The Long View: Religion and the Racist Right

Despite John's opening sentence, millenarianism is still faintly embarrassing to almost everyone. At least that is Richard Landes contention. As best I know, John was acquainted with Richard, since John was affiliated with the Center for Millennial Studies, of which Richard is the Director. I have found millennialism fun to talk about, because lots of people are interested in the subject, but no one seems willing to discuss it. 

This particular review is about a small movement that looms large in the elite consciousness of America, despite it's small size. What influence it has is probably due to media attention, rather than anything the Christian Identity Movement has been able to accomplish. The book featured here is 20 years old. I have no idea whether this particular movement even exists any longer. Even if it doesn't, these things take on a life of their own and tend to survive the destruction of any particular embodiment. Nonetheless, I would wager there are about as many adherents to Vernor Vinge's Singularity as there ever were to CIM.

CIM pushes all the right buttons, and I very much mean the right, to get lots of media attention. And official attention, as when the Department of Homeland Security in 2009 issued a report detailing the risks of right-wing extremism among returning veterans. Veterans' groups understandably protested this, but after all one of the early challenges to Federal authority in the United States came from Revolutionary War veterans.

A likelier home for this kind of discontent today is the sovereign citizen movement, which while it can sometimes result in armed standoffs, tends to dissipate energies in futile court battles. John makes the very good point here that that cultic milieu from which the Christian Identity Movement originated is still with us, and it crosses right and left with ease. 9-11 Truthers, the Chemtrail folks, and Earth First share some of the same ideas with the sovereign citizens, birthers, and militia groups.

Religion and the Racist Right:
The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement

by Michael Barkun
The University of North Carolina Press, 1994
290 pp., $39.95 cloth, $15.95 paper
ISBN 0-8078-4451-9

Apocalypse Stew

There was a time, not too long back, when millenarianism was something you heard about only in anthropology courses. The notion that large groups of people would organize in preparation for the end of the age, either to flee from the catastrophes they anticipated or to create some catastrophes of their own, seemed to be faintly embarrassing to sociologists and political scientists. It was certainly off the radar screen of the mass media. Then, in the space of few months, we were presented with the spectacle of the apocalyptic Branch Davidian community immolating itself, of Aum Shin Rikyo gassing Japanese subway riders in the first phase of an intended high-tech coup, and of the many peculiar groups that came to light after the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. In reality, of course, the violent Pursuit of the Millennium (to the use the title of the classic study by Norman Cohn of "revolutionary millenarianism") has been common throughout history, from Han Dynasty China to Cromwell's England. Michael Barkun, a political scientist at the University of Syracuse, has been one of the leading students of American millenarianism for many years. This study of the Christian Identity Movement provides a detailed history and analysis of a religious ideology that has become one of the characteristic features of today's violent radical Right.

The Christian Identity Movement has no fixed orthodoxy or central organization; we will discuss the constellation of ideas that constitute Identity in a moment. The movement finds institutional embodiment in little congregations with names like "The Church of Jesus Christ Christian" and "The Church of Israel," or in political groups (sometimes involved in terrorist activities) such as the Aryan Nations and the Order. The estimates of the number of Identity believers vary widely. There are certainly less than 100,000 and probably less than 50,000. (Official membership in Identity churches may be as low as 2,500.) The greatest concentration of Identity believers is the Pacific Northwest. They can be found elsewhere, however. Until the intervention of federal authorities in 1985, they maintained a formidable armed community in Arkansas called the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord, or CSA. (Am I the only one to note that these initials have a Civil War flavor?) Also, David Duke, a former Klansman who ran with some success for various state offices in Louisiana from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, has extensive Identity connections.

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