Prophets of the apocalypse: white supremacy and the theology of Christian identity

Tourish, Dennis and Wohlforth, Tim (2000) Prophets of the apocalypse: white supremacy and the theology of Christian identity. Cultic Studies Journal, 17 (1). pp. 15-41. ISSN 0748-6499

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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.

Item Type: Article
Schools and Departments: School of Business, Management and Economics > Business and Management
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Depositing User: Stacey Goldup
Date Deposited: 13 Jun 2017 06:16
Last Modified: 13 Jun 2017 06:16
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