Far-Out Religious Right Comes Out of a Crazy Mold
(The Washington Spectator, Sept. 15, 1995)
"Think not that I come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” — Jesus, to his Disciples (Matthew 10:34)
By James A. Haught
Now that the Cold War is over — now that Marxist rebels less often take to the hills, and the CIA presumably has quit abetting death squads — what’s the chief murder menace of our day?
Fanaticism. The 1990s may enter history books as a heyday of deadly zealots. Except in war zones, today’s worst threat comes from a hodgepodge of True Believers who kill defenseless strangers to make polititical or religious statements.
Here’s a zealotry scorecard for the past couple of years:
— Muslim militants bombed New York’s World Trade Center to smite "the Great Satan," killing six people, injuring 1,000, and causing $500 million damage.
— "Pro-life" fundamentalists assassinated workers at abortion clinics, twice in Florida and once in Massachusetts.
— Nutty "militias" preached hatred for the American government — and some fellow travelers are charged with blowing up the Oklahoma City federal building, killing 168, including tots in a day care center.
— Fundamentalists who want to make Algeria an Islamic theocracy shoot teen-age girls in the face for not wearing veils, and cut professors’ throats for teaching male and female students in the same classroom.
— Japanese cultists loosed poison gas in Tokyo’s subway, killing a dozen commuters and sickening 5,000 — for reasons that defy comprehension.
— Sikhs seeking to turn Punjab into a theocracy called Khalistan, "the Land of the Pure," gun down Hindus at weddings and plant bombs in Indian movie theaters.
— Islamic terrorists trying to make Egypt a theocracy rained gunfire on the bulletproof limousine of President Hosni Mubarak, but he escaped harm — unlike former President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by such holy warriors.
— Doomsday cultists holed up with David Koresh at Waco and burned themselves alive with their children.
— Hindu mobs destroyed a Muslim mosque which they said defiled an Indian hilltop where Lord Rama was born 900,000 years ago — triggering widespread Hindu-Muslim riots that killed 2,000.
— Members of the mysterious Solar Temple sect perished in a mass murder-suicide in Switzerland and Canada.
— Rival gangs of Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims repeatedly ambushed worshipers at mosques in Pakistan.
— Catholic and Protestant murder squads in Northern Ireland finally reached a truce, after a quarter-century of shooting pub patrons and church congregations.
— Muslim suicide bombers killed busloads of Jews in Israel — and a fanatical Jewish doctor with a machine gun mowed down 30 praying Muslims in a mosque.
THE NEW WORLD DISORDER
To some degree, there is madness in anyone who believes in a cause fervently enough to make careful preparations and massacre unsuspecting people, as a public demonstration. The daily news presents a nut parade:
Timothy McVeigh, one of the accused Oklahoma City bombers, told chums that the Army planted a computer chip in his rump to monitor him.
Members of Japan’s Supreme Truth cult worshiped their guru so intensely that they kissed his big toe, paid $2,000 to drink his bath water, and paid $10,000 to sip his blood.
"Pro-life" murderers are visibly warped, and one of them, John Salvi III, may be declared insane.
Other terrorists seem less loony, and more a violent fringe of a polarized society. They are the few who talk themselves into "going all the way" for their convictions. They are tiny in number, but dangerous, like a few cancerous cells among multitudes of healthy ones.
Much of the world’s fanaticism involves religion. In countries suffering strong fundamentalist pressure, there are thousands of law-abiding believers for each zealot who graduates to murder. Throughout the Islamic world, puritanical groups demand clergy rule instead of secular government — yet they disavow the clandestine guerrillas who use car bombs and AK-47s to attain this goal.
THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT
America likewise has a fundamentalist mass movement with a violent fringe attached. Television evangelists and their political organizations — the Christian Coalition, the Christian Action Network, etc. — endlessly call abortion murder and portray clinic doctors as monsters. Yet they deny any responsibility for the True Believers who take their words at face value, and resort to guns.
America is more pious than other advanced democracies, and suffers a high rate of religious ferment. Currently, the so-called Christian Right, allied to the Republican Party, is gaining ground for its political goals. It seeks to impose religion in public schools, ostracize homosexuals, censor movies and magazines, increase executions, revoke women’s right to choose abortion, curb sex education, cut welfare for the poor, stop teaching of evolution, provide tax money to church schools, end public funding of arts, allow carrying of pistols, reduce day-care centers, amend the constitution to require a balanced budget, etc. To call this agenda "Christian" seems bizarre.
While the Religious Right wears a mantle of godliness, occasional scandals undercut its claim to moral superiority. For example, Beverly Russell was a loud-praying South Carolina leader of both the Christian Coalition and the GOP — until it was revealed that he was a child-molester. He had sex with his 15-year-old stepdaughter, Susan Smith, according to evidence in her trial for drowning her two little sons.
The Republican-fundamentalist alliance also is embarrassed by the goofiness of some leaders. TV minister Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, has declared that his prayers can deflect hurricanes, that he is "God’s prophet," and that the European Community may signal the coming of "the Antichrist." In his nutty book, The New World Order, Robertson said a conspiracy by the Illuminati secret society and Jewish international bankers causes most wars and other horrors. He said American presidents unwittingly serve "a tightly knit cabal whose goal is nothing less than a new order for the human race under the domination of Lucifer."
But neither child-molesters nor holy goofballs seem to damage the Christian Right’s political power, or its ability to spur believers to emotion-charged public action.
THE GUN CULTS
Vaguely allied to the Religious Right is America’s zoo of armed, white, hate groups: self-styled "militias," the "Christian Identity" movement, neo-Nazis, Posse Comitatus, white supremacists, the Church of Jesus Christ Christian Aryan Nations, skinheads, the Cosmotheist Church, the Covenant, Order and Sword of the Lord, the White Aryan Resistance, the Christian Patriots Defense League, etc.
Leaders of these outfits tend to be born-again ministers or gun dealers, or both. They preach pure paranoia: that U.S. officials are conspiring to disarm "patriots" and allow the United Nations to suck America into a "new world order" — that Los Angeles street gangs are being trained to seize guns from American homes — that government black helicopters stalk "patriots" by night — that secret prison camps have been built to hold the "patriots."
In my state of West Virginia, one militia leader, the Rev. Ervin "Butch" Paugh, solemnly told news reporters: "The U.N. forces worldwide are going to be the powers that help enforce the Antichrist’s dictates."
Researcher Philip Weiss wrote: "There is a religious component to the hard-bitten right. Dan Fuller, a retired crop duster who last year joined a ‘Christian covenant community’ in Idaho, glimpses signs of the ‘mark of the beast’ from Revelations in government fiscal policy. He shares a widespread fear among Christian patriots that bodily implanted microchips will replace cash, ultimately spelling slavery for ordinary Americans. Vicki and Randall Weaver had visions of an apocalypse brought on by a Babylonian Federal Government, or ZOG (Zionist Occupational Government)."
The Weavers were white supremacists involved in a government siege, in which Vicki and a son were killed. They’ve become martyrs of the militia movement — as have the armed cultists who died in David Koresh’s Waco compound.
Out of these right-to-bear-arms fever swamps came the plotters responsible for the Oklahoma City tragedy. The stew of guns and crackpot beliefs simmered until it produced horror.
Among America’s various zealotries, the one I know personally is bound-for-glory mountain fundamentalism. As editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, I’m a seasoned observer of the Bible Belt, with its serpent-handling churches, talking-in-tongues congregations, money-grubbing evangelists, "holy rollers," and all the rest.
I’ve seen how easy it is for religious agitation to turn violent — as it did in The Great West Virginia Textbook War of the 1970s. It began when evangelists denounced sex education in the public school system based in Charleston. (The same ministers sought a return of the death penalty in West Virginia.) Rallies were held against "pornography" in the classroom. A preacher’s wife called sex education a "humanistic, atheistic attack on God." She became the movement’s candidate for school board, and won in a flood of religious votes.
As a board member, she advocated Bibles for students and expulsion of pregnant girls. Then she started a wildfire by proclaiming the school system’s textbooks "godless." A committee of 27 born-again clergymen called the texts "immoral and indecent." (Rascals like me hunted for indecency in the books, but found only ordinary school topics.)
More than 1,000 protesters surrounded the school board office. A group called Christian American Parents picketed for removal of the books. Evangelists urged "true Christians" to keep their children out of school. Attendance fell 20 percent. One minister, the Rev. Marvin Horan, led a rally of 2,000 irate Christians. Mobs surrounded schools and blockaded school bus garages. Teachers were threatened. So were families who didn’t join the boycott.
About 3,500 coal miners went on strike against the texts, and picketed Charleston industries. Flying rocks, screams and danger were constant. Frightened people began carrying pistols. During confrontations at picketing sites, two people were shot and wounded, and one was savagely beaten.
Several ministers were jailed for inciting violence. One of them prayed for God to kill school board members who had chosen the books. A grade school was hit by a Molotov cocktail. Five bullets hit a school bus. A dynamite blast damaged another grade school. A bigger blast damaged the school central office. Near-riot conditions continued. Robert Dornan of California, a pornography foe, addressed 3,000 book protesters in Charleston, and the national exposure boosted his ascent to Congress.
Minister Horan and three of his followers were indicted for the bombings. Ku Klux Klansmen held a Charleston rally to support them. During the trial in 1975, other followers said Horan had led the dynamite plot, telling them there was "a time to kill." They said the plotters talked of wiring dynamite caps into the gas tanks of cars in which families were driving their children to school during the boycott. All four defendants went to federal prison.
Nobody was killed in the textbook war, luckily — but it was a vivid demonstration of how baseless religious accusations can bring mayhem.
PATTERN IN HISTORY
I was my newspaper’s religion columnist for many years, and I learned the enormous death toll that fanaticism has caused throughout history. Some highlights:
In the 11th century, Crusaders set off to purge Muslims from the Holy Land _ but before leaving, they killed "the infidel among us," Jews living in Germany. After taking Jerusalem, the Crusaders massacred the whole population and gave thanks to God.
Some European Christians such as the Cathari and the Waldensians were declared heretics, and "internal crusades" were fought against them. When a crusader army captured Beziers in 1208, commanders asked the papal legate how to separate the city’s condemned Cathari from its faithful residents. "Kill them all," he replied. "God will know his own." It was done.
Holy wars — jihads — spread Islam to Spain and India. Then dissident Muslim sects began declaring jihads against each other. Shi’ites, Kharijis, Azariqis, Wahhabis, Mahdists and others fought the Sunni majority.
European Jews faced recurring danger. Christian councils ordered them to live in ghettos and wear badges of shame. Massacres occurred time after time — mostly caused by rumors that Jews were sacrificing Christian children or stealing host wafers from churches and driving nails into them to crucify Jesus again.
Campaigns against heretics led to the Inquisition, in which nonconforming Christians were tortured and burned. Then the Inquisition focused on witchcraft. Multitudes of women were executed after being tortured into confessing that they copulated with Satan, flew through the sky, turned into animals, and the like.
During the Reformation, Europe was ravaged by dozens of Catholic-Protestant wars. In France, eight wars were waged against the Protestant Huguenots, many of whom died in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. The final upheaval of the Reformation was the Thirty Years War in the 1600s, which killed half of Germany’s population.
Catholics and Protestants alike executed Anabaptists for the crime of double baptism.
Pope Pius V exemplified that era. As Grand Inquisitor, he sent soldiers to kill 2,000 Waldensians in southern Italy. Upon becoming pope, he dispatched troops against Huguenots in France, and told the commander to execute all prisoners. Pius also launched the final crusade against Islam, sending a fleet against Muslims in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. And he intensified the Inquisition against suspected heretics. Pius later was canonized a saint.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, India’s Thugs strangled thousands of victims for the goddess Kali, and Aztecs in Central America sacrificed maidens to the feathered serpent god.
Catholic-Protestant combat even hit Philadelphia in 1844. After a Catholic bishop protested the use of the King James Bible in public schools, angry Protestants mobbed Catholic neighborhoods. Troops with cannons were posted to protect the Catholics. So Protestants took cannons from sailing ships at the wharfs, and an artillery duel killed more than 20.
When the Baha’i faith began in Iran in the 1850s, converts were massacred repeatedly by majority Shi’ites.
An epic religious disaster was China’s Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s, which killed an estimated 20 million. A prophet proclaimed himself to be a younger brother of Jesus, and said God had ordered him to "destroy demons" and make China a theocracy. He raised an army of 1 million followers and ravaged a wide region. Finally, the uprising was crushed by allied armies, including one led by British general "Chinese" Gordon. (Religion hounded Gordon. He later led an Egyptian army against Islamic holy warriors in the Nile Valley, and died when they overran Khartoum.)
European pogroms against Jews lasted into the 20th century. Endless "Christ-killer" accusations branded Jews as a despised people and set the stage for the Nazi Holocaust.
IS THERE A SOLUTION?
Fanatical killing of all types, mostly religious, existed for centuries before reaching the flagrant levels of the 1990s. So far, nobody has found a cure.
The only remedy I can envision is the one prescribed by America’s founders: Keep church and state separate. Let each faith operate freely, without impinging on others. Never let majority believers use governmental power to coerce smaller groups. That a sure formula for conflict.
As for dangerous cults and crackpot groups, maybe public exposure can warn off potential joiners.
The day of the zealot is plaguing humanity. Sensible people must do whatever’s possible to uphold sanity.