On November 28, 2014, the day after Thanksgiving, Larry McQuilliams went on a rampage in Austin, Texas, and unsuccessfully attempted to burn down the Mexican Consulate. After investigating the shooting, police reported that McQuilliams had ties to an extremist group called the Phineas Priesthood. Two days later, Steven Anderson, founder and pastor of the Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona, blamed the spread of HIV/AIDS on the LGBTQ community and called for the murder of LGBTQ individuals as a “cure” for the disease. What do these two incidents have in common? Both involve hate groups using the guise of Christianity to spread their bigoted messages.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the Christian Identity ideology, which includes the Phineas Priesthood, supports white supremacy. “Although nominally Christian,” the SPLC’s Extremist Files state, “it owes little to even the most conservative of American Protestants.” Christian Identity should not be conceptualized as mainstream or even fundamentalist Christianity so much as it should be understood as a worldview that appropriates the name “Christian” in an attempt to hide its racist agenda. According to a Washington Post article, McQuilliams was angry at immigrants, which may have prompted him to identify with the Phineas Priesthood and menace the streets of downtown Austin.
The SPLC also classifies Steven Anderson’s nominally Christian church as an anti-LGBTQ hate group, and his extreme rhetoric surrounding individuals in the LGBTQ community certain deserves that label. In his sermon on November 3, Anderson said, “If you executed the homos like God recommends, you wouldn’t have all this AIDS running rampant.” He has expressed contempt for women, and his church opposes women’s reproductive rights. Anderson has also uploaded a series of YouTube sermons in which he spews speeches with anti-Semitic and anti-science messages. While the church’s name would appear to affiliate itself with the Baptist church, Faithful Word’s website states that it believes “only in the local church” and not in any overarching, universal Christian church or denomination. Another page of its website proudly claims that it is “totally independent.” Since his church claims to be acting independently, Anderson’s hateful rhetoric should not be seen as reflective of Christianity but instead as a manifestation of his own bigotry.
Groups such as the Phineas Priesthood and the Faithful Word Baptist Church might appear to be so outside the mainstream that they can be easy to dismiss. They are the fringe of the fringe—even extremist Christian groups consider these organizations to be too radical in their positions. But groups that ascribe to fanatical ideologies should not merely be disregarded but actively opposed, especially when they attempt to codify their prejudice into law. The Magnolia State Heritage Campaign is attempting to do just that with a ballot initiative that, among other things, would amend the Mississippi state constitution to establish Christianity as the state religion, institute a month dedicated to honoring the Confederacy, and decree English to be the state language. Though not yet included on the SPLC’s list of hate groups, the Magnolia State Heritage Campaign certainly fits its description of the Neo-Confederate ideology, which is much like Christian Identity and anti-LGBTQ hate groups in that it favors white supremacy and traditional gender roles while opposing rights for all others. Neo-Confederacy, also like the Phineas Priesthood and the Faithful Word Baptist Church, carries out its intolerance under the guise of promoting the United States’ Christian heritage. Though the initiative seems very unlikely to receive the signatures it needs to be included on the ballot, its intentions to create a state in which nontheists, religious minorities, people of color and immigrants are all unwelcome should be frightening to anyone, humanist or Christian.
What should also be disconcerting to anyone is the racism and homophobia that still exist even within mainstream America. This intolerance is what allows these hate groups to flourish and to use religion as a front for their zealotry. According to a 2014 study done by the Public Religion Research Institute, 13 percent of whites are troubled by idea that the majority of Americans are no longer white. The Public Religion Research Institute also conducted an experiment to assess individuals’ indirect attitudes toward non-whites and found that 31 percent of all white Americans harbor racist attitudes. A September 2014 study by the Pew Research Center also found that the number of Americans who view homosexuality as a sin had increased by 5 percent.
If we really want to combat the hatred of such groups, we must also examine our own biases and actively oppose bigotry in all of its forms in our society. We need to work toward creating a more equitable, accepting society where extremist hate groups will be thoroughly condemned by humanists and religious individuals so that they cannot use the label of “Christian” to hide their intolerance and malice.