Preaching hatred

San Jose Mercury News/July 24, 1999
By Richard Scheinin

U.S. white supremacists bend meanings in the Bible to open doors that would otherwise stay closed to their hate and violence, say experts

In the early '90s, when Floyd Cochran was a lay minister in the white supremacist, Christian Identity church, he noticed something: "If I walked into a community dressed as a Nazi, a wall would go up," he said. "Pull out a Bible, the wall would come down."

Cochran learned what bigots have known for centuries: The road to violence can run straight through the Holy Book.

As hate crimes make headlines -- synagogue burnings and murders of gay men in California, racially inspired shootings in the Midwest -- Americans are seeing how the texts that inspire love and solace in most people can motivate others toward something very different.

Those who preach hatred interpret holy writ in novel ways to bring out meanings that would outrage most people. They offer a mirror image of mainstream religious understandings.

While most clerics preach "love thy neighbor," Christian Identity interprets the book of Genesis to mean that Jews are descended from Satan and has called for their extermination. The Ku Klux Klan has long taught that black people are the "beasts of the field" described in the Old Testament. A handful of fundamentalist churches -- aiming to impose Old Testament law at its harshest in the United States -- preach that homosexuals deserve death.

Cochran, who left Christian Identity in 1992, remembers how friends outside white supremacist circles used to say, " `Floyd's not that bad. He goes to church on Sundays.' Meanwhile, I was learning that Jews are the children of Satan and need to be wiped out."

Americans place a great premium on religiosity, which may explain why another white supremacist group in the news is known as the World Church of the Creator, even though its founder was an atheist. The World Church, which disavows belief in the supernatural, apparently motivated Benjamin Nathaniel Smith to shoot Asians, Jews and a well-known black basketball coach in the Midwest last month.

Its doctrine of "creativity," by founder and one-time Florida legislator Ben Klassen, states that the white man is the sole, historical source of civilization: "Our race is our religion," Klassen wrote in "The Little White Book," a primer. "We must clearly recognize our racial enemies and treat them as such."

Most religions teach adoration of the supreme being in whose image all humanity was formed. But these and other groups on the radical right lift up a "supreme race" and teach that salvation is through race, not grace.

By using the church as a vehicle for their teachings, these groups bring "the appearance of a certain level of seriousness and dignity to their cause," said Syracuse University political scientist Michael Barkun, author of a book on Christian Identity. "America is a country that has been conspicuously religious, and they may be using that vehicle to demonstrate that their views represent a whole world view and not just a political program."

The Christian Identity movement -- by far the largest racist church, with as many as 50,000 followers, experts say -- teaches that white "Aryans" are the true remnant of the ancient Israelites. Its members observe the Hebraic calendar and, like observant Jews, do not eat pork or shellfish.

These practices would seem to set Identity worlds apart from the World Church of the Creator and other non-biblical, racist groups.

But Identity, which includes the Aryan Nations, predicts that Aryans will be pitted against Jews and non-whites at Armageddon -- the battle between forces of good and evil that will be fought before Judgment Day, according to Scripture. This millennial vision now animates the radical right - the Klan, neo-Nazis, Skinheads and racist followers of Odinism, a pagan religion of Northern Europe.

Members of this often fractious alliance describe non-whites as "mud people," because they are said to have been formed from nothing but dust and earth; the biblical allusions are apparent. But according to Christian Identity theology, non-whites don't have souls -- they lack the breath of God that brought Adam to life and ennobles only his white descendants.

The atheist World Church of the Creator -- which claims 30,000 followers, though some experts put dues-paying membership in the low hundreds - also uses the "mud people" terminology. Some of its publications reportedly were found amid the belongings of brothers Benjamin Matthew and James Tyler Williams, who were charged Monday with the murders of a gay couple near Redding and are suspects in the torching of three Sacramento synagogues. The brothers also reportedly were attracted to Christian Identity.

The racist church movement is part of the larger growth of the radical right, estimated by experts as having as many as 200,000 supporters. Volumes have been written about reasons for that growth: economic frustration of whites who resent affirmative action; disaffection of white suburban youths, many from single-parent homes, who find male role models in hate groups; the ability of these groups to offer young people a sense of family and identity, much like gangs.

"Hate groups," said Cochran, who lives in central Pennsylvania, "are making an organized effort to reach out to young people: `We're with you, we like you, we're going to put you in charge.' "

The most committed Christian Identity followers see themselves "setting God's law right by the hand of man," said Mike Reynolds, senior intelligence analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Montgomery, Ala. "Beginning in Genesis, they believe there is a war between the Children of Light -- descending from Adam, the White Israelites -- and the Jews, the Children of Satan. And they believe it is necessary for it to come as a physical battle. They also see this country as the new Jerusalem, so it will take place here."

Many of the groups share a rallying cry: "Rahowa." It sounds deceptively like "Jehovah," God's name. But it stands for something very different: "racial holy war."

The slogan was invented by Klassen, the World Church of the Creator's founder, who committed suicide in 1993. The group is now led by Illinois-based Rev. Matt Hale, whose Internet treatise on creativity includes long lists of Jews in the media, entertainment industry and Clinton administration. It presents a discussion of phrenology, popular in Nazi Germany, which analyzes the skull sizes of whites and blacks.

It editorializes on illegal immigration and "The Screaming Numbers of Black on White Crime" and argues that Egyptian and Chinese civilizations were white in origin.

Hale also attacks the Talmud, a compendium of Jewish religious and civil law that was burned by the Church during the Middle Ages and served as source material for anti-Semites for centuries.

Hale chooses dozens of "shocking" quotes from the Talmud, removing them from the long scholastic conversations that surround them. One Talmudic quotation used by Hale says, "Even the best of the Gentiles should be killed."

"Yup, it's there," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, chair of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "But they leave out the next two words: `in battle.' In other words, the Talmud says that when you're in the heat of battle, it's not the time to start worrying that the guy on the other side may be a great teacher and fine human being."

Theories about Jewish plots to establish world dominion abound in right-wing literature, which calls the U.S. government the "Zionist Occupied Government." It alleges that international Jewish banking plots are linked to the United Nations and the "One World Order," and sees all these entities as rushing the world toward Armageddon.

For almost two decades, this was the world view of Floyd Cochran, an ex-lay minister. Raised in upstate New York, Cochran, now 42, was recruited by the Ku Klux Klan at 15 and later joined the Aryan Nations, led by the Rev. Richard Butler in Hayden Lake, Idaho.

Joining Christian Identity, attending its Bible classes and services, "I was taught," Cochran said, "that my race was my nation, the nation is Israel, and Israel is the white race."

Christian Identity derives from the eccentric, 19th-century movement of "British Israelism," which postulated that the lost tribes of Israel made their way to western Europe and remained there as the true remnant of the ancient Hebrews.

In the United States, Klansmen and other racists transformed the movement into the anti-Jewish and racist Christian Identity church. But because Identity retained a strict Scriptural emphasis, "it didn't sound very different from the Christian fundamentalist message," said Cochran, who grew up a Baptist.

When a Christian Identity preacher explained that Eve didn't just eat forbidden fruit in the Garden -- she really had sex with Satan and from their union flowed the Jews -- it made a certain sense to Cochran. He believed that sex was at the root of humanity's fall, so the Identity preacher's explanation "made more sense to me, as opposed to Eve just eating an apple," Cochran said.

Identity theology had it all worked out: The Book of Genesis hinted that God flooded the world as punishment for humanity's race-mixing; Noah was the first survivalist, a model for withstanding the tribulations that will follow Armageddon; Adam was clearly a white man, because his face, according to one interpretation of the Hebrew, was ruddy -- and only white men blush, the church argues.

In the Book of Numbers, an Israelite warrior named Phineas thrusts a fatal spear through the chests of an Israelite man and his Midianite mistress; God rewards him with an eternal priesthood in his honor.

Identity followers use the story to justify violence against mixed-race couples and other enemies. Paul Hill, who killed an abortion doctor and another man outside a Florida clinic in 1994, identified himself as a "Phineas Priest." So have other Identity followers who committed murders and bombings.

"Identity gave me a religious justification to hate another person," Cochran said, "to say that they don't have a soul, they're not of God, and, therefore, I can attack that person, and kill that person, and call for that person's extermination, and not have a moral component to it."

He left the group after his son, J.J., was born with a cleft palate in 1992. When an Aryan Nations official said the child and others with genetic defects would be put to death in a real Aryan nation, Cochran began to question his beliefs. He now spends most of the year traveling, talking at schools, on military bases, and to religious groups about the dangers of religious hatred.

"What can you do about a religion like this?" he asked. "You can't persecute it. When you persecute it, it grows. When you ignore it, it grows. I just think Christians need to speak out and say, `This is not the real Jesus Christ.'



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