Militias, Christian Identity and the Radical Right

by Michael Barkun

Michael Barkun is professor of political science in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. He it author of Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement (University of North Carolina Press).

This article appeared in The Christian Century August 2-9, 1995, pp. 738-740. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current Century articles and subscription information can be found at


The bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City opened a window on the previously invisible subculture of militias, survivalists and conspiracy theorists.

The bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City opened a window on the previously invisible subculture of militias, survivalists and conspiracy theorists. This radical right-wing subculture has existed for more than a quarter century, and its roots extend back to manifestations of nativism, racism and anti-Semitism earlier in this century.

Many of the subculture's current denizens portray themselves as asserting individual rights against federal government encroachment. Their hot issues are gun control, taxation, and the federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. They interpret the Constitution through a kind of "legal fundamentalism." For example, some claim to have discovered the essence of the Constitution in doctrines that raise individual gun possession above the powers of the national government. As one widely circulated militia manual puts it:

Our constitutional liberties are systematically being eroded and denied. The fact that officials are infringing gun rights on every front is simply a manifestation of their inner tendency to empower themselves. Left unchecked, this power will lead to genuine tyranny... The more citizens that own guns, the less willing the government will be to threaten us.

In the world of militias, the national government is a devious and dangerous force, the enemy of its own population.

While this bizarre theory of politics often revolves around issues of law, rights and the state, it ultimately rests on religious foundations. The religious beliefs that undergird the radical right are hard to describe for two reasons, the first having to do with the far right's organizational structure, the second related to its doctrinal basis.

Structurally, the radical right is a confusing, seemingly anarchic world. Survivalists, militias, Klans, neo-Nazis, Christian Identity churches, skinheads and Christian constitutionalists do not inhabit neatly defined segments. Their styles of rhetoric, dress and symbolism are not mutually exclusive, and often interpenetrate and overlap. A person may be a survivalist Christian Identity believer who likes skinhead music, has a fondness for Nazi symbols, and is sympathetic to Christian constitutional arguments. Another participant in the movement might accept some parts of this world but not others.

The memberships of right-wing organizations often overlap, and the groups themselves (like those on the far left) are often riven by factionalism and internal conflicts. It is not surprising, therefore, that months after the Oklahoma City bombing journalists still have difficulty describing suspect Timothy MeVeigh's relationship to the Michigan Militia and to Christian Identity groups. Within the subculture, individuals migrate easily from group to group, sometimes appropriating one set of ideas and symbols, sometimes another, sometimes several simultaneously.

Whatever cohesion this world possesses comes from its alternative system of communications. Mail-order book services, computer bulletin boards, gun shows, Bible camps, pamphlets, periodicals and short-wave radio broadcasts knit the far right together. This network compensates for a fractious organizational life, and it allows the neophyte who enters the communications network to become aware of other groups, doctrines and styles. The picture these media provide is a kind of mirror image of the worldview that prevails in the larger society. These media suggest that the dominant worldview is fraudulent, that things are not as they seem, that only the chosen few within the movement really know what is happening and why.

The melange of right-wing organizations also makes it difficult to discern the movement's religious profile. A few of its members espouse Norse-Germanic paganism or reject all supernatural religion. But the vast majority rely on ideas that originated in conservative Protestantism, albeit sometimes these ideas have been so distorted that they would be rejected by mainstream evangelicals. No organization has the power to enforce a clear religious orthodoxy. Nevertheless, some family resemblances do appear among the various religious concerns.

For example, those on the radical right tend to be biblical literalists for whom scripture speaks to both the problems of daily life and the dilemmas of politics. They also tend to be millennialists who believe we are living in the end-time foretold in the Boo]< of Revelation. From literalism and millennialism other beliefs branch out. The belief that the Bible takes precedence over any command of government is shared with people of very different political persuasions, including some on the left. On the right, however, such "higher law" arguments become the basis not for civil disobedience but for armed confrontation with the state. Thus they become an essential part of the argument that militias use to defend their existence and define their role.

Right-wing higher law ideas are more likely to produce confrontational outcomes precisely because they are linked to a millenarian-apocalyptic view of history. The radical right sees itself standing at a kind of historical cul-de-sac. The world is running out of time. Most Protestant millenarians are adherents of dispensationalism, and they assert that believers need not fear the violence and conflict (the "tribulation") at the end of history, for the saved will be rescued in the "rapture"-lifted off the earth to dwell with Christ in heaven until the Second Coming. Most people on the radical right do not believe they will be rescued, however. They consider the rapture a theological error. They believe the saved must remain on earth during the seven years of the tribulation that will precede the Second Coming. During this time of persecution and upheaval, they must find some way to survive.

"Survivalism"-- a retreat from the world into self-sufficient enclaves -- thus becomes the strategy of choice. The saved must not only be self-sufficient in food, medical care and other necessities; they must also be able to defend themselves from their ultimate enemy, the endtime government of the Antichrist. Mark Koemke, the Michigan short-wave broadcaster much favored in militia circles, advises the stockpiling of gold, weapons and tools. "If we do not accept the Mark [of the Beast], we're going to have to take care of ourselves."

At this point the religious framework of the radical right intersects with its conspiratorial view of politics. The tribulation will be the era of the Antichrist, Satan's final instrument in his struggle to defeat God in the battle for control of the world. Rightists see the federal government falling more and more under the control of malevolent forces. In this context one can understand why George Bush's popularization of the phrase "new world order" at the time of the gulf war was a political gaffe. He meant, of course, a reinvigoration of the system of collective security envisioned by the drafters of the United Nations Charter. But to some, the phrase "new world order" refers to the imposition of the Antichrist's rule. Important segments of the evangelical mainstream have endorsed this view. Pat Robertson in his 1991 book The New World Order uses the phrase as a code word for a diabolical plot, which he describes with anti-Semitic over-tones. The fact that "new world order" has taken on conspiratorial associations for Protestants outside the radical right is seen by rightists as a validation of their own worldview.

For the radical right, the "new world order" involves a conspiracy in which the United Nations plays a central role. While it may seem odd to attribute great power to so ineffectual an organization, the right regards the UN as the instrument through which national governments will be destroyed, enabling the Antichrist to gain control of the world. Since any government associated with the UN is deemed to be part of the Antichrist plot, the national government is illegitimate. The right concludes, finally, that groups and localities must defend themselves militarily against an alien, hostile state which is seeking to uproot the Constitution in favor of "one-world government."

If the aim of the Antichiist's forces is to displace constitutional authority, the theory goes, it must do so by stealth and subterfuge. Attempting to seize power directly would create massive public opposition. Hence right-wing conspiratorialism is enfolded in a more sweeping religious vision of armed struggle in the end-time, when the aware and the saved battle with the mysterious hidden "they" who manipulate power -- in guises as varied as the FBI, the Federal Reserve, the Trilateral Commission and the Anti-Defamation League. The current right-wing obsession with "black helicopters" -- allegedly the conspiracy's favored means of surveillance and transportation -- exhibits conspiratorialism's characteristic combination of specificity and vagueness. Conspiratorialists are often precise about the time and location of black helicopter sightings, yet can neither produce the helicopters nor explain why others have not noticed them.

These views find their fullest expression in the Christian Identity movement, the most significant religious manifestation on the extreme right. It is not clear whether Timothy McVeigh had Christian Identity associations, although press reports have linked him with Elohim City, a Christian Identity commune in Oklahoma. However, Identity's ideas have diffused so widely through the right's alternative communications network that the movement was surely known to McVeigh.

Christian Identity emerged in the late 1940s, primarily on the West Coast. By the 1970s it bad appeared throughout the country, especially in rural areas of the West and South -- such as the Ozarks and mountain areas of the Pacific Northwest-with small numbers of Jews and nonwhites.

Christian Identity millennialism has a distinctively racist tinge. Members believe that Armageddon will be a race war of "Aryans" against Jews and nonwhites. The "Aryans" are not merely whites of northern and western European descent; they are the real biological Israel, for according to Identity the biblical tribes of Israel migrated in ancient times from the Middle East to Western Europe. The Jews, in their view, have nothing to do with the Israelites. They are instead considered demonic impostors-"Satan's spawn," descended through Cain from a sexual union between Eve and the devil in the Garden, the primal sin.

This strange theology has seeped into virtually every corner of the radical right. It may be found among Klansmen and militia members, survivalists and neo-Nazis. And small wonder. Identity provides the perfect religious frame for the far right's political agenda. Every purported conspiracy and cabal, whether of international bankers, Trilateralists or the UN, can be brought within Identity's "great conspiracy" -- Satan's plot to take over the world and deprive "Aryans" of their birthright, a plot that Identity believes began in the Garden of Eden and will end only at Armageddon. Plot can be nested in plot, in an ascending pyramid of conspiracies that ends with the devil himself.

Identity also gives believers the assurance that they constitute a divine warrior elite, the only ones vouchsafed true knowledge of history. This sense of divine assurance compensates for Identity's inability to create a mass base for itself. No on knows precisely how many Identity believers there are-the movement is broken up into dozens, perhaps hundreds, of churches and Bible study groups-any more than the overall size of the radical right can be known. I estimate that the hard-core -radical right numbers 100-200,000, of whom perhaps 20-30,000 are committed Identity believers. So small a movement cannot expect to make its presence felt on the American religious scene in conventional ways. Even its growth rate is unlikely to change its marginal status. But Identity's very marginality seems to assure its members of their special position. Convinced that most other Christians have been duped or coopted by the conspiracy, they remain certain of their own incorruptibility. The neglect and scorn of others confirms their sense of cbosenness, as well as their disdain for the main currents of American life.

Identity seems poised to benefit from the interest in the militia movement. Significant Identity figures have participated in or supported militias, though most militia members have come from other religious backgrounds. The militias can serve as bridge movements, carrying those already familiar with Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson and the John Birch Society to involvement with militant conspiratorialism, racism and anti-Semitism. Whatever their motivations, the fearful and alienated who join militias quickly become integrated into the far right's network of videotapes, pamphlets and audiocassettes.

The danger presented by the militias is thus twofold. The most obvious danger is that resentful armed cadres can intimidate and polarize small localities, as Posse Comitatus groups did in the rural Midwest in the 1970s and '80s. (Posse Comitatus contended that no legitimate political authority exists above the county level.) The more far-reaching danger is that militias will channel members to move from the outer reaches of acceptable politics to a darker world of apocalyptic racism and anti-Semitism.