How the militia movement undermines separation of religion and state
By David NeiwertRichard Mack knows how to work a crowd. Standing before the smallish audiences that turn out to hear him speak, usually numbering about 100, the soft-spoken sheriff talks at length about "the monster of government intervention," and how forming citizen militias will protect them from it. He keeps their interest by sprinkling his talks with one-liners he knows are guaranteed to get a response.
"Hitler was more moral than Bill Clinton," he says. "He didn't have as many girlfriends." Laughter and loud applause. The Clintons and Attorney General Janet Reno (Mack calls her "Butch") are favorite targets.
"This is the civil rights march of the '90s," he says later. "It's called, 'we want our Constitution back.'" This is a variation on a line heard at virtually all patriot meetings, sort of a familiar mantra. More applause.
And then, as he's winding up: "The separation of church and state is a myth." Loud applause. "There's no such thing." A few audience members stand.1
Richard Mack is sheriff of Graham County, Arizona. He's also a hero in the right wing "patriot" movement that is gaining ground in America's rural areas, and even seeping into urban and suburban settings, like the tony Bellevue, Washington setting where Mack spoke in 1995 and 1996.
When Mack - a devotee of the late Mormon "Constitutionalist" W. Cleon
Skousen - decided to sue the federal government over the enforcement
provisions of the 1994 Brady Act, a gun-control measure, he became a
cause celebre for people who believe such laws are part of a covert
conspiracy to subvert America.
The National Rifle Association, whose officials play to this crowd when they claim the Second Amendment is intended to provide for armed resistance against the government,2 named Mack the Law Enforcement Officer of the Year for 1995 in honor of his efforts.
On the patriot podium-thumping circuit, Mack is a big draw. He touches
a lot of the hot buttons that draw people into the patriot movement -
gun rights, abortion, education - all focused on hatred of the federal
government and its leaders.
The strong response he gets when he decries church-state separation underscores a core component of the worldview held by the nation's growing contingent of the "patriot" right.
The patriots, meeting and organizing throughout the nation in small
groups, exchanging conspiracy theories and belief systems, represent a
broad swath of views, ranging from the relatively moderate Mack to the
far more extreme Freemen in eastern Montana.
They are bound together in a desire to destroy the power of the U.S. federal government, which they believe is attempting to impose a tyrannical "new world order."
At the heart of the movement leaders' agenda, though, is the system they hope will replace the current government: a Christian theocracy.
Naturally, a theocracy would be incompatible with a Constitution featuring a church-state barrier. But endemic to the patriots' "Constitutionalist" views, which promote the idea that only the "organic" Constitution's text and the Bill of Rights are valid, is the argument that the First Amendment merely protects the freedom to choose religion; it does not force government to omit religion from its institutions.
Indeed, this belief is such an integral part of the patriots' agenda that it is scarcely addressed in most of its gatherings.
"For these folks, it'd be like talking about air," says Bill Wassmuth,
executive director of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious
Harassment, a Seattle-based human-rights organization that monitors
the radical right.
"They don't address it much because it's drilled into them so deeply. It's more important to talk about gun control and the coming U.N. invasion."
But if you listen carefully, the belief that church-state separation is a myth comes out of the mouths of almost every major player in the patriot movement.
GOD RATHER THAN MEN
Dan Petersen has been cooling his heels in a Montana jail since late March. But that hasn't stopped him from trying to spread the word of the Freemen's beliefs.
"The government and the Bible go together," he said in an April jailhouse interview with an official of the Montana Association of Churches. "There is no separation of church and state. There are a bunch of sinners out there who took an oath of office and betrayed it."3
Petersen was arrested with his Freemen colleague, LeRoy Schweitzer, on March 25 outside a ranch near Jordan, Montana. The pair were wanted on a bevy of felony charges ranging from passing phony checks to intimidating a federal judge to armed robbery of an ABC news crew.
The arrests sparked a standoff between the remaining Freemen inside
the Jordan ranch and the FBI and other law-enforcement officials who
have surrounded it.
At press time, the standoff has extended to more than eleven weeks, as the twenty or so people inside - ten of whom face federal charges similar to those filed against Petersen and Schweitzer - refuse to surrender.
The onslaught of media attention that accompanied the March arrests
notwithstanding, the standoff actually had been in place for months
previous to the event. Schweitzer and the other key player in the
Freemen, Rodney Skurdal, had been refusing to surrender to authorities
since September 1992, hiding out at Skurdal's ranch near Roundup, a
three-hour drive to the southwest of Jordan, where Petersen had joined
them two years ago.
Local lawmen, knowing the men were well-armed and had vowed to resist violently, declined to arrest them without help. And FBI agents, themselves reluctant to move in the wake of the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident, advised restraint.
In September of last year, the trio moved their operation north to the
Jordan-area ranch of fellow Freeman Ralph Clark, who was occupying the
property despite having lost it to foreclosure proceedings. Having
combined their forces, the Freemen set about establishing "Justus
Township" at the ranch, an entity they claimed was a sovereign state
immune from the jurisdiction of local, state, and federal governments.
Using the "Township" as their base, they then began exporting their beliefs around the country, circulating newsletters and documents touting the "common law" courts they devised as the centerpiece of their system.
They spread the word even further by holding classes at the ranch,
believed to cost $300 per person, that would instruct participants in
setting up their own courts, filing phony liens against public
officials, and then drawing large checks on the liens.
Montana authorities estimate between 600 and 800 people attended the classes in the four months prior to the standoff's dramatic escalation in March; license plates on the pupils' cars came from virtually every state in the U.S.
In the weeks since, "common law" courts have begun popping up around the nation, in Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, and Texas. Many of those filing "common law" documents are clearly Freemen devotees, either duplicating the papers filed in Montana or voicing ideas identical to the Montanans'.
Most of these beliefs have a pseudo-legal veneer, but at their core is a religious system that informs every other aspect of the Freemen's worldview. The reams of documents produced by Skurdal, Schweitzer, Petersen, and others provide a window into this world.
The real children of Israel, the Freemen argue, are white people,
descendants of the "true seed" of Adam, the first being God created
with a soul. All other humans are soulless, "pre-Adamic" people. The
worst of these are Jews, descendants of Satan, who coupled with Eve
when he seduced her and produced Cain.
After killing Abel, Cain mated in the wilderness with these "pre-Adamic" people and founded the "Canaanites" who were ancestors of today's Jews. Literally, they are the spawn of Satan.4
These beliefs have a name: Christian Identity. Founded at the turn of the century and currently led, on a national scale, by a Colorado pastor named Pete Peters, the religion is common throughout the patriot movement and neo-Nazi groups. Among its leading practitioners is the Rev. Richard Butler of the Aryan Nations of Hayden Lake, Idaho.
Identity beliefs form the foundation of the Freemen's contention that
only white Christian men are "de jure" (that is, "by right") citizens
of the United States; all others are "de facto" citizens given limited
rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Moreover, they say, the nation was intended by the Founding Fathers to be a Christian republic; democracy is a satanic abomination. They propose a decentralized government revolving around local church meeting halls headed by white males.5
"When the de facto courts talked about the separation of church and state, the true meaning is that the church was and still is our de jure government under the Laws of Almighty God and the state [constitution] is merely a de facto corporation created by Man," wrote Skurdal in a 1994 "Edict."
Even if others might try more persuasive legal arguments, the Freemen's religious beliefs preclude them from being amenable to such views. Skurdal fends off all attempts by quoting the Bible, Acts 5:29, to wrap up his "Edict": "We Must obey God rather than men," it says.
A GALLERY OF BELIEVERS
Christian Identity beliefs are pervasive in the upper echelon of the patriot movement, and this is not an accident. A gathering of 160 like-minded "Christian men" in 1992 organized by Pete Peters in Estes Park, Colorado, is credited as one of the seminal events of the militia movement, and many of those in attendance have since become the leading figures in its growth.6
Peters is the most significant promoter of Identity beliefs on the national scene. His LaPorte Church of Christ in Colorado has been the national center of the religion for the past twenty years or more, ministering to figures like Robert Mouths, leader of the neo-Nazi criminal gang called "The Order,"7 and associating with men like former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Louis Beam (the keynote speaker for the Estes Park gathering).8
The Nebraska-born Peters is outspoken in seeking a return to "a
Christian nation," and his many books and tapes make it clear that is
his chief goal. "Because vacuums do not exist, God's Law has been
replaced," laments one of his audiotapes,9 referring to the
Of course, Peters' notion of what comprises a "Christian nation" is more in line with Adolph Hitler's: separate the races, expel the Jews, ban interracial marriages, give homosexuals the death sentence, and make Christianity - his brand of it, naturally - the primary force in people's lives.10
Other patriot-movement leaders with Identity backgrounds, however, are not quite so overt in outlining their religious agenda. Most are content to focus on the conspiracy they claim is trying to overthrow America or to attack a wide range of federal policies, from gun control to abortion to land-use policies.
The Militia of Montana, the nation's leading clearinghouse of militia
materials - books, pamphlets, audio and videotapes, even germ-warfare
suits - is run by John Trochmann of Noxon with his brother, David, and
David's son, Randy.
All three are Identity believers,11 and John was a featured speaker at the 1990 Aryan Congress in Hayden Lake, Idaho. But Trochmann prefers not to discuss the issue; he says he's not all that religious. And he vehemently denies, rather disingenuously, that he's racist. "What the hell does Identity mean?" asks Trochmann. "To identify with your ancestry? Blacks can have their 'Roots' on television, and have a whole series about it. But a white man can't find out what his ancestry is? That's all it means to me. It doesn't tie anything with anything."
Most of the Militia of Montana's material deals with combating the
"new world order" in its various guises, from ostensible movements of
United Nations and foreign troops and equipment to environmental
policies to, yes, even weather control (the fruits of which, Trochmann
explains, will be worldwide food shortages, which will trigger martial
law, which will bring on the "depopulation" program planned by the
U.N., which will be carried out by Crips and Bloods currently in
training for house-to-house search and seizure).
Most of the "constitutionalist" literature it distributes is concerned with gun laws, abortion, the siege of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, and President Clinton. At least one book though, The Sovereignty of God and Civil Government by Identity preacher John Weaver, touts the theory that the First Amendment erects no barrier between church and state.
Col. James "Bo" Gritz, the erstwhile Vietnam war hero who gained his
greatest fame as intermediary between federal law-enforcement
officials and both Randy Weaver (a success) and the Freemen (a bust),
also has extensive ties to Identity, though he and Peters had a public
falling-out in 1992 over his former friend's call for the death
penalty for homosexuals.12
Gritz, who is setting up a survivalist "Christian covenant" community in northern Idaho, also prefers to focus on tactics and strategy; indeed, his chief preoccupation is conducting his survivalist "SPIKE" sessions that train would-be militiamen in Special Forces tactics. And he scoffs at Trochmann's troop sightings and black helicopters.
But his worldview, equally fearful of a "new world order," reflects his own religious vision of a looming apocalypse, and a deep belief that the government, as well as mainstream Christian churches, are in the hands of satanic forces. Gritz, however, does defend church-state separation, in a roundabout way.
"We have a state religion today," Gritz says. "The state religion is atheism. The state religion in pro-abortion. The state religion is everything that Christianity and Islam and Judaism are against. So I don't think there's any question we're supposed to have a separation between church and state. And we don't. We now have government fully taking over corporate churches all over America, and probably the world."13
Even the patriot movement leaders without Identity connections seek,
like Gritz, to at least blur the line between church and state, if not
outright obliterate it. Samuel Sherwood, the former leader of the U.S.
Militia Association, foresees a theocratic government being put in
place after what he calls "the coming civil war."
His own preference, of course, is the Mormons, who, he says, would offer a benign theocracy that would tolerate other faiths. Sherwood, a southeastern Idaho resident and Utah native, is a Latter-Day Saint.14
Christian fundamentalists, especially those drawn to the antiabortion movement, also have played key roles in the growth of the militias. In the forefront have been Matthew Trewhella, leader of the Milwaukee-based Missionaries to the Preborn, who helped organize militia gatherings through his church and preached their formation;15 and Jeffrey Baker, a Florida antiabortionist who has called for the death penalty for abortionists.16
Both appeared as speakers at a U.S. Taxpayers Party convention in 1994
at which they promoted the concept of militias, and a "Free Militia"
manual was sold entailing how to form one's own militia cell. The
manual cites as a source for its constitutional theories, Separation
of Church and State: Historical Fact and Current Fiction by Robert
Cord, who argues that the First Amendment never was intended to bar
the church from government.17
Baker's conspiracy opus, Cheque Mate: The Game of Princes, is a popular fixture at patriot gathering book tables, along with his video, Government Gone Mad.18 Baker and Trewhella are closely linked with Christian Reconstructionists, a fundamentalist movement to transform America into a Christian theocracy.19
David Barton, another key Reconstructionist figure, has become a major
player in bridging the patriot movement with ostensibly mainstream
In his book, The Myth of Separation,20 Barton argues that the words "separation of church and state" never appear in the Constitution, so the concept is irrelevant in interpreting the law. The book is widely distributed through patriot organizations, and Barton has spoken at Pete Peters' gatherings in LaPorte, Colorado.21
At the same time, the Texas man has made campaign appearances on behalf of Washington Republican gubernatorial candidate (and onetime legislator) Ellen Craswell, who has echoed Barton's views on church-state separation.22
Craswell emerged from the state's recent GOP convention as the front-runner for the Republican nomination. If elected, she will be first Reconstructionist in a governor's seat.
Other politicians now holding public ofice express these same
sentiments too. Most prominent has been Rep. Helen Chenoweth, elected
to the U.S. House in 1994 from Idaho's northern congressional
Chenoweth's campaign was assisted by militia groups, and the Militia of Montana sells a videotape of a Chenoweth speech decrying environmentalists as occult-derived conspirators engaged in "spiritual warfare." In it, she decries the separation of church and state, saying biblical laws should be leading the government.
"Regulatory and case law is the lowest form of law - God being the
highest form of law," she says. "But ladies and gentlemen, a measure
of where we are in this spiritual battle is the whole scenario flipped
Regulatory and case law is now governing in such a manner that God is governed out of our classrooms, and God is governed out of many of the governmental institutions that are so important in this country."
"It's time we readjust and put that form of government where it belongs."23
The penetration of the patriots' agenda into mainstream American
politics is not surprising to those who monitor the movement. After
all, there are now over 400 militia groups in America, and their
numbers are believed to be as high as 100,000 (though, due to their
dispersed nature, precise figures are impossible to obtain).24
Moreover, their growth is especially troubling because of the wide number of average, mainstream Americans attracted to the movement.25
The patriots pose an important challenge to the American community because their belief system is an overt repudiation of the nation we have come to believe in: that is, they seek to undermine, if not destroy, our very sense of who we are. This challenge is clearest in their overt assault on the separation of church and state.
An old argument forms the basis of the patriots' agenda in this
regard: namely, the claim that the United States is a republic, not a
democracy. This old saw, bandied about on the far right for years, and
elucidated frequently by the John Birch Society,26 is a gross
distortion of reality.
A republic describes the framework of a political system, a structure that fits any number of different kinds of content; it is possible to have a theocratic or an authoritarian republic as well as a democratic one. The American system, on the other hand, has long been recognized as essentially democratic in content.27
However, the argument is still widely circulated in the patriot
movement, further suggesting its animosity to democratic
By theoretically removing the democratic content from the structure of the republic, the patriots thereby hope to replace it with their own content - namely a religious state molded around the "organic Constitution."
The separation of church and state embodied in the First Amendment, however, remains an obstacle to a "theocratic republic" even under this reading. So it is no surprise that the belief that the amendment does not bar religion from government also has wide circulation among the patriots.
Likewise, this argument ignores the body of law and the traditions
that are widely viewed as bedrock principles of the American republic.
It is true, as the patriots claim, that the words "separation of
church and state" do not appear in the Constitution, but then, neither
does the phrase "religious freedom," equally part of the nation's
Moreover, the phrase was used specifically by then-President Thomas Jefferson in an 1802 letter meant to sow "useful truths and principles among the people," in which he said the First Amendment's intent was "building a wall of separation between church and state."
The U.S. Supreme Court cited the letter in rulings on church-state issues in 1879, 1947, and 1948.29
Hard realities like these, though, seem to have little impact on true
believers in the patriot movement. Indeed, the movement's cult-like
closed belief systems seems to emanate from an alternate reality, one
filled with evil conspirators and hopelessly sheep-like masses, which
is not only immune to reason and fact, but which distorts them to its
At its core, the patriot movement embodies a kind of illogic that first decides what the truth is, and then sets out to find any kind of evidence available to support it, even if it runs counter to established fact.
This bizarre removal from reality manifests itself in all facets of
the patriot movement: from black helicopters, troop sightings and the
"force field" the Freemen believe God placed around their compound, to
the distorted religious beliefs found in Christian Identity.
It all might seem laughable to an objective observer, but it becomes a real threat to the American system itself when patriots successfully spread their groundless theories on the Constitution and law into the nation's political mainstream, especially among disenfranchised rural dwellers seeking answers to their problems.
And that, without question, is the patriot movement's main agenda. They intend to achieve it one new believer at a time. As Richard Mack explains it, when he wraps up his presentation, "County by county, and state by state, we'll get our Constitution and our country back. That's how we're going to win this."
David Neiwert is a veteran journalist based in Seattle. He is at work on a book, In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest scheduled for fall publication.
N O T E S
1 Author's transcript of taped speech, March 1996.
2 See "10 Myths of Gun Control" brochure distributed by the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, March 1996. It claims that "historical records, including Constitutional convention debates and the Federalist Papers, clearly indicate that the purpose of the Second Amendment was to guard against the tyranny that the framers of the Constitution feared could be perpetrated by any professional armed body of government."
3 Susan DeCamp, Montana Association of Churches, "Interview with Dan Petersen, Tuesday, April 23, 1996."
4 See "Edict" filed in Musselshell County, Montana, by Rodney Skurdal, October 28, 1994. The same views also appear in "Common Law Affidavit" filed by Skurdal on January 8, 1995, in Musselshell County.
5 See Skurdal's January 8, 1995, "Common Law Affidavit."
6 See Morris Dees, Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), pp. 49-67, and Kenneth S. Stern, A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), pp. 35-37.
7 See Kevin Flynn and Gary Gerhardt, The Silent Brotherhood: America's Racist Underground (New York: The Free Press, 1989), pp. 143-44.
8 See Dees, Gathering Storm, pp. 49-67.
9 Rev. Pete Peters, "The Law, Part 6," audiotape available through Scriptures for America, LaPorte, Colorado.
10 This agenda is explicit in the body of Peters' written and spoken materials. His books include Whores Galore, a denunciation of interracial marriage, and America the Conquered, a diatribe on how Jews have taken over the country and destroyed its moral fiber, partly by separating church from the state.
His pamphlets include "Strength of a Hero" about the need to create a white "Christian" society by driving out the Jews, and "Death Penalty for Homosexuals Is Prescribed in the Bible." It should be noted that at least one essay distributed by Peters, "The Constitution of the United States:
A Man Inspired Document," by John Spencer, makes a similar argument regarding church and state separation: if the Constitution runs counter to "God's laws," then it is invalid and should be ignored. Peters' own tract, "Resistance or Obedience," makes a similar argument.
11 Author's interviews with the Trochmanns: David Trochmann, February 11, 1995, Maltby, Washington; John and Randy Trochmann, February 14, 1996, Noxon, Montana.
12 See The Northwest Imperative: Documenting a Decade of Hate (Portland: Coalition for Human Dignity, 1994), pp. 2.23-24.
13 Author's interview with Gritz, November 10, 1994, by telephone.
14 Author's interview with Sherwood, February 12, 1996, Blackfoot, Idaho.
15 See Betsy Thatcher, "Trewhella urges, 'Be a good shot,'" Milwaukee Sentinel, August 18, 1994, pp. 5A-8A, and Mike Mulvey, "Trewhella tied to 2 who held arms training," Milwaukee Sentinel, August 19, 1994, pp. 1A-10A.
16 See Janny Scott, "Radical antiabortion alliance described," The New York Times, August 18, 1994.
17 Book published by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Cord is also cited in a Summit Ministries article, "The role of the Bible and Christianity in America," which argues that the founding fathers "expected our nation to be (on the whole) Christian, and that our government to reflect that bias."
Summit Ministries, based in Manitou Springs, Colorado, operates the world-wide web site, Christian Answers Network on which David Barton's Wallbuilders (an anti-church-state separation page) appears. Like Gritz, Summit Ministries preachers decry secular humanism as the religion now in place in our schools and government.
18 Both are also sold through the Militia of Montana and the Christian Patriot Association's catalogues.
19 See Tom Burghardt, "God, Guns, and Terror: Missionaries to the Preborn," Bay Area Coalition for Our Reproductive Rights.
20 Published in 1992 in Aledo, Texas, by Barton's own Wallbuilders Press.
21 See "Traditional Values Conference," The Dignity Report, Coalition for Human Dignity, Portland, Oregon, August 1, 1993.
22 See David Postman, "Controversial speaker to appear for Craswell," Seattle Times, April 10, 1996, p. B1.
23 Transcribed from "America in Crisis," videotape sold by the Militia of Montana featuring Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth (tape No. 141 in MOM's catalogue).
24 See Dees, Gathering Storm, p. 199. Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates, a Cambridge, Massachusetts think tank that monitors the far right, offers the 100,000 figure as "a rough guess" (author's interview).
25 This observation is the author's, although others who have monitored the movement - notably Dees, Stern, Berlet, Bill Wassmuth of the NCAMH, and Ken Toole of the Montana Human Rights Network - raise the same concern.
26 See the speech given by John Birch Society founder Robert Welch on September 17, 1961, in Chicago, "Republics and Democracies."
27 See Leslie Lipson's description of the argument among the nation's founders over the two terms in The Democratic Civilization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), pp. 43-45. Lipson concludes that even thought the new nation did not take the name of a democracy, it nonetheless is the living embodiment of democratic principles.
28 See "Enemies: Foreign and Domestic: Part 1," a compilation of "evidence" of the new world order conspiracy sold by the Militia of Montana, p. 3. It is a reproduction of an old Army war manual page which describes a democracy as "mob rule."
29 See Leo Pfeffer's Church, State and Freedom (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1943), pp. 118-121. Pfeffer notes that some critics have attempted to minimize the weight of Jefferson's letter, but their arguments lose weight in the face of the fact that Jefferson asked his attorney general to review the letter, intending it to elucidate important principles, and further noting its citation in several U.S. Supreme Court rulings. Modern-day patriots and Reconstructionists have attempted the same arguments.
© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.
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