LaPorte, Colorado–It was a typical winter Sunday at the LaPorte Church of Christ. Snow swirled outside. Inside, casseroles prepared for the afternoon social simmered on hot plates, filling the church with the warm smell of macaroni and cheese and au gratin potatoes. About 50 worshippers cleared their throats and sang “Rock of Ages”. Then Pastor Pete Peters, a friendly, smiling preacher, introduced special guests in the congregation, including a tax protester recently released from prison, an author specializing in white supremacy and an elderly lecturer on Jewish conspiracy theories.
This Sunday sermon focused on the heart of Peters’ theology, a claim that “the Anglo Saxon, Germanic, Scandinavian and kindred peoples are the true Jews”, descendants of the tribes of ancient Israel. Those people recognized as today’s Jews, Peters suggested, are not Jews at all, but, rather, millions of evil “antichrists” masquerading as God’s chosen people.
“These people are not who they say they are,” said Peters, a slight man with close-cropped brown hair, a small mustache and a resonant voice. “Throughout history Jews have been outcasts. There have been 34 expulsions from, notice, ‘host’, countries. Parasites have ‘hosts’. Jews say it has been for no reason at all. Well, maybe there is a reason they were kicked out 34 times. Maybe they really are the antichrist today.”
Following along in their Bibles, and using special looseleaf study guides, the faithful nodded assent, occasionally interrupting with questions. Peters talked at length about his theory that the antiChrist of Bible prophesy is not a person, but rather, an evil force of which Jews are a part. Special attention was paid to the suggestion that Jews control international finance and the national media.
“What would happen if the antichrist people were running the news media?” asked Peters. “The antichrist people are liars, so that’s what you would get from the media; lies.”
LaPorte, about 25 miles south of the Wyoming state line, is part of the vast rural heartland that stretches across middle America. Little more than a wide spot in a two lane road, the town is a place where farm families come to shop, socialize, and attend church. The members of the Church of Christ are from the same farming stock. They have endured nearly a decade of the economic crisis that has driven thousands of farmers out of business. At the church they have found a reason to hope for the future and scapegoats to blame for hard times and bewildering social changes.
The church is among more than 100 “Identity” congregations in America. The Identity movement is one small, darkly-colored piece in the complex mosaic of conservative Christian America. It includes churches and paramilitary organizations, touring evangelists and armed crusaders seeking an “Aryan Nation”. The majority of conservative Christians–fundamentalists, evangelicals and charismatics–consider Identity theology far fetched, even unChristian. But in the past 20 years Identity has become a solid fixture on the fringe of American Christianity, feeding on the tensions of the farm crisis and fostering a theology of hatred. In the last few years the movement has struggled to shed its white supremacist image, bringing its message to small, seemingly mainstream churches serving hard-working, middle class families.
Pastor Peters is an important part of the Identity movement. Polished and serious, he has developed the first international Identity ministry. His sermons are broadcast on radio stations across the U.S. and Europe, and his newsletters and cassette tapes are mailed to thousands of subscribers. His messages blend dire reports about the signs of the times–AIDS, the nuclear build-up–with the assurance that the true Jews of the Identity movement are God’s chosen few. At 41, Pete Peters is a rising star in the movement.
“I’m a black sheep, but God has been leading me step by step,” said Peters during an interview at Vern’s Cafe, a Laporte landmark decorated with stuffed game trophies and knotty pine paneling. Early on Sunday mornings the cafe is filled with hunters and churchgoers fueling up on thick pieces of French toast and strong coffee. Peters talked briefly with a gun shop owner, a tall skinny man wearing a baseball cap. “I hear they want to give queers equal rights,” said the shop-keeper. “God bless you, come to church,” said Peters. When he sat down, Peters explained, “Good people like these folks have known there’s something wrong. Over the years, a lot of people have tried to figure out what’s going on in America, what’s wrong. We know the truth now.” The truth, according to Peters, is that America is a Christian country being undermined by Jewish “aliens”.
“The problems come when you try to show people they really have enemies who hate them,” said Peters. “People are good. They just don’t want to believe it. But it’s true.”
Beginning with the notion that true Jewish identity belongs to white Christians of Northern European descent, the Identity churches have developed a complex theology of anti-Semitism and prejudice. Believers pick and choose among tenants including the notion that blacks are “pre-human” animals. Many Identity believers are convinced that America is the Israel of the Bible. And serious Identity adherents, believing a Biblically prophesied end-of-the-world nuclear war is imminent, stockpile food and maintain weapons. Some even suspect that the USSR has exploded a nuclear weapon over the U.S., and that America has secretly surrendered its sovereignty.
For the most part Identity activities are limited to grumbling meetings where hard pressed rural folk spin conspiracy theories. At Identity church services, the faithful find relief believing they are God’s chosen few. From time to time, however, the Identity movement moves beyond grumbling to violence. Members of an organization called Aryan Nations, who follow Identity theology, have been convicted in bombings and bank robberies. The crimes were committed as part of a plot to create a white, Christian, Aryan Nation in the Northwestern U.S. In another case, Identity has been connected to murder. Alan Berg, a Denver radio talk show host, was machined-gunned in 1984. His killers were part of a neo-Nazi organization called The Order. The murderers were Identity adherents; they attended the LaPorte Church of Christ. The Berg murder marked the most extreme use of Identity’s ideas.
“Christian Identity is the most significant thing happening among hate groups in America today,” says Daniel Levitas, who monitors Identity efforts for a rural advocacy organization called Prairie Fire. Based in Des Moines, Prairie Fire has organized conferences to counter the Identity campaign, and publishes regular reports on the movement. Levitas estimates that there are more than 15,000 Identity activists in the Farm Belt and as many as 200,000 less active supporters.
“Some organizations will argue that Identity has been declining, but I’m not sure that’s accurate,” adds Levitas. In 1987, nearly every leader of The Order was arrested on federal conspiracy charges, and the radical Aryan Nation’s sect in Idaho was crippled by criminal prosecutions and community opposition. The Aryan Nation’s leader, Richard Butler, advocates the creation of a whites-only nation in the American Northwest. He soon will be prosecuted on federal sedition charges. Levitas acknowledges that segments of the movement are under attack, but argues that less-violent activists, working out of churches that seem to be mainstream congregations, continue to spew hatred among the rural poor and middle class without opposition.
“It doesn’t have the potential to be a mass movement, but it does find converts, especially from fundamentalists who may be very scripturally oriented. It has an appeal, still,” said Levitas. Identity churches and outreach organizations are especially active in Washington State, Georgia and the Carolinas, western Pennsylvania and the upper Midwest.
“This movement is dangerous for a number of reasons that aren’t obvious at first,” adds Leonard Zeskind, an analyst for the Center for Democratic Renewal who monitors Identity groups. Identity theology has become a thread that binds otherwise isolated hate groups into a small national movement, he says. Zeskind also argues that the Identity movement promotes prejudice among people who would otherwise resist racist and anti-Semitic ideas. “The ideas promoted by Identity are, increasingly, found in less radical-seeming churches. And I’ve seen people who have been convinced to be racist, or anti-Semitic, on the religious grounds suggested by Identity.”
When Peters first began to preach Identity theology in 1983, the LaPorte Church of Christ was a conservative but traditionally Christian church. Most of its members objected to Peters’ ideas and left the congregation. But from a core of less than a dozen, he has built Sunday attendance to an average of 50. Most of the faithful are drawn from the farm country around LaPorte, but some come from as far as Denver, 80 miles to the south. They are a tight-knit group.
After the Sunday service at LaPorte, nearly everyone stayed for a potluck lunch in the meeting room in the back of the church. People divided into groups. Some gathered around Robert Spurgeon, a farmer from Wyoming, who was recently released from prison. Spurgeon has, since 1975, refused to pay taxes on his income and his farm. Others surrounded author Len Martin, whose books concentrate on alleged Jewish conspiracies. In the church sanctuary a small group of men, considered the intellectuals of the congregation, discussed theology.
“At first I tried to dispute it, tried to prove this theology was wrong,” said Ted Weiland, a 32-year-old from Denver. His two-year-old daughter romped up and down the aisle of the church while he talked. Weiland was an associate pastor at a large evangelical church in Denver when he was first exposed to the Identity movement. A handsome, blond-haired, blue-eyed man in cowboy boots, Weiland is articulate and bright. Fashionably dressed and carefully groomed, he stands out in the crowd of plainly-dressed farmers and ranchers at the LaPorte Church of Christ.
“I didn’t want to believe it. I was like those people who have been brainwashed to think it’s white supremacy, racism or discrimination,” he said. “But there has been a historical case of mistaken identity. We are the real Jews, the chosen people of the Bible.” The “mistake” is explained by Identity theorists who believe some ancient tribes of Israel migrated to Western Europe before Christ. Modern Northern Europeans are their descendants, the theorists say. Several pseudoscientific studies of the theory of the lost Jews have been published. These books, along with traditional anti-Semitic works such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, are mainstays of Identity theology.
After he came to believe in the Identity idea, Weiland tried to convince his associates at The Church of Aurora, a large independent church in suburban Denver. He recalled that the pastor of the church disagreed with the Identity message and instructed him to avoid discussing it with members of the congregation. But as Weiland’s belief in the Identity movement grew stronger, he found it more difficult to keep quiet. When he began teaching Identity theology, he was quickly fired.
“I felt a sense of relief, really, a sense of freedom. You know, it scared me to death when I considered that this could possibly be true,” added Weiland. “I’d just as soon it not be true. I don’t like being called a neo-Nazi and racist. But the theology is true.”
Weiland was convinced by Peters’ arguments, especially his theory connecting Jews to communism. Identity believers expect an end-of-the-world battle of Armageddon to be waged against the U.S. by a Soviet/Israeli alliance. The battle is to be preceded by the rise of a powerful antichrist force. Weiland said that force is worldwide communism and Judaism. “The Bible says that the antichrist deceives, and the false Jews fit the bill better than anyone else,” he said. “We believe there will be an invasion of America. I look at my own weapons at home in terms of possible invasion, and we stockpile cans of food for that possibility.”
While Weiland believes Jews are the antichrist of “end-times” prophesy, Joe Baker, owner of an auto parts store in Scotts Bluff, Wyoming, considers Jews to be a “punishment from God.” Rather than being the actual antichrist, said Baker, “God uses these people, called Jews. to punish His people, us. Like in our government. Our government is designed to be run by Christians. But because we haven’t kept his commandments, God has let these aliens infiltrate our country and now they are on top.”
“And just watch when we start claiming our rights as Israelites, that’s when the fur flies,” added Baker. “They throw something like the Holocaust in our faces. Well, we’ve been lied to about that. Only a few hundred thousand were killed in the Holocaust, that’s another ruse the Jews use.”
Convinced that the rest of society has been manipulated by an elaborate conspiracy, many Identity believers have come to regard taxes, civil law and the government as anti-Christian. Like many other conservative Christians, Identity followers say America was founded, with God’s providence, to be a Christian nation. They subscribe to a kind of constitutional fundamentalism, which argues that the Constitution is Biblically inspired and is superseded by the laws of the Bible. They call it “Christian common law.” Identity followers suggest that Christians must practice civil disobedience, and even commit crimes, to restore Christian control.
Rev. Peters outlines the theology behind Christian law in a booklet titled, “The Bible: Handbook for Survivalists, Racists, Tax Protesters, Militants and Right-Wing Extremists.” A mixture of populism, ideas borrowed from Peter’s days in the John Birch society, and creative Bible citations, the booklet advocates racism, segregation, nonpayment of taxes and paramilitary training. “How could churches call racism a sin?” writes Peters, “Racism is a sin in the HUMANIST religion, not in the true Christian faith based upon the Bible.”
After the beef ribs (Identity ‘Jews’ don’t eat pork) and covered dishes were finished, a handful of church members lingered over coffee and homemade apple pie. At one table, men in plaid flannel shirts talked in hushed voices about the Posse Comitatus. Also known as the Christian Posse, Posse Comitatus is a secret Identity-oriented organization that advocates “Christian common law” and insists that taxes and the Federal reserve system are illegal. Posse chapters have been organized throughout rural America. The Posse first gained national attention in 1983 when leader Gordon Kahl, wanted for shooting two federal marshals, was killed in a battle with law enforcement officers in Arkansas. LaPorte Church of Christ members speak of Kahl as a martyr. Over their coffee they speculated about who among local farmers still belonged to the Posse.
At another table, his back to the flannel-shirted men, Pastor Peters insisted he does not advocate violence, and complained that he is regularly “smeared” as a racist and anti-semite in the media. He doesn’t consider his charge that Jews are antichrists to be anti-Semitic. “And while I advocate segregation, I don’t believe that makes me a racist,” he said. “It’s a common communist tactic, to paint someone like me in an awful light,” he said. “But the funny thing is, every time I get negative publicity, my ministry grows. Society has trouble with this because it is the truth and, for society, the truth can be dangerous.”
Two of the younger members of the congregation listened intently to Peters talk about dangerous truths. Kent O’Neill and Michael Greene said they agreed. Their Bible study has led them to believe there is great danger ahead. “The people have the right, under God, to overthrow an unjust king,” said O’Neill. Some folks are beginning to follow God’s law now by stockpiling weapons. The people in the Posse and the tax resisters, you could say they are just the first casualties of war. We’re in a war now against an unjust king.”
In the wobbly reality of the Identity movement, O’Neill and Greene have come to regard themselves as soldiers-in-waiting. They believe the U.S. government is an “unjust king” and they are little “Davids” waiting to strike the Goliath. They say the U.S. will soon disarm (“The Reagan-Gorbachev summit is just the beginning,” said Greene) and then suffer a surprise nuclear attack. In the aftermath only those who have prepared, by stockpiling weapons, will be able to seize power. “The world belongs to the Lord,” added Greene, “and we’ll be ready to take dominion for Him.”
While they wait for the end of the world, the Identity movement’s activists offer survival training and even combat courses for anyone who would enroll. And the movement poses the real danger of isolated violence, such as the Berg murder. But analyst Leonard Zeskind worries more about the long-term effect Identity could have on other conservative Christians. As the movement presses its extremism, Zeskind warns, it would nudge other conservative Christians closer to anti-Semitism.
“The danger is that our definition of what is acceptable mainstream thinking may change,” he adds. Churches like the LaPorte Church of Christ look like mainstream churches, and serve hard-working, middle class people. “Identity is trying to grow beyond the white supremacist community,” says Zezkind. “They change the delivery and the packaging to make it more palatable, but the message is the same. That’s the real danger.”
©1988 Michael D’Antonio
Michael D’Antonio, a reporter on leave from Newsday, is reporting on Christian America.