Inside the Christian Identity Movement
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
March 5, 2000
Carolyn Tuft And Joe Holleman
Several crimes in the last decade have been linked to the Christian Identity movement. At a conference in Branson, Mo., adherents worked hard to convey a God-fearing wholesomeness. But a fundamental fierceness revealed itself.
The Christian Identity movement — its message often used by white supremacists and anti-Semites as religious justification for their violent acts — is trying to soften its image as hard-core separatists.
Some Identity leaders were selling their new image at a conference last weekend in Branson, Mo.; although it is clear they still adhere to a whites-only, gay-bashing, Jew-hating doctrine.
In the last decade, Identity followers have been tied to murder, robbery and kidnapping. The FBI estimates Identity membership at 50,000, and its rapid growth puts it in the No. 1 spot on the bureau’s list of most dangerous hate groups.
In August, Identity follower Buford O. Furrow Jr. killed a postal worker and wounded five others after opening fire on a Jewish day-care center in Los Angeles. A month earlier, brothers Benjamin and James Williams — also Identity adherents — allegedly killed a gay couple in Happy Valley, Calif. And in 1985, David Tate, a member of
The Order — a group that embraces Identity beliefs — killed Missouri Highway Patrol trooper Jim Linegar by shooting him 11 times during a routine traffic stop near Branson.
The Bible Belt along the Missouri-Arkansas border is the center of the movement, and there are more Identity affiliates in Missouri than any other state, according to a count of known affiliates across the country. Over the past several years, Branson has become one of the movement’s main gathering places.
At last weekend’s “Songs for His People” rally, members worked hard to convey a God-fearing wholesomeness. But on Saturday, the two faces of Christian Identity — friendliness and fierceness — revealed themselves.
At noon, 50 children in pigtails, ruffled dresses and little-boy suits stepped onto a stage. In a precious performance, the cute youngsters sang and acted out “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” to their parents’ delight.
Six hours later, many of the same children sat with their parents as speaker Charles A. Jennings called himself “a strong racist” and said he was pleased that “the quality of our race is in this room.”
One audience member who applauded Jennings’ speech was Thom Robb — the Grand Dragon of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which includes Missouri and is the largest and most active chapter in the United States.
Robb lives in Harrison, Ark., about 30 miles south of Branson. Robb, who dresses in conservative suits, has worked to soften the Klan’s cross-burning, robe-wearing image.
Taking a chapter from Robb’s public relations strategy is Identity pastor Ted R. Weiland, another speaker at the weekend conference.
Weiland, a regular contributor to “The Jubilee,” the Identity movement’s newspaper, laced his sermons with humor and anecdotes.
He was mentioned in wire service stories during the 1995 federal building bombing in Oklahoma City because militia members frequented his church in Nebraska. Both bombers, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, were militia participants. Weiland also has been connected to the Williams brothers through telephone records. Weiland told a reporter that if McVeigh and Nichols had been Identity members: “They’d already be dead. They’d be put to death a lot quicker (by Identity followers) than this government will do it.”
What they believe
The roots of the Identity movement began in England in the late 1800s as Anglo-Israelism. Followers believed that England and the United States were the true Israel and that white Anglo-Saxons were God’s chosen people.
They believed that Jews were descendants of Satan and that blacks and other nonwhite races — whom they called “mud people” — were on the same spiritual level as animals.
The modern U.S. Identity movement surfaced in the 1950s with Wesley Swift and William Potter Gale. When Swift, a Ku Klux Klan organizer, died in 1970, Richard G. Butler, the founder of the infamous Aryan Nation, proclaimed himself as Swift’s successor.
Gale, a former Army colonel, also was a founder of the violent Posse Comitatus, which attracted national attention in 1983 when member Gordon Kahl murdered two federal marshals in North Dakota. Kahl died later that year in a shootout with Arkansas police.
Through the 1980s, the Identity movement became associated with other extremist groups such as The Order; The National Alliance; The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord; the Aryan Liberation Army; and a number of Ku Klux Klan chapters.
Not only are Jews and minorities vilified by Identity followers, so are gays, lesbians and those who associate with them. Some of the more hard-core members believe that followers can enact an immediate death penalty on those who violate “God’s law,” which they believe includes mixing races.
Identity followers, like many members of the militias that were exposed after the Oklahoma City bombing, also hate the federal government. Many members work from their homes, teach their children at home and do not watch television or engage in social functions outside of the Identity community.
Sights and sounds
Identity members chose the Lodge of the Ozarks on Branson’s main strip for their weekend gathering Feb. 25-27. The parking lot held dozens of cars with license plates from 20 different states and one Canadian province. It was off-season for the city that draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to its country and western and gospel shows.
Inside the hotel, the atmosphere at first blush was one of a family reunion, wedding reception or church social. Adults greeted one another affectionately, chatting and catching up on news of friends and children. The men wore all manner of dress from business suits to overalls; the women wore little or no makeup and were dressed in below-the-knee skirts and dresses.
The children played with Legos beneath tables that held pamphlets espousing the Identity leaders’ racist beliefs, including one titled “The Satan Among Us,” by Identity pastor Bob Hallstrom of Boise, Idaho.
The main meeting room, the Crystal Hall, held 350 chairs. The stage, adorned with an American flag, lacked any religious symbols or signs marking the Identity gathering.
Children’s programs and other special lectures took place in smaller rooms, including one near the indoor pool where Identity followers were to be baptized by Weiland.
Mothers breast-fed babies under blankets while Identity musical groups such as the Boatrights, a local Branson Identity family instrumental group; Mark Reynolds of nearby Hollister, Mo.; and Chad and Terri Sigafus of Couch, Mo., played on stage. The children and adults sang to old hymns such as “Amazing Grace,” and lesser-known ones like “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing.”
The adults fell generally into two categories: older retirement-age couples and young, married couples under 40 with stair-stepped families of at least three children. Most adults had their own Bibles and turned to them frequently.
The children were extremely well-behaved. Teen-age boys jumped to open doors for women. Children often moved aside as adults passed. There were no Walkman radios, hand-held computer games or pleas for quarters to play the hotel’s pinball machines. The only beverage offered was water, though many brought in sodas and coffee. Along with the pamphlets, there was a table displaying survival gear and food and water purifying systems.
Norm and Trish Farnum, musicians and conference organizers who live in nearby Galena, Mo., ran a tight ship. Few of the acts exceeded their allotted time, and never were the day’s activities more than 10 minutes behind schedule. Local Identity pastor Michael Peebles of Ava, Mo., stayed well within his time slot. The soft-spoken, full-bearded Peebles read from the book of Romans and talked of the debate between the people that Paul wrote about in the Bible.
“Debate. Well that’s even among us,” Peebles said of the different Identity affiliates. “This person is either one of us or not; it takes time to tell.”
Yet Farnum couldn’t prevent one unidentified man, who was not part of the program, from jumping up to the microphone to tell the crowd that in order for white Christianity to survive: “We are the generation who must go to war.”
An anti-Semitic sermon
Ted R. Weiland leads the Mission to Israel affiliate in Scottsbluff, Neb. He is a barrel-chested, but otherwise trim man with sandy hair and mustache. As a youngster, he worked on cattle ranches.
Weiland said he was unfairly linked to the Oklahoma City bombings when a wire service reported that militia members attended his church. He flatly denied the charge.
As to the Williams incident, published reports said that someone from the Williams’ home in San Diego had called Weiland a month before the killings.
In front of his audience last weekend, Weiland was a smiling speaker full of good cheer.
“It’s good to be in Branson again,” he said, during his sermon. “I preach in Branson more than anywhere in the United States.”
His talk was not unlike a sermon one might hear at any fundamentalist Christian church. Yet, by his Saturday afternoon sermon — chronologically and philosophically somewhere between “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and Jennings’ “South Will Rise Again” diatribe — Weiland cranked up the anti-Semitic theme.
“There is a Jewish agenda against Christianity,” he said after claiming that Jewish translators took the word “Yahweh” out of the Bible a total of 6,823 times to deny Christians the power that exists in the name.
“They (the Jews) are not the true Israel. They say we are the haters, but the Jews are the enemies of Christ.”
Weiland wrapped up on a relatively softer tone. He denied he was a racist or a white supremacist and instead called himself a separatist.
“If you were in the KKK, I want to win you out of that,” he said. “At best, it’s a stumbling block.”
Mourning the South’s defeat
If Weiland considers the KKK a stumbling block, Jennings feels that his love-of-the-slavery South is the rock on which his faith is built.
“The South was right, my friends, there is no doubt about it,” Jennings said.
Jennings, who said he is a descendant of several Confederate soldiers, told the audience that he could weep because he felt so strongly about the moral superiority of the South.
His speech was punctuated by numerous shouts of “Amen” and “Hallelujah” from the audience, especially when he attacked the press, politicians and feminists.
Jennings, Identity pastor and owner of Truth in History Publications in Springdale, Ark., gained sympathy from the audience when he told how he was thrown out of his old congregation.
A young boy and girl, neither older than eight, sat alone in the front row before Jennings at the lectern. Jennings’ chiseled face with piercing eyes peered down at them through wire-framed glasses. His voice raged forcefully. The children sat calmly as he poked the air with his right index finger and mourned Confederate soldiers.
“The guns are now silent; cannons no longer roar, Minie balls no longer whistle,” Jennings said. “Their echoes still remain among us. Say tonight that the gray riders are gone, yet remain buried in our soil and alive in our veins.”
He then vowed to the audience that the Identity movement would take the country’s Bible belt as the new Promised Land for their “chosen people.”
“We have a great heritage folks,” he told the cheering crowd. “Restore our heritage from the heathens, oh Lord.”
Half of the 250 in attendance gave Jennings a standing ovation. As he walked back to his seat, several people congratulated him on his oration.
“Now there’s a speech that the ADL can go hang its hat on,” said one man to Jennings, referring to the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, which has been tracking the Identity movement for years.
Another man said, “I hear that the ADL is here. And that just sticks in my craw.”