The arrest of alleged Olympic bomber Eric Robert Rudolph may finally allow authorities to answer a question that has loomed since the beginning of the five-year hunt for him, but that has taken on deeper resonance since Sept. 11, 2001: Is he a "Christian terrorist"?
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.
Federal investigators believe Rudolph has had a long association with the radical Christian Identity movement, which asserts that North European whites are the direct descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, God's chosen people. Some investigators also think he may have written letters that claimed responsibility for the nightclub and abortion clinic bombings on behalf of the Army of God, a violent offshoot of Christian Identity.
"We declare and will wage total war on the ungodly communist regime in New York and your legaslative bureaucratic lackey's in Washington. It is you who are responsible and preside over the murder of children and issue the policy of ungodly preversion thats destroying our people," one of the letters said, in childish penmanship riddled with errors.
"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," said Michael Barkun, a professor of political science at Syracuse University who has been a consultant to the FBI on Christian extremist groups.
Investigators have said, however, that it is unclear whether Rudolph genuinely was part of an Army of God or merely claimed to belong to an organized group. According to Barkun, most Christian Identity followers are nonviolent, and the movement's militants generally adhere to the principle of "leaderless resistance," believing that government surveillance is so pervasive that organized groups are bound to be penetrated and it is wiser to act alone.
Another expert on such groups, Idaho State University sociology professor James A. Aho, said he is reluctant to use the phrase "Christian terrorist," because it is "sort of an oxymoron."
"I would prefer to say that Rudolph is a religiously inspired terrorist, because most mainstream Christians consider Christian Identity to be a heresy," Aho said. If Christians take umbrage at the juxtaposition of the words "Christian" and "terrorist," he added, "that may give them some idea of how Muslims feel" when they constantly hear the term "Islamic terrorism," especially since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"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," Aho said.
Not only in Rudolph's case, but also in the case of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh and Muslim suicide bombers, "there's always the question of what comes first, is it the religious belief or the violent personality?" Aho said. "I'm inclined to believe that people who are violent in their inclinations search out a religious home that justifies their violence."
Rudolph, 36, appears to have found his religious home during his impoverished family's wanderings in his fatherless teenage years.
The FBI believes he was exposed to Christian Identity's ideology in the early 1980s when his mother brought him to live for four months with the Church of Israel, a congregation in Schell City, Mo. Federal investigators have said that after that experience, when he was about 14, Rudolph periodically made contact with Christian Identity groups, including the Aryan Nations, an Idaho-based group that has been influential in the militia movement.
But the Church of Israel's pastor, Dan Gayman, strongly disassociated himself from Rudolph in a telephone interview yesterday.
"We very clearly and emphatically teach that all Christians have a duty and an obligation to respect all law enforcement authorities. If Eric Rudolph had listened to his lessons here, he would have learned that acts of violence were absolutely and completely out of order and something this church would never have condoned," Gayman said.
Gayman, 66, recalled that Rudolph's mother arrived at the church in the Missouri Ozarks about 1981 or '82 with Eric and Jamie, one of his four brothers, and presented herself as a "widow in very destitute condition, with two boys to feed and without money to buy food or gas." He said his congregation took them in "just long enough for them to get back on their feet."
The Church of Israel does not call itself a Christian Identity congregation. But its teachings echo the movement's, which are generally traced to two 19th-century British ministers, John Wilson and Edward Hine, who justified colonialism on the grounds that the British nation was descended from the 10 lost tribes of biblical Israel.
Asked to explain the Church of Israel's racial views, Gayman said, "We teach that God is the creator of all races, that He created them separately and distinctly with their own unique talents and characteristics, and that every race has a purpose in God's plan."
As to the purpose of whites, he said: "I would simply say that we believe that the Caucasian people are the literal descendants of the lost 10 tribes of Israel, and they would occupy a place of prominence in the plan of God."
Because the Christian Identity movement is loosely organized and keeps no membership rolls, its numbers have been estimated at anywhere from 2,000 to 100,000, including many informal chapters in prisons. Many adherents are strongly anti-Semitic, considering themselves to be the true Israelites and Jews to be impostors.
Barkun said the anti-gay and antiabortion positions that may have motivated Rudolph's alleged bombings "are a rather subordinate theme" in Christian Identity. He noted, however, that members of Rudolph's extended family have said he viewed abortion not just as the taking of life, but as a threat to the white race.
"The notion that there are significant numbers of white mothers having abortions, and therefore the race is being endangered, is interesting, because racial genocide is a major theme in Christian Identity," Barkun said.
A deeper mystery, perhaps, is the motive for the Olympic bombing, which took place at a rock concert in downtown Atlanta, killing a 44-year-old woman and injuring more than 100 others. Barkun speculated that the Olympics "may have symbolized for Rudolph the mixing of races and cultures." Or, he said, the Games may have triggered "pervasive fear of a global tyranny run from the United Nations and destroying American independence and so on."
But, he added, "anti-Olympic sentiment is not a motif in Christian Identity, and it still strikes me as an odd target."