Fighting the culture wars with hate, violence and bullets: Meet the most extreme of the radical Christians
If there is one name some residents of Amarillo, Texas wish they could forget, it’s Repent Amarillo. Based in that North Texas city, Repent Amarillo is a militant Christian fundamentalist group whose antics have ranged from staging a mock execution of Santa Claus by firing squad to posting a “spiritual warfare” map on its Web site that cited a Buddhist temple, an Islamic center, gay bars, strip clubs and sex shops as places of demonic activity.
Repent Amarillo is also infamous for mercilessly harassing a local swingers club called Route 66. Throughout 2009, members of Repent Amarillo made a point of showing up at Route 66’s events, where they would typically wear military fatigues, shout at Route 66 members through bullhorns and write down the license plate numbers of people attending the events. After finding out who the swingers were, Repent Amarillo’s members would find out where they worked and try to get them fired from their jobs (according to Route 66 coordinator Mac Mead, at least two members of the club lost their jobs because of Repent Amarillo).
None of that has kept Repent Amarillo founder David H. Grisham from dabbling in local politics; earlier this year, he ran for mayor of Amarillo and lost to former city commissioner Paul Harpole.
But Repent Amarillo is hardly alone when it comes to promoting a decidedly radical and militant brand of Christianity. From the Army of God to the Hutaree Militia to Gary North and his Christian reconstructionists, radical Christianity is alive and well in the United States—and Christianists aren’t shy about turning up the heat when it comes to fighting the “culture war.” Some radical Christianists have employed bully tactics and hate-mongering rhetoric without resorting to actual violence (Repent Amarillo, the Rev. Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church), while others have committed acts of terrorism and said the culture war will have to be won with bombs and bullets.
When religion is discussed, it is important to make a distinction between radical and non-radical practitioners. Radical Christianity is not representative of Christianity any more than al-Qaeda is representative of Islam. The average Lutheran or Episcopalian minister is no more a threat to public safety than the average member of Islam’s Sufi sect, who are arguably the Hare Krishnas of Islam. Not all Christians are Christianists; not all Muslims are Islamists. But an abundance of disturbing events bear out the fact that radical Christianity, like radical Islam, is quite capable of violence—and contrary to what Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter would have us believe, the examples are numerous.
Active since the early 1980s, the Army of God is a loose network of radical anti-abortionists with a long history of promoting terrorism and premeditated murder in the name of Christianity. The Army of God has published an anti-abortion training manual that offers instructions on bomb-making, arson and other ways to attack clinics.
The group’s Web site praises a long list of Christian terrorists who have been convicted of violent crimes, including Paul Jennings Hill (who was executed by lethal injection in 2003 for the murders of abortion provider John Britton and his bodyguard James Barrett), Scott Roeder (who was convicted of first-degree murder for the 2009 shooting of George Tiller, a Kansas doctor who performed late-term abortions), Michael Frederick Griffin (who was sentenced to life in prison for the 1993 murder of Dr. David Gunn, an ob/gyn based in Pensacola, Florida), James Charles Kopp (who shot and killed Barnett Slepian, a physician who performed abortions, in 1998), Matthew Lee Derosia (who, in 2009, rammed his SUV into the front entrance of a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Paul and told police that Jesus ordered him to carry out that attack) and John C. Salvi (who attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1994, shooting and killing receptionists Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols and wounding several others).
The Web site describes Tiller’s murder as “justifiable homicide” and describes Lowney and Nichols not as victims of domestic terrorism, but as women who got exactly what they deserved; Salvi, who died in prison in 1996 and may have committed suicide, is hailed as a hero for killing them. The Army of God exalts Hill, Rudolph, Roeder, Griffin, Derosia and Salvi as martyrs for Christianity in much the same way al-Qaeda consider Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers martyrs for Islam.
The Army of God has also been a vocal supporter of Eric Rudolph, who is serving life without parole for a long list of terrorist attacks committed in the name of Christianity. Rudolph’s crimes include bombing an abortion clinic in Sandy Springs, a suburb of Atlanta, in 1997; bombing the Otherwise Lounge (a lesbian bar in Atlanta) in 1997; and bombing an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama in 1998. The Birmingham bombing caused the death of Robert Sanderson, a Birmingham police officer and part-time security guard, and resulted in serious injuries for nurse Emily Lyons, who lost an eye. Rudolph is best known, however, for carrying out the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics; that blast killed spectator Alice Hawthorne and wounded 111 others.
Another Christian terrorist who has been associated with the Army of God is Shelley Shannon, who shot Tiller in 1993 but didn’t kill him; in addition to being convicted of attempted murder for her attack on Tiller, Shannon was involved in a series of arson attacks on abortion clinics in different states. One person who considered Shannon a good friend was fellow Army of God terrorist Scott Roeder, who visited her frequently in prison and finished what she started when he murdered Tiller in 2009. The Army of God Web site calls Shannon “a warrior soldier in the Army of God.”
In 2010, a North Carolina-based Christianist named Justin Carl Moose was arrested by the FBI for plotting to help blow up an abortion clinic; Moose, the FBI said, considers himself an Army of God member and an organizer of a terrorist cell for that group. According to the FBI, Moose described himself as a Christian equivalent of Osama bin Laden on his Facebook page but openly advocated violence against Muslims; he also praised Timothy McVeigh (mastermind of the Oklahoma City terrorist bombing of 1995, which killed 168 people and injured 450 others).
The FBI said that Moose wrote on his Facebook page: “If a mosque is built on Ground Zero, it will be removed Oklahoma City style. Tim’s not the only man out there that knows how to do it….I have learned a lot from the Muslim terrorists and have no problem using their tactics.” Moose, according to the FBI, met with an FBI informant and offered advice on how to make TATP, the explosive used in the London subway bombings of 2005. Earlier this year, Moose was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
The Army of God’s Web site has, in the past, been managed by the Rev. Donald Spitz, who is so extreme that even the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue disowned him for promoting violence. The Virginia-based Spitz has publicly argued that killing abortion doctors is justifiable homicide, and Spitz has published the writings of Paul Jennings Hill, Eric Rudolph, Shelley Shannon and other Christian terrorists on the Army of God’s Web site. Spitz, who considered himself Hill’s “spiritual adviser” during the final months of Hill’s life, heads his own Christianist group, Pro-Life Virginia, and has said that Muslims “should not be allowed to live in the United States.”
In the U.S., the far-right militia movement has often been secular in nature; Timothy McVeigh, for example, was raised Catholic but described himself as an agnostic. But occasionally, the militia movement and radical Christianity have overlapped. A perfect example is the Hutaree Militia, a Michigan-based group with extreme Christianist views. In 2010, nine members of Hutaree were arrested for an alleged plot to assassinate police officers using firearms and explosives; allegedly, Hutaree saw that plot as part of a battle with forces of the “Antichrist.”
Christian reconstructionism is one of the most disturbing schools of radical Christianist ideology. Founded by the late Calvinist theologian Rousas John Rushdoony (who died in 2001), the Christian reconstructionist movement believes in abolishing any separation of church and state and establishing a government that adheres to a rigid approach to Mosaic Old Testament law; adultery, homosexuality and blasphemy would be punishable by death under a Christian reconstructionist government.
Even on the Christian Right, Rushdoony (who was a defender of slavery and considered democracy incompatible with Christianity) is controversial. The type of government Christian reconstructionists long for would, in many respects, mirror the Taliban of radical Islam. Rushdoony’s teachings have a following that includes his son, the Rev. Mark Rushdoony (who now heads the Chalcedon Foundation, the organization his father founded) and Gary North (who was R.J. Rushdoony’s son-in-law and now heads his own Christian reconstructionist organization, the Institute for Christian Economics). According to David Holthouse (formerly of the Southern Poverty Law Center and now with Media Matters), Mark Rushdoony “now leads a small army of true believers whose fundamentalism is so hardcore they make garden-variety right-wing evangelicals seem like Unitarians at a Peter, Paul and Mary sing-along.”
North has written that under a Christian reconstructionist government, stoning should be the method of execution for gay men, adulterers and women who have had abortions. North has said that stoning (which is still practiced by radical Islamists in Saudi Arabia, the Sudan and other countries) is preferable to other methods of execution because it is more economical; he has also said that a stoning can be a community event for Christian families.
Of course, not everyone on the Christian Right is guilty of committing or promoting violence. But even without actual violence, Christianists often resort to bully tactics and violent rhetoric. After the January 8, 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona that killed six people and left Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords seriously wounded, Fred Phelps praised the shooter and said that he was doing God’s work. Phelps, who ran for political office several times as a Democrat in the 1990s, said, “Congresswoman Giffords, an avid supporter of sin and baby killing, was shot for that mischief…Westboro Baptist Church prays for more shooters…and more dead.”
Journalist Chris Hedges has often said that actual violence is preceded by the “language of violence,” and the language of violence is quite common among Christianists. In 2007, when Hindu minister Rajan Zed was asked to deliver an opening prayer for the Senate, Christianist groups like the American Family Association, Operation Rescue/Operation Save America and Faith2Action angrily protested and made it clear that they had no use for Hinduism. And Repent Amarillo isn’t shy about trying to bully its victims into accepting the group’s extremist view of Christianity. Certainly, the language and rhetoric of violence is a part of “Left Behind: Eternal Forces,” a video game that deals with holy war in the name of Christianity and is part of the Rev. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ apocalypse-obsessed Left Behind series. Author Frank Schaeffer, who used to be part of the Christian Right but has since renounced it, has said that the Left Behind novels and games “represents everything that is most deranged about religion.”
But despite all the extremist views, hate-mongering and terrorist violence associated with Christianists, radical Christianity typically gets a pass from Republican politicians and the Republican talk radio hosts who support them. When, in 2009, Janet Napolitano warned of the threat of violence coming from the far right (including anti-abortion extremists), she was called anti-Christian by many people on the Christian Right. But when Rep. Peter King of New York called for Congressional hearings on radical Islamic activity in the U.S., he was applauded by neocons and many of his fellow Republicans.
Far-right talk show hosts have spent a considerable amount of time talking about radical Islam, but they seldom, if ever, have anything to say about radical Christianity. They have no problem with a group like Repent Amarillo, which hasn’t actually resorted to physical violence even though it has employed an abundance of violent, militaristic imagery. It’s safe to say that if an Islamist group held a mock execution of Santa Claus and harassed people at work, it wouldn’t be taken lightly in GOP circles. And if an Islamist group released a video game as twisted as “Left Behind: Eternal Forces,” it wouldn’t get a pass from Republican talk radio.
One person who has been outspoken about the Republican/far-right double standard when it comes to radical Christianity vs. radical Islam is Rob Boston, senior policy analyst for Americans United for Separation of Church and State and author of three books on the Christian Right. “From where I’m sitting, the main organizations that are trying to impose religion on other people in this country are fundamentalist Christian in nature,” Boston said:
“I can’t remember the last time, for example, that a Muslim group tried to get Islamic doctrine posted in a courthouse or attempted to ban same-sex marriage by pointing to passages in the Koran, or tried to force Islamic prayers in the public schools. But fundamentalist Christian groups do these things all the time. So if anybody is trying to impose religion on Americans, it’s not Muslims; it’s extreme fundamentalist Christian groups.”
Boston added that just as it is wrong for atheists to make broad generalizations about people of faith, it is equally wrong to automatically associate terrorism and extremism with Islam:
“Christian groups will complain if they are painted with too broad a brush—and rightly so. Christianity in America is diverse. There are Christian groups that are theologically very moderate, and there are Christian groups that are very, very conservative. Not everyone who is a Christian in America is a fundamentalist or an evangelical. We always have to remember that there is a lot of diversity out there. Yet, the same conservative Christian groups that complain about being caricatured will do the same thing to Islam; they portray the one billion Muslims in the world as if they are exactly the same. But anybody who has spent any time talking to Muslims quickly learns that there is just as much diversity in that community as there is in the Christian community about how holy books are to be interpreted and how society is to be ordered.”
“I just find the whole thing ironic because if you look at the agenda of the Islamic extremists, their agenda is anti-women’s rights and anti-gay rights, and it’s about religion controlling the government. Well, what other movement do you know of that believes in those things? The Christian Right. Culturally, those movements are very similar. And there’s a reason for that. It’s not religion that’s the problem; it’s fundamentalism that’s the problem. I always remind people of that when I’m giving speeches. Sometimes, I run across people who think that religion in general is bad and that religion is why we have all these problems. And I tell them, well, religion can persuade people to do a lot of good things in the world. It’s not religion that’s the problem—it’s fundamentalism.”
Some people have described Timothy McVeigh as the ultimate Christian terrorist. This is inaccurate, because while McVeigh was raised Catholic, he appeared to be motivated by extreme anti-government/militia beliefs rather than religious motives. But there is no doubt that McVeigh was responsible for the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil prior to 9/11.
American Muslim activist Haroon Moghul, who serves as executive director of the Maydan Institute and frequently lectures on Islam, said he sees a major disparity between the way radical Christianity and radical Islam are covered by the right-wing media. “I think the biggest difference in the way Islam and Christianity are covered by the right is that when it comes to Islam, the assumption has been that Islam is inherently violent or inherently political and that Islam has to prove otherwise,” the New York City-based Moghul said.
“When it comes to radical forms of Christianity or more extreme forms of Christianity, it’s always seen as an aberration by the right. But any sort of Muslim behavior that is violent or extreme or intolerant is assumed to be inherent to Islam. So the burden of proof is on a Muslim community or a Muslim individual to prove otherwise. If Osama bin Laden said something, it was assumed that it was inherent to Islam. If it’s Hutaree or something like that, it’s assumed that it is just a lone wolf or a fringe group—and it’s disconnected from the rest of what’s happening in America. Hutaree isn’t assumed to be the product of something bigger than themselves.”
Moghul views the Christianity good/Islam bad narrative of the far right as symptomatic of the soundbite culture that exists in America. “There really isn’t room for a lot of different opinions in our political discourse in the United States,” Moghul said. “Whether the two-party system makes that better or worse, I don’t really know. But you generally see that nuance disappears in our political discourse.”
Another voice of sanity on the subject of Islam and Christianity is journalist Leonard Pitts, Jr., author of Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood and a syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald. In his columns, Pitts has had a lot to say about the way some people on the far right will try to paint Islam in general as a violent religion (as opposed to making a distinction between radical and non-radical Islam). And they get away with that double standard, according to Pitts, because it is easier to attack what is a minority religion in the U.S.
“Christianity is a known element in the United States, whereas Islam is a foreign faith,” Pitts explained. He continued:
“Most people of faith in the United States are Christian. Most Americans know a lot of Christians but don’t know any Muslims. So it’s easy to look at the craziest, most dangerous Muslims and assume that they are representative of Islam as a whole. Christians in the United States will look at the Army of God and say, ‘That has no relation to any Christianity I have ever known. That has absolutely nothing to do with any Christianity I have ever known,’ but moderate Muslims will say the same thing about Muslims who commit acts of violence.”
In one of his columns, Pitts pointed to four scriptural quotes that could be construed as violent—one from the Qu’ran, three from the Bible. His point was that cherry-picking parts of the Qu’ran in order to prove that Islam is an inherently violent or dangerous religion is as intellectually dishonest as cherry-picking parts of the Bible in order to depict Christianity as inherently violent.
The far right, according to Pitts, often neglects to mention the fact that Muslims themselves have been the victims of Muslim extremists, including the Muslims killed on 9/11. “People forget that a lot of Muslims died that day,” Pitts said. “You’re not going to attack Lower Manhattan that way and not kill Muslim people.” He added: “I don’t fear Muslims, I don’t fear Christians. But I fear Muslim and Christian extremists. I fear extremists period.”
If stoning proponent Gary North is mentioned at all in the Republican media, he is painted as a harmless eccentric and not part of a radical Christianist movement. But if someone in a mosque in Detroit or Oakland promoted stoning, talk-radio Republicans would be screaming about it for days.
The bottom line is that extremism in the name of religion is cause for concern regardless of whether the extremists identify themselves as Christian or Muslim. Those who claim that Christian extremism is any less dangerous than Islamic extremism are being disingenuous.
“When people embrace any kind of extreme ideology, whether it’s religious or secular, and can tolerate no dissent,” Boston said, “we’re in for trouble.”