This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 2000, Volume 17, pages 15-41. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.
Department of Management
University of Aberdeen
Many white supremacist organizations in the United States (such as Posse Comitatus, Aryan Nations and innumerable militia groups) draw their inspiration from a theology known as Christian Identity, which argues that the white race of North America is descended from the lost tribes of Israel and is hence the Chosen People spoken of in the Bible. This philosophy also posits that Jews are the direct descendants of the Devil and that blacks are the product of interbreeding between people and animals. This paper discusses the main theoretical principles of Christian Identity and how its absolutist belief system encourages high activity forms of organization, in-group favoritism, and the demonization of all out-groups. The paper argues that the underlying ideology of Christian Identity and its organizational manifestations are inherently cultic. In this context, fundamental principles of social psychological theory concerned with attribution, stereotyping, prejudice formation, and uncertainty reduction are applied to the Identity milieu to explain its apparent hold on significant numbers of people.
The influence of far right groupings has grown during the past two decades. Significant numbers of people are now attracted to organizations (e.g. Aryan Nations, Posse Commitatus) that might properly be regarded as cultic. The theology of the Christian Identity movement in particular is implicated in the growth of right wing militias and Neo-Nazi organizations.
Although considerable academic material has been published on the far right, previous researchers have failed to explicitly address Identity theology and the organizational forms to which it gives rise from a cultic perspective. Moreover, few have applied research from social psychology to explain far-right phenomena. Some writers have emphasised personality issues (e.g., Adorno et al, 1950) in which support for the right is seen as inherently irrational and hence susceptible only to personality based interpretations (see Wilcox, 1992, for an extended discussion of problems with this viewpoint). Others have stressed the sociological issues involved (e.g., Bruce, 1995). Our contribution is to apply theoretical principles drawn from social psychology and the analysis of cults in a way that has not previously been attempted.
We have studied the Web sites of many far right organizations and of various bodies who monitor their activities, to gauge the nature of Identity theology and the extent of its organizational influence. We make frequent reference to these sources in the pages that follow.
We argue that the basic tenets of this theology are so sharply focused on the creation of in-groups and out-groups that it inherently facilitates high activity forms of organization, conformity, and cultic dynamics. In particular, its emphasis on imminent catastrophe (the Armageddon paradigm) creates a psychologically receptive context for the apocalyptic fantasies characteristic of many cult organizations in a wide variety of ideological fields.
Flowing from this, we explore the psychological dynamics that allow such apocalyptic fantasies to gain a serious hold on the imagination of Identity followers. Key ideas looked at include expectancy effects, uncertainty reduction theory, and the dynamics of stereotyping.
We also consider the possibility that those attracted to organizations heavily influenced by Identity theology may be able to exert an influence beyond their current small size.
Definitional Issues and the Relevance of Cultic Perspectives
Defining cults has proven problematic for researchers active in the study of this area. Many descriptive terms commonly employed provoke intense debate (e.g., "thought-reform," "brain-washing," and "exit counseling"), while organizations that are sometimes viewed as cults (e.g., Amway, the Moonies, Re-evaluation Counseling) vary enormously in their actual practice (see Langone, 1993, for extended discussion of cultic definitional issues). For example, the use of criticism/self-criticism sessions has been reported as a key means of enforcing conformity and submission in political cults (e.g., Lalich, 1992). During such sessions, cult members assemble to denounce the alleged misdemeanours of their fellows. Eventually, the members targeted for such attention are compelled to join in the process themselves, often internalizing its harshest verdicts. Such practices, however, are by no means universal, and other high activity, undemocratic, and intensely ideologically committed groups (such as the Committee for a Workers International) have been identified in which they are absent (Tourish, 1998). Nevertheless, many such groups exhibit sufficient dysfunctional behaviors to merit inclusion in the pantheon of organizations defined as cultic.
The pursuit of absolute categories may obscure rather than illuminate the study of cultic organizations. Outside of courtrooms, not every question can be given a straight yes or no answer yes, this organization is a cult, or no it isn’t. Organizations can combine elements of cultic practice with seemingly sensible approaches to everyday life. This means that some groups that begin with a rational purpose (e.g., to influence the political process) can regress in a dysfunctional and cultic direction.
Accordingly, cults may best be viewed daily as falling on a continuum. At one end stand healthy well functioning groups, in which dissent is respected, people participate in decision making, and members at all times retain a foot in the real world. At the other end we find totalitarian enclaves in which conformity is prized above all else and people are frequently manipulated against their will for the greater good of the cult leader. People and organizations can move back and forth on this continuum depending on events. Organizations are not necessarily either cults or not cults. They can be both at different times and in different places.
This approach is particularly useful in reaching an understanding of the extreme political right. Definitional problems with the term "extreme right" abound (Cox, 1998). The term has been at various times applied to the populist demagogue Father Coughlan in the 1930s, Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, and Barry Goldwater in the 1960s (Hopkins, 1992). In addition, the right, for the most part, has a more amorphous and fluctuating structure than the rigid formations found on the Marxist-Leninist extreme left (Tourish & Wohlforth, 2000). This may be one important reason why so few have attempted to apply a cultic analysis to the milieu of the right. In this discussion, however, we limit our application of the term to those influenced by Christian Identity theology, those whose beliefs find organizational expression in the militia movement, and such semi-fascistic organizations as Posse Comitatus and Aryan Nations.
We believe that our understanding of the extreme right, as so defined, can be deepened by the application of a cultic analysis. Most researchers in the field agree that it is what organizations do (e.g., intense activity; constant retreats from the outside world; the deception of members; a relentless focus on recruitment and raising money) rather than what they believe that qualifies them to be regarded as cults (Singer & Lalich, 1995). It would therefore appear that social psychological research which explores group dynamics, attribution theory, prejudice formation, and stereotyping processes can shed much light on how extremist belief systems find an organizational expression in high activity groups that might properly be understood as cults. Hence we may be better positioned to understand how extremist belief systems often march hand in hand with totalistic forms of organization.
We pay particular attention in this study to what we call "The Armageddon Paradigm." Originating in the Judeo-Christian tradition, this view has spawned religious cults like the People’s Temple (Layton, 1998) the Branch Davidians (Breault and King, 1993), and, most recently, Aum Shinrikyo (Lifton, 1999). Scores of groups have been identified that adopt what can be defined as a millennial perspective of imminent doom (see Landes, 2000). All of them proclaim that The End Time is upon us. This means that most of the world’s population will be annihilated, with the exception of the chosen few. On the far left, also, capitalism is claimed to be in crisis, revolution is imminent, and the elite presently organized into a vanguard party will soon triumph (see Lalich, 1992; Wohlforth, 1994; and Tourish, 1998, for fuller accounts of this approach). The far right has now adopted its own version of the Armageddon Paradigm. As Cox (1998) has noted, its cataclysmic reading of the problems thrown up by modern capitalism can be read as almost Marxist like in their implications. However, whereas leftists anticipate Armageddon in terms of class insurrection and warfare, rightists see the End Time in terms of race war, and depict whites (or Aryans) as the chosen survivors of a racial conflagration.
The Armageddon Paradigm isolates its adherents from the damned mass of humanity, gives a sense of urgency to their activities, leads to increasing paranoia, and justifies any course of action its leaders propose. These are fruitful conditions for the emergence of cultic organizations.
Christian Identity, which forms the theoretical foundation for the approach of many on the far right, is convinced that Armageddon is imminent, maintains intense suspiciousness toward all those deemed different, and holds to a belief that a Chosen People have a God-given role to play in salvaging the world. Survivalism, high levels of activity, internal gatherings from which outsiders are excluded but in which emotionally charged rituals reinforce the belief systemthese behaviors, and others, flow naturally from this belief system. Both the ideology of Christian Identity and the actions to which it gives rise are immune from the influence of facts, alternative and more credible explanations, and the possibility of growth and change through experience. A cultic analysis can therefore enrich our understanding of this important phenomenon.
Within the United States, the politics of hate is currently a major growth industry. According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Internet housed one hate site at the time of the Oklahoma bombing in 1995 (Hunt, 1999). By the end of the century, this had risen to 2000. Some of these were aimed at children under ten. Nor have organizations possessed by notions of racial superiority merely confined their activities to cyberspace. The Southern Poverty Law Center has calculated that the total of hate groups within the US is 537, and growing. Between them, these groups claimed 200,000 members (MSNBC News Release, 1999). The number of neo-Nazi and KKK groups rose by 40% in one year, to 314 (Preston, 1999). Militia groups have also mushroomed, and are reckoned to be active in at least 36 states (Stern, 1996). In passing, it should be noted that the growth of hate is not confined to the United States. For example, during the late 1990s, Australia saw a large if temporary growth in a party known as “One Nation,” which displayed semi-fascistic undertones in its propaganda. It also concentrated all power in the hands of its revered leader, Pauline Hanson, and barred its claimed 300 branches from communicating directly with each other (Tourish and Wohlforth, 2000). It won 22.67% of the vote in its first electoral outing in the state of Queensland (Greason, 1998).
Within the American militias the dominant mood is one of fear, paranoia, contempt for difference, a conviction that Armageddon is imminent, and an absolute determination to achieve wider influence. One report into their activities summarized their belief system in these terms:
Some speak of government plans to shepherd dissidents into 43 concentration camps... Some claim that the government plans to murder more than three-quarters of the American people... that Hong Kong policemen and Gurkha troops are training in the Montana wilderness in order to "take guns away from Americans" on orders of the Clinton administration; that UN equipment is being transported on huge trains and that Russian and German trucks are being shipped to attack Americans... that House Speaker Newt Gringrich is part of a "global conspiracy" to create one-government New World Order” (Cited in Stern, 1996, p.15).
Many of the militia groups, and other supremacist organizations, trace their belief system to the theology of Christian Identity. In this philosophy, Jews, blacks, gays, and all identifiable minority groups are depicted as the champions of a devilish conspiracy against a pure, Christian, and white way of life. Consequently, catastrophe can only be averted by racial separation achieved through conflict. One of the movement’s best known and most vociferous proponents, William Pierce, expounds this position in an article published on his website:
Certainly, there may be bloody chaos if we resist the Jews and their collaborators. And we should not flinch from this. We should not focus on the fact that it will be horrible and bloody, but on the fact that it will be necessary, and because it is necessary it is good (Cited by Etchingham, 2000, p.4).
The theology of Christian Identity acts as a theoretical and emotional justification for the activities of the many white supremacist cults now active within the United States. Such is its imagined explanatory power that they are drawn to it, just as a moth is attracted to the brightest light in a room. Understanding where it comes from is a vital step in grasping the mindsets of those organising to deliver white supremacy in America. It also helps explain the sense of passionate commitment and invincible conviction held by many of its supportersemotions that lend themselves perfectly to cultic forms of organization.
Identity theology is dangerous precisely because it necessarily seeks an organized expression in the form of high activity groups that share many of the characteristics commonly found in cults. The movement’s eschatological credo provides paramilitary and survivalist groups with an ultimate justification for their existence and an inexhaustible fuel for their over-arching sense of self-importance. Accordingly, many Identity believers have embraced self-sufficient survivalist communities that eschew the larger societies. The term “survivalism” describes a life-style of physical withdrawal and self-sufficiency geared to surviving some imagined future catastrophe. Survivalist writer Kurt Saxon has said that a survivalist is “one who anticipates the collapse of civilization and wants to save himself and his loved ones and bring something to the movement, if you would, which will contribute to the advance of the next generation” (Cited by Tourish & Wohlforth, 2000, p.48).
The sense of urgency is acute. At best, such communities hover on the fringes of legality. In some cases, however, they are actively preparing terrorist campaigns and, ultimately, secession from the US. A number of people have already proclaimed the “Republic of Texas” as a separate nation, and maintain that lawful authority within the state is to be located only within their compounds. (It should be pointed out that the Republic of Texas has also attracted supporters from outside the tradition of the Christian Identity movement). Others have argued that organizing insurgency now will spark a wider popular rebellion against ZOG( Zionist Occupation Government). This fallacy is often repeated on the left in slightly different forms.
Radical withdrawal in self-sustaining communities promotes a siege mentality. Enemies are everywhere and the final battle for salvation has already begun. People become afraid to go into the woods at night. We noted, earlier, how Identity theology leads in many cases to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Survivalism is particularly prone to this outcome, promoting as it does the very confrontation with authority from which its advocates have been theoretically seeking to defend themselves. A number of such incidents have already occurred, such as the Ruby Ridge siege in 1992. These events have entered the folklore of the far right as further definitive proof of impending apocalypse.
The psychological effects are powerful, but contradictory. On the one hand, organizing reduces uncertainty. Temporarily, the disempowered feel empowered. The presence of others on country retreats, in public demonstrations, and in private confabs nourishes a sense of absolute conviction. It promises redemption, triumph and public acclaim, when the conspiracy is defeated. Certainty in the justice of The Cause increases. Yet such is the all-embracing scope of the conspiracy that it can never be fully vanquished. Paranoia needs enemies, as an infection needs diseased tissue. If one tentacle of the conspiracy is lopped off another must be found immediately. The purpose of paranoia is paranoia. Thus, the fact of struggling also increases uncertainty about the eventual outcome. The more one fights against the conspiracy the more visible its agents become. The enemy is assumed to be everywhere, aided and abetted by agents within the upper echelons of Government, the major Churches, and even within other groups on the far right. The fevered imagination of the right wing cultist is haunted by the specter of sell out and defeat. Thus, the struggle to reduce uncertainty combined with its undying presence further inflames their sense of righteousness, isolation, and peril, ensuring a constant recommitment to the certainties of the struggle. Normal political action is quite compatible with question marks. For right wing cultists, on the other hand, doubt is as welcome as daylight in a ghost story. Their rituals, incantations, and monster stories are all designed to hold it at bay. Ideology is an important part of this effort, and the main ideological wellspring seems to come from the Christian Identity movement.
Christian Identity is sometimes known as British Israelism, Israel identity, and Kingdom message. Its origins lie in mid-19th century Britain. The most basic idea animating its adherents is that white Christians are the true Israelites of the Old Testament and are God’s chosen people (see Bushart et al., 1998, for fuller discussion). In its modern, American incarnation, Christian Identity argues that the US is the Promised Land spoken of in the Bible. Identity supporters believe that ten lost tribes of Israel migrated to Europe, Great Britain and eventually the USA. They argue that fundamental differences distinguish one race from another and therefore that they should not co-mingle. Miscegenation is the ultimate horror, threatening to dilute the pure bloodstock of the Aryan master race.
This prejudice is cast in Biblical mode. Non-whites were created with other animals before Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden. Hence, they are not fully human. The theory of different origins enables many believers to claim that they are not racists at all. In contradiction to the general thrust of their propaganda, they argue that the races are not necessarily inferior or superior. They are just different, in the same way that cattle are different to dogs or humans, and have different roles, rights, and entitlements. Tim Houser, an Identity follower, has said:
Identity is not racist. Jews and blacks are what they are. God chose to... make blacks with the animals, we didn’t. I have to believe God, and he spelled it out clear in the Bible. I’d give the shirt off my back to a black man if he came to my door. But I can’t make him the same as me (Cited by Dyer, 1998, p.94).
Nevertheless, it follows that American cities will go up in flames, as race war escalates, and that Christian Identity followers will then reconstruct a new Israel in America (Zeskind, 1986; Katz & Popkin, 2000). Thus, the creation of in-groups versus out-groups is at the very heart of Christian Identity theology. It is this dynamic, unleashed by the belief system, which inherently points its proponents in the direction of cultic forms of organization.
Of course, the reluctance of many Identity followers to accept that their belief system is racist, a term with powerfully negative connotations is a useful means of avoiding cognitive dissonance. In essence, we are motivated to imagine that our feelings, attitudes, and behavior are much more consistent with each other than they actually are (Cialdini, 2001). When an apparent contradiction within this trinity arises we experience an unease that has been described as dissonance (Festinger, 1957). For many supremacists an acceptance of the term “racist” would jar with their self-image as a righteous and God-fearing people, creating dissonance. However, if they can avoid attaching racist labels to their belief system it becomes possible to maintain two objectively contradictory positions at once - a racist perspective, and a self-image as practicing Christians motivated by a love for humanity. What Orwell memorably termed “Doublethink” thrives precisely through such Olympian displays of linguistic gymnastics. The disavowal of negative labels may also have the effect of facilitating ever more extreme behaviors and attitudes, since the rejection of clear linguistic categories ensures that nothing disturbs the person’s positive self-image.
Within the Identity movement, Jews are regarded as having an even worse point of origin than people of color. They are depicted as the direct biological offspring of the Devil. Either the Devil or one of his underlings had sex with Eve in the Garden of Eden. Cain was the progeny of this union, and Jews are viewed as his direct descendents. This means that they have an unalterable capacity for evil. It is in their blood, and even conversion to Christianity is not sufficient to change it. This strand of Identity theology has a long genealogy, but was firmly in place by the early 1960s. Since then, it has become ever more dominant. As Barkun (1994) has pointed out, it distinguishes the bigotry of Christian Identity from even the most virulent plagues of anti-Semitism in previous periods of human history. In the past, it was frequently argued that Jews were the products of interbreeding between people and animals. Their continued existence would lead to the defilement and degradation of the human race. Nevertheless, they were at least granted a common point of origin among the species of this world. The distinctive contribution that Christian Identity makes to anti-Semitic theory is viler and potentially more destructive than any of its racist precursors.
In the world of the far right, religion and politics are inseparably intertwined. For example, a creedal statement produced by the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations and the tautologically challenged Church of Jesus Christ Christian declares:
WE BELIEVE that there are literal children of Satan in the world today. These children are the descendants of Cain, who was a result of Eve’s original sin, her physical seduction by Satan. We know that because of this sin, there is a battle and a natural enmity between the children of Satan and the Children of the Most High God...
WE BELIEVE that there is a battle being fought this day between the children of darkness (today known as Jews) and the children of light (God), the Aryan race, the true Israel of the Bible. (Cited by Barkun, 1994, p.189)
In part, this explains the fascination that so many on the far right display for the person of Hitler. His photographs frequently adorn white supremacist sites on the Internet. Aryan Nations is a fan club for Hitler, but one that seeks to move beyond homage and achieve the enactment of his program in modern day America. Hence, Jews are not only demonized for their alleged satanic origin. It is also argued that they are engaged in a tightly organized and well-advanced conspiracy to take over the world. In some cases this conspiracy is presented as having already come to fruition. The US Government is often referred to as ZOG - the Zionist Occupation Government. Hate literature offers what its authors take to be indisputable evidence for this assertion, such as long lists of Jews who have belonged to President Clinton’s cabinets. During his presidency, Clinton himself was frequently described as "President Klinton."
It follows that Jews routinely engage in inhuman practices. Aryan Nations produces a paper entitled Calling Our Nation. It has regularly published accounts of Jews committing human sacrifices as a normal part of their religious rituals.
Once such attitudes are acquired, those infected by them seek out evidence that supports their belief system and ignore anything that suggests they might be mistaken. This practice (of selective attention) is central to the maintenance of uncritical enthusiasm for all cultic belief systems. It is also a cognitive defect that is widely shared and afflicts among many people who would be appalled by the suggestion that they harbored racist ideas. Researchers have found that most of us interpret minor differences between groups, such as skin colour, as a barometer of much greater difference (Brown, 1995). It has also been found that even those whites outside the Identity tradition, who observed or heard about a solitary black person’s negative attitudes, had their critical outgroup perceptions strengthened (Henderson, 1996). In addition, they were more likely afterwards to avoid contact with black people or minimise the duration of such contact when these proved unavoidable. Furthermore, a single negative event involving a black person was sufficient to lead participants into expressing in-group favoritism.
This may be partly because unusual events stand out in our memory, precisely because they are unusual (Dawes, 1994). However, when an action out of the ordinary is performed by a member of a minority group it stands out all the more both because the event is unusual and because the source is a member of a minority group (Brown, 1995). The Christian Identity milieu is clearly predisposed to highlight “bad” behaviors on the part of those who belong to the stigmatised out group, claim that it is typical of everyday behaviour by all concerned, diminish instances of normal functioning by such people, and claim that the exceptional events they highlight as typical constitute a terminal threat to the survival of the white race.
Accordingly, those influenced by Identity theology now assume that the Jewish conspiracy has assumed vast proportions. It involves the International Monetary Fund, the Federal Reserve, the United Nations, the Trilateral Commission, and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Taxation is generally viewed as a threat to individual freedom. The primary aim of the conspiracy is to erode white rights. Identity followers believe that gun control is nothing more than a cunning ploy to render whites helpless in the face of the Zionist enemy.
Thus, in-group favoritism (e.g,. “American whites are the chosen people") is inexorably combined with the stigmatization of out-groups (e.g., "Jews and blacks are at best sub-human”). What others see as random or unrelated events are depicted as part of an orderly conspiracy, directed with great cunning by the designated out-groups. The result is an overwhelming sense of moral righteousness, persecution, isolation and contempt for mainstream society. If all the institutions of the state are indeed as nefarious as is depicted, then it also follows that elitist and high activity forms of organization are necessary for salvation: nothing less than the future of humanity is at stake.
The End is Nigh...
The prospect of imminent catastrophe is a hard-to-beat, ultimate justification for zealous proselytizing, commitment, and sacrifice in support of The Cause. It is therefore no surprise that a strident belief in Armageddon, in one form or another, is common to all manner of cults. In this case, Identity believers insist that a final conflict between the Aryan forces of goodness and the Satanically inspired forces of darkness is imminent. The resultant sense of urgency is a handy weapon in the struggle to enforce conformity, veneration of the idealized leader, and intense levels of activity. Debate, doubt, and dissent are seen as luxuries for more tranquil times than these. In this respect, Identity adherents excel even the sooth-saying prophets of Marxism. Dan Gayman, of the Church of Israel, put it like this:
The fall of the American government is imminent. We are living already in the preparatory throes of a national and world wide revolution... as the agents of Satan who head their world wide conspiracy of anti-Christ, plot and plan the total demise of Christian civilization and of the white race... A blood bath will take place upon the soil of this great nation, that will end only in victory for Christ or Satan. We of the Nordic race who believe in Jesus Christ are determined that this nation will remain ours. (Cited by Barkun, 1994, p.110)
Such expectations lend a frantic urgency to the hunt for out-groups who can be blamed for every calamity that besets the modern world. Unemployment, poverty in the rural mid-West, declining moral standards, and the reluctance of many to teach so-called creationist science in schools are all taken as evidence of the Jewish conspiracy against Christian and American values. As one publication puts it:
Jews are evil, anti-Christian, un-Christian, and in control of most of the organized evil of the world, such as prostitution, international slavery, international money-changing, profiteering on wars, racketeering in labor, corruption in politics, modernism in religion, atheism in the school system, promotion of lewd propaganda through theaters and picture shows etc. (Cited by Bushart et al., 1998, p.143).
At the core of the Identity belief system lies the notion of imminent racial obliteration. Identity believers want to relocate all minorities to about 10% of the US landmass, and reserve the rest for white Christians. These must also be not gay, left wing, feminist, pro-abortion, or multi-cultural in outlook. Difference, the spice of life, will give way to bland uniformity. The landscape for all seasons is white, white, and more white. Dissent must bow its head in submissive conformity.
The threat of violence is never far below the surface. It further promotes a sense of imminent peril, and hence reinforces the members’ allegiance to the primary in-group. Ezekiel, a researcher, attended an Aryan National Congress in Northern Idaho, and has produced a chilling account of the proceedings. Aryan Nations is one of the best-known organizations on the far right, and its leaders have been heavily influenced by Identity theology. Here is one speaker and the response of his audience (Ezekiel, 1995, p.42):
We must get rid of the Federal Reserve System and of the income tax. We must repudiate the national debt. We must tell the people at the top: “There will be treason trials! You will be strung from the trees!”’
The room explodes in loud applause. Cries of "Hail Victory!” Cries of “White Power!”’
Such gatherings display all the colors of a cult in full bloom. The group dynamics are calculated to induce maximum conformity. Thus, the Congress observed by Ezekiel was held at a compound in Hayden Lake, away from any outside scrutiny or the possibility of corrective influence from anyone unimpressed by supremacist theology. A sign near the entrance read “Aryans Only,” setting a tone of exclusivity from the beginning. All new arrivals had their credentials checked by guards posted at the entrance. The message was: this is a gathering only for the initiated, the trusted, the select few. Nazi music played throughout the weekend, broadcast from loudspeakers located in a convenient watchtower. Participants were afforded no escape from an incessant message of hate. Nazi flags were prominently displayed, while all arrivals found themselves quickly habituated to the frequent exchange of Nazi salutes. Research has generally found that people adopt the norms, dress codes, linguistic forms, and behaviors of groups to which they commit with astonishing ease (Brown, 2000). Meanwhile, an endless succession of speakers pounded away at the same message: the Jewish threat is moving towards conclusion; blacks are gaining power everywhere; the US Government is in the pay of the conspiracy. The refrain is relentless: “White Power! White Power! White Power!” For those present, the return trip to reality must be traumatic.
Self-righteousness is deepened by yet another paradox. On the one hand, the sufferings of the stigmatised out-groups are described as non-existent. On the other hand, the members of such groups are themselves blamed for any problems that are reluctantly acknowledged to exist.
Again, this problem extends beyond those who belong to hate groups. It is a fundamental component of a prejudiced mindset. For example, two researchers investigated white stereotypes of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans (Bobo & Kluegel, 1991). They found that whites needed to "explain" the disadvantaged condition of the minority being observedmore precisely, to find explanations which justified it. Many alternative explanations for black disadvantage are available (for example, that the disadvantage is primarily the product of white prejudice and discrimination). However, to accept this would require self-criticism, and criticism might in turn be extended to social institutions with which many whites identify more closely than do members of minority groups. It was found that whites tended to assume a casual connection between the stereotypical traits ascribed to the minority groups and their social situation: that is, it was their own fault. In short, it was much more convenient to assume that their position of social disadvantage reflected their naturally inferior position than discrimination practised by the white society. We would describe this as a perspective of “illusory causality.” Clearly, the tendency to blame those at the receiving end of bias for its effects is particularly pronounced among members of extreme hate groups. The effect is to promote in-group favoritism (i.e., a belief in the innate superiority of the group to which one belongs), combined with out-group stigmatisation (i.e., a belief in the innate inferiority of the designated out-groups). It would appear that such psychological dynamics are a necessary ingredient for the development of cultic organizations, driven as they are by an exclusive sense of mission that separates their followers from all other groups in society. Such separation is most easily accomplished if the members can be convinced that they are both different from and superior to other groups with whom they come in contact.
The apocalyptic ideas that go with this mindset were greatly strengthened in the post-war period by the existence of the Soviet Union. One Identity writer, Bertrand Comparet, described the imminent Final Days (and they are always depicted as imminentdecade after decade) in the following terms:
The Russian Gog will form a coalition of its own satellites, including Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Libya.” He argued that these would also be aided by “the mixed breeds of Asia and Africa and India, who... will ally themselves with anything which promises them that they can pillage and rape in the lands of the White man. (Cited by Barkun, 1994, p.110)
The Russian hordes were then expected to seize the eastern Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, to disrupt the flow of oil to the west, and attack the US across the Bering Straits while also deploying missiles, submarines, and aircraft.
Typically, the only evidence offered for such predictions consists of Biblical quotations, selected precisely because their vagueness means that they can be press-ganged into the service of any and every theological construction. The collapse of the Soviet Union hasn’t noticeably dented anyone’s sense of certainty. In a seamless transition that passes unnoticed by most True Believers, the focus of the conspiracy theory is simply shifted onto new enemies, principally, ZOG. The underlying apocalyptic perspective is encased in titanium and located in bombproof shelters, where it withstands all refutation from the outside world. Yesterday’s failed predictions are rationalized into insignificance. For long-term cultists, amnesia is an occupational disease, whatever their ideological point of departure. The fact that the prediction has surfaced countless times before is concealed from new members, and consigned to the dusty vaults of memory by the old. Members are in turn too occupied by frantic activity to seriously think through the contradictions of their position. The conspiracy is too close to victory for debate, doubt, or questions. Immediate action alone can save those fortunate enough to belong to the designated in-group.
Again, the inadequate empirical base for the belief system upheld by rightist cults is also common across the spectrum of cultic organizations. In order to maintain their sense of certainty, and consequent commitment to absolutist forms of organization, it is imperative that they resist exposing their beliefs to empirical testing and the possibility of falsification (Shermer, 1997). When faced with refutation the solution is simply to crank up the volume of their rhetoric, and reinforce its impact by repetition, thereby silencing the voices of dissent.
A key ingredient sustaining the psychology of such a belief system is the dynamic of expectancy effects. Researchers have consistently found that our expectations of events strongly influence how we perceive them. One study, particularly pertinent in this context, required subjects to observe a videotape of a heated argument that climaxed with one person pushing the other (Duncan, 1976). When the “shover” was black, his behavior tended to be perceived by white observers as “violent.” On the other hand, if the shover was white his behavior was generally regarded as “playing around.” In short, we see people and events not as they really are, but as our theories about them suggest they ought to be. It is also unlikely that many of these people would have regarded themselves as racist: if asked, they would have insisted that the adjective “violent” was an objectively accurate descriptor of the behavior they had witnessed. Thus, when cults provide us with a theory of everything it is little wonder that conflicting evidence from the real world is so readily set aside. Identity believers believe that their theory possesses such an all-embracing explanatory power.
Guided by their belief system, they thus perceive every political event as further evidence that their conspiratorial and apocalyptic interpretation of the world has been confirmed. Furthermore, in many cases, their expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A believer in Christian Identity will view blacks, Jews and gays as mortal enemies who threaten the survival of the white race and who should therefore be relocated to small reservations or exterminated outright. They will engage in public protests and demand retribution against the designated out-groups. The fact that members of such groups respond angrily to such suggestions, and even organize counter-demonstrations, becomes further evidence to the cultist that he or she is surrounded by enemies. The drawbridge forming a link to reality is raised. On the other hand, if there is no public reaction, it merely constitutes evidence that the conspiracy has grown even more devious in covering its tracks.
Accordingly, the belief system is immune to falsification. Whatever happens, whatever could possibly happen, is taken as evidence of its essential correctness. Many Identity enthusiasts, for example, argue vehemently that the Oklahoma bombing in 1995 was part of a plot to discredit the right and was actually the work of the US Government, (Tourish & Wohlforth, 2000). The Waco siege in 1993 was not a bungled FBI operation, but a ZOG inspired assault on Christian dissenters. One long time supremacist, Eustace Mullins, penned the following critique of what occurred:
The Waco Church Holocaust, in which many worshippers, including innocent children, were burned alive while worshiping in their church (was) an atrocity which surpasses the worst accusations made against the Nazis in Germany. (Cited by Stern, 1996, p.64)
In essence, paranoia is the nearest thing we have to a perpetual motion machine. It requires no further impetus than a starting point, and a modest injection of determination. The more self-contained its social environment and the fewer inputs it receives from the outside world, the stronger it is likely to become. As Dyer (1998, p.112) has put it:
The power of conspiracy rests in faith: in the ability to believe in things unseen, to be sure of something that cannot be proven by our senses or by documentation. Faith has always been a stronger force in the world than mere reason, and because of that, debunking conspiracy theories is almost impossible.
Conspiracy theories can sink such deep roots because members of hate groups tend to see those in minority categories as interchangeable with all other members of the category. However brilliant their achievements, the fact of their group membership is the most important thing about them. In this world, we do not live in communities composed of individual people. Rather, we are besieged by homogeneous hordes of aliens, devils, rabid feminists, half-apes, and sodomites, all out to get us.
This perspective is so often contagious precisely because the habit of blanket categorisation is practised far beyond the confines of Identity inspired communes and rural retreats. Hence, the social climate for supremacist ideas is frequently nurturing. The Christian Identity movement simply gives such categorisation a more strident form, and proclaims it with pride rather than shame. Furthermore, it seeks to turn prejudice from a mood of incandescent anger into a coherent movement, capable of imposing a separatist agenda on the wider society.
We live in a period of unprecedented social change. Clearly, many of the changes endured in the past two decades (e.g., downsizing, delayering, globalization) have been profoundly painful for millions of people. Identity theology draws much of its strength from a reaction against this upheaval. Many commentators have extolled the virtues of rapid change and urged people to embrace it willingly (e.g., Peters, 1992). In general, such counsel is as successful as that of a surgeon who grimly urges her patients to “enjoy your operation.” It simply runs counter to how most of us feel. For example, in terms of work, people generally prefer to do a job the way in which it has been learned, performed, and reinforced in the past (Moorhead & Griffin, 1989). Change makes our world less familiar, predictable, and comfortable, and we therefore tend to react instinctively against it. In turn, the desire to increase predictability, and maintain a sense of order, ensures that we attach great importance to the reduction of uncertainty during our interactions with others (Jones, 1990).
In order to reduce uncertainty, we develop an increased tendency towards hasty generalizations, the formation of rapid judgements about people, crude social categorizations, stereotyping, and the ready embrace of simplistic political slogans. Error is implicit in the process. For example, we may “brutalize” reality when an object, person, or event is conscripted into a category, despite characteristics it possesses which do not belong there (Bruner & Potter, 1964). We may also attribute emotions to the “object” which it does not hold (e.g., a hatred of all whites), but which we imagine are common to the interchangeable members of the category (Snyder & Uranowitz, 1978). Nevertheless, our confidence in such misperceptions tends to be high.
Some such stereotyping is inevitable. All of us bring considerable existing knowledge with us to any new interaction. Such knowledge includes person prototypes (what this person is typically like), role schemas (what someone playing this role is most likely to do) and typical event sequences or scripts (what most often happens in this situation). In particular, the fastest way to reduce uncertainty in an unfamiliar social context is to stereotype the other people involved by assuming that they belong to a readily identifiable category (Leyens et al., 1994). We rely less on person prototypes and more on role schemas and typical event sequences. Stereotypes assume that individuals share more behaviors, personality traits, and beliefs with other people in their category than they actually do. Stereotyping helps us to simplify social reality, and so reduces uncertainty.
It is then assumed that members of the designated category share this essence with each other. In turn, this strengthens the tendency to exaggerate similarities between the members of the social category concerned, while underplaying their differences. We also assume that members of the category concerned are more different from people in other categories than is actually the case. For those who adhere to a belief system such as Christian Identity, the problem is that their stereotypes seek to explain everything, and are immune to corrective input from the outside world. Again, the psychological dynamic is similar to that found in many Marxist-Leninist sects that are gripped by apocalyptic expectations and certain that the philosophy of dialectical materialism explains all conceivable phenomena, from the Big Bang to fluctuations in the business cycle.
Stereotyping, as discussed here, underpins the whole process of ethnic generalization and prejudice formation. In particular, it has obvious implications for our understanding of right wing extremism, with its evident bias towards racism.
The impact of stereotyping individuals, groups, and events can also be understood in terms of attribution theory (Hewstone, 1991). This proposes that we constantly attribute both intention and disposition to the actions of other people. The problem is that we cannot directly discern what their intentions and dispositions are. To our frustration, what goes on in people’s heads remains largely inaccessible. Not to be defeated, we by-pass this difficulty by taking the route known as creative theorizing. In social situations, this assumes the form of gossip and rumor. Gossip becomes stories, in which we frequently construct plausible causal connections between unconnected events in order to lend extra coherence to our view of the world (Dawes, 2001). Plainly, plausibility is not the same thing as accuracy, and stories do not have to be accurate to feel plausible. The purpose behind their construction is the reduction of uncertainty. Rather than admit that we do not know what is happening, most of us have a tendency to speculate. When we share such speculations with others we engage in self-persuasion (Pratkanis & Aronson, 1991). In addition, research suggests that we have a tendency to believe that whatever is repeated is more likely to be true (Cialdini, 2001). Furthermore, if those we talk to acknowledge that what we say might be correct, we grow even more convinced that our musings have some basis in fact. The more people who share an opinion with us, the more convinced we become that it must be accurate, an entirely vacuous reasoning process known as consensual validation (Zebrowitz, 1990).
In the world of the far right all these processes can be seen at work. Gossip and rumor are rife. Furthermore, real evidence is irrelevant. Every event is interpreted as proof of the underlying conspiratorial theory, whatever the facts actually suggest. When ideas are liberated from the constraints of evidence-based argument in this manner, unsubstantiated gossip becomes the mainstay of human conversation. Furthermore, internal gatherings on the far right (in common with those of most cult organizations) exclude dissenters. This ensures that True Believers constantly share bogus stories that have one redeeming featurethey are all consistent with the belief system. Self-persuasion is thus rampant. Furthermore, the spectacle is one of many people agreeing with each other. Consensual validation takes root. By these means, the weed of conformity is watered thrice daily and bathed in perpetual sunshine.
The conspiracy theories ardently promoted by the Christian Identity movement encourage rampant social categorization. The attribution process then becomes a means of assigning predictable intentions and dispositions to large numbers of people. True Believers no longer need to know precisely what other people really think, believe, and intend to do. It is sufficient to know which category they belong to. In the process, all political life is conceptualized as nothing more than the orderly working out of whatever theory the cult’s worldview has ordained as “the truth.” Evidence and further analysis is irrelevant. What remains is the need for organization, total unanimity around a few simplistic but compelling myths, hyperactivity, and the frantic quest for wider political influence.
Increasingly, the incitement promulgated by Identity theologians is enacted on the streets. Between 1991 and 1995 there were 4046 pipe bomb incidents in the US (Stern, 1996). Members of Aryan Nations have been accused of murder, conducting armored car robberies, and staging over 20 bank robberies to finance a white supremacist revolution (Preston, 1999). A far right organization known as The Order staged two major robberies in the 1980s, netting over $4 million, and was implicated in the 1984 murder of the Jewish talk show host, Alan Berg (Cox, 1998). The Order’s founder, killed in a shoot out with the FBI, expressed his belief system in a letter written shortly before his demise, that clearly echoes the concerns of the Christian Identity movement. He feared that his son would grow up to “be a stranger in his own land, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan in a country populated mainly by Mexicans, mulattoes, blacks and Asians” (Ridgeway, 1990, p.96).
As we have seen, supremacist organizations and cults thrive on a diet of Armageddon, of imminent End Times, of a final confrontation between the races. If they alone adhered to such a perspective then their influence would undoubtedly remain limited. However, apocalyptic visions of the future are widely held in American society. A recent survey found that 59% of American adults feared that the world would come to an end (Dyer, 1998). Twelve percent of those surveyed believed it would happen within the next few years. It is of course true that the influence of the far right is severely limited by its designation of many potential supporters as out-groups, and its consequent fragmentation (Bruce, 1995). Nevertheless, a lot of people, when they think of the future, tremble in fear. The propagandists of hate play daily with matches in a room packed with explosives.
In addition, we have attempted to suggest that many of the psychological dynamics that underlie prejudice formation (e.g., uncertainty reduction, stereotyping, expectancy effects) are not limited to members of hate groups. Rather, they are practiced to a greater or lesser extent by most of us. For this reason, explanations of right wing activism that focus solely on personality seem unsatisfactory. Moreover, it enables us to engage in stereotyping ourselves, while deploring its consequences in others“we” belong to the civilised majority, while barbarian right wing fanatics stand as a solid phalanx on the other side of the barricades. So deeply entrenched are many individuals' concepts of the right (in the form of archetypes) that it is in fact certain stereotyping occurs in the course of this paper.
However, if it is true that much right wing activism emanates from tendencies towards stereotyping in which we all engage, it suggests that the propaganda of far right groups could provoke a wider echo, under certain conditions. Even if such an echo falls short of majority support, and even if it proves a temporary aberration, it could still be sufficient to inflict significant damage on the political process. The upsurge of support for One Nation in Australia, now halted, is one warning of this possibility.
Furthermore, the theology of Christian Identity may evoke an opposite but equally powerful reaction from many of those it stigmatizes. Suffering is not ennobling and does not create a monopoly of virtue. A variety of attitude measurements taken in the past have shown that Jewish students who felt themselves the victims of prejudice were more rather than less likely to display anti-Negro sentiments. Catholic students who were surveyed and felt that they had been victimized ranked higher on tests of both anti-Semitism and anti-Negro prejudice than those who did not. (These studies are discussed in detail by Young-Bruehl, 1996, p.53). Those at the receiving end of prejudice themselves feel frustration, and in turn direct this against other minority groups. A spiral of social disintegration can be set in motion, in which a fragmented society turns in on itself, allowing all sorts of bizarre cults to seize this time as their time and impose a separatist agenda on our society. In the heat of the night, white supremacist movements may yet find real phantoms stepping out of the shadows to greet them.
Not all supremacist organizations are cults. Some do not meet the most commonly agreed criteria for cultic organizations that are familiar to readers of this journal (See Langone, 1993, pp. 2-5). However, they do possess what we would describe as a cultic mindset. In some cases, the forms of organization adopted on the far right lag slightly behind the mentality of their members. Thus, as outlined at the beginning of this paper, cults are best viewed on a continuum. As we have argued here, some ideologies are particularly liable to activate the process of cultic formation.
Our primary concern has been with Christian Identity. David Neiwert has accurately described its belief system as
so far astray from those of mainstream Christianity - and so repellant to average Americans - that they induce in the religion’s followers a cult-like closed mind-set: a sense of persecution coupled with self-righteousness. (Cited by Knickerbocker, 1999, p.2)
For those fired by the passions of prejudice, Posse Comitatus, Aryan Nations, and the other groups on the supremacist right offer the certainty of absolute conviction. They tantalize with a feast of simple answers to complex problems. Above all, at long last, there will be someone to blame. In the eyes of many, some answerany answeris better than none. By comparison, most mainstream politicians seem incapable of offering solutions. The simple certainties of the far right often appear a welcome refuge from the torrent of change engulfing the outside world. Just how many people have been inspired in this way is a moot point. However, Rosemary Ruether, a professor of applied theology, estimates that about 50,000 people call themselves Identity Christians (Cited by Knickerbocker, 1999, p.2). This is not an insignificant force. As Cox (1998) argues, we should not underestimate what is a heavily armed and often dangerous force, nor underestimate its ability to exploit anxieties rampant in the wider society. For example, a key precursor of the modern militia movement is the Ku Klux Klan. Its efforts are commonly credited with securing the election of governors in Georgia, Alabama, California, Indiana, and Oregon in the 1920s (Miller, 1958). Under exceptional but quite imaginable circumstances, far right cults can exercise an incendiary influence out of all proportion to their numbers.
In particular, they can spew forth one man armies of the Rambo type, fired by the passions of prejudice, equipped with the rudiments of an ideology, and convinced that immediate action is vital to secure the future of the white race. One example is that of Timothy McVeigh, convicted for the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma. He was deeply influenced by the theology of Christian Identity, and had photocopies of some Identity writings in his possession when arrested. McVeigh is not alone. He and others accused of domestic terrorism, such as Eric Rudolph (wanted for the Centennial Park bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics), have been characterized as part of a “leaderless resistance,” and described by the chief of the FBI’s domestic terrorism unit as “the biggest threat right now” to national security (Walsh, 2000, p.29).
Understanding the movement that inspired such people in terms of cultic norms can form part of a wider attempt to create an educated civil society within the United States. Such awareness implies the toleration of dissent, uncertainty, and ambiguity in our society. Without these, freedom and democracy give way to totalitarian mindsets and possibly to authoritarian forms of social organization. Fanatical organizations on the far right, however, have a wider agenda than intense control over their own members. As we have seen, they wish to impose a theocratic vision on the wider society. At present, their chances of doing so are limited. Indeed, as Russell (1960, p.101) observed in a wide ranging study of power, “The cases in which fanaticism has brought nothing but disaster are much more numerous than those in which it has brought temporary success.” Fanaticism, however, has also on occasion (and under certain conditions) been able to conquer and hold state power for a significant period, as in Germany during the 1930s.
It is in this direction, marching under flags of hate, that many of those on the American far right have now turned their faces. The cult awareness movement can make an important contribution to increased understanding of the hazards this poses and to the creation of a more educated civil society able to hold firm against the prophets of apocalypse.
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Dennis Tourish, Ph.D. is a Reader in Communication Management at the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland. He specializes in the study of interpersonal and organizational communication, and of cults.
Tim Wohlforth is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, living in Oakland, California.
They are the joint authors of On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, published by Sharpe, New York, 2000.