The hearing and report are part of an ongoing campaign by the subcommittee pressuring the FBI into admitting that an internal memo violated the religious liberties of followers of Catholicism. The committee’s report downplays the extreme antisemitic views of a break-off sect of Radical Traditional Catholics by incorrectly equating them with mainstream Catholicism.
In a section of the report criticizing an FBI memo and labeling of hate groups, the subcommittee’s report also wrongly refers to “Christian identity” as “a broad term … that could arguably encompass millions of Americans with sincerely held religious beliefs.” Christian Identity is a hateful belief system, but it is far from a “broad term.” Instead, it refers specifically to a racist and antisemitic theology that, beginning in the 1950s, has occupied a commanding influence on the racist right. “Christian” in name only, it asserts that white people are the true Israelites favored by God in the Bible. Jewish people are often considered to be the literal offspring of Satan by Christian Identity adherents, who also believe that people of color are subhuman. This belief is most widely recognized as the religion of Aryan Nations.
Kenneth Stern, an author, attorney and expert on antisemitism at the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, doesn’t mince words in describing Christian Identity as “a racist and antisemitic religion that, in its main form, teaches that people of color aren’t actually human and that Jews are the offspring of Satan.”
The foundational principles of Christian Identity began gaining traction with Wesley Swift’s founding of his Church of Jesus Christ Christian in 1957. Swift – along with the network of ministers and adherents he trained – traversed the nation, disseminating the vitriolic teachings of Christian Identity and committing acts of terror throughout various segments of American society during the Civil Rights Era.
One Swift acolyte was Richard Butler, who would eventually take over Swift’s church, move it to northern Idaho and establish the Aryan Nations compound in the 1970s. After decades of terrorizing the Pacific Northwest and serving as a beacon for the racist right, in 2000 Aryan Nations lost a major civil lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) that forced Butler, who died in 2004, to turn the compound over to the plaintiffs.
Christian Identity adherents have been responsible for several well-documented acts of racial violence, domestic terrorism and bombings targeting Jewish people, law enforcement officers, Black people, LGBTQ+ centers, abortion clinics and Asian American people. While much of the violence of Christian Identity adherents occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, the man who murdered 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pennsylvania in 2018 shared content online consistent with Christian Identity beliefs.
“Richard Butler used the Christian Identity doctrine to regularly declare that Jews were the descendants of Satan,” reads a statement from the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, which helped educate and organize communities in North Idaho against Aryan Nations for decades. “He called all people of color the ‘mud race.’”
The task force helped people harassed and threatened by Aryan Nations, because those targeted were Jewish or people of color. The task force also spent countless hours in meetings and workshops with leaders of the many regional faith communities to denounce the hateful, prejudiced Christian Identity doctrine and Butler’s use of it. The task force worked in conjunction with SPLC on the lawsuit referenced above.
While the number of confirmed physical Christian Identity churches and organizations continues to decline, references to principles prominent within Christian Identity flourish online among racists. There is evidence of a continued interest in Christian Identity beliefs among a smattering of neo-Confederate and Christian nationalist adherents, while numerous Christian Identity-related channels share old Swift sermons on the Telegram messaging app.
The characterization of Christian Identity by the subcommittee gave Swift and his successors something they never achieved on their own – the apparent support of millions of people. Even at the prior height of its influence, Christian Identity never achieved widespread public support in the U.S.
Alon Milwicki contributed to this report.
The House Judiciary Committee’s Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government questioned FBI Director Wray about the usage of Southern Poverty Law Center research for the FBI memo on Radical Traditional Catholicism. The SPLC did not consult or communicate with FBI personnel involved in preparing the memo.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that the house subcommittee compared the Christian Identity Movement to Aryan Nations in its report. While the subcommittee did not specifically mention Aryan Nations, the ideologies are similar and have been linked for years.
Photo illustration by SPLC