Religious extremism and its relation to violent conflict
This series will delve deeper into how white supremacists, sovereign citizens, militia extremists and violent anti-abortion adherents use religious concepts and scripture to justify threats, criminal activity and violence. This discussion of religious extremism should not be confused with someone being extremely religious. It should also not be misconstrued as an assault on Christianity, rather it represents an exploration of the links between violent right-wing extremism and its exploitation of Christianity and other religions to gain a better understanding of how American extremists recruit, radicalize and mobilize their violent adherents toward terrorism.
“The War on Terror,” a phrase now part of the American lexicon, has been portrayed by U.S. policy makers and military commanders as a battle against radical Islam. As a result, many academics, government officials and counter-terrorism experts have researched, analyzed and assessed the role of Muslim extremists using the Islamic religion (rather, the misinterpretation of Islam) to radicalize and mobilize terrorists to wage “Jihad” against the West. Few, however, acknowledge or understand how American right-wing extremists have also used religious concepts and scripture to recruit, radicalize and mobilize their adherents toward hate and violence against similar enemies. Much like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, right-wing terrorists — who often refer to themselves as “Soldiers of Odin,” “Phineas Priests,” or “Army of God” — are inspired by their interpretations of religious concepts and scripture to lash out and kill in God’s name.
Religious extremism and its relation to violent conflict is not a new phenomenon. Many isolated confrontations, wars and conquests have been instigated or carried out in the name of religion. Throughout history, violent clashes between nations, religions and civilizations have resulted from differences in religious beliefs, scriptural interpretation and spiritual practices. Various religious factions, some more radical, have emerged from these armed conflicts. Other more dominant religions have also spread their influence through force and aggression.
During the 1980s and 1990s, right-wing extremists were galvanized by several national issues such as the perceived erosion of parental rights and authority through court rulings, expanding multiculturalism, abortion rights and the decline of the American family farm – all perceived as an attack on their Judeo-Christian beliefs which right-wing extremists view as a key component to America’s founding). These issues were magnified because of the far-right’s perception of a changing political climate which favored expanding benefits and equal opportunities to ethnic minorities, immigrants and other diversity groups. So it was no surprise that religious concepts and scriptural interpretation played a role in the armed confrontations between right-wing extremists and the U.S. government during this time period — specifically, at the Covenant, Sword, Arm of the Lord (CSA) compound in 1985, Ruby Ridge in 1992, and Waco in 1993.
These standoffs not only showed extremists rebelling against the U.S. government and its laws, but also asserted what they believed were their divine religious and Constitutional rights. These events served as radicalization and recruitment nodes to boost the ranks of white supremacists, militia extremists sovereign citizens, and other radical anti-government adherents who viewed the government’s response to these standoffs as tyrannical and overreaching
In the cases of the CSA, Ruby Ridge, and Waco, religious concepts — such as end times prophecy, millennialism and the belief that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ was imminent — played a vital role in the recruitment, radicalization and mobilization of these Christian-inspired extremists and their illegal activities. For example, CSA members, the Weaver family and the Branch Davidians each embraced a lethal triad of end times prophecy, antigovernment conspiracy theories and an affinity for weapons. Author Paul T. Coughlin expounds upon this lethal triad in his book Secrets, Plots & Hidden Agendas. This deadly combination has been linked to many extremists violating the law, instigating violent confrontations with law enforcement as well as providing motivation for domestic terrorist attacks (e.g. Spokane Bank Robbers, Eric Rudolph, Robert Dear, among others). Each also used their religious beliefs to justify engaging in “prepper” type activities, such as living off the land, isolating themselves from other family members and society, and stockpiling food, water and weapons to prepare for the end times and await — or even hasten — the apocalypse.
In Tabernacle of Hate, former CSA leader Kerry Noble lists three factors that contributed to the radicalization and mobilization of his group – (1) an ideology that generates fear, anger, despair, hate, etc.; (2) a group that emphasizes communal living, physical and mental isolation, filtered or limited access to information, and having a perceived enemy or limited options; and, (3) a charismatic leader that manipulates and directs others — often perceived as divine or God’s spokesperson. CSA was an insular community where church meetings, communal prayer, and group scripture study strengthened the extremist organization’s identity, ideology and membership. Noble’s three danger factors are applicable to some right-wing extremist groups today that also congregate in insular communities such as Warren Jeff’s Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), Robert Millar’s Elohim City, and Dan Gayman’s Church of Israel.
Obviously, there is a wide range of world religions, denominations and congregations within these denominations (including various factions and sub-factions). Such diversity clearly illustrates the significantly complex and controversial nature of religion. Like any social culture, religious beliefs and written scripture are subject to human interpretation, cultural influences and historical context. Such diversity and autonomy not only strengthens religious communities, it also permits extremists to exploit it (e.g. their beliefs and sacred texts) to justify threatening others, criminal acts and violence against non-believers.
For example, in 1996, the Spokane Bank Robbers left business cards with a Celtic Cross and references to Yahweh (Hebrew for “God”), Obadiah 18 (e.g. Old Testament scripture in the Bible), and “His Wrath” at the scene of bank robberies and bombings. They believed they were literally carrying out God’s work by attacking banks, an abortion clinic and the local newspaper office. They viewed each of these targets as representing evil, Satanic influences. Similarly, domestic terrorist bomber Eric Rudolph cited Biblical passages and offered religious motives for his attacks on abortion clinics in Georgia and Alabama. Extremist “true believers,” like the Spokane Bank Robbers and Rudolph, will eventually cloak themselves in a mantle of religious righteousness and may initiate their violent act as part of a divine plan, heavenly edict or perceived mission from God.
An important aspect to understanding right-wing extremists’ use of religious concepts and scripture is the emergence of Dominion Theology among Christians in the U.S. Due to its strong and divisive message, Dominion Theology likely serves as a gateway to right-wing extremism. According to Frederick Clarkson, a Senior Fellow at Political Research Associates, “Dominionism is the theocratic idea that regardless of theological camp, means, or timetable, God has called conservative Christians to exercise dominion over society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.” This is similar to fears over Muslim extremists attempting to invoke Sharia Law in America.
Political Research Associates points out that there is a broad spectrum of Dominionists that range from mild supporters to hardcore believers. According to Clarkson and fellow analyst Chip Berlet, there are three key characteristics of Dominion theology. First, Dominionists celebrate Christian nationalism, in that they believe that the United States once was, and should again be, a Christian nation. “In this way, they deny the Enlightenment roots of American democracy,” Berlet and Clarkson said. Second, Dominionists promote religious supremacy, insofar as they generally do not respect the equality of other religions, or even other versions of Christianity. Lastly, Dominionists endorse theocratic visions, believing that the Ten Commandments, or “biblical law,” should be the foundation of American law, and that the U.S. Constitution should be seen as a vehicle for implementing biblical principles.
Dominion theology calls for Christians to assert God’s dominion over all mankind, including their communities, secular politics and American society to achieve the fulfillment of their Messianic expectations — to prepare the world for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. It is rooted in Biblical scripture (see Genesis 1:26-31), where God grants human beings “dominion over all creation.” Dominion theory teaches that Jesus has commanded his followers to begin building the Kingdom of God in modern day, by incorporating the doctrine and principles of the Christian faith into the political establishment with the ultimate goal of creating a Christian nation.
More radical orthodox Dominionists reportedly advocate the abolishment of civil rights, labor unions, public schools and any laws with which they disagree. In addition, they favor withdrawing U.S. citizenship from non-believers, as well as the removal of women from the workforce. Further, they believe federal, state and local government should eventually be replaced with a Christian theocracy, thus empowering religious institutions to run every aspect of the executive, legislative and judicial functions of government. Their ultimate goal is the creation of a Judeo-Christian nation where the only legitimate voice is Christian. Dominion theory reportedly contributed to the growth of religious fanaticism and extremism among Christians in the U.S. and likely served as a religious foundation for many right-wing extremist views. Such views seem closely aligned with sovereign citizen extremists, among other groups on the alt-right.
Last year, Duane Eugene Bond fatally stabbed an elderly man in Grants Pass, Oregon, during a domestic dispute. An Oregon couple was also indicted for chasing down and killing a 19-year-old black man with their vehicle. During 2015, the FBI arrested three men in Chesterfield, Virginia, for plotting to blow up African-American churches and Jewish synagogues as part of their plan to incite a “race war.” In 2014, Larry Steven McQuilliams fired more than 100 bullets into the Mexican Consulate and Austin Police Department in Texas before dying in a shootout with police. Frazier Glenn Miller also killed three people during a shooting rampage at Jewish facilities in Overland Park, Kansas, that same year. These violent white supremacists not only embraced the violent tenets of white supremacy, they also adhered to racist religious concepts that encouraged them to hate, conduct criminal activity and engage in violence.
This article will discuss white supremacist use of religious concepts and scripture, specifically from Christian and Norse mythology, into their extremist ideology, group rituals and calls for violence. White supremacists have literally hijacked these religions, by twisting their beliefs and parables, and using them to justify threats, criminal behavior and violent attacks.
Use of Christian Concepts
Dating back decades, many white supremacists have embraced religious concepts and scripture borrowed from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. This is particularly applicable to Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members, Christian Identity adherents and some neo-Nazis. White supremacists believe mainstream religions, including Christian denominations and their institutions, have fallen astray from God and are under the control and influence of Satan. As a result, white supremacists interpret scriptures and spiritual parables through the lens of racial discrimination and hate. In this way, they can justify their beliefs (which are vile and deplorable) as good, moral and responsible.
According to their propaganda, KKK members and Christian Identity adherents believe the Bible is the family history of the white race. They believe that white Christians are morally and spiritually superior to other races and that the Old Testament’s Twelve Tribes of Israel represent the origins of the white race (e.g. Anglo-Saxons, Teutonic, Scandinavian, Celtic, Basque, Lombard, Slavic, etc.). Their beliefs advocate that God created other races as “mud people” who have beast-like roles and lower standing to white men. They condemn race-mixing and Jews, who they perceive as enemies to God. They further believe whites are the only race that continually followed Jesus Christ. Such religious interpretation de-humanizes non-whites and provides spiritual justification — and perhaps motivation — to attack their enemies.
KKK ideology uses the Bible along with its universal handbook, the Kloran, as primary sources. The Kloran, first published in 1916, is the KKK’s rule book and a guidebook for “Klancraft” — a term used to describe the KKK’s beliefs, positions, symbols and rituals. There are many biblical references in the Kloran. Biblical symbolism is incorporated into KKK tradecraft, such as cross burnings, wearing white robes and hoods (symbolizing purity and cleanliness), baptisms and induction ceremonies. For example, KKK members equate cross burning to sending out the light of Christ to the world. Also, the KKK’s primary symbol, the MIOAK (which stands for “Mystic Symbol of a Klansman”) or the Blood Drop cross, features a white cross with a red tear drop at the center. The Blood Drop cross symbolizes the atonement and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, as well as others who have shed their blood for the white race. Surprisingly, some KKK leaders are actually ordained ministers and some have even organized churches which enjoy tax-exempt status. Examples include the Church of the National Knights of the KKK, Christian American Knights of the KKK, Knights of the White Disciples and the Soldiers of the Cross Training Institute.
The Christian Identity movement is a racist religious philosophy sustained by a network of churches and ordained ministers. It claims that white people, not the Jews, are God’s chosen people. The movement is comprised of both self-proclaimed followers who operate independently and organized groups that meet regularly or even live within insular communities. Its religious doctrine can be found online as well as in various books, pamphlets and recorded speeches. Many Christian Identity adherents believe they are living in the end times, thus mobilizing them to stockpile food, water, weapons and ammunition in anticipation of an impending apocalypse. Some groups, such as the now-defunct Covenant, Sword, Arm of the Lord and Elohim City, believe they have a role to play in hastening the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
“Phineas Priest” [sic] is a unique concept within Christian Identity. Phineas Priests believe they have been called to be “God’s Holy Warriors” for the white race. The term “Phineas Priest” is derived from the Biblical story of Phinehas (Book of Numbers, Chapter 25), which adherents interpret as justifying the killing of interracial couples. Phineas Priesthood followers have advocated martyrdom and also violence against homosexuals, mixed-race couples, and abortion providers. White supremacist author Richard Kelley Hoskins wrote about the alleged history of the Phineas Priesthood in his book Vigilantes of Christendom.
Also, a unique, and dangerous, brand of Christian Identity called “dual seed-line doctrine” teaches that Jews are the literal offspring of Satan through Eve’s impregnation by the snake at the tree in the Garden of Eden. According to dual seed-line doctrine, the white race continued through Adam and Eve’s son, Abel, and other children, while the Jewish race began with their other son, Cain. Further, they believe the Bible story of Cain slaying Abel suggests a Jew murdered the first white offspring — starting a war between whites and Jews, which continues to this day.
Finally, some neo-Nazis believe the swastika has biblical origins dating back to the time of Adam. According to Aryan Nations literature, “the swastika represents the Revolving Resurrection Cross and the promise of the Messiah which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ’s death on the cross.” Further, Aryan Nations members were taught that the open-handed salute (e.g. “Sieg Heil” salute) has “always been used by the white race to acknowledge God in the heavens and our dependence on Him for strength and succor,” the group’s literature states.
Use of Norse Mythology Concepts
Racial Nordic mysticism is most commonly embraced by neo-Nazis, racist skinheads, and Aryan prison gang members. It is most prolific among younger white supremacists. Followers of Norse mythology worship Nordic gods such as Thor and Odin. It operates through an autonomous, loose-knit network of adherents who congregate online and meet in person. White supremacists typically recruit others into racial Nordic mysticism either online, through group meetings or within American correctional institutions.
Odinism and Asatru are the most popular Norse mythological religions embraced by white supremacists. These non-Christian religious philosophies are not inherently racist, but have been exploited and embraced by white supremacists due to their symbolically strong image of “Aryan” life and Anglo-Saxon heritage. Aryan prison gang members may also have another reason for declaring affiliation with Odinism and Asatru due to prison privileges, such as special dietary needs or extra time to worship, given to those inmates who claim membership in a religious group.
For many white supremacists, Norse mythology features folklore of revenge and battles between forces of good and evil which resonate with white supremacist views of today’s society. The story-like nature of Norse mythology also appeals to a younger generation of white supremacists who reject Christianity as a weak religion (e.g. Jesus Christ submitting himself to the Jews to be killed) and who may find it difficult to understand biblical language and hidden messages in parables. Norse mythology also predicts a coming apocalypse or end times (called Ragnarok) where the forces of good will unite in a great battle against a devil-like figure (called Loki) and many will die. Further, ancient Norse warriors, called Berserkers (known for their explosive rage), continue to inspire some white supremacists today who depict these fearless soldiers in prison drawings and may attempt to emulate them.
Chip Berlet, senior analyst for Political Research Associates, points out that some white supremacists may be attracted to Norse mythology as a result of their affinity toward Greek mythology, Celtic lore or interest in Nazi Germany. Nazi leaders celebrated Nordic myths and used Nordic symbolism for their image of heroic warriors during World War II. “These myths were the basis of Wagner's Ring opera cycle, and influenced Hitler who merged them with his distorted understanding of Nietzsche's philosophy of the centrality of will and the concept of the Ubermensch, which Hitler turned into the idea of an Aryan ‘Master Race,’” Berlet says.
Lastly, neo-Nazi groups, such as the National Alliance and Volksfront, have used symbols of Norse mythology, such as the life rune, in their group insignias and propaganda. Similarly, Aryan prison gangs have also been known to write letters and inscribe messages on tattoos using the runic alphabet.
Other Religious Concepts
Another example of a white supremacist religious concept is the Creativity Movement. Ben Klassen is credited with creating this religion for the White race in Florida in 1973. Klassen authored two primary religious texts for the Creativity Movement — Nature’s Eternal Religion and the White Man’s Bible. Creativity emphasizes moral conduct and behavior for the white race (e.g. “your race is your religion”) including its “Sixteen Commandments” and the “Five Fundamental Beliefs of Creativity.” Klassen had a vision that every worthy member of the Creativity religion would become an ordained minister in the Church of the Creator. Followers of the Creativity Movement have carried out violent crimes such as mass shootings, arson, attempted bombings and murder.
It was February 13, 1983. Gordon Kahl, who often referred to himself as a “Christian Patriot,” had just murdered a Deputy U.S. Marshal (execution-style) on a lonely stretch of highway outside of Medina, North Dakota. Two other lawmen were shot as well as Kahl’s son, Yori. A second U.S. Marshal later died of his wounds. Yori and a deputy sheriff survived. The gun battle — between a group of sovereign citizens leaving a Posse Comitatus meeting and four lawmen — erupted while authorities were attempting to serve an arrest warrant on Kahl during a traffic stop for failure to appear. After rushing his son to the local medical clinic for aid, Kahl fled the scene in the sheriff deputy’s car.
While on the run, Kahl wrote a 16-page letter to a fellow sovereign citizen stating the motive behind his attack. He wrote, “We are engaged in a struggle to the death between the people of the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of Satan. It started long ago, and is now best described as a struggle between Jacob & Esau.” He also wrote, “If you've been paying tithes to the Synagogue of Satan, under the 2nd plank of the Communist Manifesto to finance your own destruction, stop right now, and tell Satan's tithing collectors, as I did many years ago, ‘Never again will I give aid and comfort to the enemies of Christ.’ Mystery Babylon with all its greatness will be destroyed.”
On June 4, 1983, Gordon Kahl died in a shootout near Smithville, Arkansas, but not before he killed another lawman who attempted to confront Kahl in a burning farmhouse. Today, Gordon Kahl is looked upon as a modern-day patriot martyr by many sovereign citizens, militia extremists and other radicals on the alt-right.
The Sovereign Citizen Movement (SCM) is a loosely organized collection of groups and individuals who believe that virtually all forms of state and federal government are illegitimate. Sometimes referred to as constitutionalists, freemen or common law advocates, they use tactics such as harassment, threats and intimidation against their enemies. Sovereign citizens have been known to establish “common law courts” to issue fake indictments and bogus arrest warrants against public officials. Sovereign citizens have also been known to violently attack — even kill — government officials and others. Sovereign citizens have a strong presence on the Internet and exploit the public’s frustration over tax increases, mortgage and credit card interest rates and perceptions of government greed and corruption to recruit new members.
Due to the high level of sovereign citizen encounters and related criminal activity, law enforcement, government officials and academics are keenly aware of it. Few, however, understand that sovereign citizen actions are oftentimes based on religious beliefs.
“For most sovereigns, beliefs about the law are explicitly religious beliefs,” says Spencer Dew and Jamie Wight of the University of Chicago’s Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion. “This cannot be overstated: they link their beliefs to points across a broad constellation of existing religious traditions.”
Core sovereign citizen beliefs are based on their own version of law that is derived from a combination of the Magna Carta, the Bible, English common law, and various 19th century state constitutions. Central to their argument is the view of a Supreme Being having embodied every person with certain inalienable rights as stated in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Bible.
Sovereign citizens believe that God created man to be sovereign — “free” of man-made laws and government regulation. They believe their doctrine is inspired, sanctioned and sustained by God. It consists of universal divine truths concealed to humanity by the world’s most powerful leaders and business elites. A sovereign citizen group based in Oregon actually sold “Kingdom of Heaven” license plates, passports, and driver’s licenses to fellow sovereign citizens entitling them to be members of God’s Kingdom.
Author Verl K. Speer (often referred to as the “Doctor of Common Law”) in his book Pied Pipers of Babylon (considered sovereign citizen propaganda) summarizes his view of our society in religious terms. “It is time that we came to the realization that we are engaged in a spiritual war against powers and principalities, contracting parties in high places who have entangled us in their web of deceit via a multitude of non-disclosed adhesion contracts,” he writes.
SCM ideology appeals to a wide range of people separated by generations, cultural and ethnic differences, and spans the political spectrum. As a result, religious concepts among sovereign citizens can fall anywhere along the theological continuum. For example, some extremist insular communities, such as the Church at Kahweh in California and the Christ County Kingdom of God sect in Michigan, have merged sovereign citizen tradecraft into their religious organizations. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) faction in Hildale, Utah, also embraces and uses aspects of sovereign citizen tactics, such as engaging in welfare and tax fraud, disregarding federal and state laws or authority, and creating their own police force (which is neither certified nor recognized by the state). As individuals, other sovereign citizens have taken a more common approach to their religious views, such as Bible-based Christian Patriotism or holding end times/apocalyptic beliefs.
In contrast, some sovereign citizens, particularly those who are younger, reject organized religion — its institutions, doctrine and scriptures. According to the 2009 Global Sovereigns Handbook, “Religion is the greatest form of mind control through manipulation of fear, guilt, and shame. Spirituality is the opposite of religion.”
Mark of the Beast Conspiracy
Some SCM propaganda includes Christian fundamentalist beliefs concerning millennialism, ends times prophecy and the apocalypse — including the Mark of the Beast Conspiracy. They compare today’s society to the ancient city of Babylon (allegedly destroyed for its rampant sin, corruption and rejection of God). According to the conspiracy, Satan rules our world (e.g. Babylon). The “Whore of Babylon” consists of today’s Western nations (comprising 10 wealthy, business-oriented nations). They also believe that the anti-Christ will soon rise from one of these nations. Using their interpretation of the Bible, some sovereign citizens surmise that Babylonian law is controlled by merchants (i.e. corporations). Since the Bible’s Book of Revelation supposedly says that the “Law of the Merchants” primarily operates on the sea, sovereign citizens equate it to today’s “Maritime Law.” Some sovereign citizens use this interpretation of the Book of Revelation to support their Redemption Scam.
“The warfare in Babylon is between the spiritual and material forces,” said Verl K. Speer. “The Beast derives his power from materialism, deception and ignorance of the Law. He exercises this power under the Law of Merchants within the jurisdiction of the Law of the Sea, specifically that of Admiralty/Maritime Law because of the maritime nature of Babylon itself, the sum of its qualities and characteristics.”
According to Speers, Babylon, Satan and the anti-Christ are hell-bent on keeping everyone else enslaved in debt, regulation and oversight. Their objectives are simple; financial profit and power in furtherance of their own self interests. “By succumbing to the materialistic lures and teaching of the Pied Pipers of Babylon, the true nature of Causation and the purpose of our own Being are hidden from us,” Speers said.
Sovereign citizens are known to use Biblical passages to justify tax fraud as well as defaulting on credit card payments or bank loans. They most often cite Old Testament scriptures, which reference paying usury and taking money from the poor, such Ezekiel 22:12-13, Proverbs 28:8, Deuteronomy 23:19, and Leviticus 25:36-37. Sovereign citizen extremists further cite Nehemiah 9:32-37 to bolster the belief that oppressive taxation results from sin. Also, 1 Kings 12:13-19 is used to justify rebellion against the government for oppressive taxation.
Sovereign citizen extremists have also been known to form fictitious churches or obtain bogus pastoral certifications in an attempt to avoid paying taxes. They usually obtain fake ecclesiastical credentials online or through mail-order catalogues and fraudulent ministerial schools. This financial scam is called “Corporation Sole.” The Corporation Sole scam attempts to take advantage of special tax benefits available to legitimate churches, ecclesiastical leaders, and other religious groups. Scam artists initially apply for incorporation under the false pretext of being a “minister” or “pastor” of a bogus religious organization or group. They falsely claim that such an arrangement entitles them to exemption from Federal income taxes as an organization described in USC 501(c) (3) laws.
Sovereign citizen gurus have also organized seminars — charging up to $1,000 or more per person — to learn how to file a phony Corporation Sole. Participants are manipulated into believing that their counterfeit Corporation Sole provides a “legal” way to avoid paying income taxes, child support, and other personal debts by hiding their assets in a tax exempt entity. Some sovereign citizens have been known to change their residence to a church — even putting up signs on their property with the name of their fake religious organization. Courts have routinely rejected this tax avoidance tactic as frivolous, upheld criminal tax evasion convictions against those making or promoting such arguments and imposed civil penalties for falsely claiming corporation sole status.
Other Fraudulent Schemes
Sovereign citizens have also used religion as cover for other fraudulent schemes. For example, on April 24, 2009, Jerry R. Williamson, a promoter of the Florida-based “Guiding Light of God Ministries” was convicted of mail fraud. The indictment further alleges that Eddie Ray Kahn founded and led the group from 1996 through 2004. During that time period, the Guiding Light of God Ministries enrolled more than 4,000 customers from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and several foreign countries. Defendants Williamson, Stephen C. Hunter, Danny True and Allan J. Tanguay allegedly worked with Kahn to develop and sell tax defiance schemes based on deliberate misrepresentations of the legal foundation of the tax system.
Many will remember the 2014 standoff between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and an anti-government extremist rancher named Cliven Bundy in Bunkerville, Nevada. After a decades-long legal battle, a federal judge finally issued a court order for the BLM to seize Bundy’s cattle, which had been illegally grazing on federal land. When BLM rangers attempted to serve the judge’s order, a heated confrontation ensued between them and Bundy family members. This clash, recorded on video, led to the mobilization of hundreds of armed “Bundy supporters” (e.g. militia members, sovereign citizens, Oath Keepers, III Percenters and other antigovernment extremists) who descended upon Bundy’s ranch in April. They rallied to defend the Bundy family against a perceived overzealous and tyrannical government — some even pointing long guns at federal agents during the weeks-long standoff. Federal authorities eventually backed down, fearing a bloodbath. Many extremist Bundy supporters viewed the government’s retreat as a sign from God and a victory for their cause, especially since Cliven Bundy had prayed for divine intervention during the crisis.
In January 2016, Bundy’s sons, Ryan and Ammon, again mobilized their fellow antigovernment extremists to defend what they perceived as big government’s encroachment on the Constitutional rights of land owners in Burns, Oregon. The Bundy brothers orchestrated an armed takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, a Federal facility, which lasted 41 days. As with Waco and Ruby Ridge during the 1990s, the Bunkerville and Malheur standoffs today used religious concepts to guide and motivate others into recruiting for extremist causes and radicalizing some into open rebellion against federal authority. Some were even inspired to break the law as a result of the religious concepts and scripture being incorporated into these events.
Despite extensive media coverage of these events, few know that religion played a key role in both standoffs. Cliven, Ryan, and Ammon Bundy are “Mormon Constitutionalists” — a unique brand of right-wing extremism linked to LDS Church members and their religious beliefs concerning prophecies of Christ’s return, America’s divine founding, and God’s role of inspiring America’s Founding Fathers and the U.S. Constitution. Cliven Bundy and his family referred to Mormon scriptures to justify their actions against the government. Bundy believed his grazing rights on federal land stemmed from his Mormon ancestry. Bundy rationalized that Mormon pioneers had worked the land long before the BLM was established and that God created the federal land in question. Therefore, the government had no right to control who uses the land.
Bundy, his family, and supporters reportedly fasted and prayed for “the spirit of their forefathers to be with them” during the confrontation. In 2014, Cliven reportedly used the Mormon belief in personal revelation from God to gain divine insight into organizing and carrying out the Bunkerville standoff. Ammon Bundy, who is named after a well-known Book of Mormon figure, would later use the same religious concepts as his father for the Malheur takeover.
A particularly vocal militia extremist at the Malheur standoff was a person who used the moniker “Captain Moroni,” a battle-hardened Book of Mormon character who purportedly resisted government tyranny in ancient America. Captain Moroni is the perfect religious character for the modern militia movement because of his “Title of Liberty” — a banner made from Moroni’s torn coat created as an inspiration for the people to defend their religion, freedoms and families (see Book of Mormon, Alma 46:12-13). At the Bunkerville and Malheur standoffs, banners bearing similar slogans as Moroni’s, such as “Liberty, Freedom, For God We Stand” and “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, our peace, our wives, and our children,” were flown by militia members and other antigovernment extremists.
America — A Christian Nation
As demonstrated by these standoffs, militia extremists compare themselves to “Christian Patriots” and the minutemen of the American Revolution in an attempt to “save” the perceived ideals and original intent of the U.S. Constitution. The militia movement wants to return America to what they perceive as the country’s Judeo-Christian roots. They have adopted some of the symbols associated with the American Revolution, such as the using the term “Minutemen” in group names, hosting anti-tax events (much like the Boston Tea Party), celebrating April 19th — the anniversary date of the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, and using the Gadsden Minutemen flag with its revolutionary “Don’t Tread on Me” slogan.
Many militia members have a deep respect and reverence for America’s Founding Fathers. Their admiration takes on religious overtones. They believe that the U.S. Constitution was “divinely inspired,” that the Founding Fathers adhered to Judeo-Christian principles and were actually chosen and led by God to create the United States of America. For example, an Indiana Militia Corps’ Citizenship recruitment pamphlet states, “the Christian faith was the anchor of the founding fathers of these United States.” Further, an Indiana Militia Corps’ Citizenship training manual states, “People of faith, Christians in particular, recognize that God is the source of all things, and that Rights come from God alone.” Many militia extremists erroneously believe that the principles the founding fathers used to create the U.S. Constitution are derived solely from the Bible. It is important to note that many people not associated with militia extremism believe similarly about the U.S. and America’s Founding Fathers. This does not make them extremists.
Some militia groups, which often organize according to a military structure, have been known to appoint chaplains within the group. The militia chaplain is responsible not only for the spiritual welfare of militia members and their families, but also provides spiritual leadership for the group, which includes giving a religious interpretation for the militia’s goals and objectives.
Apocalyptic Fears and Prepping
The militia movement has historically feared, predicted and anticipated a cataclysmic event that could lead to the collapse of the United States. Some militia members believe that such cataclysmic events are based in Biblical prophecies. For example, some militia members believe that the so-called “Anti-Christ” in the last days predicted in the Book of Revelation is a world leader who unites all nations under a “one world government” before being exposed as the agent of Satan. They further believe that Jesus will battle the Anti-Christ before restoring his kingdom on earth. Militia members cite the creation of communism, the establishment of the United Nations and attacks against their Constitutional rights as “signs” or “evidence” that the Anti-Christ is actively working to create the “one world government” predicted in the Bible (e.g. Book of Revelation). For example, toward the end of the 1990s, many in the militia movement prepared for the turn of the millennium (e.g. Y2K) due to the impending belief that American society would collapse and result in anarchy and social chaos. The failure of the Y2K prophecy left many in the militia movement disenchanted and many left as a result.
Antigovernment conspiracy theories and apocalyptic “end times” Biblical prophecies are also known to motivate militia extremists and groups to stockpile food, ammunition and weapons. These apocalyptic teachings have also been linked with the radicalization of militia extremist members. For example, eight members of the Hutaree militia in Adrian, Michigan, were arrested in March 2010 for conspiring to attack police officers and blow up their funeral processions. All but two were later acquitted by a federal judge for conspiring to kill police officers.
According to the Hutaree, its doctrine is “based on faith and most of all the testimony of Jesus.” On their website, the Hutaree reference the story of the 10 virgins (Matthew 25: 1-12) as the basis for their existence, “The wise ones took enough oil to last the whole night, just in case the bridegroom was late. The foolish ones took not enough oil to last the whole night and figured that the bridegroom would arrive earlier than he did.” According to the Hutaree, the bridegrooms represent the Christian church today; the oil represents faith, and those with enough faith could last through the darkest and most doubtful times,which Hutaree members believe is upon them. Further, militia members often reason that defending themselves, their families, and communities against the New World Order is a literal battle between good (i.e. God) and evil (i.e. Satan or the devil).
Many people not associated with militia extremism believe we are living in the last days or are engaged in preparedness-related activities. Again, this does not necessarily make them extremists.
Further, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, there have been dozens of U.S. Mosques attacked by arson, bombings and vandalism. Many of these crimes remain unsolved. This rise in anti-Muslim attacks can be attributed to relatively new phenomenon derived from an intense hatred and fear of Muslims called “Islamophobia.” Within the past few years, militia extremists have started organizing armed protests outside of Islamic centers and mosques fearing a rise in Muslim terrorism, perceived encroachment of Sharia law in America, or out of pure hatred of Muslims and Islam.
In 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued an intelligence bulletin, noting that militia extremists were “expand[ing] their target sets to include Muslims.” More recently, a militia extremist group called “the Crusaders” plotted to detonate a vehicle bomb outside an apartment complex housing Somali immigrants in Wichita, Kansas. They reportedly hoped the planned truck bomb attack would incite a religious war between Christians and Muslims in the U.S. In October 2016, Curtis Allen, Gavin Wright and Patrick Eugene Stein were arrested and charged with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction to blow up the apartment complex which would have also destroyed a mosque, and killed many American Muslims. Some militia extremists have also provided support to gun stores and firing ranges in Arkansas, Florida and Oklahoma that were declared “Muslim Free Zones” by their owners. These types of activities are meant to harass and intimidate an entire faith-based community. They are likely inspired by militia extremists’ personal religious views of preserving America as a Christian nation.
The pro-life movement in the United States bases its cause on Bible scriptures, such as Matthew 19:14 “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” It transformed rather quickly from a conservative Christian-based fringe movement in the early 1980s to a large-scale political and cultural force in the U.S. during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
During this time period, the reenergized pro-life movement comprised tens of thousands of “rescuers” who participated in frequent rallies and protests at women’s health care providers nationwide. In her article “The Children’s Crusade,” reporter Tamara Jones summarizes how anti-abortion activism systematically evolved into violence, stating that initial peaceful protests soon changed into acts of civil disturbance as protestors began blocking patrons from entering the clinics. “Acts of small-scale vandalism eventually evolved into larger, more damaging acts of sabotage,” Jones says. “Some who shouted ‘murderer’ outside abortion clinics became killers themselves and antiabortion activism became, at its most extreme, a form of domestic terrorism.”
While a majority of pro-life movement members employ peaceful and legal means to advance their goals, a number of violent anti-abortion extremists have demonstrated their intent and capability to carry out attacks designed to cause property damage and loss of life. Like other domestic terrorists in the U.S., violent anti-abortion extremists adhere to a “leaderless resistance” structure. As a result, prominent anti-abortion extremist spokespersons, referred to as “ideologues,” conspicuously promote violence under the banner of the Army of God (AOG) and its anti-abortion extremist ideology.
The violent anti-abortion extremist movement has utilized many criminal tactics to further their goals, which range from acts of civil disturbance, such as human blockades and vandalism, to shootings and fire bombings. Violent anti-abortion extremists have also been known to stalk doctors who practice abortion, as well as issue physical threats, conduct chemical attacks and mail anthrax hoax letters.
Anti-abortion-related criminal activity in the U.S. has increased in recent years after experiencing a significant drop during the early 2000s in comparison to peak periods in the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. For example, in May 2009, Scott Roeder, a known anti-abortion extremist, murdered Dr. George Tiller at a church in Wichita, Kansas. During 2015, there were several attacks against Planned Parenthood clinics in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Washington and California. Most of the 2015 attacks were likely related to increased media coverage of government funding of Planned Parenthood as well as an undercover video controversy involving Planned Parenthood allegedly selling fetal body parts. The Planned Parenthood controversy was later debunked on national news. However, the national media’s debunking of the video scandal did not stop a violent anti-abortion extremist from conducting a deadly shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado. On November 27, 2015, Robert Lewis Dear opened fire on patrons and police officers at an abortion clinic with an assault rifle, killing three and wounding nine others.
Christian Extremist Ideology
Violent anti-abortion extremist ideology is based solely on Christian religious beliefs and the use of Biblical scripture. A review of violent anti-abortion extremist propaganda online is filled with Biblical references to God and Jesus Christ, which they believe sanction their violent actions. Many of the scriptures quoted in violent anti-abortion extremist propaganda focus on protecting children, fighting against evil doers, and standing up to iniquity or sin.
According to the Army of God manual, America is described as “a nation under the power of Evil — Satan, who prowls about the world seeking the ruin of the souls of mankind.” It is “a nation ruled by a godless civil authority that is dominated by humanism, moral nihilism, and new-age perversion of the high standards upon which Godly society must be founded, if it is to endure.”
Violent anti-abortion extremists use religious and moral beliefs to justify violence against abortion providers, their staff and facilities. Violent anti-abortion extremists believe that human life begins at conception. For this reason, they equate abortion to murder. Using this logic, they rationalize that those performing abortions are murdering other human beings.
In John Powell’s book Abortion: The Silent Holocaust, anti-abortion extremists equate the practice of abortion to a “silent holocaust.” Some anti-abortion extremists go as far as claiming abortion providers are actually “serial killers” and worthy of death. This sentiment is echoed in passages from the Army of God (AOG) manual in which they declare that that the killing of abortion providers is morally acceptable and justified as doing “God’s work.” The ultimate goal of anti-abortion extremists is to rid the country of the practice of abortion and those who perform and assist with performing abortions.
Army of God
The Army of God (AOG) is the most well-known violent anti-abortion extremist movement in the United States. It advocates violence to combat legal abortions. The AOG was originally formed in October 1988 by a group of anti-abortion extremists who were jailed together after protesting at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia. However, it claims its first action as early as 1982 when two violent anti-abortion extremists, who later joined the AOG, kidnapped an Illinois abortion provider and his wife.
The AOG perpetuates the belief that violent anti-abortion extremists literally represent soldiers fighting in God’s army and that a divine power is at the helm of their cause. “The Army of God is a real Army, and God is the General and Commander-in-Chief,” the AOG says on its website. The AOG’s manual further states, “The soldiers, however, do not usually communicate with one another. Very few have ever met each other. And when they do, each is usually unaware of the other’s soldier status.” The AOG manual also uses scripture to bolster biblical justification for their actions. It states, “The covert activist must always remember that he or she is part of a special group most often referred to in scripture as the ‘remnant.’”
The AOG also utilizes religious symbolism in its name and logo. The AOG name compares its adherents to soldiers in a battle against Satan. They are fighting a war with Jesus Christ at their side in an effort to save the unborn. The AOG logo includes a white cross (e.g. symbolizing the crucifixion of Christ and his resurrection), and has a soldier’s helmet hanging off the cross with a bomb featuring a lit fuse inside a box. The words “The Army of God” are inscribed over and below the cross and bomb.
A lack of hierarchy and command structure inherently prevents AOG from establishing an identifiable figurehead, but key ideologues within the anti-abortion extremist movement exist and strongly influence violent actions others take on behalf of the anti-abortion cause. One of the main individuals organizing and spreading the violent anti-abortion extremist cause is convicted abortion arsonist and Chaplain Michael Bray. Bray gained notoriety from creating an AOG-affiliated ministry in Bowie, Maryland called “Defenders of the Defenders of Life.” Bray publishes anti-abortion extremist propaganda, including a 1994 book titled A Time to Kill that morally justifies violence to prevent and end abortions. He also sponsors an annual anti-abortion extremist gathering called the “White Rose Banquet.” It honors individuals who have committed violent acts against abortion providers and raises money for families of AOG members who are incarcerated.
Another prominent anti-abortion extremist ideologue is “Reverend” Donald Spitz. Spitz is the director of Pro-Life Virginia and also runs an AOG website. He is an associate of numerous AOG members and supporters and operated a website on behalf of convicted anti-abortion extremist Clayton Lee Waagner while he was a fugitive from federal authorities. Through his varied AOG contacts, Spitz is a staunch and prolific AOG advocate, inspiring others to commit criminal acts.
The Christian Gallery
Violent anti-abortion extremists maintain a myriad of websites that promote extreme political and religious stances, some even encouraging violent behavior. One of the most notorious anti-abortion websites is Christian Gallery formerly run by AOG supporter Neal Horsley (now deceased) of Carrollton, Georgia. As an occasional spokesperson and ideologue for anti-abortion extremism, Horsley advocated “waging war” against abortionists on his website. In the late 1990s, Horsley included a section on his site called “The Nuremberg Files” which provided detailed personal information (i.e. names, addresses) of abortion doctors in the United States as a targeting list. Whenever an abortion doctor was maimed or murdered, a black “X” was marked across the name. The Nuremberg Files was eventually shut down by a court order, but Horsley’s Christian Gallery website full of AOG ideology remains.
Daryl Johnson is the owner of DT Analytics, a private consulting firm for law enforcement. Johnson is the former lead analyst for domestic terrorism at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Johnson has over 25 years experience working as a counter-terrorism analyst for the U.S. government. He is the author of Rightwing Resurgence: How A Domestic Terrorist Threat Is Being Ignored (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).