Christian Identity Movement Spreads Race-Hate

Expanding race-hate faith underlies movement

What kind of a man would tape a plastic bag over a terrified 8-year-old girl's head, secure it with duct tape, and then dump the child's suffocated body in a swamp? What kind of person bombs newspaper offices, robs banks, then warns his jury that God is coming and they'd best repent?

Who shoots the fingers off a victim one by one before killing him, orders the sexual abuse of a child and then has the boy murdered?

The answer in each case, officials say, is a Christian Identity man.

The engine driving ever-widening sections of America's extreme right, the Biblical fuel that fires many of the nation's most frightening terrorists, is a religion with roots that cross the Atlantic Ocean and go back more than 150 years.

An explosive concoction of race hate and delusional end-times paranoia, Christian Identity is increasingly the glue that binds together the terrorist right.

Noting this growth and the dangers it poses, the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project recently undertook a closer look at the Identity movement. In a study begun last fall, it identified 94 active Christian Identity ministries in 34 states, ranging from tiny congregations to the powerhouse LaPorte (Colo.) Church of Christ run by pastor Pete Peters.

Many others doubtless went uncounted. (Some published lists of Identity ministries reflect larger numbers, but many of those listings are inaccurate or out of date.)

Fifty years ago, as its tenets were being thrashed out among a band of racist West Coast preachers, the Identity movement had fewer than 100 followers. As recently as the early 1990s, it had spread to thousands, but they were limited largely to members of neo-Nazi, Klan and similar radical right groups.

Today, with Identity tenets leaking into significant numbers of fundamentalist churches, the religion is growing, with more than 50,000 followers in North America.

'Instrument of the Final Justice'
Recent history has shown that many of those believers are willing to undertake extreme violence. Although Identity was behind crimes committed by the far right in the 1980s and before, the pace and severity of the terror has grown in recent years.

"They see themselves as instruments of the final justice," says Joel Dyer, author of the 1997 study of the radical right, Harvest of Rage. "In terms of domestic terrorism, that means that Identity believers are given to killing random people."

Christian Identity has no central authority or ecclesiastical structure. It is practiced in small congregations dotted around the country, and promulgated by mail-order ministries and in speeches given from a variety of rostrums.

Historically, its central theses have been that Jews descend from the sexual union of Eve and the Serpent, whites are the progeny of Adam and Eve, and non-whites are soulless "mud people."

That may be changing.

Last year, a long-simmering dispute between "hard" and "soft" Identity wings of the movement came to a head. The hard Identity followers are sticking fast with the "seedline" conception of Jews as the "spawn of Satan."

But the increasingly important soft faction, as represented in the premier Identity tabloid The Jubilee, has preached that while Jews are "cursed hybrids," they are not literally Satanic. Instead, they are people who defied commandments against racial mixing and so are hated by God.

The dispute has become so rancorous that hard-liners, infuriated by The Jubilee's softer position, have started contemptuously calling the paper "Jewbilee."

While this softening trend may seem encouraging, it is actually helping Identity's spread.

"The idea is to increase Identity's stature," says Michael Barkun, author of Religion and the Racist Right, the definitive 1994 study of the Christian Identity religion. "Since the theology is so far outside the mainstream, they have only a few options: to be isolated like Richard Butler [an Identity hard-liner who runs an armed Idaho compound], or to move the theology closer to the mainstream."

Such a strategy may help Identity pull relative moderates, even nonracists, into a theology whose views are far more extremist than many new recruits realize.

A case in point is the rapidly growing, extreme antigovernment "Patriot" movement. As people join the movement, many of them nonracist, they are introduced to a potpourri of alleged conspiracies involving the government and various international agencies. Soon, many of them find themselves asking who is behind these nefarious plots.

Christian Identity offers them the answer — the "cursed" Jew. And because the vast majority of Americans are church-going Christians, many newcomers to the Patriot movement find that the explanations offered by Identity — based on tortured readings of the Bible — seem to make sense.

So while they may start their ideological journey as nonracists, many recruits end up adopting racist Identity beliefs.

"Once people are in the middle of it, they'll hear the old philosophies, the old teachings," Dyer says. "The real threat of violence in the United States still stems from Identity teachings. Identity says the war has already started. And you insert those kinds of beliefs into the Patriot movement and you make it 100 times more violent."