Christian Identity movement needs more press scrutiny.
Local and national news media tend to cover such right-wing hate groups as Christian Identity only after they have committed egregious acts. Among the most serious acts of urban terrorism perpetrated by associates of Christian Identity are:
* Bombings at a Birmingham, Ala., abortion clinic and at the Atlanta Olympics;
* Acts of arson at three synagogues in Sacramento, Calif.;
* The murder of a gay couple near Redding, Calif.; and
* The murder of a postal service worker and the attempted murder of five individuals at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles, Calif.
"We need to know more about the Christian Identity people and what they are up to--news coverage on them tends to be sporadic," said Larry Brown, a University of Missouri-Columbia doctoral student, who has written his dissertation on Christian Identity. "They tend to only get covered after something like the Oklahoma City bombing.
"They get covered after someone like Eric Rudolph, who is the suspect in the Centennial Park bombing in Atlanta, gets caught and his personal history is examined," Brown said. "The media ought to stay on this group's story, and not wait until after something terrible happens."
Brown is familiar with the Schell City, Mo., Identity church that helped reinforce Rudolph's hateful ideas. Brown has spent almost four years going to services, meetings and events held by Christian Identity groups in Missouri.
"Eric Rudolph spent a number of months at the Schell City church and listened to the messages there," Brown said. "I don't think that experience was pivotal in the actions that now make him a suspect in the abortion clinic bombing and the Olympics bombing. But, Rudolph was certainly influenced by what he heard there."
Brown explained that the Schell City church was once directed by Bo Gritz, who claims to be a former Special Forces commander and who garners headlines by burning United Nations flags at gun shows across the country.
Christian Identity ranks with extremist hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nation and The Order--all of which preach racism, gay-bashing and anti-Semitic ideas to justify acts of violence. FBI reports estimate that the Identity movement is 50,000 strong with Missouri ranking first in the number of affiliates and California ranking second.
Post series praised
Although Brown is critical of what he feels is a lack of media attention to Christian Identity, he does have high praise for St. Louis Post-Dispatch coverage by reporters Carolyn Toft and Joe Holleman.
"I was at the Identity meeting in Branson that Toft and Holleman came to observe in 2000," Brown recalled. "When the Identity leaders at that meeting said, 'We have discovered there are snakes among us,' I thought I had been found out.
"But, it was the Post reporters that they were talking about," Brown said. "They then had a short conference to consult with God on what to do with the 'snakes,' and they decided to kick the reporters out of the meeting."
The series by the Post reporters noted such Identity beliefs as the dismissal of blacks as a Biblical race of "mud people" and the origin of the Jews to a sex act by Satan. Identity believers define adultery as marriage by members of a superior white race to either blacks or Jews.
"Identity beliefs are based on an outrageous interpretation of the Bible," Brown said. "They really do not appeal to people in normal circumstances. They do appeal to people who are in crisis, who are psychologically vulnerable or who have some need for validation of self-importance."
Brown said there are aspects of the Identity world view that have credibility with some rural folks--for example, claims that bankers and multi-national corporations are taking their property, immigrants are coming to take their jobs away, and the government is intent on taking away their guns and civil liberties.
"I really never intentionally went undercover on them," Brown said, regarding his monitoring of Identity events. "But, as a white male with knowledge of Biblical passages, I fit in. I took notes like other people at the meetings and sang their songs. I just didn't stand out too much."
Brown, who has served as a Christian pastor on various assignments during the past 30 years, said he first became interested in right-wing religious extremism in the 1970s.
"I'm originally from Nebraska and got my undergraduate degree from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln," Brown said. "I was in the seminary and pastoring in Indiana, and I was amazed at the number of my acquaintances who were with the Klan. I have been haunted and disturbed by the growth of the extreme right ever since."
Becoming less visible
"The popularity and the width of the right wing in this country have grown so much that groups like Identity are becoming less visible," Brown said. "Some of their messages have been absorbed into the views of the right, and this has given them more confidence and made them more comfortable.
"For a time, they were excited about John Ashcroft as one of their own," Brown said. "When Ashcroft was given an honorary degree by Bob Jones University, they were impressed because many of their preachers have come out of Bob Jones. When Ashcroft became Justice Department head, they were very disappointed."
According to Brown, Identity leaders look at every arm of the American federal government as tools of the international Jewish conspiracy. Jews are impostors who claim to be the chosen people when the white or "Adamic" race contains the "true Israelites" under the Christian Identity belief system.
Brown said that the Sept. 11 attacks by Arab terrorists have been confusing for Christian Identity advocates. They see the attacks as God's punishment for race-mixing and other immoralities of the age. However, they also believe that any enemy of the Jews could be their friends--and attacks on symbols of money and power can't be all bad.
"We are talking about folks who think the whole system is bad," Brown said. "The Bush family, the Kennedy family, the Clintons or Kissinger--they are all part of the same international, Jewish, financial, transnational, United Nations conspiracy.
"They see both Bush I and Bush II as tools of the Jews," Brown said. "They see President Bush as just a dupe, doing the bidding of the Jewish state by sending American boys and girls to die in Iraq to protect their state."
Brown said the news media too often write off extreme fundamentalist Christians as all espousing the same wild-eyed beliefs. He said there are important differences and distinctions to be made in examining the various strains of extreme fundamentalism.
"Identity is post-millennialist. They don't believe in the rapture," Brown said. "They believe that the tribulations and God's judgement on the wicked are taking place right now. They part company with the Pat Robertson types and the televangelists.
"Robertson and Jerry Falwell are pre-millennialists," added Brown. "They see God's judgment as yet to come. Even though Robertson and Falwell have occasionally slipped into some anti-Semitism in the past, as far as Identity leaders are concerned, they are just dupes in the world Jewish conspiracy."
Brown conceded that, since Sept. 11, he sometimes wonders about the effects of a successful terrorist attack on America with weapons of mass destruction. Would the shock and economic dislocation of such an attack make the Christian Identity message more attractive to some Americans? Could a charismatic leader with Identity make the movement a force to reckon with?
Based on research and observations he made to complete his dissertation, Brown said he believes the Christian Identity movement in Missouri bears much closer watching by the press. He said any expansion of the extreme Christian right should sound off alarms.
"In terms of bringing the current Identity people into the real world--that is a lost cause," Brown said. "What we can do is try to reach the younger people, especially in these areas where Identity thrives. They need to get the message that multiculturalism is OK and that diversity has been America's blessing and strength--not a curse.
"We also need to inform law enforcement of how to deal with these people," Brown added. "We can't just go in with guns ablazing in situations like Waco. In standoff situations, it's much better to send someone in who can speak scripture to them and who can communicate with them.
"It's much better to start some kind of conversation about what the Bible means than to create martyrs out of them," Brown stressed. "Martyrs just reinforce their paranoia and confirm their beliefs in conspiracy."
Don Corrigan is a professor in the School of Communications at Webster University and also edits three weekly newspapers.
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|Publication:||St. Louis Journalism Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2003|
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