Christian Identity Movement

views updated


CHRISTIAN IDENTITY MOVEMENT is an offshoot of Protestantism found mostly in the United States and other English-speaking countries. The movement is characterized by an anti-Semitic and racist theology. Once the dominant religious orientation on the extreme right in the United States, Christian Identity now appears to be in decline.


Christian Identity developed out of British-Israelism (also known as Anglo-Israelism). British-Israelism emerged in Great Britain during the second half of the nineteenth century. It was neither a church nor a sect but rather an interpretive tendency among Protestants, largely members of the Church of England. Its distinctiveness rested upon its revisionist approach to sacred history. According to Anglo-Israelites, the British Isles had been populated by the Lost Tribes of Israel, who had wandered west from their original place of exile in the Middle East. In many versions of British-Israelism, the tribes were also said to have populated much of northwest Europe. British-Israelites, active at the summit of empire, saw British imperialism as both a divine mission and a demonstration of God's favor.

British-Israelism quickly spread to the United States, where it fitted well with conceptions of manifest destiny. Indeed, as the power of the United States increased, American Anglo-Israelites began to suggest that the country might be the inheritor of Britain's divine role.

The heyday of British-Israelism came in the 1920s and 1930s, a time when many fringe religious movements gained a hearing. Its chief spokesperson was a Massachusetts lawyer, Howard Rand, whose Anglo-Saxon Federation of America organized chapters throughout the country. Rand's proselytizing was significantly aided by William Cameron, a Ford Motor Company executive. Cameron was the editor of Henry Ford's newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, notorious for its anti-Semitic articles in the early 1920s. Cameron's close association with Rand and the Anglo-Saxon Federation anticipated Christian Identity's fusion of British-Israelism and anti-Semitism.

Gradually, the links between British-Israelism in the United States and its English parent weakened. The separation was facilitated by the increasing links between the American extreme right and Anglo-Israelism. This was especially the case in southern California, among individuals associated with Gerald L. K. Smith, the most prominent anti-Semite in the country during the 1940s. Although Smith does not appear to have been a British-Israelite, he and his followers were clearly sympathetic to its rising antipathy toward Jews.

Three individuals in Smith's circle finally created a variation on British-Israelism that definitively marked it off from both its original version and Rand's Americanized form. These threeWesley Swift, William Potter Gale, and Bertrand Comparetrepresent the first leadership cadre of Christian Identity. Their ideas took shape between the end of World War II and the late 1960s, by which time a second generation of leadership was beginning to emerge.

Worldview and Doctrines

British-Israelism had originally been philo-Semitic, seeing Jews as partners of the Anglo-Saxon peoples in God's plan. Indeed, British-Israelism strongly supported Jewish settlement in Palestine, and saw Britain's administration of Palestine under a League of Nations' mandate as a divine sign that Anglo-Jewish cooperation was predestined. However, the opposition of Zionists to British administration of Palestine after World War II engendered hostility in Anglo-Israelites, who could not understand why Jews did not see them as kin. This feeling of betrayal was notably strong in Rand and his followers.

The shift from philo-Semitism to anti-Semitism presaged the major doctrinal innovation of Christian Identity, the so-called two-seed theory. The two-seed theory, most closely associated with Swift, asserts that two lines of descent emanate from Eve: One consists of the offspring of Eve and Adam, Abel and Seth; the other comes from the child of Eve and Satan, Cain. For most Identity believers, Cain's father was Satan, not Adam, and the sin in the Garden of Eden was the sexual union of Eve with a humanoid "serpent."

The two corollaries drawn from this interpretation are, first, that the primal sin was miscegenation; and, second, that the Jews are Cain's descendants. By claiming Jewish ancestry to be satanic, Identity seeks to completely delegitimize any Jewish claims to God's promises. Instead, divine promises belong to the "true" Israelites, that is, whites of northwestern European heritage. Jews thus come to be seen as literally demonic, and history, both sacred and secular, is recast as a cosmic battle between the white race and its Jewish adversaries. Jews are also seen as counterfeit Israelites, seeking to wrest control of the divine promise from its rightful white bearers.

Nonwhites are said to be the result of separate acts of creation, not involving Adam or Eve. They are considered morally inferior to whites and easily manipulable, and are thought to inhabit some status intermediate between humans and nonhumans. To the extent that they perform any roles in the Identity worldview, they are allies to Jews and sources of racial impurity.

The vision of racial struggle (white "Israelites" versus Jews and nonwhites) supports Identity's version of millennialism. The struggle will reach its climax in an imminent battle between the forces of light and the forces of darknessArmageddon defined in racial terms. However, Identity rejects the premillennial dispensationalism that dominates Protestant evangelicalism. The rejection is in part based on the prominence dispensationalists give to the fulfillment of prophecies concerning the Jewish people, and their support for the State of Israel. It is also a function of Identity's unwillingness to accept the concept of the Rapture (i.e., the moment at which the saved will be taken up to be with Christ during the chaos of the Tribulation).

Rejection of the Rapture means that Identity believers expect to have to survive the Tribulation, with its seven years of war and persecution. They will, in other words, need to remain on earth through the reign of antichrist until the second coming. Since they must endure the Tribulation, much attention goes to the details of living during a coming period of disorder. That accounts for the frequent overlap of Identity with survivalism, that is, a lifestyle characterized by separation and self-sufficiency, geared to a time when the normal routines of life can no longer be maintained.

Patterns of Conduct

Racialism and survivalism have often been reflected in the Identity movement's preference for parts of the country characterized by low population density and very small numbers of Jews and nonwhites. Pockets of believers may thus be found in such areas as the Pacific Northwest east of the coastal cities, and the Missouri-Arkansas Ozarks. At its most extreme, Identity sometimes has been used as a rationale for total withdrawal from the larger society ("going off the grid"). A conspicuous example was the paramilitary Ozark commune, the Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord (also called Zarephath-Horeb), founded in 1976. This group maintained its insularity until a law enforcement raid in 1985.

As self-proclaimed Israelites, Identity groups believe themselves to be governed by the precepts of the Hebrew Bible. They often celebrate such traditionally Jewish holidays as Passover and Sukkot and may observe some biblically-sanctioned dietary laws. They likewise frequently refer to God in biblical terms as Yahweh, YHWH, or YHVH. In other liturgical respects, however, they resemble nondenominational evangelicals.

Organization and Authority

British-Israelism never became a sect. It always advised adherents to remain members of their accustomed churches. This tendency was maintained in the United States by the Anglo-Saxon Federation. Indeed, Rand never presented himself as other than a layperson. However, the postWorld War II development of Identity took a different course.

The key figures in the movement's early developmentSwift, Gale, and Comparetall had ministries of some sort, ranging from Swift's church in Antelope Valley, California, to Comparet's less conventional mail and tape ministry. None had formal seminary training, although Swift appears to have attended a Bible college. Nonetheless, they presented themselves as spiritual leaders and, especially in the cases of Swift and Gale, had congregations.

The pattern set at that time persisted: independent ministries linked only by personal ties and doctrinal similarities. These ministries have included small churches with regular services, Bible study groups, and various types of outreach using printed materials, audio and video recordings, and websites. As a result, power in the movement has always been highly diffused. Given the tendency of individual pastors to resist encroachments on their autonomy, attempts to impose even minimal coordinating mechanisms have failed. Relations among Identity notables have consequently been characterized by a high level of personal rivalry.

The demographic profile of rank-and-file adherents is difficult to determine with any exactness. Identity organizations tend to be secretive and suspicious, since many have attracted the attention of law enforcement agencies. In addition, the size of the body of believers (most estimates have ranged from about five thousand to thirty thousand) makes the movement too small to register in even the largest-sample religious identification surveys.

Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that the membership (ethnicity and race aside) closely tracks that of the general populations in areas of Identity activity. There seems to be no convincing evidence that believers display unusual levels of social or personal pathology. Some Identity pastors have made significant efforts to recruit particular populations, including Midwestern farmers, unemployed urban youth, and white prison inmates. Only the latter appears to have been productive, as a function of racial polarization in many correctional facilities.

Christian Identity and the State

Although the great majority of Identity believers appear to be entirely law-abiding, a significant minority have been implicated in violent crimes and other law violations. These include many members of the insurgent group known as the Order, active in the West in the early 1980s; Eric Robert Rudolph, charged with the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta; and Richard Wayne Snell, executed in 1995 for murder.

By the mid-1980s, both federal and state law enforcement agencies had become increasingly concerned about threats posed by Identity believers. This fear was exacerbated by dramatic confrontations between the FBI and Identity adherents; notably, the standoff in 1992 with Randy Weaver and his family at Ruby Ridge in Idaho, and the standoff in 1996 with the Montana Freemen, many of whose members were affiliated with Identity.

The rising tempo of surveillance and prosecution appears to have had an impact on Identity in several ways. First, activities have become less visible. Second, growth appears to have either stopped or continued at a much lower rate. Third, believers have sought to destigmatize themselves by rejecting the term Identity in favor of more acceptable terms, such as Israel, Kingdom, and Covenant. This has been the case with two of the most prominent clergy, Pastor Dan Gayman of the Church of Israel in Schell, Missouri, and Pastor Pete Peters of the LaPorte Church of Christ in LaPorte, Colorado.

Identity has also faced increasing competition within its own constituency of white racial separatists. It now confronts active recruiting efforts from racist faiths unrelated to either Identity specifically or Christianity in its other manifestations. These rivals include racial forms of Neopaganism, such as Odinism and Ásatrú, which seek to reconstitute pre-Christian northern European religion, and the World Church of the Creator, a nontheistic belief system built around the sacred nature of race.

In one respect, Identity has been able to secure some recognition, in federal and state prisons. Despite resistance by prison administrations, anxious to avoid the intensification of racial animosity, Identity inmates have pushed religious claims based on legislation that expands rights of free exercise, notably the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (2000).


Aho, James A. The Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriots. Seattle, 1990. Based on extensive interviews with both Identity and non-Identity members of the Idaho radical right.

Barkun, Michael. Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement. Rev. ed., Chapel Hill, N.C., 1997. Describes the historical development of Identity concepts and organizations.

Flynn, Kevin, and Gary Gerhardt. The Silent Brotherhood: Inside America's Racist Underground. New York, 1989. Journalistic account of the Order.

Jeansonne, Glen. Gerald L. K. Smith: Minister of Hate. New Haven, Conn., 1988. Detailed biography of Smith.

Kaplan, Jeffrey. Radical Religion in America: Millenarian Movements from the Far Right to the Children of Noah. Syracuse, N.Y., 1997. Discussion of Identity and other fringe the-ologies.

Levitas, Daniel. The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right. New York, 2002. Examination of William Potter Gale's career.

Noble, Kerry. Tabernacle of Hate: Why They Bombed Oklahoma City. Prescott, Ont., 1998. Unusual first-person account of the Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord.

Michael Barkun (2005)

About this article

Christian Identity Movement

Updated About content Print Article