Behind Dylann Roof's race war: The highly motivated secret white supremacy movement working toward "the battle of Armageddon"

A scholar of "Christian Identity" militants warns that lone wolf killings like Charleston are part of a larger plan

Published June 24, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)


To the casual reader, the statement posted, presumably by Dylann Roof, to the website the Last Rhodesian shortly before Roof killed nine worshipers in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last week, is drivel, a meandering patchwork of ideas and opinions cribbed from the usual racist websites. But to author Stuart Wexler, whose forthcoming book, "America's Secret Jihad: The Hidden History of Religious Terrorism in the United States," Roof's screed is full of signs and portents. Wexler argues that most racist, right-wing extremism in America over the past 40 years, particularly those strains of it inclined to spectacular acts of violence, drink from the same well, a little-known movement called Christian Identity. I recently spoke with Wexler to learn more.

Your book argues that virtually every white supremacist group in America has been profoundly influenced by a movement and ideology called Christian Identity. This, you say, is the case even if they don’t realize it or, like Dylann Roof, may never have heard of it. Can you give us a working definition of what Christian Identity is?

Christian Identity is a religious ideology rooted in the idea that Jews are actually the offspring of Satan, the product of a second conjugal relationship in the Garden of Eden between Eve and the serpent. Those who call themselves Jews are really imposters, descendants of Satan through that relationship. Minorities are descendants of what the Book of Genesis refers to as the "beasts of the field." Minority groups, especially African-Americans, are seen as subhuman, “mud people,” as they are sometimes called. The idea is that Jews have engaged in this deceptive, cosmic conspiracy to manipulate minorities against whites. And at the end of times we're going to get a race war. This is the battle of Armageddon for Christian Identity: a race war.

So the main points are this alternate story of the origins of humanity, in particular of the races. Then there’s this conspiracy theory in which whites are victimized by Jews and people of color. And lastly, this apocalyptic narrative where there will be a race war where, I presume, the forces of of whiteness will triumph.

Yes. The forces of the Antichrist, specifically Jewish forces, will be defeated by the forces of good, which they represent as Christ. Then white Europeans will live in a paradise.

How prevalent is this ideology in America?

This is the key thing to understand. If you went to people who actually subscribe very overtly to Christian Identity, it would be a very small minority of people. But, the people who happened to subscribe to it, especially in the 1960s and ‘70s, became leading members of a whole host of groups. They repurposed these groups for their agenda and appropriated the agendas of these groups. So now we've reached a point where Christian Identity permeates the white supremacist moment so thoroughly that somebody like Dylann Roof could be following the Christian Identity playbook without even knowing he’s on the team.

Dylann Roof wrote that he was converted to white supremacy by the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens. What about them? They seem to also be obsessed with the idea of whites as victims of blacks. Do you see other signs in them of the influence of Christian Identity ideology? What about stuff like the numbers 14 and 88 that appear in some of Roof’s photos?

The 14 words: that comes from the Order [a white nationalist group that conducted numerous terrorist activities in the 1980s, including the assassination of radio personality Alan Berg]. What happened was that the people who were in the Order in the 1980s all become celebrities in the white supremacist community. These guys put out phrases -- the 88 words, the 14 words -- as the symbolism of white supremacy. There are people who probably wear it and have no idea what the lineage is of these ideas.

This is what I mean when I talk about how much it permeates. On the surface, the Council of Conservative Citizens seems like your run-of-the-mill white supremacist group. As you mentioned, and it’s really important, they create this narrative of white victimization. They feed right into this notion of white grievance, which is what appears to get somebody like Dylann Roof angry enough that he wants to start this race war. But then you dig a little bit deeper. And the guy who runs the website, a guy named Kyle Rogers. I looked a little bit into him, and he clearly seems to be heavily influenced by a very recent, related theology, which is neopagan Odinism.

That was an element of your book that really startled to me, because I think of neopagans as being very peaceful New Age-y types. I didn’t realize there was this racist manifestation.

Many pagans denounce what the racist, anti-Semitic Odinists do. Unfortunately, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a couple of important Christian Identity ministers -- especially a guy named James Warner -- became heavily influential in the Odinist movement. What you might call the godmother of this ugly version of Odinism was a woman by the name of Elsie McPherson. She got a lot of her information, her material to start the radical version of Odinism, from Warner, and he is a minister in a Christian Identity church.

That is a weird path, from Christian to “pagan.”

Christianity as a whole tends to be associated with turning the other cheek, love thy enemy. In the 1960s and ‘70s,  the Aryan racist types were looking for a more muscular, ideological religious foundation. They found it in Odinism.

You read McPherson and she says, “We had to hide our agenda.” That’s a theme that runs throughout my book. The folks in these movements don’t come out and say to their members, “Hello. We want to start a race war because it’s part of our religious ideology.” They do it by appropriating whatever purpose or cause they are in. So if it’s an anti-tax movement, well, the members of that group are anti-government. Christian Identity could make use of those people. If it’s an anti-immigrant group, well, for obvious reasons Christian Identity is anti-immigrant. They can make use of those people. They manipulate the rank-and-file members for their purposes. This is an ongoing legacy where after a few iterations, you get something like the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens. Kyle Rogers, their webmaster, is an Odinist or he appears to be that way. His Odinism is deeply rooted in ideas that originated in Christian Identity.

Then you get your race-war ideology. Somebody like Dylann Roof is influenced two or three steps removed from Christian Identity ideology. But he’s very much in line with them and doing what they would hope.

You have an interesting way of talking about how the "lone wolf" concept feeds into the larger strategy of Christian Identity. Can you talk about that?

The guy who probably had the most influence on the domestic lone-wolf terrorist concept is Louis Beam, an influential Christian Identity figure and also in the Odinist camp. He came up with this concept called “leaderless resistance.” In its initial incarnation in the early 1980s, leaderless resistance was supposed take the form of cells, small groups. Beam, who was the strategist for Christian Identity, realized that white supremacist groups had been thoroughly penetrated and infiltrated by federal law enforcement. The larger these groups are, the easier it is for the federal government to disrupt their plans and arrest their members. Beam says, “We’ve got to decentralize and go into small cells.” But then even the small cells got disrupted to some extent. They are unwieldy. So Beam advances this leaderless resistance concept in a very famous essay. He argues for the lone wolf. What he wants are for people to self-radicalize online and follow the agenda without necessarily being ordered or directed in any specific way.

... or having any traceable connection to leaders of these white supremacist groups.

Absolutely. So what you get is a very highly decentralized strategy by folks in Christian Identity -- and other white supremacist ideologies that were influenced by Christian Identity -- to deliberately put out as much information in the form of websites, social media and music to inculcate people with Christian Identity ideas even if the people themselves aren’t deeply religious. That’s very much a deliberate strategy by folks part of the Christian Identity ideology to accomplish their goals without having to risk getting taken down by the FBI or other law enforcement.

Dylann Roof meets almost perfectly the profile of the target for this type of deniable recruitment. Can you talk about the kind of people who are drawn to this role?

Over the last 20 to 25 years, this lone-wolf terrorism has unfortunately become a phenomenon. It’s a lot of alienated, disaffected suburban and working-class white Americans. Skinheads, for instance. They are drawn to either Odinism or to the World Church of the Creator, or Christian Identity specifically, but all of these groups that are inundated with Christian Identity ideas. They find this stuff online and suddenly “everything makes sense” to them. Things like: Why am I out of a job?

That’s the narrative Roof presented on his website.

It’s this grievance notion. It feeds right into the alienation these young people feel. The leaders manipulate them, and the people who put out these websites manipulate them. They provide them with access to tools, like “The Anarchist Cookbook.” They hope these folks will make good on their race war agenda.

Because Dylann Roof doesn’t present himself as a Christian, and he attacked a Christian church, there have been conservative efforts to portray this as an attack on Christianity itself. However, there is a tradition of Christian Identity groups attacking Christian churches, especially if their congregations are African-American.

Absolutely. And not just black churches, but Jewish religious institutions also.

There was one just three years ago that was against a Sikh temple, as well.

I communicated with someone who was in touch with Wade Michael Page, the guy who shot up the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Page wasn’t particularly religiously devout, either. But he had tattoos that connect to all these offshoots or rival religions that share all the same thing in common: They all want a race war. Page was a musician in the Christian white-power music scene. Those bands were sponsored by the National Alliance, which is William Luther Pierce, the guy who wrote “The Turner Diaries,” the book that inspired Timothy McVeigh.

Now Pierce has his own little variation or offshoot he calls Cosmotheism. It’s like Deism for white supremacists. Scholars will tell you that it’s almost indistinguishable from Christian Identity. He certainly knew people from the Christian Identity fold. And Cosmotheism is all about race war. That’s what “The Turner Diaries” is. So you put out this music that really animates and angers and feeds right into this ethos of grievance and anger and you get somebody who goes and shoots up a Sikh temple.

Again, it’s somebody who is following the playbook without being on the team. I’m writing an Op-Ed now that I want to call  “Lone Wolf, Hidden Pack.” You have the lone wolves and they are part of pack, even if they don’t realize it.

If you’re talking about something like the CCC, do you think they have a conscious agenda to agitate for the kind of violent action we saw in Charleston?

I think some do. When I looked into the CCC what I saw varied, and this would have been true of groups in the 1960s. There’s some groups that would have been run by people who had no real understanding of the agenda they were serving. But you go into the neighboring state and the person who runs the same group is a routine or regular visitor to the Church of Jesus Christ-Christian in Idaho. That is the Christian Identity church, has been the Christian Identity church since the late 1950s. It was simply moved from California to Idaho. It’s the official church for the Aryan Nations.

So certainly some of these leaders of these groups know full well what they are about and what agenda they are advancing and serving. They don’t present that to rank-and-file members. That’s a strategy and a tactic that goes way back to the 1960s. The leader of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi was a devout Christian Identity believer. He told informants that the typical Mississippi rednecks didn’t know what he was doing. He said he had to manipulate them to serve his plans and agenda. That agenda was a race war. He made that pretty clear to people in private, too.

These folks can’t come out and say that, though. It’s so foreign to the conventional understanding of Christianity that they lose members. Instead, they realize that if they simply align their agenda or their interest with some group that has a similar mindset, they can manipulate and push it in a direction that will work in their favor. It’s pretty clear to me that at least some of the people who lead these groups, if they are not Christian Identity themselves, they sure as heck know about it and are very familiar with it.

How do they square this extremely pro-violence theology with the traditional view of Christianity as peaceful?

A Christian Identity believer like Sam Bowers who ran the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi in the 1960s, to a white American, he would espouse all the conventional Christian dogma, and believe it: You have to show charity, forgiveness, etc. But he does not see Jews or people of color as human. They are the children of the devil or subhuman. You don’t have to apply the religious precepts to those people.

The second component to why they are so violent now and why they have been since the 1960s, that gets to the eschatology. Most of the Evangelical mainstream fundamentalist Christians believe in a form of millennialism that says we are in the end times. They also believe that there is going to be a rapture and the elect are going to be taken up into the heavens and on earth you’re going to have a great tribulation of disease and famine, which will eventually lead to the battle of Armageddon. The folks in Christian Identity don’t believe in the rapture. They believe they are going to be in the middle of the tribulation. In fact, they believe they have to be a part of it, have to make it happen. That’s why they stockpile weapons. They don’t believe they are going to be taken up in a puff of smoke and spared of the end times. They are going to be right in the middle of it as soldiers of an end-times battle, soldiers in the army of God. The really proactive ones believe we are already basically in that stage. They’ve believed that since the time of the race riots in the 1960s.

This is why I hope that people who are concerned with domestic terrorism pay much closer attention to this: These people are very proactive. When I heard what happened in Charleston, the tragedy there, my mind went straight to these people. The reason why is that Charleston had just been the site of that incident where that cop shot [Walter Scott] in the back and planted the evidence, faked a crime, etc. I thought, this is somebody who is trying to touch a nerve that is still raw, trying to inflame. He’s trying to pile on.

There was something similar in Ferguson, by the way. There was this guy, and it turns out he was a lone wolf, but he presented himself as if he was part of a regular Klan organization. He was putting out inflammatory calls on social media saying, “Let’s go to Ferguson. Let’s fight these rioters off!” -- even though it was mostly a peaceful protest. That got me very suspicious. So I went to his website, and of course if you dig deep inside the website, you actually find the exact Christian Identity ideas. These folks are looking for the opportunity to take a bad situation and, through proactive violence, make it much worse. That’s been their modus operandi for decades.

So they are agitators in a way?

Oh, very much so. There’s some irony in that. The folks that I write about from the 1960s [resisting the Civil Rights Movement in the South], would say, “We are going to teach these outside agitators a lesson.” Meanwhile, leading some of these groups, these white supremacist groups, were the biggest agitators of them all. The Minutemen who stockpiled weapons at just obscene rates in the late 1960s, they would go into black communities and would plant fake propaganda, fake pamphlets that would say “Go kill whitey!” They would toss them out of car windows because they were hoping to start a race war. Sure enough, if you go look at the leadership of the Minutemen in the 1960s (not the anti-immigrant group now, but the group from the 1960s that plotted all kinds of crazy activity and stockpiled weapons, rockets even, that would boggle your mind) -- those folks, if you look at the leadership, it’s all populated by Christian Identity folks.

What can authorities do to combat this? What can anyone do to combat this because it’s such a decentralized influence that’s constantly hiding itself behind other groups?

On that front, one of the people who I talked to in the book is a former and repentant Grand Dragon [of the KKK] by the name of Scott Shephard. He’s said to me and will say to anybody that Christian Identity is completely pervasive. It permeates the entire movement and embraces this race-war ideology, which was not really a part of mainstream white supremacy until the 1960s. It took all through the 1970s for it to permeate.

What we can do to stop it? Well, first of all I think we should be aware of it. That would be one thing. I think it gets ignored. People hear “race war” and think, well, that’s a crazy idea. However crazy it might be from a practical point of view, dangerous people believe it. So acknowledging it would be one thing. It might not hurt for some mainstream conventional Evangelical Christians, or Christians of any stride, to take on the ideology, the underlying theology of some of these Christian Identity groups. I’m not saying they are ignoring it, but I suspect that most of them are unaware of it, too. It would be a shame if this gets lost in some kind of culture war where people are insisting that it’s impossible to do to Christianity what ISIS does to Islam. This is exactly what happens. It’s a group of people perverting the religion.

What you are saying is that Evangelicals would have to admit that there is this extremist, violent, militant element in Christianity as well as in Islam.

Absolutely. And attack it. The same way that there are many, many Muslim scholars who attack the militant salafi ideology that fuels al Qaida and ISIS. Those are similiarly very idiosyncratic and outside the norms of Islam.

In the book you mention a recent report on this issue that was attacked in the conservative media as a smear job on Christians.

It comes from West Point, which isn’t exactly a bastion of liberal ideology.

Can you tell me more about it?

It was written by Professor Arie Perliger in 2013. He’s not the first, but he came out with a very detailed analysis. I take issue with some of his analysis, but the big picture is that Christian Identity folks are much more likely to engage or attempt to engage in a mass casualty attack. When you think about it, that makes a whole lot of sense because they are trying to inflame. Perliger just got reamed by folks on the right who viewed it as some sort of excuse to go after the right in general -- as opposed to specific elements within the ultra-right. That’s got to be acknowledged. It’s got to be owned up to. It doesn’t mean acknowledging that there’s something wrong with your religion, because it is so foreign to the religion.

This brings me to the third point. Ultimately, I don’t know much that we can do, but what the folks in South Carolina are doing in showing restraint, it undermines everything these folks assert. They are counting on folks becoming inflamed, rioting, and since the 1960s there have been times where they have engendered that kind of reaction. But for the most part, the African-American community especially, confounds them by not doing what they say, by not getting that riled up.

I think they get riled up …

You are absolutely right. They get riled up, but they don’t engage in the kind of retaliatory violence that these folks -- because they have such low opinions of African-Americans -- are counting on. It never seems to actually work. Certainly there have been instances. People who talk about the riots that followed Martin Luther King’s assassination, but I’m certain that if we ever get Dylann Roof to discuss what he thought would happen, he probably thought there would be riots in Charleston. I think we need to acknowledge that this problem exists and the danger it poses, challenge it from a theological point of view, and continue to see these folks for what their agenda really is and not give in to violence.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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Books Dylann Roof Mass Shootings Nonfiction Racism White Supremacists