By Frederick Clarkson
Religion Dispatches | April 8, 2010
The arrest of the Michigan-based Hutaree Militia has drawn worldwide attention and in so doing, surfaced one of the knottiest issues we face as a culture to which religious freedom and free speech are so central: How do we think about and describe religiously motivated violence?
The Hutaree’s plans to murder a police officer and use IEDs to attack the funeral procession in order to catalyze an uprising against the federal government was shocking and made headlines around the world. Their action plan, while preposterous on its face, is not terribly surprising, and is in many respects a logical outgrowth of the eschatology of a wide swath of the Christian Right.
But what has been most striking to me is the media’s high profile use of the term “Christian militia.” This suggests to me that a tectonic shift may be underway in our underlying culture and politics as we continue to struggle with how to acknowledge the realities of actual and threatened religiously-motivated violence in the U.S.
Until now, of course, the elephant in the room has been our double standard, at least since 9/11. We’ve had little difficulty acknowledging religious motivations when Muslims are involved, but it’s been rare to find the word “Christian” modifying terms like “militia” and “terrorism” in mainstream discourse.
In 2003, I reported on the trial of convicted serial anti-abortion terrorist Clayton Waagner for Salon.com. Even the fiercely pro-life Attorney General John Ashcroft described him as a terrorist. Waagner had FedExed envelopes of white powder purporting to be anthrax to some 550 reproductive rights groups and clinics. In a manifesto published on the web site of the anti-abortion Army of God, he declared himself to be “God’s warrior” and a “terrorist,” and threatened to kill as many abortion providers as he could.
Waagner’s threats arrived during the same period when real, post-9/11 anthrax attacks on media outlets and Congress killed five people. In some cases, whole city blocks were evacuated when Waagner’s pacakges were opened. People were stripped and hosed down with Clorox by hazmat teams in protective gear.
I quoted several people who agreed that the term “Christian terrorist” is practically taboo; even as the term “Islamic terrorism” was ubiquitous. The same double standard would have applied to militias. I don’t recall the term “Christian militia” ever being used, even if a group’s motives could be fairly described as religious.
Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank in Somerville, Massachusetts, agreed that the press stayed away from reporting the Waagner trial in droves. “Once somebody claims a religious motivation for an act of terrorism,” he said, “most people, including reporters and editors, become unglued.” If Waagner had been a self-identified Muslim terrorist instead of a Christian terrorist, Berlet observed, “he’d have been lynched by now.”
Ann Glazier, then the director of clinic security at Planned Parenthood Federation of America told me, “The notion of Christian terrorists is a place people don’t want to go. And the notion of there being more than one Christian terrorist is a place where people also don’t want to go.”
Reporters and editors often “fear to offend,” added Berlet. “But if it’s fair to say if we can see the religious motivations in the Taliban, we ought to be able to see them in Waagner or [Olympic Park and abortion clinic bomber] Eric Rudolph.” He notes that although Waagner and his associates in the Army of God “represent a tiny fraction of the wider Christian right, people don’t know how to make sense of it.” And reporters, he says, “walk away from it.”
Interestingly, an Army of God supporter named Chuck Spignola wrote a letter to the editor of Salon, agreeing with me. “In ‘The Quiet Fall of an American Terrorist,’ Frederick Clarkson rightly identified Clay Waagner, Eric Rudolph and James Kopp as Christian terrorists.” Spignola went on to praise Christian terrorists as the cream rising to the top of churchgoing Christians. A longer version of the letter was published on the Army of God web site.
As recently as this past week, we saw the double standard in action. Scott Roeder, the man who was convicted of the murder of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Wichita, Kansas, was mostly described in the media as an antiabortion extremist or antiabortion militant, terms that fail to convey the depth and breadth of his views and reasons for his crime. At his sentencing Roeder said that in murdering Dr. Tiller, he believed he was acting to enforce “God’s Law.”
Roeder as part of his statement to the court, read from the posthumously published book by Rev. Paul Hill, a Christian Reconstructionist who viewed himself as a “Phineas Priest,” a kind of Biblical vigilante assassin who was executed for the murder of a Florida abortion provider and his security escort. Hill also believed in the need for militias and for a theocratic Christian revolution.
But one would not know all that to read mainstream press accounts. And while the sentencing was massively covered by national and international media, it would have been fair to describe Roeder as a “Christian terrorist,” though the media didn’t go there—he was described neither as a Christian nor as a terrorist in any of the news or broadcast accounts I could find. In the 90s other terms were used to describe what we might now call Christian militias.
The most famous militia group at the time, The Michigan Militia, had views similar to those of the Hutaree.
It was founded and led by a Baptist minister named Norm Olsen and a deacon of his church and they’d made an indoctrination video of its chaplain addressing new recruits explaining that abortion necessitated the founding of the militia. Nevertheless, it was typically described as “anti-government.” And while that was certainly fair, (as it would be to describe the Hutaree militia as anti-government), it also tended to obscure the indisputable religious motivations of this and many other militia groups large and small. Reporting on these groups at the time also tended to downplay their religious eschatology.