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Christian Identity* is a multifaceted tradition, but at its core the various manifestations of this belief system necessarily contain two elements: religious racism and anti-Semitism. That is, while there are different expressions of Christian Identity and considerable debates within the subculture about specific points of doctrine, the two features that all Identity groups share in common are a firm belief in white supremacy and the demonization of Jews, often in the literal sense. These two core beliefs are intimately connected throughout the history and theology of Christian Identity. In effect, Christian Identity is a systematic attempt to legitimize white supremacy by articulating it as the right and true form of Christianity.
The roots of Christian Identity are found in so-called British-Israelism, a movement and ideology that sought to establish white Anglo-Saxons as the true chosen people of God referenced in the Christian Bible. More specifically, British-Israelism posits that white inhabitants of the British Isles are the true tribes of Israel. This belief has been traced back to the 1600s, but its formal articulation occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Established in 1919, the British-Israel-World Federation become a central disseminator of the foundational ideas of British-Israelism. In its early forms, British-Israelism was not explicitly anti-Semitic, but this would change as the ideology subsequently spread through the Anglophone world, particularly to the United States, where a number of influential proponents of this ideology in the 1920s and 1930s expounded upon on the original ideas to create what would become Christian Identity in North America.
A particularly important proponent of what would come to be called Christian Identity during this formative period was Gerald L. K. Smith. Smith outlined what would become the political orientation of the Christian Identity movement. Specifically, Smith espoused a form of right-wing populism and anti-communism that would become a central component of early Christian Identity groups. In 1942, Smith began publishing his own monthly newspaper, The Cross and The Flag, which espoused the centrality a particularistic vision of Christian nationalism. A year later Smith founded his own political party—the America First Party—which opposed American involvement in World War II and internationalism more generally. Smith would tellingly rebrand the party as the Christian Nationalist Crusade in 1947. Although Smith’s endeavors found little success at the ballot box, his efforts helped establish the political parameters of the burgeoning Christian Identity movement.
Working as close partner with Smith, but more focused on the theological side of Christian Identity, was Wesley Swift, a Methodist minister who had previously been an organizer for the Klu Klux Klan. Swift outlined the “two-seed” reading of Genesis, which argued that Jews were the literal spawn of Satan and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Swift was arguably the most important proponent of Christian Identity in the post-World War II era, founding the Christian Defense League and his own Anglo-Saxon Christian Church, which later became the Church of Jesus Christ—Christian. The phrase “Jesus Christ—Christian” initially appears redundant, but Swift’s effort was to explicitly differentiate his theology from that which understood Jesus to be Jewish.
Swift’s central contribution to Christian Identity was rooting anti-Semitism in purportedly biblical justifications and legitimations. The anti-Semitism of Christian Identity groups is an integral aspect of the effort to portray white supremacy as legitimized and commanded by the Christian Bible. In order to supplant the lineage generally understood to be the chosen people in the Bible, Christian Identity theologians set out to systematically discredit Judaism and the Jewish people. That is, in order to portray themselves as the chosen people of the Bible, Identity proponents first had to upend and destroy idea that Jews were the chosen people. This is precisely what the two-seed theory attempts to do, right from the outset with the first narrative in Genesis. Notably and importantly, Swift initiated what would be a long-running symbiotic relationship between Christian Identity and other forms of organized white supremacy, including but not limited to the KKK and neo-Nazi groups.
A very influential but often overlooked leader in this theological endeavor was a pastor who espoused Christian Identity from both the pulpit and the airwaves named John Lovell, who in 1941 founded the Kingdom Bible Institute and was the publisher and editor of its monthly periodical Kingdom Digest. Lovell was a close associate of Gerald L. K. Smith and a religious teacher to Wesley Swift, with whom he shared many key points of Christian Identity theology. Lovell also organized the conferences for the Canadian and American British-Israelites in the 1940s in California, which would help spur the transition into Christian Identity. In this way, Lovell serves as a critical vector in the transition from British-Israelism into Christian Identity. Lovell founded the United Israel World Fellowship in Fort Worth, Texas in 1946 and remained active as an intellectual fount of Christian Identity theology for many years, publishing the Kingdom Digest well into the 1970s. The newsletter continued on after his death in 1974 under the direction of his widow, Lada Lovell.
Lovell’s Kingdom Digest newsletters remained consistent in their themes of apocalypticism, Christian nationalism, and anti-Semitism throughout the many years of publication. There is a consistent call toward Christian nationalism by virtue of implementing biblical laws into practice in the United States federal government. Lovell used his newsletter to offer his views on war, education, international affairs, and conservative sexuality. During the Cold War, Kingdom Digest employed vehement anti-communist language, equating communism to atheism, and regularly speculating that communists were just Jews in disguise. There are also clear references to the two-seed theory throughout Lovell’s writings.
During the formative period of transition between British-Israelism and Christian Identity in the 1940s and 1950s, another important advocate of British-Israelism in America who explicitly linked it to anti-Semitism was William Kullgren, who published the Beacon Light from the 1930s until the 1950s, and America Speaks in the 1940s and 1950s. Notably, while Kullgren advocated Christian nationalism by editing and contributing to works such as The Bible Speaks to America, he also espoused occultist and astrological theories, primarily through the Beacon Light and other books he wrote. However, this aspect of his views did not penetrate into the wider Identity movement. Yet even though his astrological predilections had little influence, his survivalist ethos and virulently anti-Semitic views combined, informing much of Christian Identity’s ideology and praxis.
Another important periodical that spread the message of British-Israelism in the U.S. was The National Message, the newsletter of British-Israel World Federation’s Covenant Publishing Company. The goal of the National Message Ministry was the wider dissemination of the core tenets of British-Israelism. This organization and its publishing efforts represent another key literary and ideological link between the foundational ideas of British-Israelism and what would become Christian Identity. Similarly, Howard B. Rand, leader of the Anglo-Saxon Federation of America, ran Destiny Publishers from the 1930s until the 1960s. Rand is credited with coining the term “Christian Identity” to describe the new racial and political theology that blossomed from the roots of British-Israelism. Along with Ferrar Fenton Bibles—the preferred translation for British-Israelites—Rand’s publishing house also produced Destiny Magazine, a Christian Identity periodical. Rand authored a number of pamphlets outlining the central points of Christian Identity, such as Our National Purpose and Segregation: A Divinely Instituted Precept. In this regard, Rand serves as another of key point of transition between the pro-Jewish ideology of early British-Israelism and the fierce anti-Semitism of Christian Identity.
The person most responsible for picking up on and elaborating the two-seed theory of anti-Semitic theology begun by Wesley Swift was Bertrand Comparet. A lawyer by training, Comparet hosted a radio show and published numerous books and tracts elaborating the theological foundations of Christian Identity. George Udvary, a disciple of both Wesley Swift and Bertrand Comparet, was yet another influential minister in this lineage, spreading Identity theology through his Identity News Bulletin.
In California in 1971, an Identity minister named James K. Warner founded the New Christian Crusade Church and circulated the Christian Vanguard. Warner’s ministry made overt links between Christian Identity and neo-Nazism by focusing on their shared passion for virulent anti-Semitism. Warner was co-founder and national secretary of the American Nazi Party and leader of the Christian Defense League, as well as serving as the editor of its publication the C.D.L. Report. Warner’s official ties to neo-Nazism, Christian Identity ministry, and leaders of the KKK helped create stronger ties between these different streams of white supremacy. For instance, Tom Metzger, the founder of White Aryan Resistance (WAR) and an ordained Christian Identity minister, attended Warner’s church, where he met KKK grand wizard, eventual one-term state representative, and the long-term public face of the white supremacist movement David Duke. Metzger was an influential leader of the racist skinhead wing of the white supremacy movement, and furthered the connections between neo-Nazis, the KKK, racist skinheads, and Christian Identity.
Other pastors also helped spread Christian Identity through both radio and print, such as Sheldon Emry, founder and leader of the Lord’s Covenant Church in Arizona who hosted a radio program called America’s Promise, which was carried on over thirty radio stations in the South, Southwestern, and Western U.S. Emry also notably authored the anti-Semitic book Who Killed Jesus? Soon after Emry’s death in 1995, his son-in-law David Barley took over the family business/ministry and moved it to Sandpoint Idaho, where it continues today.
A particularly important and influential Christian Identity theologian in the two-seed lineage in the latter half of the twentieth century was Dan Gayman, pastor of the Church of Israel of Schell City, Missouri. Gayman picked up Swift’s mantle as an interpreter of Identity theology, and spread his views not only through his ministry, but also through his publication the Zions Watchman (1977–1980), later simply called The Watchman (1981–1991). Gayman’s newsletters heavily emphasized anti-Semitism, Christian nationalism, white genocide, and apocalyptic themes. Gayman argued that the federal government would not be needed if biblical laws were implemented in the U.S. According to Gayman, “Jesus Christ must be declared as King of the United States of America!” (The Watchman, August 31st 1986, p. 14) Of particular concern for Gayman was putting an end to homosexuality, race-mixing, and abortion clinics. Gayman held a complicated place in the Identity subculture, as he spoke out against some forms of vigilante violence but simultaneously framed most of his theological arguments to suggest that the groups he demonized were deserving of violently punitive fates because they had sinned against God. This rhetorical strategy created a foundation for the justification of violent acts, even as he spoke against some of the more terroristic interpretations of Christian Identity.
On the political side of Christian Identity, there many were individuals and groups who bridged the gap between the pulpit and the paramilitary. One of the most important of these was William Potter Gale, who worked in the direct lineage of Wesley Swift. Gale founded and led the Ministry of Christ Church and, like so many Christian Identity figureheads, used both the pulpit and airwaves to disseminate his ideas. Even more importantly in the history of Christian Identity, Gale provided a key link between theologizing about Christian Identity and radical anti-government political organizing, founding the United States Christian Posse Association and Posse Comitatus, radically anti-government groups that argued that the highest legal authority was a posse organized by a county sheriff. Gale’s views remained rooted in Christian Identity ideology, which he espoused through the Identity Newsletter. In 1987, Gale and five other associates were convicted of sending death threat to IRS employees.
One of the most influential political organizers of white supremacist groups at the end of the twentieth century was Richard Butler, founder and leader of the Aryan Nations. Butler attended Wesley Swift’s church in California, and also had a foot in Christian Identity theology, writing about the two-seed theology. After Swift’s death, Butler founded a Church of Jesus Christ—Christian in Idaho, taking the name first used by Wesley Swift. Butler was a fitful descendent of Swift after the latter’s death, but his activism through Aryan Nations played a critical role in consolidating racist movements on the far right between Identity groups and other wings.
A terroristic offshoot of the Aryan Nations and Christian Identity was the Covenant, Sword, Arm of the Lord (CSA), a paramilitary group that operated a separatist compound in Arkansas. The leader of CSA was James Ellison, a pupil of Richard Butler. In 1984, one CSA member, Richard “Wayne” Snell killed a pawn shop owner he mistakenly thought was Jewish and then subsequently shot and killed an Arkansas state trooper. The following year the CSA’s compound was raided by the FBI, and Ellison was arrested, charged, and ultimately convicted of racketeering. He was released from prison in 1987 after testifying against the leadership of the Aryan Nations as well as Snell in the infamous Fort Smith sedition trial, in which all fourteen white supremacists accused of seditious conspiracy were acquitted.
Another important aspect of the Christian Identity underground was the newsletter the Patriot Report, published by George Eaton, founder of Present Truth Ministries. Eaton was associated with the Christian Identity compound Elohim City, located in eastern Oklahoma. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was known to frequent Elohim City, and was also a reader of the Patriot Report. Even amongst the underground, terroristic side of Christian Identity, there remained important ties to above ground congregations and ministers, such as Pete Peters, who was the pastor of the Laporte Church of Christ in Colorado and publisher of the Scriptures for America newsletter. Peters’ church is where The Order met, another underground terroristic offshoot of the Aryan Nations that engaged in a number of crimes, including robberies, bombings, and the murder of Jewish radio host Alan Berg in 1984. Peters helped unite different wings of the far right into the modern militia movement after the Ruby Ridge incident in 1992.
The fallout from the crimes of The Order, as well as the Fort Smith sedition trial, led to a breakup of some of the underground Christian Identity-themed militia groups. However, the decline in overt Christian Identity ministries and militias in no way signaled the decline, much less the endpoint, of the influence of Christian Identity in the United States. Instead, Christian Identity morphed and diffused, so that the influence of Identity ideology has resurfaced in two important changes to white supremacy movements since the turn of the twenty-first century.
The first change in Christian Identity has occurred within the broader white supremacy movement. Among hate groups, previously disparate streams of white supremacy have converged, such that Christian Identity, KKK, and neo-Nazi groups have come together into a closer configuration of interests. While this process was in motion well before the 2000s in specific ways—such as links between the KKK and early Christian Identity theologians or the connections between Christian Identity pastors and neo-Nazis represented in the Aryan Nations—the synthesizing of these different forms of white supremacy has become much more complete in the digital age.
Emblematic of this consolidation is the notorious “Unite the Right” rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Organized by neo-Nazi leaders such as Jason Kessler, Richard Spencer, and Andrew Anglin, the rally symbolically centered itself around Confederate statues, conveying the importance of Klan ideology as an embedded tradition in the history of the American south. The rally itself was rife with anti-Semitic chants and slogans, such as “Jews will not replace us!” The rally also drew in members of various militia groups. The historical influence of Christian Identity shows through in these new manifestations of organized white supremacy, even as the number of Christian Identity congregations and members has declined. In effect, Christian Identity has influenced, merged with, and morphed into the broader white supremacy movement.
The second important development in Christian Identity in the early-twenty-first century has been the public response to the Unite the Right rally, especially in the political sphere. Most notable was the muted response of the White House in its reaction to the tragic turn of events at the rally, when a counter-protester died and others were injured by a white supremacist that had driven his car into a crowd. The refusal to condemn the white supremacist marchers and insist on the presence of “very fine people on both sides” sadly reflects the powerful change in the influence Christian Identity thinking has had in the contemporary United States—namely, the mainstreaming of Christian nationalism.
Building on the emergence of the Religious Right as voting bloc in the late 1970s through groups such organizing entities as the Moral Majority, politicians have found greater latitude to use explicitly Christian nationalist rhetoric. During the 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump successfully secured a high proportion of votes from the Religious Right through appeals to a species of Christian nationalism that echoes sentiments of the Christian Identity movements. The use of such rhetoric, and federal enforcement of policies that reflect in tone, if not in substance, aspects of Christian Identity ideology. In many instances, the political rhetoric of high-profile and successful right-wing politicians describing America as an explicitly Christian nation—to the exclusion of non-Christians, and implicitly often non-whites—is strikingly similar to that found in the pages of Christian Identity publications from the late-twentieth century. All of this serves as clear testimony that while Christian Identity church membership, by the numbers, has declined, its influence has not among the current configuration of white supremacy movements and its representatives in religious and right-wing circles. In this regard, the legacy of Christian Identity has proven more than consequential.
Joseph Baker, 'Christian Identity and Religions of America', Religions of America, Cengage Learning (EMEA) Ltd, 2019.