A California church with longstanding ties to far-right extremists and a militia of its own is preparing for war.
In a 22-acre compound at the southern edge of Sequoia National Park in California, a secretive cohort of militant Christian fundamentalists is preparing for war. One of the men helping train the flock in the art of combat, a former Marine named Steve Klein, believes that California is riddled with Muslim Brotherhood sleeper cells “who are awaiting the trigger date and will begin randomly killing as many of us as they can.”
“I know I’m getting prepared to shoot back,” Klein says.
At the head of the Church at Kaweah is Pastor Warren Mark Campbell, who sees yet another enemy on the horizon: the “New World Order,” that chimera of the conspiracists who populate the resurgent, antigovernment “Patriot” movement.
The tiny church has been well outside the mainstream since the early 1990s, when founding pastor Warren Lee Campbell (father of the current pastor) bought into the notion that churches should shun all government regulation and answer solely to God. Since then, the church has become increasingly radical, ramping up its paramilitary activities and forging alliances with an array of figures revered on the radical right — among them, militia and Patriot leaders, white supremacists, neo-Confederates, border vigilantes and Christian Reconstructionists, whose goal is to turn America into a theocracy based on the Old Testament. In the meantime, the church’s militia has gone from patrolling the banks of the Kaweah River to conducting joint exercises with Minuteman groups along the Mexican border.
The church’s ideology, which it defines as a “militant Christian separatist worldview,” seems to blend several far-right ideas and prejudices — borrowing heavily from the “unregistered churches” and Patriot movements, both of which reject government authority.
It’s a combustible mix of guns, extreme antigovernment politics and religious extremism that brings to mind another Christian militia that made news recently — the Hutaree. In 2010, nine members of that Michigan-based group were charged with conspiring to murder numerous police officers in hopes of sparking a revolution against the government.
“What is remarkable here is the openness with which they speak of religious war to advance God’s laws and God’s government,” said Frederick Clarkson, an independent journalist and expert on the religious right. “Less surprising is that the war is to be waged against the government and the usual stew of far-right enemies — although, clearly, Muslims seem to have replaced Communists as the most fearsome, frontline Satanic soldiers said to be creeping over the border and into society.”
Severing Secular Ties
Nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills near the convergence of the North, Middle and South Forks of the Kaweah River, the village of Three Rivers (pop. 2,182), some 70 miles southeast of Fresno, has seen more than its share of unusual social experiments. From 1886 to 1892, it was the site of the socialist Kaweah Colony. Later, it was home to a Hare Krishna ashram and boarding school.
Equally distinctive is the Church at Kaweah — founded in 1965 by its first pastor, Warren Lee Campbell, and his wife, Margaret.
In the mid-1990s, coinciding with the height of the Patriot movement of that decade, Campbell decided to sever ties with secular authorities — namely any form of government. He believed the tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit status that the U.S. tax code automatically grants churches is “foreign to the law of God” and exists solely “to compromise the church.”
Most churches prize nonprofit status, because it exempts them from corporate income taxes and allows donors to deduct gifts from their own income taxes. But, like all other tax-exempt organizations, they are not allowed to engage in electoral politics and their right to lobby the government is limited. They also must withhold federal taxes, as well as Social Security and Medicare payments, from their employees’ paychecks — and they still must abide by the laws that govern the rest of society.
On Aug. 15, 1997, apparently following the guidance of the Ecclesiastical Law Center (ELC), which says that “[t]heocracy, not democracy, was God’s plan,” Campbell’s lawyer went to the Tulare County Recorder’s office and transferred the deed to the church’s earthly property to “the Lord Jesus Christ, True and Beneficial Owner and beneficiary.” What had been the Kaweah Community Church became the Church at Kaweah.
The ELC — which is not a law firm — says that a church deeded to Jesus is “tax-immune” and inoculated against any interference by secular authorities. “Men cannot tax the property, because a Sovereign God owns it and men cannot assert sovereignty over God,” explains an ELC book titled Approved by God: A Case for Modern Disestablishment, which can be purchased through the church’s online bookstore. And, the ELC says, property deeded to Jesus is “totally outside the jurisdiction of the state. They have no authority to inspect it, or enter it, or lay requirements on it. There are no fire inspections, building inspections, use permits, asbestos inspections.”
The church apparently went all in. In 1998, it began interring deceased members on its own grounds. Ultimately, several bodies were exhumed from the Three Rivers Public Cemetery and moved to the new “Ecclesiastical Mortuary.” Today, home births are encouraged, children are homeschooled, and members are urged to support themselves though cottage industries. Couples do not get marriage licenses, preferring “covenant marriages” sanctioned by the pastor alone.
The idea that churches can declare themselves free of any government oversight is an analog to the individual separatism asserted by adherents of the radical “sovereign citizens” movement — a movement to which the founding pastor of the Church at Kaweah was closely tied. Warren Lee Campbell outlined his own theory of “disestablishment” in the foreword to a 1998 manifesto produced by members of Right Way L.A.W., a defunct ring of extreme-right con artists who pitched a financial fraud known as “redemption.” Taught and practiced by disciples of the sovereign citizens movement, the redemption scam is based on the false claim that enlightened individuals can collect hundred of thousands of dollars from secret trust funds being held in their names by the federal government.
Campbell’s connection to Right Way L.A.W. is just one of myriad ties the deceased pastor established with extremists. Under his leadership in 1995, the church began hosting an annual Old Paths Christian History Conference, which quickly became a destination for radical-right luminaries. Guest speakers have included John Trochmann, a godfather of the Patriot movement whose Militia of Montana was the first major militia to come to public attention; Eric Hovind, a “creation science evangelist” whose father, Kent, was a famous tax protester who ran a Florida creationist theme park called Dinosaur Adventure Land until he was jailed on 58 counts of tax fraud in 2007; Joe Banister, a former IRS agent who claims that most citizens are not required to pay income taxes or have taxes withheld; Gary DeMar, a prominent Christian Reconstructionist who heads the anti-gay group American Vision; and Chuck Baldwin, a gun-loving pastor and politician who condemns Islam as a “bloody, murderous religion,” refers to Martin Luther King Jr. as an apostate, and believes “the South was right” in the Civil War.
Though he is not known to have attended the Old Paths conference, Patriot icon James Wesley, Rawles (like other sovereign citizens, he uses the comma as part of his name) credits the deceased pastor as an inspiration. Wesley, Rawles is a survivalist author who proposed the establishment of a fortified home for “Christian Patriots” in the Northwest. In recent years, a significant number of antigovernment extremists have begun to move to Montana’s Flathead Valley. In January 2011, at the invitation of Covenant Community Church in Whitehall, Mont. (whose leadership is affiliated with Baldwin’s “Black Regiment” of “patriot-preachers”), Pastor Warren Mark Campbell addressed an audience of 200 — including 30 state officials — at the Montana State Capitol. Politics, he told them, is a “holy calling, not a secular calling. You have an obligation to rule and serve in the name of Jesus Christ.”
‘To Teach Them War’
Another frequent guest of the Church at Kaweah is Pastor John Weaver, former “chaplain-in-chief” for the Southern heritage group Sons of Confederate Veterans who has been a member of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens. Last July, Weaver conducted weapons training at a conference sponsored by the neo-Confederate League of the South, a meeting that focused heavily on preparing for battle — presumably against the government. “Divine providence always arranges the time for fighting,” Weaver told the attendees. “You must remember, God is the god of war.”
Warren Mark Campbell, who took over the Church at Kaweah’s pulpit after his father died in 2008, seems to agree. Preaching on the virtues of “militant discipleship” in a 2009 DVD titled “To Teach Them War,” the balding and decidedly uncharismatic pastor exhorts his audience to be “animated with a fire” in “the battle against the New World Order and against what’s going on in this land.”
The DVD depicts men, women and clergy training with rifles and handguns. Among them is Weaver. In one scene, Campbell flings himself to the ground to shoot.
At the end, Campbell speaks directly to the camera: “We’ve produced this DVD to encourage Christians to acquire military skills and be militant in the kingdom of God. It’s our desire that fathers will learn these skills and pass them on to their children, and that Christians everywhere in this great land will train together martially.”
Backing up Campbell’s call to action is David “Dutch” Johnson, who leads the church’s militia. Johnson, who goes by the name “Dutch Joens,” is a longtime veteran of the militia movement who claims seven years of service in the Army and National Guard.
Ten years ago, the church’s militia prowled the banks of the Kaweah River as the North Fork River Patrol, mainly looking out for gangs. Under Johnson’s leadership, it has since trained with other “constitutional militias” along the Arizona-Mexico border and invited likeminded paramilitary groups to conduct joint trainings.
Johnson, who says he looks forward to the battle that will begin when “Dictator Obongo” institutes martial law, also hosts a daily radio talk show out of the church. A cheerful bigot, he cuts the harshness of his message with moments of whimsy. The introduction to his show is replete with quotes from the animated TV series “The Simpsons,” and he compares the structure of his combat and survival workshops to Dungeons and Dragons, the classic role-playing game beloved by high school nerds. His wife and children, who gave him a machete for Father’s Day last year, can often be heard in the background as he broadcasts.
But his playful style does little to mask a message of hate. In a June 2011 broadcast, for example, he called Mexicans savages “who can’t run their own government” and recommended sending guns to drug cartels in hopes they could “decrease the excess population in Mexico so they don’t come north.”
Johnson told the Intelligence Report in an E-mail that he is “against any racially exclusive groups” and “hate[s] Nazi groups and Socialists equally.” But, in a “Bible study” on his website several years ago, he wrote, “We must at all times be ready to defend the FAITH and our RACE from ALL enemies.”
He’s also an ardent defender of anti-immigrant vigilante leader Shawna Forde, who was sentenced to death in 2011 for the murder of a 9-year-old Mexican-American girl and her father during a 2009 home invasion in Arizona.
And Johnson expresses virulently antigovernment views. On a message board, he issued a vigorous defense of Jerry and Joseph Kane, the father-son team of sovereign citizens who in May 2010 shot and killed two West Memphis, Ark., police officers during a traffic stop. (The Kanes were killed less than an hour later during a shootout in a Walmart parking lot that left two additional officers wounded.)
“Now remember that this father and son have been harassed for years and were being targeted for persecution because they were preaching a way to get out from under your debt using the rules of the enemy,” Johnson wrote. “Rather then be taken to a cell and beaten or handed over to the scum in jail they fought back. I do not blame them. The time has come to resist TYRANNY. How will you answer when they come for you?”
The Muslim Menace
Despite all the talk about Mexicans and government tyranny, the Church at Kaweah appears to be preparing for a showdown with a different enemy: Muslims.
The church’s obsession with Muslims appears to have begun in 2010, when it invited white Zimbabwean evangelist Peter Hammond to speak at its Old Paths conference. A staunch defender of Zimbabwe’s last white leader, the racial supremacist Ian Smith, Hammond heads a South Africa-based “ministry” called Frontline Fellowship that is anti-Islam, anti-gay, anti-abortion and anti-communist. He believes all churches should be armed and ready for attack, admonishing Christians to remember the “four G’s of survival: Groceries, Guns, Gold and God.” In a pamphlet titled “The Christian At War” (available for purchase on the church’s website), Hammond says, “Much of the Bible is written by soldiers and for soldiers.”
Over the past year, Johnson and the church militia have developed a relationship with Steve Klein, a longtime religious-right activist who brags about having led a “hunter killer” team as a Marine in Vietnam. Klein, who calls Islam a “penis-driven religion” and thinks Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca is a Muslim Brotherhood patsy, is allied with Christian activist groups across California. In 2011, as head of the Concerned Citizens for the First Amendment, he worked with the Vista, Calif.-based Christian Anti-Defamation Commission on a campaign to “arm” students with the “truth about Islam and Muhammad” — mainly by leafleting high schools with literature depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a sex-crazed pedophile.
Klein, based in Hemet, Calif., has been active in extremist movements for decades. In 1977, he founded Courageous Christians United, which now conducts “respectful confrontations” outside of abortion clinics, Mormon temples and mosques. Klein also has ties to the Minuteman movement. In 2007, he sued the city of San Clemente for ordering him to stop leafleting cars with pamphlets opposing illegal immigration.
In addition to working with Johnson and the Church at Kaweah’s militia, Klein conducts drills with the Christian Guardians, a San Francisco-based group headed by Andrew Saqib James, an American-born Pakistani Christian who calls Islam “a giant crime syndicate” and hopes his group will become “the most feared militia in the world.” For the past year, the Church at Kaweah’s website has advertised joint trainings with the Christian Guardians and other likeminded groups. Based at the church’s sprawling grounds, the series of trainings is described as a “unique system of learning how to survive the Muslim Brotherhood as we teach the Christian Morality of Biblical Warfare.”
Clarkson, the journalist who specializes in religious extremism, said the Church at Kaweah appears to have been successful in integrating people with military expertise seamlessly into its theology of confrontation, in part by minimizing doctrinal differences that have bedeviled similar efforts by other radical churches.
“We saw the beginnings of this during the militia movement of the 1990s, but this appears to be more advanced,” Clarkson said. “Fifteen years ago, the idea of a church-based militia seemed novel. Now it seems likely to be a permanent model of far-right revolutionary organizations.”