An hour and a half after the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the Institute for First Amendment Studies received a fax identifying the perpetrators as members of the "Christian Identity" movement. Skeptical at first, because the investigation then focused on overseas terrorist groups, we took a "wait and see" attitude.
Soon it became evident that the terrorists were indeed U.S. citizens. Now it is known that the alleged perpetrators, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, have connections with the Christian Identity movement, sometimes known as Christian Patriots.
Christian Identity adherents share the idea that white Christians are direct descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel, which they believe ended up in northern Europe. A theologically similar group calls itself British Israelites.
The majority of Christian Identity devotees -- numbering about 40,000 in the United States -- are racist and anti-Jewish. Except for the "identity" aspect, most Christian Identity believers embrace classic Christian fundamentalism and a growing number are Pentecostal. The main difference between fundamentalists and Pentecostals is that Pentecostals believe in spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues and faith healing. (It should be noted, however, that most Christian fundamentalists and Pentecostals do not espouse the Identity message.)
Christian Identity proponents also hold to various conspiracy theories concerning a New World Order in which the United Nations will take over the world. Behind the scenes, they believe, are certain "European bankers" (long recognized as a code referring to Jews) who hold the purse strings to bring this about.
Pastor Pete Peters, a well-known Identity minister, has written and spoken a great deal about this alleged plot. But it was the Christian Coalition's Pat Robertson who broadened the appeal of this conspiracy in his 1991 best selling book, The New World Order. With sales of more than 500,000 copies, The New World Order introduced these ideas to mainstream evangelical and Pentecostal Christians.
Because they believe the government plans to impose draconian measures, taking away their religious freedom, Patriots appeal to their "right to keep and bear arms" as the only way to defend religious freedom. Patriots seldom mention participation in democracy as a valid way to change the system.
A day after the Oklahoma City bombing, Christian Patriots gathered at the International Coalition of Covenant Congregations Conference held at the Lodge of the Ozarks in Branson, Missouri. The conference featured leading figures in the Identity movement, including Pete Peters and Larry Pratt. Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, spoke on the "Biblical Mandate to Arm."
One of the 550 attendees told Freedom Writer, "I mingled with a lot of people there, and there was not a shred of sympathy for what happened in Oklahoma." "This is just the beginning," another person added.
Asked about the innocent children killed in the blast, many of the participants echoed the same response: "What about all the unborn babies killed at abortion clinics?"
Because of the Oklahoma City bombing, the media has placed a lot of focus on the militia movement. Militias, or paramilitary groups, are private armies training to fight the "tyrannical" United States government. Most of the active militias today were formed after the August 22, 1992 raid of Randy Weaver's cabin in Ruby Ridge; the April 19, 1993 tragedy at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas; and the passage of the Brady Bill of November 1993, which requires a five-day waiting period to purchase a firearm. Patriots view the government's botched role at Ruby Ridge as an encroachment on their freedoms; and the Waco incident as an armed assault against religious freedom, and think that their church or group may be next. The Brady Bill is seen as another step taken by the government to disarm Patriots.
With 50,000 or more members, operating in more than 30 states, approximately 85% of the militias are comprised of Christian Patriots -- though not necessarily Identity Christians. Most Christians, of course, abhor violence, and very few would attempt to justify what happened in Oklahoma City. Still, it is a fact that the militia movement is largely a movement of those calling themselves Christians.
Widely circulated among militia groups is the Field Manual of the Free Militia. The first chapter of the manual goes to great lengths to prove that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. After making that assertion, it makes the claim that Jesus not only authorized Christians to arm themselves, but that it is a Christian's duty to take up arms.
The field manual, like the National Rifle Association (NRA), appeals to the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to justify an armed citizenry. This plays well in NRA fundraising letters, but the NRA never uses this argument in court. The courts have never interpreted the Second Amendment as granting ordinary citizens the right to bear arms. There may be legitimate reasons for citizens to possess firearms, but the Second Amendment is not one of them.
The Second Amendment states: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." It is important to read every word of this amendment in context.
The militias of the colonies -- where able-bodied men kept arms in their homes, to be ready at a moment's notice to defend their village or farm -- no longer exist. Today, the closest manifestation of the early militias are state National Guards, overseen by our governors. Thus, a "well-regulated militia" is a function of individual states, not self-appointed commanders and generals running a private army.
The Field Manual of the Free Militia never quite identities "the enemy" with whom it is to do battle. It espouses an affinity with "local" police, and asserts that the Free Militia probably would not engage the U.S. Army in combat. Thus, agents of the federal government are the only possible "enemies" left.
Among the reasons listed for creating militias are Waco, Ruby Ridge, gun control, and abortion. These situations point primarily to federal agencies. Thus, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), and (because they are used to protect abortion clinics) the U.S. Marshals, are obviously the enemy the militias are prepared to confront.
In conclusion, private armies, or paramilitary groups, are not only unnecessary, they are dangerous. However, because the First Amendment of the Constitution upholds "the right of the people peaceably to assemble," most militias enjoy protected status. They step over the line as soon as they advocate or commit illegal acts.
The militia movement is connected to the radical religious right in many ways. Militias count Christian Coalition constituents, John Birchers, Traditional Values Coalition members, and other mainstream religious right people among its ranks. If attempts to take over America through the democratic process fail, certain elements of the radical religious right are prepared to resort to more drastic methods.