IFAS | Freedom Writer | July/August 1997 | identity.html

Christian Identity politics

By James Ridgeway

For more than a decade, federal lawmen have sternly advised all visitors not to go near the place. When US marshals tried to fly surveillance missions across the nearby hills, the pilot suddenly pulled away when he saw what he thought were muzzle flashes from the ground. Rumors hold that everyone who lives there, down to the smallest child, is trained and armed; that great underground bunkers hold vast stores of munitions, even chemical and biological weapons. It is a place that federal informants seek to infiltrate, and for which federal agents have laid out secret contingency plans for a Waco-type siege. And it is a place where everyone knows that to appear uninvited risks being shot on sight.

The place is Elohim City, an isolated religious community in the Ozark Mountains of eastern Oklahoma. Led by a bearded former Canadian Mennonite preacher named Robert Millar, it is home to seventy-five men, women, and children who are true believers in th e religious doctrine known as Christian Identity.

Clearly, this is a religious community with a difference. Its members believe that government is the enemy, that America's secular, multicultural society is a present-day Gomorrah, and that Elohim City is a bunker in a great battle between the children of darkness (the Jews) and the children of light (the Aryan race).

Elohim City became the subject of scrutiny in the last year when telephone records revealed that Timothy McVeigh made calls to the rural enclave in the weeks prior to the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. But McVeigh's mysterious phone call s are just one of a host of links that connect the increasingly violent activists of the racist far right to the doctrine which helps to inspire them. Christian Identity, which elevates white supremacy and separatism to a Godly ideal, is the ideological f uel that fires much of the activity of the racist far right.

By reinterpreting the biblical story of creation, practitioners of Christian Identity believe they have discovered a cosmic justification for modern-day racism. According to this reinterpretation, the origins of the Asian and African races lie in biblical "beasts of the fields" beings of an order lower than humans, whose existence predates God's creation of Adam "in his own image." Adam was not the first man, but the first white man. As the Christian Identity version of the Creation story unfolds, the s erpent, disguised as a white man, gets into the Garden of Eden and seduces Eve, who bears the devil a son in the form of Cain. That's how the Jews get into the picture. Demonizing Jews has a lengthy history in Western culture, but for contemporary racis ts, Christian Identity provides the ultimate proof that Jews are indeed the "spawn of Satan." Their evidence is even more convincing than the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the faked 19th-century document which purported to be proof of a worldwide Jewis h conspiracy. Identity followers draw their antisemitism and racism from the Bible.

Although the connections are seldom made by the media, Christian Identity provides the ideological backbone of such groups as the Aryan Nations, which seeks to claim the western mountains as a white homeland; the Midwestern Posse Comitatus, a militant un derground which believes that the local sheriff is the highest legitimate elected official in the land; and Freemen groups like the one that held law enforcement authorities at bay in Montana in 1996.

On a more practical level, Christian Identity enclaves provide a trail of safe havens for movement activists, stretching from Hayden Lake in northern Idaho to Elohim City on the Oklahoma/Arkansas border. When Posse leader Gordon Kahl eventually killed i n a shootout with federal marshals in 1983 was on the run, he found shelter with Christian Identity followers in Arkansas. When the FBI was closing in on the Order gang, which had robbed banks and murdered Denver talk show host Alan Berg in the mid-1980 s, its members sought refuge in Bull Shoals Lake, Arkansas, encampment of the Covenant, Sword & Arm of the Lord, a Christian Identity religious community. And 1996 court documents indicate that members of the Aryan Republic Army, a Midwest gang of bank ro bbers who vowed to use their loot to finance a white revolution, had ties to Elohim City.

Given the extraordinary prominence of Christian Identity in defining racial ideology and its plitical expression on the far right, it is astounding how little serious attention has been paid to the subject by mainstream Christian denominations. It is, aft er all, the most deeply held beliefs of Christian theologians and clergy and the doctrines of their religious orders that have been seized and twisted by Christian Identity practitioners to justify their very "un-Christian" acts. And these religious l eaders have both the moral authority and by virtue of their familiarity with the Bible and with Christian doctrine the expertise needed to fight back. Yet with few exceptions, the mainstream denominations have remained curiously silent in the face of these modern-day crusades.

"I think one of the reasons is a great many clergy and others who would be equipped to deal with the theology don't really know much about it," says Michael Barkun, whose 1994 book Religion and the Racist Right explores the history and cultur e of Christian Identity. "They have some sense these are renegade groups that often espouse a white supremacist doctrine, but I think they are unfamiliar with the theology in many cases and not equipped to take it on. And even when they are equipped and k now something about it, I think there is a tendency to regard it not as worthy of attention because it's repugnant or because the numbers of people involved are small and because the groups lack much in the way of public visibility." Theologians who could confront it, says Barkun, "may feel that by doing so that would dignify it and give it a stature they don't wish to have."

In his research Barkun ran across just one graduate student at a seminary studying Christian Identity. When he talks about his book to religious groups, Barkun says, "It's as if they are hearing it for the first time. ...It strikes them that it is so unim aginably distant from the intellectual universe that they inhabit, I might as well be talking about a subject from another planet."

Finley Schaife, minister of the progressive Park Slope Methodist Church in Brooklyn, believes that the mainstream churches do not take the Christian racists seriously because "They don't have power in the mainline church. Nobody pays attention to the powe rless. That's why they are blowing up things."

Jim Wallis, the evangelist who heads the progressive evangelical Sojourners and edits its magazine, says he thinks church leaders are "afraid to take them [the Christian racists] on. There are some class issues here. A lot of them are young, white working class kids. The Methodists launched a project to try and minister to some of these folks, trying not to say, 'We are National Council of Churches liberals who are offended by you stupid people,' but to say, 'What's going on here? What's behind this kind of anger and fear.'"

Christian Identity may actually owe part of its success to the fact that it confronts issues that haunt the lives of its followers, but that the mainstream churches are reluctant to "take on." As Kerry Noble, the former leader of the Covenant, Sword & Arm of the Lord, explains it, members of his group, coming from pentecostal Baptist circles, were drawn into Christian Identity precisely because the "traditional churches never tried to answer racial questions. When we were growing up if we asked questions about race nobody wanted to answer...In th e traditional churches they were uncomfortable talking about it...In Identity these were people who weren't afraid to talk about race."

The less fundamentalist denominations may also have weakened their ability to refute the Bible-based lore spread by Christian Identity because they have themselves strayed far from the practice of biblical study and interpretation. "I think on the whole, theological liberals have not bothered with the Bible," says Walter Bruggemann, of Columbia Theological Seminar in Decatur, Georgia, "I think what has to happen we have to out-Bible those people. And by and large liberals have not paid enough attention to be able to do that."

The ministers I spoke with did say there was nothing in the Bible to support the notion of "pre-Adamic" man or Christian Identity's dream image of the Lost Tribes of Israel worming their way through northern Europe and over to America. They believe the Ch ristian Identity reading of the Creation story gets the allegories all wrong. But none of them much wanted to discuss the details. One of the few spirited responses came from Eugene F. Rivers 3d, an evangelical minister of progressive stripe in Dorchester , Massachusetts. Rivers points out that some current thinking places the origins of human life in Africa near Tanzania. "If Adam is made in the image of God and if Adam began in Tanzania," Rivers said, "you white boys have got a problem because that means you are the children of niggers."

Some church bureaucrats believe it is unfair to criticize their inaction, because they have made efforts to combat Christian Identity doctrine. For example, in 1986 the National Council of Churches of Christ published a pamphlet by Leonard Zeskind called "The Christian Identity Movement: Analyzing Its Theological Rationalization for Racist and Anti-Semitic Violence."

Some members of the clergy have initiated more direct actions, but found little interest among their colleagues. Last year William Wassmuth, a former Catholic priest who heads the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment and whose rectory was blow n up by the Order gang in 1986, sought to pull together church leaders across the Northwest for a two-day meeting. "We advertised it and worked it every way we knew how and finally canceled it because we just couldn't get anybody to go," he recalled recen tly. "They [church leaders] say they're interested but they just never end up committing to it. Our feeling is that there is some kind of agenda that is not being spoken. Our best guess is they are nervous about criticizing anything that calls itself Chri stian. And secondly they are nervous about raising this whole spectrum because everybody is anxious to do everything they possibly can to keep from providing anyone an excuse not to come to their church. So they play patty-cake with it."

The mainstream churches also shy away from taking on the far-right Christian Identity groups because their racist brand of Christianity has become entangled with other political agendas such as the resistance against taxes, overreaching federal governme nt control, liberal environmentalists, abortion rights, and gay rights which are popular among their parishioners. The Northwest Coalition, for example, goes after the far right for its antigay attacks. That makes the already hesitant churches back off. "We run across it all the time," Wassmuth says. "In one degree or another. Nobody will say the racists are all right because they are pounding on gay folks, but on the other hand they won't take as strong a stand against them either as soon as those of u s who are taking a strong stand against them also bring up the gay issue."

In Idaho, America's Promise ministries, a Christian Identity group, attempts to widen its base by appealing not just to white power Christians, but to people who don't like gays, and people who are opposed to abortion. Individuals associated with America' s Promise have been charged with a plot to bomb both a newspaper and a Planned Parenthood clinic in Spokane and to rob a bank there.

"That's their thrust these days," Wassmuth adds, "To find these kinds of issues that are on people's minds and use those issues to get people together and then they weave their conspiracy theories that takes it way down to the next level, which is their l evel of Christian Patriot conspiracy, anti-government...It's a hook, to get people in front of them."

A few other small groups of Christian clergy say they are trying to fight Christian Identity on theological grounds. Preachers in Montana, organized around the state's Association of Churches, have talked with the Freemen, and Jerry Walters, a Lutheran pa stor in Round Up, Montana, meets with the Freemen in jail and in their homes to try and convince them their understanding of the gospel is wrong. The Montana Association of Churches last year also put out a theologic statement of principle in an attempt t o combat Christian Identity.

In Chicago, Dave Ostendorf, a United Church of Christ minister who fought the Posse Comitatus as head of PriarieFire during the 1980s, now goes from one community to another, aiming to teach Christian ministers about Identity. After the Oklahoma City bom bing, the Methodist church organized various local meetings, and Dale Fooshee, a lay Methodist in Kansas runs a training program among the church's Rural Chaplains Association around the Midwest.

But Fooshee reports that the going can be slow. In Abilene the mainstream churches resist taking on Christian Identity because families of Identity members balk. And followers of the more conservative churches are leery of going after Identity. "It's a sl ippery slope theologically," Fooshee says, "because you've got people who are really conservative who have got views on the Bible. They aren't necessarily violent. They're just conservative." Still, this can be fertile ground for Christian Identity ideas. "Some of the conservative folks," says Fooshee, "are still battling it out over what the Jews did to Jesus." Identity followers believe the crucifixion of Jesus was part of Satan's elaborate scheme to get back at God through the demonic Jews.

Not surprisingly, Jewish organizations the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee, in particular have been at the forefront of the counterattack against far-right racist religious groups. They are carrying out ongoing research, publishin g numerous books and pamphlets, and encouraging media attention on far-right activism.

But perhaps the most powerful message against Christian Identity them comes from Kerry Noble, the former leader of the Covenant, Sword & Arm of the Lord, the Christian community which was a centerpiece of the revolutionary far right in the 1980s and set o ut to murder a judge and an FBI agent in retaliation for the government's crack-down on the far-right underground. It was this group which first plotted a bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City during the early 1980s in the name of Christ.

James Ridgeway is a journalist with The Village Voice.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.