MORMONS AND MILITIAS
Conspiracy Views of History and Politics Are Deeply Rooted in
Mormon Tradition. In the Land of the Saints and Elsewhere, the
Spiritual Heirs of Joseph Smith Are Doing More Than Singing in
Temple Choirs; They're Getting Ready for The End of the World.
by Conrad Goeringer
Millenialism -- the belief that the world will end
according to a cataclysmic holy prophesy -- is alive and well
in the twentieth century. There are indications that a number of
groups throughout the world look with anticipation to the next
five years as we approach 2,000. For some it will be the
unfolding of events foretold in the Bible. Others, such as the
Aum sect in Japan believed responsible for gas attacks in the
Tokyo subway, jazz up Christian doomsday scenarios with New Age
mysticism and Eastern Buddhist occultism. And for thousands --
perhaps millions -- throughout the world, "something" is about to
happen. Jesus Christ will return. Aliens will land. Human
beings will "evolve" in some strange planetary evolution, similar
to the storyline in the best seller "The Celestine Prophesy." Or
there could be the collapse of civilization, and the emergence of
a new order.
The tapestry of apocalyptic thinking often contains the
threads of conspiracy theory views about history and current
events. For many fundamentalist Christians, the end of the world
pits the faithful and saved against the pernicious minions of
Satan and his worldly flunky, the antichrist. With luck, some
fundamentalists say they will be chosen as the "saved" and be
flown up to heaven in an event called "Rapture" before the devil
is turned loose on earth for 1,000 years of mischief and evil.
Others believe that even those chosen will undergo persecution
and torment to test their faith. And others see this as an
opportunity -- it will be the big shoot-out with the forces of
antichrist as foretold in the Book of Revelations. Maybe it will
happen in the Middle East. Some predict the American midwest.
And they're getting ready.
Many of those subscribing to fundamentalist Christian
scenarios of the "end times" gravitate toward apocalyptic social
movements such as militias and fringe church-groups. The Oklahoma
City bombing has focused public attention on the self-styled
militias, groups of men (and sometimes women) who train in
shooting and survival skills, accumulate guns and ammunition, and
often distrust the government. Federal investigators suggest that
Oklahoma bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh had ties to the
militias, but so far that evidence seems circumstantial and
flimsy. McVeigh moved in the militia subculture, but the
camouflaged world of right-wing survivalists is far from
monolithic, and many militia groups have denounced the Oklahoma
Some militias reflect the peculiar politics and theology
of what is known as Christian Identity. The best known Identity
group is the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, also called Aryan
Nations. Founded by Richard Butler, the organization is based in
Idaho, but has active presence in dozens of states. Christian
Identity teaches that the White race is the lost tribe of Israel,
the true "chosen" people, who must do battle with Jews, Blacks
and other "mongrels" and establish what it terms a White Bastion
in the Pacific Northwest. The modern racist Skinhead movement is
influenced by Identity politics, especially with its appeal to
violent resistance, guns and racism. Like many larger,
fundamentalist groups, Christian Identity preaches that we are in
"end times" and that an apocalyptic event is about to occur. But
whereas most Christians believe in a conflict between god and
Satan, Identity prepares for a race war.
Latter Day Militias
But miles south of the Pacific Northwest bastion is the
State of Utah, base of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day
Saints, known as the Mormons. Mormon theology is based on the
writings of Joseph Smith, who claimed to have uncovered golden
tablets telling a religious history in the new world, America.
Skeptics like to point out that Smith was a spinner of tall
tales, that the Book of Mormon bears a curious resemblance to the
mythos in the Old and New Testament, and that the doctrines of
the church reflect Smith's penchant for mumbo-jumbo ritual and
outlandish narrative. Ten million people consider it to be
gospel today, however, and the Mormon religion thrives in Utah
and throughout the American west. It owns the single biggest
concentration of capital in the Rocky Mountain region, including
real estate, newspapers, TV stations, and other businesses.
Politically, the church has been conservative. Mormon leaders
have served in important government posts. The late billionaire
recluse Howard Hughes surrounded himself with a Mormon security
squad, thinking that they were "incorruptible," and placed
Mormons in administrative positions throughout his business
empire -- including gambling casinos. Former FBI Director J.
Edgar Hoover had an "affinity" for Mormon agents according to
biographers. A disproportionately high number of Mormons in the
ranks of the Central Intelligence Agency has been noted as well.
(Some contend that Mormon agents in the field do not function
well in the fleshpots and back alleys of foreign countries where
much intelligence and blackmail material is gathered.)
The Mormon church is "establishment," with a strong
streak of conservatism. The church opposes homosexuality,
abortion, and courts the political conservatives of the
But Mormon history is replete with incidents pitting the
church against local, even national authority. And distrust of
established institutions, mixed in with prophetic apocalypticism
and conspiracy thinking runs deep. Joseph Smith formed what he
called the Nauvoo Legion in 1840 to defend the church.
Anti-Mormon writings warned of the "Sons of Dan," a Mormon
terrorist group acting as a kind of church- mafia. Another label
-- Avenging Angels -- has surfaced from time to time in
connection with Mormon activity. And there were confrontations
with the federal government concerning the admission of Utah into
the county as an official state. The church altered its teachings
on polygamy, a practice which outraged the Christian blue bloods
on the East coast and in Washington, D.C. Today, a number of
Mormons still hold to their older traditions, and live in
But while early mistrust of the government gave way,
millenialism -- belief in the immanent "last days" -- thrived.
That traditions lives on today, in part, through the existence of
Mormon militias scattered throughout Utah and the west.
According to news reports, they call themselves names like
Culpepper Minutemen, Sovereign Freemen, even the Mormon
Battalion. The Salt Lake City Tribune (4/30) quoted Becky Johns,
a communications professor at Weber State University and an
expert on ultraconservative Mormon groups in Utah: "They
literally believe they are in the last days. They are very
cognizant of time, and believe things happen in an order and that
somehow there is an end . . . the end is always close."
All over the world -- and particularly in the United States --
groups are waiting for The Armageddon, the end of the world foretold
in the biblical Book of Revelations.
In Utah, the underbelly of the establishment and conservative
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- the Mormons -- is
getting ready as well. Mormon "militias" dot the state. Like their
counterparts in the Idaho-based Aryan Nations movement, they have
an apocalyptic religious and political agenda.
Mormon church officials won't support the militia movement,
at least in public. A recent article in the Salt Lake City Tribune
quoted a Church spokesman as saying that members must obey the
laws, and that those who disagree with government work "within the
lawfully established system in their attempts to make desired
changes." Indeed, the church itself works to affect the law, especially
on "family affairs" such as divorce, gay rights, and abortion.
But more "fundamentalist" Mormons -- some of whom engage
in practices such as polygamy -- take a more apocalyptic view of the
immediate future. There isn't time for working within the system;
they prepare for the "end times," the collapse of civilization as we
know, a final Armageddon between the forces of good and evil.
Some join militia movements.
But not all militias are alike; it's a strange mix of neo-Nazis,
Bible-toting Christian Identity advocates, people opposed to taxation
and drivers' licenses, people who have "had enough" of government
rules about guns, money and life in general. Many militias denounced
the bombing in Oklahoma City, and dismissed the notion that suspect
Timothy McVeigh was linked to the movement.
For militia members with strong fundamentalist religious
convictions, though, the weekend-warrior routine of honing survival
skills and target practice takes on a special meaning. Their view of the
world is often conspiratorial and supernatural; the government is
transformed into an agency of the devil. Plots to co-mingle races
through intermarriage assume biblical proportions. A political fight
becomes a religious crusade.
The conspiratorial slant "comes easy," say observers, to
believers in the Book of Mormon. The term "secret combinations"
warns the faithful to beware bands of officials who become corrupted
and untrustworthy. And there is the menace of the Antichrist, the
manifestation of Satan who appears on the stage of history during the
last days. Antichrist is mentioned as a single entity three times in the
Book of John. But the Mormon demonology conjures three different
Antichrists, naming them as Sherem, Nehor and Korihor. It reinvents
the famous "temptation of Christ" on the mountain top in the Book of
Nephi, with striking resemblance to the wording found in the biblical
narrative of Matthew.
Two names which have surfaced in stories about the militia
movement and the Oklahoma City bombing are Mark Koernke and
James "Bo" Gritz. Both men are Mormon. Gritz, an ex-Green Beret
and decorated Vietnam vet, hustles parcels of land in Idaho in an area
called "Almost Heaven," mostly to survivalist types. He is described
as a "tough-talking constitutionalist" who suggests that the CIA may
have bombed the federal Building in Oklahoma City. He ran for vice
president on ex-Ku Klux Klan member David Duke's ticket, and in
1992 ran for president on the Populist Party platform.
When survivalist Randy Weber was besieged by federal agents
in that same year on a outstanding weapons charge, it was Gritz who
helped defuse the situation and walk Weber out of his mountaintop
cabin. Weber's wife and child had been killed by FBI sharpshooters,
and Weber was found innocent in a subsequent trial. He is suing the
government for $56 million. Gritz is considered a leading figure in
the "survivalist movement." When he ran for president, he received
his greatest total of votes in Utah, over 28,000. Mark Koernke was
sought out by cameras and government agents shortly after Tim
McVeigh became a suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing. He was
the leader of the Michigan State Militia, but was soon replaced by the
"staff" of the movement for suggesting that the bombing was linked to
Japanese interests who may have tried to also place listening devices
in Bill Clinton's White House Office.
So is Cleon Skousen, former FBI agent and chief of police for
Salt Lake City. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s he had close ties
with "establishment" right-wing movements and then founded the
Freemen Institute. He has now renamed it the National Center for
Constitutional Studies. He told the Salt Lake City Tribune that "I
found some people (in the Institute) becoming military minded and
calling themselves Freemen. We had to change the name." Skousen
also insisted that "We need to clearly distinguish between people who
are trying to understand what's happening to government, and may be
critical of some of the adventures it's taken in the past 75 years . . .
and those people who can't stand talking about it and have to get out
and do something."
Skousen supports militias, though, and so does his friend
Samuel Sherwood. He founded the Constitutional Militia Association
in Idaho, which spread to several other states and boasted 1,500
members. The group was apparently infiltrated by
more "radical" types from organizations like Aryan Nations, and
Sherwood disbanded it.
Not all militias cooperate, get along, or even agree on
doctrinal issues. Individuals such as Gritz are believed to play the
role of go-betweens, talking to individual groups and factions. But
most share an apocalyptic agenda, a feeling that "end times" are upon
us, and that solutions may only be found not in debate, but from the
barrel of a gun.
A Post-Modern Lesson?
The militia movement is said to attract mostly males,
overwhelmingly White, in their forties and fifties from working-class
or small business backgrounds. Statements from militia members
speak of government "abandoning the people"; they complain of high
taxes, over-regulation, intrusion into their lives. At
times, the rhetoric sounds like a libertarian manifesto. But in some
cases, the "government" is more than just an overstepping bloated
bureaucracy. The peculiar "radicalism" of the militias often has a
paranoid, apocalyptic coloration. Political opponents are demonized,
especially in the bizarre teachings of Christian Identity. The religious
narrative reads like a blend of Old Testament fundamentalism and
"Friday The 13th," with Jews, Blacks, liberals and other enemies
playing the role of Freddie.
For the Mormon Militias, the conspiracy theories and signs of
The Armageddon come easily. The orderly and staid quality of
middle-class Mormon life - -perhaps demonstrated in the clean, quiet
streets of Mormon towns like Provo and even Salt Lake City --
threatens to explode. As did their predecessors of 150 years ago, they
believe they are under attack by a hostile and unbelieving world. And
like their Christian fundamentalist counterparts, they know what lies
ahead. It's all right there, in The Book.
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Re: Militia Correction
AN EMENDATION AND ADDENDUM
By Conrad Goeringer
The second part of my article on Mormon militias incorrectly
identified "Randy Weber" as the survivalist involved in a
shootout with Federal agents. It should have been "Randy Weaver,"
the name used in previous articles dealing with the militia
In addition, readers may find more information about the
groups and ideologies associated with militia-type groups
especially the religious underpinnings of beliefs like Christian
Identity in a number of other sources. The most cogent work to
date is Michael Barkun's "Religion and the Racist Right: The
Origins of the Christian Identity Movement" published by
University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, in 1994. This
work is available through local bookstores. In his preface,
Barkun notes: "The strange story of the Christian Identity
movement unfolds in a subculture few know and in which fewer
still participate, where deviant religion, spurious scholarship,
and radical politics intersect. . . ." Barkun traces the origins
of Identity from the rise of the old British-Israel movement in
the late 1800s, through the anti-semitic, nationalists groups of
pre-World War II America and beyond.
Another work useful in understanding some Identity-
related groups is "Armed and Dangerous: The Rise of the
Survivalist Right" by James Coates, published by Hill and Wang in
1987. Locating this work may take some effort, although it is
available through most inter-library loan systems. Coates, a
reporter for the Chicago Tribune, discusses movements such as The
Order, Posse Comitatus, The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of
the Lord, as well as the beliefs of the Identity churches.
Two older works that bear examination are "Undercover"
and "The Plotters," written in the 1940s by another newsman, John
Roy Carlson. Both were published by E. P. Dutton & Co. of New
York, and although they are out-of-print, both appear frequently
on the shelves of used-book outlets at reasonable prices. Of the
two, perhaps "Undercover" is the most thorough treatment of "old
right" movements, some of which were precursors of contemporary
Identity and militia-types groups. Carlson's works, while
containing a wealth of information, tended to exaggerate the
influence of many fringe political groups. This overreaction
continues today. While evangelical conservatives may share some
of the political and social tenants of Christian Identity, there
are crucial difference in both strategy and beliefs.
Nevertheless, it is the apocalyptic convictions of Identity
groups, and their preparations for violence which render them
more dangerous than their relatively small number may suggest.
There also exists the threat posed by government agencies in
"dealing" with Christian Identity, militias and any dissident
social movement of any political persuasion. Laws and practices
unleashed against one groups may be easily employed against
another, as we have learned from experience with the FBI's
notorious COINTELPRO or the CIA's OPERATION CHAOS. Evaluating the
true threat posed by any group, including Identity, first
requires a reasoned and scholarly examination of its beliefs and
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