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.

Identity believers tend to appear in the news either in connection with the commission of terrorist acts, such as the assassination of talkshow host Alan Berg in 1984, or in violent confrontations with federal authorities, such as the siege of the Randy Weaver family in 1992, in which a marshal and Weaver's wife and son were killed. They are not, of course, the mythical "angry white males" who brought the Republicans to power in 1994. Even if there were more of them, they are not the kind of people who vote regularly. They are, however, often the people who appear on television to assert that all government above the county level is illegitimate, or that the UN sends black helicopters to spy on them.

One of the two chief ways Christian Identity must be classed is as a mutant species of "British-Israelism." This is the belief that the English, or the "Anglo-Saxon-Celtic people" of the British Isles, or sometimes all the peoples of northwestern Europe, are the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Unlike most British-Israelites, however, Identity believers deny that the Jews are descended from the other two tribes. Rather, they hold that the Jews are either descendants of medieval Asiatic converts to Judaism, or of a hopeless mongrelization of actual Jews with peoples condemned in the Bible, principally the Edomites. They assert that Jesus was not ethnically Jewish. Identity goes further than any almost any other variety of antisemitism with the claim that the Jews are literally the biological descendants of Satan. Indeed, like the rest of the non-Aryan world, the Jews are not really human at all.

The nonhumanity of the Jews is variously expressed. Identity tends to hold some form of "polygenicism," the notion that the human racial groups have no common human ancestor. Only the white race, the Aryans, are the descendants of Adam and so are unambiguously human. Cain, on the other hand, is often portrayed as the offspring of Eve and of Lucifer, who seduced her in the garden. Sometimes, her seducer is said to have been one of the humanoid primates who lived in or near the Garden. Sometimes, Cain is held to be the son of Adam, but is responsible for having introduced a genetic line of evil into the world when he mated with one of the humanoids after he killed his brother Abel. (Through the adoption of an old piece of crank history, Cain is also widely identified as "Sargon the Magnificent," founder of the first civilization.) In any event, Identity tends to collapse the idea of Original Sin into an act of primordial miscegenation.

The other chief way that Identity must be classified is as a kind of "post-tribulation millenarianism." That is, Identity believers hold that the end of this age is near, that it will end in a period of war and natural catastrophe in which believers will ultimately triumph, and that it will be followed by a age in which the Saints (in this case, the Identity believers) will rule in this world. This scenario sets Identity apart from Christian Fundamentalist endtime beliefs. These are usually called "pretribulation dispensationalism," a species of eschatology that took final form in the middle of the last century, largely under the influence of John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren. Pre-tribs, as they are familiarly called, hold that the failure of the Jews to accept Jesus created a "parenthesis" in salvation history, during which God dealt with the Gentiles rather than the Jews. The prophetic timetable set out in such Old Testament books as Daniel and in the Book of Revelation was temporarily suspended. The time of the end of the parenthesis is unpredictable. When it does end, the Rapture will occur. Jesus will return to earth for the sole purpose of removing the Church from the world. Then the Tribulation period will begin, and the apocalyptic scenario of Revelation will begin to unfold. God will again turn His attention to the salvation of the Jews in that era of catastrophe and oppression. The Tribulation will be ended by the visible Second Coming of Jesus, who will then inaugurate the Millennium.

British-Israelites of every stripe have never had much use for this scenario. Its sharp distinction between Jew and Gentile obviously leaves little room for their claim to be Israelites themselves. In the extreme case of Identity, which claims that the Jews are genetically damned, it obviously makes no sense at all. Thus, like medieval Joachites, indeed like all Christian millenarians until the nineteenth century, Identity believers must resign themselves to going through a period of oppression and violence. Most believe that the government of the United States has long been in the hands of the forces of evil. They often call it "the Zionist Occupation Government," or ZOG. They hold that soon an active attempt will be made to destroy Identity through criminal prosecution and military action.

As Paul Boyer observed in his indispensable work on modern endtime belief, When Time Shall Be No More, the apocalyptic scenario in American popular religion has been singularly stable for the last century and a half. The "Great Conspiracy" elements of it took on more or less their present shape by the 1920s, though the particular persons and organizations supposed to constitute the Conspiracy vary from generation to generation. (Pat Robertson's book, "The New World Order," really is pure conspiracy-theory boilerplate). However, while not all versions of the Conspiracy attribute a fundamentally Jewish nature to it, Identity does so almost to the exclusion of all other explanations for the world's problems. Still, they are also much interested in lesser elements of the Conspiracy. There is, for instance, the United Nations, which is universally regarded as the prototype for a world government. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is thought to be one of the Conspiracy's most active tools, for obvious reasons. The malefactions of the Federal Reserve are too well-known to require comment here. Barkun observes that so great is the power of evil in this worldview that Identity may have become a millenarian system in which the devil has a better than even chance of winning.

Where did all this strange stuff come from? The idea that the English might in some sense be the Chosen People, or a Chosen People, is not new. It was widely held by Puritans in seventeenth century England. Ideas like this are normally philo-semitic. They may have influenced the decision by Cromwell's government to re-admit the Jews to England. British-Israelism as we know it today, the doctrine that the English or other Europeans are the literal descendants of the Ten Tribes, was developed toward the end of the 18th century by the English eccentric (and at one point committed lunatic), Richard Brothers. The notion was given more durable form in the 1840s by the preacher and writer, John Wilson, and became the doctrine of the World British-Israel Federation, which exists to this day. British-Israelism was never a religious sect. Most Federation members were Church of England. At its height in 1920, with about 5000 members, it was a mostly middle class umbrella group, strongly leavened by marchionesses, superannuated admirals, and other persons of the better sort.

To read of the origins of British-Israelism in the reign of Queen Victoria in the light of its latterday effects at skinhead conventions during the Clinton Administration is to be amazed at the ghastly mutations which seemingly harmless theories of history can undergo. The Federation was, basically, an Imperial patriotic association. It was loyal to the Crown, friendly to America as another branch of Israel, initially friendly to the Jews for similar reasons. Indeed, it supported a species of Zionism, understanding that Zion would always necessarily have to be part of the British Empire. Moreover, it was one of those sweetly crackers enterprises that only the British can really do well. You cannot wholly dislike an organization whose members held that the Ark of the Covenant was buried under the Hill of Kings at Tara in Ireland. As time went on, the Federation became more and more influenced by ideas like pyramidology, which holds that the whole history of the world is encoded in the layout of the passages of the Great Pyramid at Gizeh. The millenarian endtime beliefs which flourished in the English-speaking world in the second half of the nineteenth century were largely welcomed, with the exception of the Rapture. British-Israelites began to think of the Battle of Armageddon as a battle that the English would someday win in the literal valley of Megiddo, fighting the Turks or the Russians. They were also interested in ideas like polygenicism, but simply as a way to solve the problems Darwinism posed to their schema of ancient history.

Barkun says it was British-Israel's very openness to "rejected knowledge" that made it vulnerable to strange ideological infections, once it crossed the Atlantic. The Federation itself had no power to enforce orthodoxy, nor even any fixed body of orthodox doctrine. In America, the social and political loyalties that restrained its British adherents no longer applied. What it did have was a predilection for looking in out-of-the-way corners for the truth. Its New World career began late in the nineteenth century with some stolid chapters on the East Coast and in Canada, loosely affiliated in the now defunct "Anglo-Saxon Federation of America." William Cameron, Henry Ford's publicist, was a member of this group. It was under his editorship that the Ford-subsidized newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, published "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and "The International Jew," as well as some articles with a British-Israel slant. The association of these ideas was not altogether original with Cameron, but it became more pronounced as British- Israel drew further and further away from its British origin. Their synthesis into Identity proper occurred not in the offices of a major publisher or other respectable organization, but in the shadowy underworld of popular cults and demotic religion.

At the turn of the century, some of the leading lights of the early Pentecostal movement had been persuaded by British-Israel doctrines through contact with Bible colleges on the East Coast that were associated with the British-Israel umbrella groups. These ideas then spread in increasingly protean form in the California cult underground. They were influential in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia even before the First World War. It was, indeed, in British Columbia that the new and most virulent antisemitic doctrines associated with Identity were apparently invented. (Herbert W. Armstrong's Worldwide Church, another creature of the Northwest religious environment, is an example of a British-Israel denomination that is not an Identity group.)

By the 1940s and 50s, when we may properly speak of Identity per se, it was part of the stew of ideas which constituted the earliest stages of the New Age movement. Such a body of semi-underground ideas is called "the cultic milieu." Some Identity writers began to speak of the forces of light and darkness as having been transported to earth in flying saucers after the devil's space fleet lost an interstellar battle against the hosts of heaven. Notions familiar to Mormonism, such as the pre-existence of the soul, began to crop-up in Identity. The Aryans, it seems, simply incarnated the Sons of God, while the non-whites and Jews were literally the embodiments of devils. By the 1960s, the Identity Movement was willing to accommodate any ideas at all, provided its racialist view of the world was maintained, particularly the doctrine that the Jews are the source of all evil.

With the passage of time, Identity has tended to become less mystical and more political. You hear little these days about spaceships and the Great Pyramid, but rather a lot about creating an Aryan Homeland in the Northwest (or sometimes the Midwest) and the mechanics of guerilla war. Barkun makes the interesting point that the proposal for part of the U.S. pacific Coast to secede from the Union was common property of the cultic milieu. Since the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing, much attention has been devoted to William Pierce's novel, The Turner Diaries, published in 1978, which included fictional descriptions of the bombing of federal buildings very like the Oklahoma incident. In that book, the secession of part of the coast was a stage in a general Aryan revolution. A better-known novel dealing with the secession of Pacific territory, however, is Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia, published in 1975. The title is the name of the new country established by ecological radicals. Parallels between the books can be multiplied, such as the fact they both contemplate using stolen nuclear weapons to blackmail the federal government into letting the dissident regions go. However, while radical ecologists never did try to implement the scenario in Ecotopia, Identity believers and people of kindred stripe did make some effort in the 1980s to implement The Turner Diaries, principally through the campaign of robberies and terrorist acts carried out by the group called the Order. In the event, the federal government proved rather less ready to collapse than Identity believed: the armed, aggressive groups were broken up and their leaders arrested in fairly short order.

In the 1990s, militant members of Identity have concentrated on strategies of withdrawal. Believing the state and federal governments to be illegitimate, they refuse to cooperate with them and threaten violent resistance to attempts to collect taxes, protect wildlife or regulate the distribution of firearms. The Militia Movement, whose political agenda parallels Identity's current anarchist strategy, is not by any stretch of the imagination an essentially Identity phenomenon. However, it does seem to be a product of Identity's cultic milieu.

This stew of ideas, anxieties and superstitions has spread far beyond the militias. It constitutes the worldview of many people who think that they have less in common with rightwing armed fanatics than they do with spermwhales. Like the genteel British-Israelites of Victoria's empire, we have grown accustomed to regarding orthodox sources of knowledge and authority with suspicion. The cultic milieu, once confined to little clubs and spread by ill-printed mimeograph newsletters, today constitutes an increasing part of popular culture. The television series The X-Files and Oliver Stone's film JFK both grew out of a frame of mind disturbingly similar to the one that blew up the Oklahoma Federal Building. The Identity Movement is too twisted and small and ignorant to have much of a future. The same cannot be said of the apocalyptic stew from which it emerged.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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