The increasing extreme racism and antigovernment posturing of the Christian Identity faith accompanies a rise in Identity believers.
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 (Some published lists of Identity ministries reflect larger numbers, but many of those listings are inaccurate or out of date.)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."
The Carnage Takes Off
In the last six years, Identity has reached farther than ever before.
The faith got a major boost in 1992, when 160 "Christian men" met in Estes Park, Colo., to chart the future of the extreme right. It was here that the strategy of "leaderless resistance" — actions undertaken by hard-to-infiltrate cells answering to no one — was popularized.
Here, too, began a new toning down of racist language, with the aim of recruiting into a "patriotic" movement targeting the federal government.
And it was here that a new coalition, bringing Klansmen, neo-Nazis and extreme fundamentalists into a movement built on Christian Identity, was born.
"For the first time in the 22 years that I have been in the movement, we are all marching to the beat of the same drum," Louis Beam, a former Klansman and Identity diehard then representing the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, told the group.
Now, the carnage seems to be accelerating.
Last December, Chevie Kehoe of Colville, Wash., and Daniel Lewis Lee of Yukon, Okla., were charged with murder, racketeering and conspiracy in a federal indictment, and Faron Lovelace of Sandpoint, Idaho, was charged with racketeering. The men allegedly planned a revolution to create the whites-only Aryan People's Republic, which they intended to boost by engaging in polygamy.
All three could face the death penalty.
Kehoe and his brother and father are long-time Christian Identity adherents. In 1992, Kehoe warned a reporter of some "rude awakenings" in store.
"There are more of us Identity out there than you realize," he said. "We are in the schools, government, law enforcement, health and everywhere. ... We are not afraid to die."
When Kehoe's brother, Cheyne, turned himself in on charges related to a police shootout, he was accompanied by Ray Barker, pastor of a Christian Identity church in his native Colville.
Last year, before the federal charges were lodged, Kehoe and Lee were charged in state court with the suffocation murders of an Arkansas gun dealer, his wife and her 8-year-old daughter. Their bodies were dumped in a swamp.
In another case, Lovelace was convicted of killing a man the gang feared was an informant. And in January, Kehoe's brother, Cheyne, was convicted of the attempted murder of a police officer during an Ohio shootout. Chevie Kehoe still faces charges in that incident.
Bombs, Banks and Babylon
Other cases are cropping up with grim regularity. Last year, Identity followers in the Aryan Republican Army pleaded guilty to charges related to 22 bank robberies in the Midwest, allegedly carried out to fund a white supremacist revolution.
Three Identity believers, calling themselves Phineas Priests, were sentenced the same year to life terms after robbing banks and setting off bombs around Spokane. When the fourth gang member, Brian Ratigan, was sentenced to 55 years, he was unrepentant.
"People of Washington have been warned," he bellowed at the court. "You have been sent four witnesses. Babylon is about to fall. ... So repent!"
Also in recent years, Identity pastor Michael Hill was killed by police after threatening a police officer with a gun during a 1995 traffic stop. Authorities are still seeking Timothy Michael Coombs, who allegedly shot a Missouri highway patrolman in a 1994 attempted assassination carried out to avenge the arrest of an Identity pastor.
Four members of the Minnesota Patriots Council who were Identity followers were convicted in 1995 of conspiracy to use the deadly ricin toxin to kill federal agents and law enforcement officers. The same year, Identity believer Larry Wayne Harris of Columbus, Ohio, obtained bubonic plague cultures for an unknown purpose.
Imprisoned Phineas Priest Walter Thody boasts that he and his gang robbed 20 banks in 1990-1991 in order to finance a squad to assassinate the enemies of Identity.
The 1980s, too, saw a wave of Identity terror.
Identity believers played leading roles in The Order, a group of 24-plus terrorists that murdered two people, including a Denver talk show host, and robbed almost $4 million from armored bank cars. The faith underlay much of the ideology of the Posse Comitatus, responsible for the deaths of three law enforcement officers, death threats to judges and others, secret paramilitary training and a series of deadly plots.
Identity was the backbone of the Sword, the Covenant and the Arm of the Lord, the heavily armed Arkansas compound where white supremacists planned to poison the water supplies of cities and bomb federal buildings.
And it was the religion of members of the Arizona Patriots who conspired to rob armored cars and to blow up a synagogue and an IRS complex. One Arizona Patriot tried to murder a police officer.
'Don't Leave One Suckling'
One of the most shocking cases was that of Michael Ryan. He was sentenced to death for the 1986 sexual torture, mutilation and murder of James Thimm, a follower of Ryan's Identity cult near Rulo, Neb.
Thimm was murdered at Ryan's orders after being whipped and having his legs broken, his skin stripped from his thighs and his fingers shot off. Ryan later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the case of 5-year-old Luke Stice, who died when his neck was broken after weeks of torture.
Authorities say Ryan was the "main man" in Nebraska for James Wickstrom, an Identity proselytizer and leading organizer of the violently anti-Semitic Posse Comitatus. Ryan turned his Nebraska farm into an Identity compound after meeting Wickstrom in 1981 and becoming enamored of his Identity teachings.
Today, despite this history of violence, Identity views are fairly widespread in the nominally more mainstream Patriot movement. John Trochmann, co-founder of the influential Militia of Montana, is an alleged adherent who has tried to disguise his views.
Bo Gritz, another leading Patriot figure, has endorsed Identity beliefs, according to investigative reporter Richard Abanes. "[God] has given us all that we need," Gritz reportedly said in a 1991 speech at a Bible camp organized by Identity pastor Pete Peters. "He's given us ... the likes of the Christian Identity movement."
Identity has grown in other directions as well.
Susan DeCamp of the Montana Association of Churches is quoted in Dyer's book explaining how in recent years Identity families have infiltrated small fundamentalist churches. DeCamp told Dyer that entire churches have incorporated Identity racism into their doctrines. And Dyer reports that several rural pastors tell of being invited to "rural chaplain seminars," only to discover they are Identity recruitment sessions.
"Identity believers," he writes, "are slowly infusing fundamentalist groups with their ultimate purpose: creating a white dominionist nation where the Bible is law."
Clearly, there are large portions of the Identity movement that hesitate at their leaders' violent talk. But if even a small segment takes their message as a spur to revolutionary action, the danger, as recent history has shown, is great. The supercharged words used by many Identity leaders leave very little to the imagination.
"You go look in the Old Testament," W.N. Otwell, who runs an armed compound in East Texas, told a national Identity gathering in Branson, Mo., four days after the Oklahoma City bomb left 168 people, including 19 children, dead.
"God did not mind killing a bunch of women and kids. God talks about slaughter! Don't leave one suckling! Don't leave no babies! Don't leave nothing! Kill them! Destroy them!"