Examining an extreme

Local researcher
says the Christian Identity Movement’s activities follow a rigid adherence to literal Biblical interpretations and racial intolerance
Sunday, November 30, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:23 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Tragic events such as the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, the standoff at Ruby Ridge and the Olympic Park bombing evoke horror and sadness, but the people responsible for these events saw themselves as heroes and are linked to a complex group, the Christian Identity Movement.

This movement views the white race as superior, stemming from the belief that Adam was the first white man. They take the Bible literally and believe the United States is the New Israel. And they justify violent or hateful acts committed against other races as punishment for the world’s “race mixing.”

Although the primary text of this religious group is the Bible, Larry Brown — MU geography instructor, ordained minister and a man who knows his Bible — took interest in this movement because members read the same Scriptures as he does but hold vastly different perspectives.

Studying the movement

Brown examined this movement for four years and, after an extensive study, has become an expert on the topic. Last week, he received his doctorate in education, culminating his research.

“Part of what my research had to do with was essentially overcoming my own biases,” Brown said. While he initially viewed the organization as lacking in logic, his research showed him a group of people with a tightly constructed set of beliefs that was quite rational, albeit extreme.

Brown dates traces of the Christian Identity Movement to the 1400s and the colonial period. This movement increasingly began to take shape in the mid-19th century and was called British or Anglo-Israelism. It is a theological belief that Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Scandinavian, Germanic and associated cultures are the racial descendents of the tribes of Israel. This movement did not become associated as a racist Christian-based faith group until the 1920s and ‘30s during the Depression and rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.

Brown’s dissertation primarily focuses on interpreting the texts members of the Christian Identity Movement distribute in order to understand their beliefs and world view, but his research is far more extensive. In addition to reading Identity literature, he spent time going to Christian Identity Movement meetings every other month and attended annual conferences.

Although the Christian Identity Movement’s views may be in conflict with the values and information American professors teach, Brown’s research conveys their beliefs in a considerate and rational way, said Peggy Placier associate professor of education and Brown’s adviser.

“His work is not inflammatory or even disrespectful,” Placier said. “He’s trying to understand.”

Placier said this research is important because it informs people about ways of thinking that exist in our society and the possible influences on citizens, students and voters.

Finding movements close to home

Brown looked extensively at three Christian Identity Movement groups from the Greater Ozark Region, which has one of the highest densities of Christian Identity Movement members in the United States. Usually there are 30 to 35 Christian Identity-related organizations spread throughout the Greater Ozark Region, Brown said, but the group’s complexity makes it difficult to cite specific membership statistics.

This group is not growing dramatically either in Missouri or the United States, but it is self-perpetuating because most members are born into the movement rather than recruited for it.

Acting out

Brown’s research shows that often these groups act out during economic or political crises, such as the Great Depression or the agricultural crisis of the 1980s.

“For most of these groups, they are already experiencing themselves as somewhat marginalized of the regular economy, and economic stresses cause people to look for scapegoats,” Brown said. “So that’s why I say that when we get into more difficult economic times, folks are going to be ready to look for someone to blame, and these groups are around all ready to say, ‘We have the answer.’” Brown said that if the economy continues to struggle, or if the government were to take away individual liberties, this group might act out in violence again — but it would take a serious economic downturn. Their anti-government attitude supplies them with a religious justification for committing extreme acts in response to political, economic or cultural trauma.

Steve Friesen, department chairman of religious studies and a friend of Brown, attends Rock Bridge Christian Church, where Brown occasionally preaches, and sees Brown’s research as valuable and important to society.

“It seems to me, over the last couple of years that society has become more polarized, and the right wing in general has become much more aggressive,” Friesen said. “And I think that aggressive approach of conservative groups also encourages the CIMt to become more aggressive. I’m not trying to equate conservative groups with the Identity movement, but that tendency for people to shout at each other in different cultures is getting much worse — there’s a lot less listening going on.”The Christian Identity Movement sees the clash of races as a war against Satan, Brown said, and if they don’t win the war, Christ will not come and establish his kingdom. They see the end of the world as cleansed of all evil powers. The goal of this group is not to eliminate all other races and cultures, but to gain control of their sacred space — North America, or the new Israel — and to return nonwhite people to their original homeland.

“I think sometimes they are as angry or militant toward folks like me who they would consider being a race traitor, folks they would label as Judeo-Christians, who believe that the Bible is for all peoples, as they are against Jews or other races,” Brown said. “They think folks like me would be just as destructive to God’s intentions; in the narrowest definition — I would be working for Satan. Sometimes I’m not sure who is more the enemy, a Judeo-Christian pastor or someone who promotes multiculturalism and inclusivism.”

Now that Brown has completed his research, he plans to continue teaching geography and providing leadership at Rock Bridge Christian Church. He says his concern about the movement will not leave him, but it will not be such a high priority as it has been during his study — unless Christian Identity Movement grows larger and gathers more attention.

Brown’s research gave him an understanding of the group, and he found himself at times agreeing with Christian Identity Movement’s analysis of social and political issues. But he differs greatly in his beliefs about the appropriate ways to deal with these issues.

“I don’t need to fight for my ethnic rights that these people feel like they do,” Brown said.

Brown said that Christian Identity Movement members see being white and American as an being an “endangered species.” But he said he is also part of that group of people. “I’m white, male, middle aged, citizen of the U.S. middle class, I own property, I’m heterosexual, Protestant-Christian … I represent a tiny, tiny, tiny group on planet Earth.”

The possibility of this group of people going extinct makes Christian Identity Movement members uncomfortable, but Brown is OK with that possibility.

“I think maybe that’s the way God designed it, to phase out these people,” Brown said.

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