Three years ago when the Rev. Jerry Walters moved to Roundup,
Mont., to become pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, he received a
vexing letter from a man named Rodney Skurdahl welcoming him to
town and inquiring whether the new pastor intended to teach "the
truth" about "the white race."
"I would be honored to attend a true church," Skurdahl
wrote to the new pastor, "that finally teaches us (Israel/the
white race/Adam) the truth as to who we really are and our relationship
with the other races pursuant to the Word of God."
When the two men finally met, Walters realized that Skurdahl's
brand of "Christianity" was a bizarre distortion of
the Christianity taught in most churches on Sundays. Skurdal
and other armed "Freemen" now under surveillance by
the FBI near Jordan, Mont., are adherents of "Christian Identity"
- a theology of racism, anti-Semitism and male supremacy that
is attracting a growing number of followers in the United States,
particularly among fringe groups in the West.
The Freemen, holed up on a farm that was foreclosed on, have been
in a standoff with the FBI for nearly two weeks. Several members
of the group have been charged with defrauding banks, businesses
and public agencies of $1.8 million, threatening a federal judge
and stealing television equipment.
Because the Freemen believe they are the chosen people and the
land is a sacred trust from God that government had no right to
regulate, any resolution of the standoff in Montana is likely
to be complicated at best. Indeed, some experts believe their
theology, which foretells a final battle between the forces of
light and darkness, could set the stage for an apocalyptic ending.
The Freemen see themselves not as criminals, but as agents of
God locked in battle against Satanic government. Their Christian
Identity interpretation of the Bible is explained at length in
a 20-page treatise Skurdal filed two years ago with the local
courts. Skurdal writes that 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.
"What's driving them is their biblical and theological agenda,"
said Walters, who met several times in the last two years with
Skurdal and other Freemen now inside the farmhouse. "Their
anti-government conspiracy theories, their anti-tax stance - they're
looking at these things through the lens of Christian Identity."
The Christian Identity movement is highly decentralized, and the
few scholars and researchers who study it emphasize that one group
can vary greatly from another. Some groups espouse violence while
others function more like proselytizing missionaries. Some members
of anti-government militias are Christian Identity believers,
but many more are not.
Estimates of the number of Christian identity adherents vary widely.
Some researchers put the number of active members at 5,000, with
many more sympathizers. In 1995, a directory of Christian Identity
groups in the United States and Europe published by one such group
in Virginia listed about 500 organizations, up from the 300 listed
in the group's 1990 directory, said Lin Collette, a researcher
in Pawtucket, R.I., who studies contemporary Christian Identity
Collette surveyed 50 Christian Identity believers for her doctoral
thesis and found that most were at least high school educated
and many had at least a year or two of college. "There were
people who had read quite a lot and knew what they were getting
into," Collette said. "They delighted in looking into
Bible passages that would prove their point."
Christian Identity theology has its roots in a 19th
century doctrine called British Israelism. That doctrine asserted
that British people were descended from the 10 lost tribes of
Israel who did not return from Assyrian captivity in 741 B.C.,
making them the true people of "Israel." The concept
was picked up in the United States earlier this century and given
a more racist and anti-Semitic twist by Ku Klux Klan leaders and
others who circulated the anti-Semitic "Protocols of the
Elders of Zion."
The treatise Skurdal filed in a Montana court in 1994, is "pure
Christine Identity," said Michael Barkun, professor of political
science at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship
and Public Affairs and one of the nation's most prominent experts
on Christian Identity. Skurdal's dense writing is laced with
references to the Bible, the Magna Carta and various law dictionaries.
Christian Identity, according to Barkum, traces the migration
of the 10 tribes from Palestine north over the Caucasus Mountains
to Europe and later to North America, concluding that the descendents
of the 1- tribes are the modern-day Anglo-Saxons. The Jews, therefore,
are impostors who stole the birthright - the "identity"
- of the real Israelites. In his treatise, Skurdal wrote that
he is "from the Tribe of Dan, being a 'Scandinavian,' one
of the lost sheep of the House of Israel."
A core Christian Identity belief is the "two seed" creation
story, which asserts that whites are descendents of the biblical
Adam, and nonwhites and Jews are the offspring of Cain, who was
born when Satan impregnated Eve.
"In reading the Bible, one must understand that there are
'two seed lines' within Genesis," Skurdal wrote. "IT
is the colored people, and the Jews, who are the descendants of
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."
And then he laid out the theological justification for the Freemen's
rebellion against a government that dares to grant rights to nonwhites
and Jews. He writes, "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.'" Dkurdal added that taxes, marriage
licenses, driver's licenses, insurance, electrical inspections
and building permits are all instruments of Satan's law.
According to Skurdal, the "land f milk and honey" bequeathed
by God to whites is actually the territory now considered the
United States, and he writes, "If we the white race are God's
why are we paying taxes on 'His land.'"
This theological claim to land, Barkun said, 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
A handful of Christian Identity preachers, such as Pete Peters
and Ronald C. Schoedel, spread the theology through satellite
television programs, shortwave radio, the Internet and catalogues
that offer Christian Identity videotapes and pamphlets.
The materials circulate so widely that the Montana Association
of Churches started a program to educate people about the dangers
of Christian Identity and extremism, said Susan DeCamp, the researcher
who runs the program.
"It used to be that when somebody got involved in this stuff,
it was through a close relative or a good friend. Now, the message
is much more accessible," DeCamp said. She was recently
called to give a talk to a women's Bible study group in a small
town in Montana after some of the women had ordered Christian
Identity videotapes unaware of their source.
Schoedel maintains a site on the World Wide Web that opens with
the warning, "If you are offended by religious and nationalistic
material, please exit now." The Web site is written in a
friendly, welcoming tone and offers Bible study pages that purport
to reveal "the True Christian Faith." But much of it
is taken up with rambling anti-Semitic essays asserting that Jews
control the media, government and Hollywood.
It is just this kind of religious and conspiratorial zeal that
makes it so difficult for the government to deal with groups such
as the Freemen when they break the law, said James Aho, sociology
professor at Idaho State University and author of two recent books
on Christian Identity groups. "How do you negotiate with
a person if they'd rather die than submit even an iota to your
After the deadly conflagration that ended the standoff near Waco,
Tex., between the government and another apocalyptic religious
sect, the Branch Davidians, federal agents have been taking a
lower-key, less pressured approach to the Montana Freemen. "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." Barkun said. "That suggests that
some very important lessons have been learned."