Schell City, Mo. -- The setting is nostalgic enough to be used as the backdrop for a movie set in the 1950s: a trim rural church, children on bicycles gliding by on the country lane, the unspoiled woods on each side.
Only the neatly lettered sign in front betrays any hint that things are out of kilter: "Church of Israel, Diocese of Manasseh."
Manasseh, the Thirteenth Tribe.
This is one of the oldest churches in the grass-roots Christian Identity movement, a movement barely 50 years old that has emerged as the glue in the fractious and often violent politics of the far right.
Identity holds that Anglo-Saxons are the true chosen people of the Bible, that Jews are the biological children of Satan, and that a cataclysmic war between the forces of good and evil is imminent.
The movement and its biblical history have been largely ignored by mainstream America, deemed as too far-out to be taken seriously. But Michael Barkun, a professor of political science at Syracuse University in New York, says we do so at our own risk.
"A movement whose beliefs are both strange and repugnant is difficult for many observers to take seriously," he said, "and because they cannot take it seriously, they conclude that it is unimportant. Unfortunately, odd and repellent belief systems can be important" if their believers take them seriously and act upon them."
Identity has three main beliefs, according to Barkun: White "Aryans" are descendants of the biblical tribes of Israel and thus are on Earth to do God's work; Jews are wholly unconnected to the Israelites and are the very children of Satan, from a sexual dalliance with Eve in the Garden of Eden; and the world is on the verge of the final struggle between good and evil in which Aryans (and variously, Anglo-Saxons) must do battle with the Jewish conspiracy and its allies so the world can be redeemed.
Dan Gayman, pastor of the Church of Israel in Schell City and "bishop" of the Diocese of Manasseh, is considered a spiritual leader in the movement for his contribution to the "two seedline" doctrine of Eve's indiscretion, based on Genesis 3:15. Gayman said his inspiration came while studying Milton's "Paradise Lost."
And even though Gayman is considered such an influential figure that he was called upon to help negotiate an end to the Freeman standoff in Montana in 1996, he objects to his church being labeled as "Christian Identity." He says the church isn't built on hate, doesn't condone violence, and is simply adhering to values that most Americans once held.
"The spiritual vision of the Church of Israel lines up with what most of rural America was doing as late as 1950," the church Web site states. "At midpoint in the 20th Century, most Americans in the rural areas and small towns of our nation were practicing ethnic separatism in marriage, in worship and in all social settings."
The Identity movement is rooted in a curious 19th century movement called British-Israelism, which holds that the British are the lineal descendants of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. The 12 tribes of Israel were divided into two kingdoms after the death of King Solomon: the northern kingdom of 10 tribes, called Israel, and the two southern tribes, called Judah. The northern tribes were lost by history after they were conquered around 722 by the Assyrians. The 13th tribe is considered by Identity as Britain and the United States.
In the 1920s, however, Identity became a purely American movement with the addition of racist and fascist overtones. Early leaders included Wesley Swift and retired U.S. Army Col. William Potter Gale, who died in 1970 and 1988, respectively. More recently, the movement has been associated with Richard G. Butler, head of the Aryan Nations at Hayden Lake, Idaho, and with the anti-tax and anti-government group called Posse Comitatus - Latin for "power of the country."
Scott Stroud, a visiting lecturer at San Jose State University in California, delivered a paper on Gayman's work at the National Communication Association's recent meeting in Seattle. He concluded that Gayman's booklet, "The Book of Adam," offers a seductive and familiar-sounding story.
"I was intrigued because it was so short, direct and simple," Stroud said, "yet espoused a version of the Christian story I had never heard of before - a version that privileges the 'white race' over all other races under the sanction of God."
Stroud said he was particularly surprised by the two seedline doctrine, which is rarely studied by academics and is virtually unknown outside the Identity subculture.
"Jews are (portrayed as) the literal children of Satan through his copulation with Eve," he said. "Other races are portrayed as the non-earthly legions of Satan sent to conquer the white race. This message of intolerance and racial separation surprised me because it is antithetical to the message of love in the Bible and the story recounted in Genesis."
Also, Stroud said, a call to action is implied: The reader must separate himself from the "ordinary world" and re-examine the true meaning of the Bible, as interpreted by Christian Identity doctrine, then return to the world with a new attitude of white supremacy.
"In traditional myth, the hero improves the community and the world," Stroud said. "In Christian Identity myth, the hero takes part in the cleansing of other 'impure' races. This is a hero that most people would not want in modern America."
Although Gayman now says the two seedline doctrine represents a small part of his theology, its impact on the Identity movement has been profound. It also was part of the reason that Texas businessman Jerry Gentry became the Church of Israel's most generous patron.
Gentry, a proponent of racial separation who says blacks and Asians are a "primate species" created before Adam, says he was drawn to the Church of Israel after reading Gayman's treatise on Genesis 3:15.
But Gentry says he doesn't consider himself an anti-Semite because that would be "oxymoronic"; the Semites are descendants of Noah's son Shem and are the "covenant people" of the Bible - white Anglo-Saxons, including the British royal family. Modern Jews, Gentry claims, flow from the pagan kingdom of Khazaria in southern Russian, which converted to Judaism in the eighth century.
Gentry has recently broken with Gayman and the Church of Israel, however; he now backs Scott Stinson, a minister who departed the Schell City church because he thought Gayman was not outspoken enough.
A spokesman for the Missouri State Highway Patrol said the Identity movement is particularly difficult to track, because law enforcement must walk a fine line between protecting the public and protecting an individual's right to free speech.
"By law, we have to have some kind of criminal complaint before we can collect intelligence or disseminate intelligence on a particular group," said Capt. Jim Keathley, who tracks right-wing groups from patrol headquarters in Jefferson City.
"But in general, in our state, we kind of go through peaks and valleys, it seems. For instance, right after the Oklahoma City bombing we saw a dramatic increase in the number of militia groups within the state. That movement has dwindled off, and the same thing with the Christian Identity movement."
In 1999, the FBI said that assessing Identity's potential for violence was difficult because of the unstructured and fluid nature of the movement. Only a small percentage of Identity believers actually thought the new millennium would bring about a race war, the bureau said, but those who did had a high propensity for violence.
And, the FBI said, there were other troubling signs.
"A relatively new tenet gaining popularity among Christian Identity believers justifies the use of violence if it is perpetrated in order to punish violators of God's law," it said. "This includes killing interracial couples, abortionists, prostitutes and homosexuals, burning pornography stores, and robbing banks and perpetrating frauds to undermine the 'usury system.'"