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A Special Report...
HIGH PLAINS WEIRDNESS: 'CHRISTIAN IDENTITY' AND THE FREEMEN STANDOFF
by Conrad Goeringer
(Summary of Part I --- The Freemen group in Montana, currently locked in an
armed standoff with the FBI and other Federal authorities, is part of a
larger development in American politics . Along with militia movements,
survivalist cults and racialist-separatist bands, the Freemen are part of
"Christian Identity", a loose confederation of individuals and organizations
with an apocalyptic racial and bible-oriented interpretation of history. The
roots of Identity go back to theological interpretations of the Book of
Revelation, and a fixation with placing the time of Final Judgment and Second
Coming. By the nineteenth century, there emerged distinct "end times" camps
that interpreted the events foretold in Revelation in different ways. Some
tried to combine the fashionable pseudo-science of "pyramidology" (which
claimed to divine the past and future by studying the dimensions of the Great
Pyramid) with biblical verse. It was out of this bizarre blend of mysticism
and biblical exegesis that curiosity about the "Lost Tribes" began, and the
British-Israel movement prospered.)
Millennialism -- the doctrine that Jesus Christ would return some day to
rule over the earth for a 1,000 year period -- is a central feature in
Christian eschatology. By the early fourth century AD, Christianity had
become the established and official religion of Rome. As the church went
from persecuted to persecutor stamping out heretical movements and ideas, new
interpretations of apocalyptic texts arose. It is generally agreed that the
colorful metaphors found in Revelation -- Antichrist, False Prophet, the
Beast -- all referred to Rome and its emperors in the days prior to
Constantine. But with Christianity established and thriving, people began
reading events of their own era into the prophetic utterances of John and
During the Middle Ages, eschatological themes such as Final Judgment and
the nature of hell occupied the thoughts of churchmen and their followers.
Religious art and writing often depicted these and other metaphors. Another
question began to fascinate both the popular imagination and those who
actually read religious text -- the fate of the "Lost Tribes of Israel." By
the seventeenth century, it was widely believed that the descendants of the
Israelites were either Jews, or a people hiding in Asia. The emergence of
this mysterious group was likewise considered a "sign" of the Last Days.
Periodic reports of this wandering, newly-emeged tribal army appeared in
Europe, and a letter in 1665 by one Robert Boulter of Aberdeen declared
"There is Sixteen hundred thousand (sic) of them together in Arabia...there
come in Europe Sixty Thousand more...." Pandemic reports such as this fueled
the Millenarian imagination.
In the mid-nineteenth century, a self-educated religious writer named John
Wil.son (?-1871) presented a new interpretation of the "Lost Tribes" puzzle.
Through lectures and writings, Wilson claimed that contemporary Anglo-Saxons
of the British Empire were, in fact, the descendants of this missing biblical
race. Wilson engaged in a common practice of the time -- comparing words and
phrases of different languages to trace their diffusion. That, along with
alleged similarities in customs and institutions which he insisted were the
result of an Israelite heritage, convinced Wilson (and soon many others)
that the "Lost Sheep of the House of Israel" had migrated "In the NORTH-WEST
-- in our part of the world."
This automatically raised questions about the Jews; if THEY were not from
the Kingdom of Judah, from where did they spring? Wilson and other British
Israel exponents struggled with that question. The answer formulated a
century later, as British Israel spread through the United States, helped
craft the Identity philosophy.
By the 1870's, British Israelism was a social, political and theological
movement, albeit one fragmented and divided over esoteric religious
questions. Leaders such as Edward Hine and Edward Wheeler Bird debated the
finer points of British Israel history (such as the status of Jews and even
Teutonic peoples), but even in such a disordered atmosphere the movement
spread to America.
There is debate over exactly when British Israel ideas began to take root
here, but one Joseph Wild, pastor of Union Congregational Church in Brooklyn,
NY was promoting the basic themes as early as 1879. American and Canadian
writers such as W.H. Poole and C.A.L.Totten began grinding out their own
refinements of British Israel ideology, and occasionally their names appear
in modern-day Christian Identity literature. When Edward Hine moved to the
United States, his lectures began to interest a wide audience, and soon
there were regional "centers" of British Israel Belief. In the east, a
Boston publisher named A.A. Beauchamp began disseminating Totten's works, and
published a monthly magazine, "The Watchman of Israel."
It was through a chain of British Israelite activists that this esoteric
philosophy of British "empire-ism" began to mix with more proasaic
nationalist, racist, anti-semitic ideas. A contributor to Beauchamp's
journal, Rev. Reuben H. Sawyer began to mix his role as British Israel
partisan with his avocation of organizing for the second Ku Klux Klan.
Sawyer and his successors blended their nativist "pro-American" Klan
philosophy with the religious tenets of British Israel, which declared the
biblical destiny of the Anglo Saxon peoples.
Only parts of the British Israel movement amalgamated with nativist,
racist groups such as the Klan; the rest of BI continued to promote its
vague and esoteric biblical philosophy, especially under the leadership of
Howard Rand and his "Destiny" organization. By that time, however, Beauchamp
had defected from the British Israel camp, and joined up with the Christian
Scientists. But permutations of BI philosophy were unavoidable, and splits
occurred despite Rand's efforts in the 1930's; Rand himself was flirting
with anti-Semitic conspiracy themes (especially those espoused in the bogus
"Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion").
In the 1940's and 50's, two men played an important role in creating the
direct religious and philosophical underpinnings of Christian Identity. One
was Wesley Swift, perhaps the first "Identity" preacher who in 1946 began the
onerous task of reviving the Ku Klux Klan in Los Angeles. At that time, he
met Gerald L.K. Smith, perhaps the nation's foremost professional
anti-semite. Smith had organized the Christian Nationalist Crusade and
published "The Cross and the Flag", a journal which served up a brew of
anti-communism, racism and fundamentalist christianity.
Wesley Swift remains perhaps the most complex and enigmatic figure in the
early days of Christian Identity. There are different accounts of how Swift,
the son of a minister, was first exposed to British Israel-pre-identity
theology. One account insists that while Swift was pastor at a Foursquare
Gospel church, he attended a "pyramid study group" facilitated by one San
Jacinto Capt; still another story links him to an associate of BI leader
Howard Rand, a man named Philip Monson. Whatever the origin, though, by the
1950's Swift had organized his Los Angeles-based Church of Jesus Christ
Christian, a name which was to serve as a template for subsequent Identity
From "Old Right" nationalist-racist and fundamentalist anti-communist
figures like Gerald L.K. Smith, William Potter Gale and others, Christian
Identity began to percolate as a loose but growing movement. By the late
1970's and early 80's, Identity was being promoted by Richard Girit Butler,
Thom Robb and Carl Franklin. A distinct religious-racialist agenda was being
espoused , sometimes violently. It blended traditional anti-semitism with
contemporary themes, and went far beyond even the most conservative,
right-wing visions which had characterized even the Reagan years.
A core Identity belief concerns Jews. In Identity theology, the first
beings were actually created BEFORE Adam. This "polygenism" suggests to some
that there are three distinct races (White, Brown and Black); but it is the
Adamic race which is superior and the object of biblical destiny.
In addition, Identity proponents claim that the Genesis story of the Fall
describes intercourse between Eve and a quasi-human devil. That "seedline",
for some Identity believers, gave rise to Jews. The "pure" Adamite
"seedline" lives on today as the white race.
Because of this, all history is to be viewed from a racialist perspective.
Identity movements foresee a racial civil war, a prelude to establishing a
"National Redoubt" in the Western United States. The Idaho-Oregon region is
usually given as the locus of this white racial strong-hold, although some
Identity activists once promoted a "Golden Triangle" in the mid-west.
It is the Pre-Adamites and their agents who control the government
apparatus in the U.S. according to Christian Identity. The U.S. government
is referred to as ZOG, Zionist Occupation Government; ZOG is said to
encourage secularism, atheism, mixing of races, homosexual behavior (to
weaken "white seed" and turn white women away from white males) and gun
Many Identity followers recognize only the "Posse Comitatus", or power of
a county sherriff; they often claim that the federal, state and local
government is "illegitimate" and in the hands of Jews or their allies.
The Freemen standoff in Montana typifies the ambiguity of Identity
theo-politics concerning violence. There is no one center of Identity
orthodoxy (indeed, there are splits and schisms within the movement, and
Identity followers are now even distrustful of British Israelism -- for a
variety of reasons). The movement is best described as a "loose coalition"
of groups, individuals and churches. Neo-nazi Skinheads can share elements
of Identity theology along with traditional Klansmen or Aryan Nations
activists. Some identity followers are hard-core survivalists, stockpiling
food, ammunition and other supplies for the "civil war". Others promote their
scheme of dismembering the United States to create a distinct "Aryan nation"
through above-ground political activism.
Most scholarly literature which traces the origins of British Israelism
and the Identity movement insists that there are crucial differences between
the Identity theo-political agenda and that of Protestant fundamentalists and
the Reconstruction post-millennialists. Michael Barkun, professor of
Political Science at Syracuse University, attempts to emphasize these crucial
distinctions in his book "Religion and the Racist Right." In fact, most
fundamentalists, evangelicals and pentacostals may well be revolted by some
of the more blatantly anti-semitic Christian Identity teachings.Jews play
different roles in the eschatological fantasies of Pat Robertson and Identity
theorists, and even Reconstructionists like R.J. Rushdoony seem to reject the
"demon" label applied to blacks and others.
Even so, we may be justified in placing Identity simply further along the
cultural spectrum, but still associated with much of the contemporary
religious conservative movement. All represent varying degrees of
"Dominionism", the notion that biblical law -- or the word of god -- should
be the enforced standard of conduct in civil society. The principle that god
(or presumably his representatives on earth) should have "dominion" over all
living creatures -- whether they believe or not -- is what ultimately unites
all those who see religion as a template for the human existence.
Christian Identity is not so much a religious orthodoxy (it lacks a
centralized ecclesiastic "authority", only various practioners and
publicists) as it is a glue binding together groups, movements and
individuals identified as right-wing racialists. Klansmen, Aryan Nation
"Skinheads", neo-nazis, extreme militia groups and survivalist-cults can all
incorporate elements of Identity philosophy into their own respective
platforms. It is Identity's ability to demonize cultural and political
opponents in the most extreme terms, though, which seduces those people most
vulnerable to its manichean division of the world.
Source notes: Michael Barkun's "Religion and the Racist Right"(1994,
University of North Carolina Press) is one of the more exhaustive studies of
British Israel and Identity theology.Barkun examines the nuances in early
British Israel theology, including the origins of Herbert W. Armstrong's
Worldwide Church of God. The variety of BI attitudes concerning the Jews is
most striking. Two books by journalist John Roy Carlson are crammed with
names of individuals and organizations linked to the "Old Right", many of
which figure in the origins of Christian Identity. Carlson's "Under Cover"
(1943, E.P. Dutton & Co.) is fairly easy to locate, especially in its later
book club editions. "The Plotters" (1946, E.P. Dutton & Co.) is somewhat
more difficult to find, but like "Under Cover" moves in and out of used book
stores on a regular basis.
Those interested in exploring "Pyramid science" could begin with the brief
but lucid discussion in "The New Apocrypha" by John Sladek (1973, Stein &
Day). An excellent biography of Charles Piazzi Smyth, Scotland's Astronomer
Royal and an enthusiastic believer in this pseudo-science, is "The
Periphatetic Astronomer" by H.A. Bruck and M.T. Bruck (1988, Adam Hilger).
For current Identity information, readers should consult James Corcoran's
"Bitter Harvest: Gordon Kahl and the Posse Comitatus -- Murder in the
Heartland," (1990, Viking). There is also "The Politics of Righteousness" by
James A. Aho (1990, University of Washington Press); Aho's book gives some
insight into the sociological background of Christian Identity and notes, for
example, the apparent lack of participation by government officials or
"persons of social prominence" (Barkun) which was once so characteristic of
Anglo British Israelism.
Ironically, one of the best overviews of Christian Identity comes from a
writer generally identified with conservative causes, Garry Wills. His
article titled "The New Revolutionaries" appeared in the August 10, 1995 New
York Review of Books. It is based on nine books, including Aho's work, "The
Turner Diaries" and others. Wills begins with -- what else? -- the Oklahamo
City bombing, which in itself has now become a metaphor in contemporary
Finally, for those of us interest in placing the Identity movement and
related groups in a Millennialist context, there is Stjepan Mestrovic's "The
Coming Fin De Siecle." Mestrovic sees parallels between our emergent,
contemporary end-of-century angst and earlier times, specifically the end of
the 1800's. Be warned, however, that much of Mestrovic's study is concerned
with the finer points of Durkheim and other luminaries of sociological
theory. Much work still needs to be in placing Identity, Aryan Nations, The
Order and the rest of the far-right Christian revolutionary movement in its
proper millennialist perspective, perhaps as a component in a widespread
"revolt against modernity."
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