Behind the Hate: A Racist 'Church' Linked to Violent Plots and Murder

Washington Post/July 6, 1999
By Michael A. Fletcher

The World Church of the Creator teaches that Jews and non-whites are subhuman "mud people." Its insignia is a capital "W" topped with a red crown -- to make it clear that the white race rules. And its battle cry is its creed: RAHOWA, racial holy war, which it sees as the inevitable confrontation in the group's quest to build "a whiter and brighter world."

This was the doctrine imbibed by Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, 21, the suspected gunman in a string of drive-by shootings apparently motivated by racial and religious hate that left two people dead and nine wounded last weekend in Illinois and Indiana. The frightening outburst ended Sunday night in rural Illinois when Smith fatally shot himself while fleeing police in a stolen van.

The World Church of the Creator shares many symbols and much of its ideology with other groups that occupy the white supremacist subculture. Members deify Adolf Hitler and at times brandish swastikas and parade in Nazi uniforms. The group also is vehement in its rhetorical attacks against racial minorities, immigrants, Jews and Christians, who it sees as the unwitting pawns of a Zionist plot.

But while the rhetoric is mostly confined to the group's Web sites, the virulent lyrics of the music its members listen to and the racist literature they circulate, the hateful words all too often explode into violence.

Even before last weekend's string of shootings, the group or its predecessor, the Church of the Creator, had been linked to the 1991 murder of a black Gulf War veteran in Florida, foiled plots to assassinate black and Jewish leaders and to bomb the largest black church in Los Angeles in 1993, and to the bombing of a NAACP office in Tacoma, Wash., also in 1993.

In the past year, three members of the church have been accused of pistol-whipping and robbing a Jewish video store owner in Florida, purportedly to raise money for "the revolution." Also, church members have been charged in the beating of a black man and his son in Sunrise, Fla.

"These incidents show the danger of groups like the World Church of the Creator," said Brian Levin, who heads the Center on Hate and Extremism. "They are skillful and crafty in their attempts to avoid civil and criminal responsibility. But they take people who have a predisposition to do this stuff and mold them into ticking time bombs."

Smith joined the World Church of the Creator more than a year before the shooting rampage, and he quickly became an enthusiastic adherent to its racist gospel and a loyal disciple of its charismatic leader, Matthew F. Hale. Once last year Smith was named "creator of the month," in recognition of his tireless efforts to distribute group literature.

But Hale, the pontifex maximus (supreme leader) of the World Church, who like other leaders in the movement describes himself as a "reverend," refused to take any responsibility for Smith's attacks. "For the same reason the pope in Rome doesn't feel responsible for abortion clinic bombings, I don't feel responsible for these shootings," Hale said in a telephone interview from his East Peoria, Ill., home, which doubles as the church's world headquarters.

Hale, a law school graduate who passed the bar exam, has been waging a well-publicized battle with Illinois officials, who have denied him a license because of his openly racist views. The most recent denial came last Thursday, and Hale speculates that Smith's rampage could have been a reaction "to what he saw as an incredible injustice."

Smith, testifying in April before a board hearing Hale's appeal for a law license, said he had "considered violent acts to achieve racial goals, but Hale counseled me to act peacefully."

Hale, 27, is credited with taking the nearly defunct group and transforming it into what law enforcement and other officials call one of the fastest-growing hate groups in the country. The group has 46 chapters across the country -- including two in the Baltimore suburbs -- and Hale claims as many as 30,000 "believers" in the United States and 22 other nations.

"The church has grown by leaps and bounds under the leadership of Hale," said Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups.

The church has taken advantage of the explosive growth of the Internet to spread its word. It maintains several Web sites and has special features targeting women and children, complete with coloring pages and crossword puzzles.

The Church of the Creator was founded in 1973 by Ben Klassen, a onetime Florida legislator who was financially independent because he invented the electric can opener, Potok said.

Klassen, with a long history of far-right affiliations, began his movement with his book, "Nature's Eternal Religion," in which he wrote that the white race was the supreme act of creation and that only whites are capable of further divine creativity. He even urged the use of Latin as a sacred language, since the Roman Empire had conquered non-whites in North Africa and Asia.

Klassen went on to publish other books, with titles such as "White Man's Bible" and "On the Brink of a Bloody Race War," which together formed the philosophical underpinnings of his small movement for nearly two decades.

Klassen continued his work into the early 1990s. But his organization was thrown into disarray after George Loeb, a World Church minister, was convicted in the 1991 murder of Harold Mansfield Jr., an African American and Gulf War veteran.

In the wake of the murder, a civil case was brought against the church by Mansfield's family with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The case ended in a $1 million judgment against the church, leaving it broke.

In 1993, the 75-year-old Klassen committed suicide. The group slipped into dormancy before Hale emerged as its leader in 1996.

As a youngster, Hale read such works as "Mein Kampf" and "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich." In eighth grade, he helped form a group called the New Reich, and by the time he was an undergraduate at Bradley University in Illinois, he had formed the American White Supremacist Party, a group with fewer than 10 members.

When he took over the group, Hale renamed it the World Church of the Creator and promoted its presence on the Internet and elsewhere. Hale has frequently appeared on television to promote his views.

But Hale refuses to see any connection between his rhetoric and last weekend's shooting rampage. "We're not an army where I give orders," he said. "I minister the nonviolent message of white empowerment and white love. . . . That is why we simply can't be responsible for this at all."


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