Essay: The Christian Identity Movement

By Michael Barkun 

Of all the movements that have appeared among white racists in America, Christian Identity is surely one of the strangest. Though nominally Christian, it owes little to the even the most conservative of American Protestants. Indeed, its relationship with evangelicals and fundamentalists has generally been hostile due to the latter’s belief that the return of Jews to Israel is essential to the fulfillment of end-time prophecy. Identity has created for itself a unique anti-Semitic and racist theology, but despite its curious beliefs, it rose in the 1980s to a position of commanding influence on the racist right. Only a prolonged and aggressive effort by law enforcement, together with the demise of influential leaders who were not replaced, brought about its present decline.

Christian Identity emerged out of an odd side-current of Protestant religious activity in the United Kingdom usually called British-Israelism or Anglo-Israelism. In its simplest form, it asserted that the British Isles had been peopled by the so-called Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, who, having left their Babylonian exile, wandered west through Europe until they crossed the Channel. Although hints of this strange revisionist history had appeared as early as the 17th and 18th centuries, it did not gain much currency until a writer and lecturer named John Wilson gave it systematic form in the mid-1800s. Wilson acknowledged that Jews, too, had a place in what he termed “All-Israel,” although he saw it as a subordinate one. He also believed that the tribes in their wanderings also begat other northern European (primarily Germanic) peoples. Indeed, in subsequent years British-Israelites sometimes quarreled bitterly about which nations were in or out of the Israelite inheritance, a debate that took on a political edge with the growing rivalry between England and Germany. Whatever claims British-Israelites made for the Israelite origins of other nations, however, they always insisted on the primacy of the “Anglo-Saxon-Celtic” peoples.

In retrospect, we can see in British-Israelism a bizarre religious manifestation of British imperial aspirations, for if the British were indeed descendants of the Israelites, then they were God’s chosen people, ruling not simply by power but by divine plan. Yet Anglo-Israelism never developed as a separate religious denomination. Its members remained within their original churches, often the Church of England. By the 1870s and 1880s, the movement had begun to take organized form and branches spread to present and former outposts of the empire, notably to Canada and the United States.  Although eventually an umbrella organization formed — the British-Israel World Federation — it was in truth a movement without a head, and as it spread, its doctrines began to shift in some of the distant venues. It was these doctrinal mutations that set the stage for Christian Identity. 

Once British-Israelism began to grow outside Great Britain itself, two major doctrinal deviations occurred that had major implications for the subsequent development of Christian Identity. One concerned the place of Britain; the other concerned the place of the Jewish people. As far as the significance of Britain was concerned, British-Israel writers had deduced it from a variety of highly questionable sources, including spurious etymologies (e.g., deriving “Saxons” from “Isaac’s sons”), variant readings of biblical passages, and interpretations of historical and archaeological evidence. American Anglo-Israelites were not necessarily disposed to criticize this kind of argumentation on methodological grounds, but they were anxious to place America at the center of God’s plan, for American British-Israelites, like many other Americans in the late 19th century, bought into concepts of Manifest Destiny. There was also a well-entrenched belief, harking back to the Puritans, that America was “the new Israel.” Why, then, should it not be linked to Israel by biology as well?

Beyond considerations of America’s special place in the world, when British-Israelism crossed the Atlantic, it became enmeshed in radical American political currents. This became evident in the early 1920s, when a major Anglo-Israelite in Oregon turned out to be a leader in the Ku Klux Klan at a time the Klan was a major power on the West Coast. The high tide of British-Israelism in America was reached in the next decade, for the Great Depression was a boon to all manner of fringe groups that would otherwise not have gotten a hearing. British-Israelism in America during the 1930s took the form of the Anglo-Saxon Federation of America, led by a tireless Massachusetts lawyer, Howard Rand, who crisscrossed the country organizing branches. Rand was joined in the Federation’s leadership by William J. Cameron, an executive of the Ford Motor Co. Cameron was not only Henry Ford’s public relations man; he had also edited Ford’s weekly newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. In the early 1920s, the Independent had published an infamous set of articles, “The International Jew,” which popularized the Czarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, probably the most influential anti-Semitic tract of the 20th century. Cameron almost certainly wrote many of these articles himself. Although Ford closed the Independent in 1927, Cameron’s presence in the Anglo-Saxon Federation provided a conduit for anti-Semitism in the inner circle of American British-Israelism.  

This was critical, for the issue of the Jews in British-Israelism presented an obstacle to anti-Semites. At its origins British-Israelism had been philo-Semitic, not anti-Semitic. Its goal was to see “All-Israel” living together in harmony, a millennial vision that would place Jews and the “Anglo-Saxon-Celtic” peoples together in the Holy Land at some future time. While Cameron concentrated on ideas about a Jewish conspiracy for world domination, he could provide no theological rationale for excluding Jews from God’s plan for salvation. That was left to British-Israelites in western Canada. A group in Vancouver, increasingly alienated from colleagues in both eastern Canada and in London, began to argue that Jews were in fact descendants of the biblical Esau and consequently bore Esau’s curse. By the late 1930s, their ideas had begun to filter down the Pacific Coast to branches of Rand and Cameron’s Anglo-Saxon Federation, where they found a receptive audience. More generally, with the end of World War II, philo-Semitism among British-Israelites began to wane. It became clear that Jewish settlers in Palestine had no desire for the British Mandate to continue and wished to have a state of their own, as promised in the Balfour Declaration. Anglo-Israelites, who had seen British administration of the Holy Land as a sign of the imminence of the end-times, regarded Jewish resistance to British rule as nothing less than betrayal. 

The clear separation of what we know as Christian Identity from British-Israelism began in Southern California immediately after World War II. The conditions there were propitious. Los Angeles had long been awash in fringe religious sects, and Rand’s Anglo-Saxon Federation had struck especially deep roots in California. The anti-Semitic strain of Anglo-Israelism developed in Vancouver had filtered down the Coast, and, in addition, the Klan and paramilitary organizations were active. Finally, Los Angeles was then the headquarters of Gerald L.K. Smith, the most important anti-Semitic organizer in America. There is no evidence that Smith himself embraced either British-Israelism or Identity, but nearly all the first generation of Identity leaders had some connection to him. That generation was dominated by three figures: Wesley Swift, William Potter Gale, and Bertrand Comparet. None of the three had any significant theological training, although Swift appears to have attended a small Bible college. Gale had been a career military officer, and Comparet was a lawyer.

Identity’s founding triumvirate built on British-Israelism, but made two critical modifications: First, they made much more important and explicit the latent racism that always lay behind Anglo-Israelism, with its glorification of Northern Europeans. Swift, Gale, and Comparet, however, went beyond paeans to the “Anglo-Saxon-Celtic” peoples and systematically denigrated non-white races, justifying racial inequality by radically changing the traditional understanding of the biblical Creation story. Second, drawing on the rising anti-Semitism of such British-Israelite groups as that in Vancouver with its claim that Jews were the descendants of Esau, the founders of Identity developed an even more sweeping theology of anti-Semitism. According to it, Jews were nothing less than “the Devil’s spawn.” Both of these developments will be discussed in more detail below.

Swift in particular was a powerful preacher. His preaching gifts, together with the connection all three men had with Gerald L.K. Smith’s right-wing network, allowed early Identity to grow in Southern California in the late 1940s and 1950s. In the 1960s, Swift may well have met with George Lincoln Rockwell, the leader of the American Nazi Party. What is beyond question is that around the same time, first Gale and then Swift met a new Identity convert, an engineer at Lockheed named Richard Girnt Butler.  Butler would later proclaim himself Swift’s successor and organize the Idaho-based Aryan Nations and the Church of Jesus Christ-Christian.

Identity racial doctrine, like virtually all of Identity, is revisionist. In this case, it radically revises the biblical story of humanity’s creation. The California Identity preachers claimed that God had created the races separately, and that the story in the book of Genesis about the creation of Adam told only the story of the creation of the white race. In their view, the non-white races were separately created later and could not trace their lineage back to Adam. Adam then became for Identity “the first White man.” Thus the egalitarianism that might have been taken from the biblical story — that all human beings, whatever their differences, ultimately shared a common ancestry — was rejected. By implication, too, the Bible could be understood as a book that spoke only to whites. Identity writers professed to see its every feature under the aspect of race. Thus Wesley Swift argued that God destroyed most of humanity in the Flood because whites in earlier times had been guilty of the sin of miscegenation.

If anything, Identity’s view of the Jews underwent an even more radical revisionism. Here, too, the revisionism focused on Genesis, but instead of looking at the creation of Adam, Identity retold the story of Eve’s primal sin in the Garden of Eden. In Identity’s version, the Serpent was Satan, and the sin was more than merely tasting of the fruit of the Tree in the center of the Garden. Rather, Eve’s sin was that she had sex with Satan, and gave birth to Satan’s child, Cain. Where the Vancouver British-Israelites linked Jews to Esau, Identity now went back to this original sin and claimed that Jews were the offspring of Cain. This so-called “two-seedline” theology thus posited that one seedline went from the union of Eve and Satan through Cain and his progeny, the Jews; the other from the union of Eve and Adam through their child Seth and his progeny, the white race.  The two were, according to Identity, in continual conflict until some final end-time battle.

Thus Identity racial doctrine, positing Adam as the progenitor only of whites, was linked to the anti-Semitic two-seedline theology. Together, they envisioned an apocalyptic struggle between whites on one side and, on the other, Jews together with their nonwhite allies. The end-time struggle was thus in the broadest sense associated with a racial millennium, for Identity’s perfect future would be a world free of Jews with nonwhites in perpetual subordination and servitude.

Given these beliefs, it is not surprising that Identity detested the conservative Protestantism of the religious right. The latter accepted African-Americans as equals, whatever debates there might be about particular policies such as affirmative action. Conservative evangelicals are also frequently premillennialists who believe in a sequence of end-time events that requires the protection of the State of Israel and the rebuilding of a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, as conditions necessary for the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. This is anathema to Identity adherents, who believe Jews to have no relationship to the Israelites mentioned in the Bible — a far cry from the philo-Semitism of early British-Israelism. Consequently, Identity often characterizes evangelicals as dupes and traitors, in language scarcely more restrained from that they use in discussing Jews and blacks.

Making generalizations about Christian Identity has always been difficult, for the movement is fragmented. There has never been a central structure, even for rudimentary coordination. Instead, there have been entirely separate churches, Bible study groups, radio and electronic ministries, and publications, each claiming autonomy. Further, like many other movements on the far right, Identity has been beset by feuds and rivalries, sometimes between leaders and sometimes within groups, causing frequent ruptures. Finally, there are often no clear distinctions between Christian Identity and other segments of the racist right. Thus Identity has sometimes overlapped with the Klan or neo-Nazi groups. Therefore, there has never been an authority to define, much less enforce, orthodoxy, in either doctrine or practice. The summary of doctrine above hews closely to views of the first generation of Identity leadership, but does not preclude the possibility of variations. Indeed, even during the period when Gale, Swift, and Comparet were active, some more traditional British-Israel groups continued to operate.

Where practice is concerned, there is even more variability, largely because the California founders had little interest in developing a ritual or ceremonial component. The one area where distinctive ceremonial practices have developed has been in holiday celebrations. This derives from the conviction of Identity believers that they, and they alone, are the lineal, biological descendants of the biblical tribes of Israel. Consistent with that belief, they consider that at least some of the biblical commandments enjoined upon the Israelites apply also to them. The ones most frequently observed concern festivals, such as Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles, holidays traditionally observed by Jews. In principle, and depending upon variations in individual or group practice, Identity believers might also choose among the large number of other commandments, such as those imposing biblical dietary restrictions.

Christian Identity is not inherently violent, but individual believers have been involved in many violent incidents and have sometimes advocated violence. In addition, some Christian Identity groups have been heavily armed. In a short space, it is impossible to do more than give some examples of associations between Christian Identity and violence. It is clear that in many of these cases, believers employed, recommended, or prepared for violence because they thought their religion required it. 

Two groups in particular deserve mention, the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord (CSA), and The Order. The Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord was a communal settlement founded in northern Arkansas in 1976 by James Ellison. Originally a born-again, evangelical community, it underwent a transformation when Ellison converted to Identity. Convinced that American society was about to crumble and that hordes of nonwhites would come marauding through the countryside, Ellison turned his rural commune into a militarized, fortified redoubt whose members not only received military training but gave it to others on the radical right. Although the community as such did not commit violent acts, a number of its individual members did when off community premises. When the CSA was raided by the FBI in 1985 for serious firearms violations, its members did not resist, and the community quickly collapsed thereafter. 

The Order (also known as the Silent Brotherhood) was a quite different organization, for it was a clandestine insurgent group intent on provoking a race war in order to bring down the federal government. Roughly evenly divided between Identity believers and neo-pagan Odinists, The Order was founded in 1983 and was active only until late 1984. But in that short time it committed significant crimes, including counterfeiting, a synagogue bombing, an armored car robbery and an assassination.

The numerous acts of violence committed by individual Christian Identity believers is of interest primarily because of efforts by some in the movement to construct justifications for their behavior. In 1990, the Christian Identity writer Richard Kelly Hoskins popularized the figure of the “Phineas priest,” an image he took from Psalm 106, which implies that a plague among the Israelites ceased when Phineas slew the sinners among them. Hoskins argued that individuals who take it upon themselves to kill racial defilers are similarly doing the Lord’s work of purification. In 1992, the influential Christian Identity minister, Pete Peters, convened a meeting in Estes Park, Colo., to protest shootings by law enforcement during an armed standoff at the Ruby Ridge, Idaho, cabin of Randy Weaver, a Christian Identity believer. One of the highlights of the meeting was the distribution of an essay, “Leaderless Resistance,” by former Klan leader Louis Beam. Beam argued that organized activity to destabilize the government had become too dangerous, largely as a result of the efforts of state and federal law enforcement to dismantle The Order and infiltrate similar groups. Beam argued that even cellular organizations could be penetrated and that action could be safely undertaken only by individuals or very small groups acting completely outside any organizational framework. The individual, he went on, must act against targets of opportunity at times and places of his choosing, on the basis of his own sense of the rightness of his actions, derived from his deepest beliefs. In effect, Hoskins and Beam were giving a blank check to the freelance assassin, assuring him that his idiosyncratic act of violence was really God’s work.

Although Christian Identity dominated the racist right in the 1970s and 1980s, by the 1990s it was in decline. It faded because of a combination of factors, including more aggressive governmental action, limits to its appeal, and a growing leadership vacuum.

The exposure of The Order in the mid-1980s raised awareness about movements like Identity among federal and state law enforcement agencies.  Although religious groups benefit from the freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment, Identity groups found themselves subject to a level of governmental interest they had not previously felt. Indeed, Louis Beam’s “Leaderless Resistance” essay was itself a response to this interest. It is impossible to determine the extent to which surveillance and infiltration may have deterred individuals from joining Identity organizations, but a chilling effect is certainly possible.

In addition, Identity doctrine itself almost certainly made the movement self-limiting. It demanded a wholly new understanding of biblical history and a rejection of some of the central teachings of evangelical Christianity. Many individuals — even those already hostile to Jews and blacks — may have been unable or unwilling to completely recast their views of scripture in the ways Identity demanded. On the other hand, by the 1980s those who wished to be true cultural radicals had an alternative to Identity, a religious orientation even more extreme — neo-pagan Odinism, which broke completely with Christianity by constructing a racial version of Norse mythology. Thus Identity was caught between those who considered it too extreme and those for whom it may not have been extreme enough.

Finally, there were problems of leadership, which led to internal turmoil.  The trio of California preachers who founded Identity died out even as the movement grew — Wesley Swift in 1970, Bertrand Comparet in 1983 and William Potter Gale in 1988 after his conviction on tax charges. Swift’s “successor,” Richard Butler, died in 2004 after a long period of decline.  Without a clear successor to Butler, Aryan Nations fragmented into bickering coteries. One of the few Identity figures to retain a following has been Pete Peters, who leads the LaPorte Church of Christ in LaPorte, Colo.  But significantly, like many others in the movement, Peters refuses to use the label “Christian Identity.” Indeed, his church calls itself an “independent, non-denomination Christian church.” The term “Christian Identity” has been so often linked with acts of violence and with criminal prosecutions since the 1980s that even those to whom it properly belongs flee from it.  

Michael Barkun is a professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. He is the author of Religion and the Racist Right (University of North Carolina Press, 1997).