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Profile: Michael Barkun

Michael Barkun was a participant or observer in the following events:

One of a number of semi-official ‘Christian Identity’ logos.One of a number of semi-official ‘Christian Identity’ logos. [Source: KingIdentity (.com)]The “Christian Identity” theology, formerly a fairly benign expression of what is known as “British-Israelism” or “Anglo-Israelism,” begins to spread throughout the US and Canada, particularly on the west coasts of these nations. This belief holds that white Americans and Canadians are the real descendants of the Biblical tribes of Israel. In 2003, author Nicole Nichols, an expert on far-right racist and religious groups in America, will define the concept of “Christian Identity” as practiced by many white supremacist and separatist groups. Christian Identity is not an organization, she will write, but an ideology that many organizations have adopted in some form or fashion. Christian Identity “elevates white supremacy and separatism to a Godly ideal,” she will write, calling it “the ideological fuel that fires much of the activity of the racist far right.” According to Christian Identity theology, Jews are neither the “true Israelites” nor the true “chosen people” of God; instead, Christian Identity proponents claim, Jews are descended from an Asiatic people known as the Khazars, who settled near the Black Sea during the Middle Ages. [Nicole Nichols, 2003; Anti-Defamation League, 2005; Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, 5/30/2006] In 2005, the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance will write, “Followers tend to be involved in political movements opposing gun control, equal rights to gays and lesbians, and militia movements,” and quote Michael Barkun, an expert on radical-right groups, as saying, “This virulent racist and anti-Semitic theology… is prevalent among many right-wing extremist groups and has been called the ‘glue’ of the racist right.” [Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, 5/30/2006]
Beginnings; 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' - In the 1920s, William J. Cameron, editor of the Dearborn Independent weekly newspaper, popularized the anti-Semitic hoax manuscript called “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which purported to detail the “secret teachings” of Judaism, including the planned takeover of the world’s governments, the subjugation of non-Semitic races, and the bizarre, cannibalistic rituals supposedly practiced by Jews. [Anti-Defamation League, 2005]
Wesley Swift and 'Mud People' - In the 1940s, a former Methodist minister, Wesley Swift, started his own church, later known as the Church of Jesus Christ Christian. Swift had deep ties to a number of radical right-wing groups including the Ku Klux Klan; Swift and his associates set the stage for the mutation of the Christian Identity into a loosely organized set of virulently anti-Semitic, racist belief systems that will come to be grouped together under the “Christian Identity” rubric. Swift himself taught that only the white race was created in the form of God, while Asian and African races were created from the “beasts of the fields,” and thusly are subhuman creations. In Swift’s version of Genesis, Eve, the wife of the first “true” man Adam, was seduced by The Serpent, who masqeueraded as a white man. Eve bore a son, Cain, who is the actual father of the Jewish people. This reinterpretation, sometimes called the “two-seed” or “seedliner” theory, supports the Christian Identity propensity to demonize Jews, whom Swift and others labeled the “spawn of Satan.” Today’s white Europeans and their American and Canadian descendants, Swift taught, are descended from the “true son” of Adam and Eve, Abel, and are the actual “chosen people” of God. Some Christian Identity adherents go even farther, claiming that subhuman “pre-Adamic” races existed and “spawned” the non-white races of the world, which they label “mud people.” [Nicole Nichols, 2003; Anti-Defamation League, 2005]
Permeates Racist, Far-Right Groups - By the 1960s, a new group of Christian Identity leaders emerges to spread the Identity theology through the radical, racist right in America and Canada, popularizing the once-obscure ideology. Most prominent among them are three disciples of Swift: James K. Warner, William Potter Gale, and Richard Butler. Warner, who will move to Louisiana and play a leading role in the fight against civil rights, founds the Christian Defense League and the New Christian Crusade Church. Gale, an early leader of the Christian Defense League and its paramilitary arm, the California Rangers, goes on to found the Posse Comitatus (see 1969), the group that will help bring about the sovereign citizen movement. Gale will later found the Committee of the States and serve as the “chief of staff” of its “unorganized militia.” Butler moves Swift’s Church of Jesus Christ Christian to Idaho and recasts it as the neo-Nazi group Aryan Nations (see Early 1970s). Under the leadership of Butler, Gale, Warner, and others, Christian Identity soon permeates most of the major far-right movements, including the Klan and a racist “skinhead” organization known as the Hammerskins. It also penetrates many extreme anti-government activist groups. The Anti-Defamation League will write, “The resurgence of right-wing extremism in the 1990s following the Ruby Ridge (see August 31, 1992) and Waco standoffs (see April 19, 1993) further spread Identity beliefs.” [Anti-Defamation League, 2005] Nichols will write: “Christian Identity enclaves provide a trail of safe havens for movement activists, stretching from Hayden Lake in northern Idaho (the Aryan Nations stronghold) to Elohim City on the Oklahoma/Arkansas border (see 1973 and After). Many white supremacists on the run from federal authorities have found shelter and support from Christian Identity followers.” Some organizations such as the Montana Militia are headed by Identity adherents, but do not as a group promote the theology. [Nicole Nichols, 2003; Anti-Defamation League, 2005]
Bringing Forth the Apocalypse - Many Christian Identity adherents believe that the Biblical Apocalypse—the end of the world as it is currently known and the final ascendancy of select Christians over all others—is coming soon. Unlike some Christians, Identity adherents do not generally believe in the “rapture,” or the ascendancy of “saved” Christians to Heaven before the Apocalypse ensues; instead, Identity followers believe Jesus Christ will return to Earth only after the time of the “Tribulation,” a great battle between good and evil, which will set the stage for the return of Christ and the final transformation of the world. Identity followers believe it is their duty to prepare for the Apocalypse, and some believe it is their duty to help bring it about. They tend to cast the Apocalypse in racial terms—whites vs. nonwhites. Identity adherents believe that worldly institutions will collapse during the “end times,” and therefore tend to distrust such institutions, making Identity theology appealing to anti-government ideologies of groups such as militia, “Patriot,” and sovereign citizens groups. [Anti-Defamation League, 2005]
21st Century Identity - In the 21st century, Christian Identity groups are strongest in the Pacific Northwest of America and Canada, and the US Midwest, though Identity churches can be found throughout the US and in other parts of Canada. Identity churches also exist in, among other nations, Ireland, Great Britain, Australia, and South Africa (see June 25, 2003). The Anti-Defamation League will write: “Yet while spread far it is also spread thin. Estimates of the total number of believers in North America vary from a low of 25,000 to a high of 50,000; the true number is probably closer to the low end of the scale. Given this relatively small following, its extensive penetration of the far right is all the more remarkable.” [Anti-Defamation League, 2005]
Identity Violence - Identity adherents commit a number of violent acts, often against government and/or financial institutions, in an outsized proportion to their small numbers. In 1983, Identity adherent Gordon Kahl kills two US Marshals who attempt to arrest him on a parole violation, and kills an Arkansas sheriff before finally being gunned down by authorities (see February 13, 1983 and After). The white supremacist terrorist group The Order (see Late September 1983) contains a number of Identity members, including David Tate, who kills a Missouri Highway Patrol officer while attempting to flee to an Identity survivalist compound (see April 15, 1985). During the 1980s, small Identity groups such as The New Order (or The Order II) and the Arizona Patriots commit bombings and armored car robberies. After the Oklahoma City bombing (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995), Identity minister Willie Ray Lampley attempts a number of bombings (see November 9, 1995). In 1996, the Montana Freeman, led by Identity members, “stands off” federal authorities for 81 days (see March 25, 1996). Between 1996 and 1998, Eric Robert Rudolph, who has connections to Identity ministers such as Nord Davis and Dan Gayman, bombs an Atlanta gay bar (see February 21, 1997), several abortion clinics (see October 14, 1998), and the Atlanta Summer Olympics (see July 27, 1996 and After). In 1999, Identity member and former Aryan Nations security guard Buford Furrow goes on a shooting spree at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles (see August 10, 1999). [Anti-Defamation League, 2005]

Two experts on religious “millennial” “cults” have drastically different views on how to handle the Branch Davidians, currently besieged by federal authorities near Waco, Texas, after a shootout with federal agents (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993 and March 1, 1993). Michael Barkun, a political scientist at Syracuse University who has studied white supremacist and anti-Semitic Christian groups, warns that becoming too aggressive with the Davidians may backfire and cause a violent, perhaps fatal confrontation. “The show of force employed in the belief that it will intimidate can have the opposite effect, convincing people that this is indeed the battle of Armageddon and they should respond accordingly,” he says. But Ronald Numbers, a University of Wisconsin historian who has written about Seventh-Day Adventism (the parent church of the “splinter” Branch Davidians), alludes to the 1978 mass suicide of the People’s Temple in Guyana in advocating some sort of proactive response, saying, “Since the Jim Jones episode, nobody wants to fail to take these groups seriously.” [New York Times, 3/3/1993]

Entity Tags: Ronald Numbers, Branch Davidians, Michael Barkun

Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis

Rodney Skurdal, a leader of the “Montana Freemen” movement (see 1993-1994), files a 20-page treatise with a Montana court that claims the Freemen are the descendents of the true Anglo-Saxon “chosen people,” and that the land occupied by the United States was promised to them by God. Skurdal, who signs the document “the honorable Justice Rodney O. Skurdal,” writes: “In reading the Bible, one must understand that there are ‘two seed lines’ within Genesis. It is the colored people, and the Jews, who are the descendants of Cain… when We move into a new land, We are to kill the inhabitants of all the other races… nor are We to allow the other races to rule over us.” Skurdal writes extensively of the Freemen’s opposition to governmental rule of any sort, justifying it by referencing his interpretation of Biblical teachings: “We, Israel, must obey God only; not man-made laws by our purported Congress and state legislators and/or the United Nations, under the purported ‘new world order’ i.e., ‘Satan’s laws.’” Skurdal adds that taxes, marriage licenses, driver’s licenses, insurance, electrical inspections, and building permits are all instruments of Satan’s law. He writes that the “land of milk and honey” bequeathed by God to whites is actually the territory now considered the United States, and notes, “If we the white race are God’s chosen people… why are we paying taxes on ‘His land.’” Michael Barkun, a Syracuse University professor and expert on radical Christian ideologies, will call Skurdal’s treatise “pure Christian Identity” (see 1960s and After). This theological claim to land, Barkun will say, goes further than a lot of other Identity adherents do. “What’s unusual here is that this isn’t simply a kind of collective granting of a piece of soil by God to his people, but it’s a kind of literal granting of ownership and control: Because we are his people and this is his land, no one can tell us what to do with it,” Barkun will observe. [Washington Post, 4/9/1996; Chicago Tribune, 4/19/1996] Skurdal has come to the notice of Montana legal authorities before. At one point he had legal actions going simultaneously in every one of Montana’s 56 counties. He has succeeded in getting to the Montana Supreme Court three times over traffic tickets. When the state judiciary ruled that Skurdal’s legal filings were frivolous and could not be accepted without being signed by a lawyer, Skurdal merely mailed his writs and documents to out-of-state agencies, which, assuming the documents were misdelivered, returned them to Montana authorities, where they were filed. After four years of dealing with Skurdal’s legal court cases, Musselshell County Attorney Vicki Knudsen quit her job. One of Skurdal’s filings was a “Citizens Declaration of War” which claimed foreign agents were surreptitiously infesting “the country of Montana.” Another accused county officials of attempting to help institute a New World Order (see September 11, 1990). “Once a court accepts one of these asinine Freemen things,” Knudsen later says, “it’s in the system. Everybody named in it becomes involved [and] has to respond. It’s not funny. It’s not romantic. It’s scary.” Knudsen is referring to the threats issued by Skurdal and his fellow Freemen towards herself and other county officials over their filings. [Mark Pitcavage, 5/6/1996]

Entity Tags: Montana Supreme Court, Michael Barkun, Montana Freemen, Vicki Knudsen, Rodney Owen Skurdal

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Michael Barkun, a Syracuse University professor and expert on the “Christian Identity” ideology (see 1960s and After) espoused by the Montana Freemen (see 1993-1994), says the low-key methodologies the FBI is using in its standoff with the Freemen (see March 25, 1996) is the proper approach. Barkun says: “They’ve done precisely what they should be doing with a group of this kind, namely being very careful not to act in a way that confirms the group’s beliefs. That suggests that some very important lessons have been learned.” Barkun is referencing the aggressive methods used by the FBI during its siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, that ended in a fiery conflagration that killed most of the Davidians (see April 19, 1993). [Washington Post, 4/9/1996]

Entity Tags: Branch Davidians, Montana Freemen, Michael Barkun, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

A story in the New York Times about captured anti-abortion extremist Eric Rudolph (see April 14, 2005) portrays the sympathy many locals have for Rudolph, and ties Rudolph’s acts of terrorism with the Christian faith as espoused by some. Crystal Davis of Murphy, North Carolina, where Rudolph hid from authorities for five years, tells a reporter: “He’s a Christian and I’m a Christian and he dedicated his life to fighting abortion. Those are our values. And I don’t see what he did as a terrorist act.” Many Murphy residents agree with Davis’s views, and express their sympathy for Rudolph and their disdain for the federal agents who combed the area looking for him. Birdhouse builder William Hoyt says: “We thought it was kind of funny when the feds rolled in here all arrogant. They kept saying they didn’t need our help. It put a lot of people off. Nobody around here condones murder, but I think a lot of people weren’t sure which side to be on.” Some Murphy residents sport T-shirts with the slogans “Run, Rudolph, Run” and “Eric Rudolph—Hide and Seek Champion of the World.” Davis says she would have helped Rudolph had she been given the opportunity. “If he came to my door, I’d give him food,” she says. “That’s just how we are with strangers.” Assistant high school principal Bill Gaither says: “I agree with his views. But not his ways. I’m glad they finally got him.” [New York Times, 6/1/2003] Weeks later, liberal blogger David Neiwert will cite the Times article and ask if Rudolph might well be termed a “Christian terrorist.” Neiwert will write, referring to the “Christian Identity” movement of religious white supremacists and anti-Semites of which Rudolph is affiliated (see 1960s and After): “Both Mrs. Davis and the reporter’s basic question eliminated the distinction between Identity and Christianity—something that has become increasingly easy to do as Identity rhetoric attunes itself to the mainstream, and conservatism itself becomes increasingly bellicose and intolerant. These lines blurred even further as other media reports picked up the ‘Christian terrorist’ idea and played with it.” Washington Post reporter Alan Cooperman asks, “Is he a ‘Christian terrorist’?” and goes on: “The question is not just whether Rudolph is a terrorist, or whether he considers himself a Christian. It is whether he planted bombs at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, two abortion clinics, and a gay nightclub to advance a religious ideology—and how numerous, organized and violent others who share that ideology may be.” Cooperman then quotes a sociology professor from Idaho State University, James Aho, who says he is reluctant to use the term “Christian terrorist,” saying, “I would prefer to say that Rudolph is a religiously inspired terrorist, because most mainstream Christians consider Christian Identity to be a heresy.” If Christians take offense at the juxtaposition of the words “Christian” and “terrorist,” he adds, “that may give them some idea of how Muslims feel” when they constantly hear the term “Islamic terrorism.… Religiously inspired terrorism is a worldwide phenomenon, and every major world religion has people who have appropriated the label of their religion in order to legitimize their violence.… I’m inclined to believe that people who are violent in their inclinations search out a religious home that justifies their violence.” However, Syracuse University professor Michael Barkun says, “Based on what we know of Rudolph so far, and admittedly it’s fragmentary, there seems to be a fairly high likelihood that he can legitimately be called a Christian terrorist.” Barkin has been a consultant to the FBI on Christian extremist groups. [Washington Post, 6/2/2003; David Neiwert, 6/17/2003]

Entity Tags: New York Times, Crystal Davis, Bill Gaither, Alan Cooperman, David Neiwert, Michael Barkun, Eric Robert Rudolph, William Hoyt, James Aho

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Logo of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks the activities of so-called ‘hate groups’ around the US.Logo of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks the activities of so-called ‘hate groups’ around the US. [Source: GuideStar]The number of extremist militia and “patriot” groups has expanded dramatically since the election of President Obama, according to a report issued by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit organization that tracks “hate groups” and other, similar organizations. The number has expanded from 149 in 2008 to 512 in 2009—a 244 percent increase. “That is a lot of change in a short period of time,” says SPLC research director Heidi Beirich. The SPLC report says the number has “exploded in 2009 as militias and other groups steeped in wild, antigovernment conspiracy theories exploited populist anger across the country and infiltrated the mainstream.” While many of these groups do not espouse violence and are not considered a direct threat to government officials, government property, or citizens, some of them do advocate violent strikes against government organizations and/or “liberal” groups or individuals. The number dwindled during the eight years of the Bush presidency, the SPLC reports, but since the election of a black, Democratic president, along with a poorly performing economy and a female speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), as catalyzing factors, the number has increased, and continues to grow. “The country is becoming more diverse,” Beirich says. “Some people find it hard to handle.… These are extreme stressors for people.” Chip Berlet, an analyst for Political Research Associates, writes: “We are in the midst of one of the most significant right-wing populist rebellions in United States history. We see around us a series of overlapping social and political movements populated by people [who are] angry, resentful, and full of anxiety. They are raging against the machinery of the federal bureaucracy and liberal government programs and policies including health care, reform of immigration and labor laws, abortion, and gay marriage.” The SPLC tracked 42 armed and potentially violent militias in 2008; that number has grown by over 300 percent, to 127, since then. The SPLC writes: “Patriot groups have been fueled by anger over the changing demographics of the country, the soaring public debt, the troubled economy, and an array of initiatives by President Obama and the Democrats that have been branded ‘socialist’ or even ‘fascist’ by his political opponents (see August 1, 2008 and After, October 10, 2008, October 27, 2008, January 2009, March 4-6, 2009, March 17, 2009, March 25, 2009, March 29, 2009, April 1-2, 2009, April 3-7, 2009, April 9-22, 2009, May 13, 2009, May 28, 2009, July 24, 2009, Late July, 2009, August 10, 2009, August 11, 2009, August 18, 2009, September 1, 2009, September 12, 2009, September 17, 2009, November 5, 2009, January 27, 2010, May 7, 2010, May 19, 2010, May 25, 2010, July 3-4, 2010, September 13, 2010, September 18, 2010, September 21, 2010, September 29, 2010, September 29, 2010, October 3, 2010, October 14, 2010, October 26, 2010, November 16, 2010, and April 27, 2011). Report editor Mark Potok says: “This extraordinary growth is a cause for grave concern. The people associated with the Patriot movement during its 1990s heyday produced an enormous amount of violence, most dramatically the Oklahoma City bombing that left 168 people dead” (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995). Moreover, the report finds, the “patriot” movement has made common cause with the “tea party” political movement, and the two are becoming more and more entwined. The report finds, “The ‘tea parties’ and similar groups that have sprung up in recent months cannot fairly be considered extremist groups, but they are shot through with rich veins of radical ideas, conspiracy theories, and racism.” The “patriot” movement’s central ideas are being promoted by national figures, such as Fox News talk show host Glenn Beck and lawmakers such as House member Michele Bachmann (R-MN). The number of identified “racist hate groups” has not increased significantly from 2008 from 2009, the report finds, growing from 926 to 932. However, the growth rate would have been far higher if it were not for the collapse of the American National Socialist Workers Party, a key neo-Nazi network whose founder was arrested in October 2008 (see December 18, 2009). So-called “nativist extremist” groups, vigilante organizations that go beyond advocating strict immigration policy and actually confront or harass suspected immigrants, have also grown in number, from 173 in 2008 to 309 in 2009, a rise of nearly 80 percent. The SPLC reports: “These three strands of the radical right—the hate groups, the nativist extremist groups, and the Patriot organizations—are the most volatile elements on the American political landscape. Taken together, their numbers increased by more than 40 percent, rising from 1,248 groups in 2008 to 1,753 last year.” The report warns that the number and intensity of violence from these groups, and from “lone wolf” extremists perhaps triggered by these groups’ rhetoric and actions, is increasing. Since Obama took office in January 2009, six law enforcement officers have been murdered by right-wing extremists. There are large and increasing numbers of arrests of racist “skinheads” for plotting to assassinate Obama, and an increasing number of anti-government extremists have been arrested for fomenting bomb plots. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 3/2010; Southern Poverty Law Center, 3/2/2010; Detroit Free Press, 3/31/2010] A Detroit Free Press report will directly tie the Michigan Hutaree, a radical Christian group arrested for planning the murder of local police officers (see March 27-30, 2010), to the growing trend of militant activity documented in the SPLC report. Political science professor Michael Barkun, an expert on extremist religious groups, says of the Hutaree arrests: “I don’t think this is the last we’re going to see of these groups. The number of such groups has increased fairly dramatically in the last couple of years.” Beirich will note that the Hutaree were not isolated from other militias: “They were part of the broader militia movement,” she says. However, her conclusion is disputed by Michigan militia member Michael Lackomar. “They more closely fit the definition of a cult,” Lackomar will say. “They believe the world is about to end according to how it was written in the Bible, and their job is to stand up and clear the way for Jesus and fight alongside him against the forces of darkness.” While “[a] lot of people are upset at an ever-growing government that is overreaching,” Lackomar will say, most militias do not go to the Hutaree’s extremes. He will call the Hutaree’s plans to attack police officers “despicable.” [Detroit Free Press, 3/31/2010]

Entity Tags: Michael Barkun, Glenn Beck, Chip Berlet, Bush administration (43), Barack Obama, American National Socialist Workers Party, Heidi Beirich, Hutaree, Mark Potok, Michele Bachmann, Nancy Pelosi, Southern Poverty Law Center, Michael Lackomar

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

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