MORMONS AND MILITIAS Conspiracy Views of History and Politics Are Deeply Rooted in Mormon

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MORMONS AND MILITIAS Conspiracy Views of History and Politics Are Deeply Rooted in Mormon Tradition. In the Land of the Saints and Elsewhere, the Spiritual Heirs of Joseph Smith Are Doing More Than Singing in Temple Choirs; They're Getting Ready for The End of the World. by Conrad Goeringer Millenialism -- the belief that the world will end according to a cataclysmic holy prophesy -- is alive and well in the twentieth century. There are indications that a number of groups throughout the world look with anticipation to the next five years as we approach 2,000. For some it will be the unfolding of events foretold in the Bible. Others, such as the Aum sect in Japan believed responsible for gas attacks in the Tokyo subway, jazz up Christian doomsday scenarios with New Age mysticism and Eastern Buddhist occultism. And for thousands -- perhaps millions -- throughout the world, "something" is about to happen. Jesus Christ will return. Aliens will land. Human beings will "evolve" in some strange planetary evolution, similar to the storyline in the best seller "The Celestine Prophesy." Or there could be the collapse of civilization, and the emergence of a new order. The tapestry of apocalyptic thinking often contains the threads of conspiracy theory views about history and current events. For many fundamentalist Christians, the end of the world pits the faithful and saved against the pernicious minions of Satan and his worldly flunky, the antichrist. With luck, some fundamentalists say they will be chosen as the "saved" and be flown up to heaven in an event called "Rapture" before the devil is turned loose on earth for 1,000 years of mischief and evil. Others believe that even those chosen will undergo persecution and torment to test their faith. And others see this as an opportunity -- it will be the big shoot-out with the forces of antichrist as foretold in the Book of Revelations. Maybe it will happen in the Middle East. Some predict the American midwest. And they're getting ready. Many of those subscribing to fundamentalist Christian scenarios of the "end times" gravitate toward apocalyptic social movements such as militias and fringe church-groups. The Oklahoma City bombing has focused public attention on the self-styled militias, groups of men (and sometimes women) who train in shooting and survival skills, accumulate guns and ammunition, and often distrust the government. Federal investigators suggest that Oklahoma bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh had ties to the militias, but so far that evidence seems circumstantial and flimsy. McVeigh moved in the militia subculture, but the camouflaged world of right-wing survivalists is far from monolithic, and many militia groups have denounced the Oklahoma City terrorism. Some militias reflect the peculiar politics and theology of what is known as Christian Identity. The best known Identity group is the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, also called Aryan Nations. Founded by Richard Butler, the organization is based in Idaho, but has active presence in dozens of states. Christian Identity teaches that the White race is the lost tribe of Israel, the true "chosen" people, who must do battle with Jews, Blacks and other "mongrels" and establish what it terms a White Bastion in the Pacific Northwest. The modern racist Skinhead movement is influenced by Identity politics, especially with its appeal to violent resistance, guns and racism. Like many larger, fundamentalist groups, Christian Identity preaches that we are in "end times" and that an apocalyptic event is about to occur. But whereas most Christians believe in a conflict between god and Satan, Identity prepares for a race war. Latter Day Militias But miles south of the Pacific Northwest bastion is the State of Utah, base of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, known as the Mormons. Mormon theology is based on the writings of Joseph Smith, who claimed to have uncovered golden tablets telling a religious history in the new world, America. Skeptics like to point out that Smith was a spinner of tall tales, that the Book of Mormon bears a curious resemblance to the mythos in the Old and New Testament, and that the doctrines of the church reflect Smith's penchant for mumbo-jumbo ritual and outlandish narrative. Ten million people consider it to be gospel today, however, and the Mormon religion thrives in Utah and throughout the American west. It owns the single biggest concentration of capital in the Rocky Mountain region, including real estate, newspapers, TV stations, and other businesses. Politically, the church has been conservative. Mormon leaders have served in important government posts. The late billionaire recluse Howard Hughes surrounded himself with a Mormon security squad, thinking that they were "incorruptible," and placed Mormons in administrative positions throughout his business empire -- including gambling casinos. Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had an "affinity" for Mormon agents according to biographers. A disproportionately high number of Mormons in the ranks of the Central Intelligence Agency has been noted as well. (Some contend that Mormon agents in the field do not function well in the fleshpots and back alleys of foreign countries where much intelligence and blackmail material is gathered.) The Mormon church is "establishment," with a strong streak of conservatism. The church opposes homosexuality, abortion, and courts the political conservatives of the Republican party. But Mormon history is replete with incidents pitting the church against local, even national authority. And distrust of established institutions, mixed in with prophetic apocalypticism and conspiracy thinking runs deep. Joseph Smith formed what he called the Nauvoo Legion in 1840 to defend the church. Anti-Mormon writings warned of the "Sons of Dan," a Mormon terrorist group acting as a kind of church- mafia. Another label -- Avenging Angels -- has surfaced from time to time in connection with Mormon activity. And there were confrontations with the federal government concerning the admission of Utah into the county as an official state. The church altered its teachings on polygamy, a practice which outraged the Christian blue bloods on the East coast and in Washington, D.C. Today, a number of Mormons still hold to their older traditions, and live in polygamous communities. But while early mistrust of the government gave way, millenialism -- belief in the immanent "last days" -- thrived. That traditions lives on today, in part, through the existence of Mormon militias scattered throughout Utah and the west. According to news reports, they call themselves names like Culpepper Minutemen, Sovereign Freemen, even the Mormon Battalion. The Salt Lake City Tribune (4/30) quoted Becky Johns, a communications professor at Weber State University and an expert on ultraconservative Mormon groups in Utah: "They literally believe they are in the last days. They are very cognizant of time, and believe things happen in an order and that somehow there is an end . . . the end is always close." All over the world -- and particularly in the United States -- groups are waiting for The Armageddon, the end of the world foretold in the biblical Book of Revelations. In Utah, the underbelly of the establishment and conservative Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- the Mormons -- is getting ready as well. Mormon "militias" dot the state. Like their counterparts in the Idaho-based Aryan Nations movement, they have an apocalyptic religious and political agenda. Mormon church officials won't support the militia movement, at least in public. A recent article in the Salt Lake City Tribune quoted a Church spokesman as saying that members must obey the laws, and that those who disagree with government work "within the lawfully established system in their attempts to make desired changes." Indeed, the church itself works to affect the law, especially on "family affairs" such as divorce, gay rights, and abortion. But more "fundamentalist" Mormons -- some of whom engage in practices such as polygamy -- take a more apocalyptic view of the immediate future. There isn't time for working within the system; they prepare for the "end times," the collapse of civilization as we know, a final Armageddon between the forces of good and evil. Some join militia movements. But not all militias are alike; it's a strange mix of neo-Nazis, Bible-toting Christian Identity advocates, people opposed to taxation and drivers' licenses, people who have "had enough" of government rules about guns, money and life in general. Many militias denounced the bombing in Oklahoma City, and dismissed the notion that suspect Timothy McVeigh was linked to the movement. For militia members with strong fundamentalist religious convictions, though, the weekend-warrior routine of honing survival skills and target practice takes on a special meaning. Their view of the world is often conspiratorial and supernatural; the government is transformed into an agency of the devil. Plots to co-mingle races through intermarriage assume biblical proportions. A political fight becomes a religious crusade. The conspiratorial slant "comes easy," say observers, to believers in the Book of Mormon. The term "secret combinations" warns the faithful to beware bands of officials who become corrupted and untrustworthy. And there is the menace of the Antichrist, the manifestation of Satan who appears on the stage of history during the last days. Antichrist is mentioned as a single entity three times in the Book of John. But the Mormon demonology conjures three different Antichrists, naming them as Sherem, Nehor and Korihor. It reinvents the famous "temptation of Christ" on the mountain top in the Book of Nephi, with striking resemblance to the wording found in the biblical narrative of Matthew. Two names which have surfaced in stories about the militia movement and the Oklahoma City bombing are Mark Koernke and James "Bo" Gritz. Both men are Mormon. Gritz, an ex-Green Beret and decorated Vietnam vet, hustles parcels of land in Idaho in an area called "Almost Heaven," mostly to survivalist types. He is described as a "tough-talking constitutionalist" who suggests that the CIA may have bombed the federal Building in Oklahoma City. He ran for vice president on ex-Ku Klux Klan member David Duke's ticket, and in 1992 ran for president on the Populist Party platform. When survivalist Randy Weber was besieged by federal agents in that same year on a outstanding weapons charge, it was Gritz who helped defuse the situation and walk Weber out of his mountaintop cabin. Weber's wife and child had been killed by FBI sharpshooters, and Weber was found innocent in a subsequent trial. He is suing the government for $56 million. Gritz is considered a leading figure in the "survivalist movement." When he ran for president, he received his greatest total of votes in Utah, over 28,000. Mark Koernke was sought out by cameras and government agents shortly after Tim McVeigh became a suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing. He was the leader of the Michigan State Militia, but was soon replaced by the "staff" of the movement for suggesting that the bombing was linked to Japanese interests who may have tried to also place listening devices in Bill Clinton's White House Office. So is Cleon Skousen, former FBI agent and chief of police for Salt Lake City. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s he had close ties with "establishment" right-wing movements and then founded the Freemen Institute. He has now renamed it the National Center for Constitutional Studies. He told the Salt Lake City Tribune that "I found some people (in the Institute) becoming military minded and calling themselves Freemen. We had to change the name." Skousen also insisted that "We need to clearly distinguish between people who are trying to understand what's happening to government, and may be critical of some of the adventures it's taken in the past 75 years . . . and those people who can't stand talking about it and have to get out and do something." Skousen supports militias, though, and so does his friend Samuel Sherwood. He founded the Constitutional Militia Association in Idaho, which spread to several other states and boasted 1,500 members. The group was apparently infiltrated by more "radical" types from organizations like Aryan Nations, and Sherwood disbanded it. Not all militias cooperate, get along, or even agree on doctrinal issues. Individuals such as Gritz are believed to play the role of go-betweens, talking to individual groups and factions. But most share an apocalyptic agenda, a feeling that "end times" are upon us, and that solutions may only be found not in debate, but from the barrel of a gun. A Post-Modern Lesson? The militia movement is said to attract mostly males, overwhelmingly White, in their forties and fifties from working-class or small business backgrounds. Statements from militia members speak of government "abandoning the people"; they complain of high taxes, over-regulation, intrusion into their lives. At times, the rhetoric sounds like a libertarian manifesto. But in some cases, the "government" is more than just an overstepping bloated bureaucracy. The peculiar "radicalism" of the militias often has a paranoid, apocalyptic coloration. Political opponents are demonized, especially in the bizarre teachings of Christian Identity. The religious narrative reads like a blend of Old Testament fundamentalism and "Friday The 13th," with Jews, Blacks, liberals and other enemies playing the role of Freddie. For the Mormon Militias, the conspiracy theories and signs of The Armageddon come easily. The orderly and staid quality of middle-class Mormon life - -perhaps demonstrated in the clean, quiet streets of Mormon towns like Provo and even Salt Lake City -- threatens to explode. As did their predecessors of 150 years ago, they believe they are under attack by a hostile and unbelieving world. And like their Christian fundamentalist counterparts, they know what lies ahead. It's all right there, in The Book. --30-- ----------------------------------------------------------- THEISTWATCH An educational service provided by American Atheists, P O Box 140195, Austin, TX 78714-0195. For information on American Atheists, e-mail: Re: Militia Correction AN EMENDATION AND ADDENDUM By Conrad Goeringer The second part of my article on Mormon militias incorrectly identified "Randy Weber" as the survivalist involved in a shootout with Federal agents. It should have been "Randy Weaver," the name used in previous articles dealing with the militia topic. In addition, readers may find more information about the groups and ideologies associated with militia-type groups especially the religious underpinnings of beliefs like Christian Identity in a number of other sources. The most cogent work to date is Michael Barkun's "Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement" published by University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, in 1994. This work is available through local bookstores. In his preface, Barkun notes: "The strange story of the Christian Identity movement unfolds in a subculture few know and in which fewer still participate, where deviant religion, spurious scholarship, and radical politics intersect. . . ." Barkun traces the origins of Identity from the rise of the old British-Israel movement in the late 1800s, through the anti-semitic, nationalists groups of pre-World War II America and beyond. Another work useful in understanding some Identity- related groups is "Armed and Dangerous: The Rise of the Survivalist Right" by James Coates, published by Hill and Wang in 1987. Locating this work may take some effort, although it is available through most inter-library loan systems. Coates, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, discusses movements such as The Order, Posse Comitatus, The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, as well as the beliefs of the Identity churches. Two older works that bear examination are "Undercover" and "The Plotters," written in the 1940s by another newsman, John Roy Carlson. Both were published by E. P. Dutton & Co. of New York, and although they are out-of-print, both appear frequently on the shelves of used-book outlets at reasonable prices. Of the two, perhaps "Undercover" is the most thorough treatment of "old right" movements, some of which were precursors of contemporary Identity and militia-types groups. Carlson's works, while containing a wealth of information, tended to exaggerate the influence of many fringe political groups. This overreaction continues today. While evangelical conservatives may share some of the political and social tenants of Christian Identity, there are crucial difference in both strategy and beliefs. Nevertheless, it is the apocalyptic convictions of Identity groups, and their preparations for violence which render them more dangerous than their relatively small number may suggest. There also exists the threat posed by government agencies in "dealing" with Christian Identity, militias and any dissident social movement of any political persuasion. Laws and practices unleashed against one groups may be easily employed against another, as we have learned from experience with the FBI's notorious COINTELPRO or the CIA's OPERATION CHAOS. Evaluating the true threat posed by any group, including Identity, first requires a reasoned and scholarly examination of its beliefs and origins. --30-- ----------------------------------------------------------- THEISTWATCH An educational service provided by American Atheists, P O Box 140195, Austin, TX 78714-0195. For information on American Atheists, e-mail:


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