws, there is no inherent right to have a private army.21 America, after all, is not Somalia or Lebanon or Bosnia. If America's private armies were not white, or were not perceived as "extreme" members of the Religious Right, i.e. antiabortion, antifederal government, anti-gun control, antienvironment, they would be taken much more seriously. For unlike many in the Religious Right who found much to like in the Republican's Contract With America, militia groups are, in effect, taking out a contract on America.

Kenneth Stern is the author of A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate (Simon & Schuster, 1996).


1 By the "Religious Right" I mean the mainstream Religious Right, such as the Christian Coalition and similar groups.
2 Sean Piccoli, "What Next for Anti-Government Fever?" The Washington Times, April 11, 1996, p. A9.
3 "Militia Members Debate Needs of Freemen Situation," CNN, March 31, 1996, Transcript #1317-1.
4 Some commentators do not distinguish between Christian Identity and Christian Patriotism because, on the American far right, most who are Identity adherents are also Christian Patriots. But it is important to distinguish the two. Identity comes from a 19th century belief called "British Israelism." One can be an Identity adherent in Australia, Canada, et cetera. Christian Patriots, on the other hand, only exist in America, and one can be a Christian Patriot without subscribing to Identity religion. For example, James Nichols, brother of accused Oklahoma City-bomber Terry Nichols, is a Christian Patriot who flirted with, but was talked out of, Identity theology by a Methodist friend.
5 This is why many militia leaders say they are only "defending the Constitution," and threaten political opponents in language usually used to denounce sinners.
6 Christian Patriots refer to minorities as "Fourteenth Amendment Citizens," thus defining a different type of citizenship for whites and nonwhites. They say that whites, who did not need the Fourteenth Amendment to obtain equal rights, therefore do not have any corresponding duties or obligations, such as paying taxes, obtaining drivers licenses, et cetera.
7 Sam Stanton, "On Guard," Sacramento Bee, Jan. 29, 1995, p. A1.
8 Nickie McWhirter, "Double Standards on Responsibility and Shame," The Detroit News, Sept. 12, 1995.
9 Joe Maxwell and Andres Tapia, "Guns and Bibles: Militia extremists blend God and country into a potent mixture," Christianity Today, June 19, 1995, vol. 39, no. 7, p. 34.
10 Pat Robertson, The New World Order (Dallas: World Publishing, 1991), p. 67.
11 E.J. Montini, "Beating Worlds into Cross Hairs," The Arizona Republic, Nov. 7, 1995, p. B1.
12 Robertson, on "The 700 Club," also said "The Atlanticists on Wall Street may be willing to sell America to the European money lords. But Main Street Iowa and Florida and New Hampshire wants no part of it. They are the ones who must act now to st op this." - Tom Mashberg, "US Culture Conspiracy Thrives," The Boston Herald, May 7, 1995, p. 1.
13 Kimberly S. Reed, "Christian Soldiers," Chicago Sun-Times, June 9, 1995, p. 38. Rabbi Jody Cohen of the American Jewish Committee says "Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed frequently use war metaphors."
14 Kenneth S. Stern, A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate, p. 110.
15 Frank Rich, "Shotgun Hearings: Republican Inquiries into Waco and Whitewater are tainted from beginning," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 20, 1995, p. A19.
16 NPR, Weekend Edition, April 29, 1995, transcript #1121-13.
17 Lynda Gorov, "Some Turn to Militias as a Way to be Heard; Government Fails them, they say." The Boston Globe, April 28, 1995, p. 1.
18 Matthew Krol, of the Central Michigan Regional Militia, said that he gained an interest in the "patriot" movement from watching shows such as Robertson's "The 700 Club." Rogers Worthington, "For Militia Chieftan, Conspiracies Abound," Chicago Tribune, April 26, 1995, p. 15. Certainly, there is an abundance of antifederal sentiment coming from the Religious Right, which, among other things, calls for the wholesale dismantling of various federal agencies.
19 John C. Green, in his "Understanding the Christian Right" (New York: American Jewish Committee, 1996), reported on survey data that compared members of the "Christian right" to Republicans. "From time to time," he wrote, "movement activists associate with 'radical right' groups like the John Birch Society, but these contacts are mostly limited to movement purists at the local level.... Interestingly the dangerous groups listed by the Christian right activists were not the traditional targets of the 'radical right.'"
20 The Senate held a brief hearing on the militias, which was basically a free publicity session for various militia leaders who were called to testify. The House Crime Subcommittee held a one-day hearing on November 2, 1995, after months of prodding by Congressman Charles Schumer and others. Both these hearings pale by comparison in scope, length and seriousness to the full-scale investigations of Waco and Ruby Ridge.
21 Over 40 states have laws against either paramilitary organizations or paramilitary training (or both). A federal provision outlaws training paramilitary groups, but not belonging to or receiving training in such a group.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.