Probing the apocalypse in rural Michigan

The headline on the MSNBC version of an Associated Press report out of Michigan was blunt:

Christian militia target of FBI raids?

As you would expect, the top of the story backed that up.

ADRIAN, Mich. -- The FBI said ... that agents conducted weekend raids in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio and arrested at least three people, and a militia leader in Michigan said the target of at least one of the raids was a Christian militia group. ...

Michael Lackomar, a spokesman for the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia, said one of his team leaders got a frantic phone call Saturday evening from members of Hutaree, a Christian militia group, who said their property in southwest Michigan was being raided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Meanwhile, a corresponding story at the New York Times took a slightly different approach, at least in the early presentation of basic facts. The headline on this report said:

Militia Charged With Plotting to Murder Officers

Then the story begins like this:

CLAYTON, Mich. -- David B. Stone Sr. and his wife, Tina, made no secret about the fact that they were part of a militia, neighbors say. The couple frequently let visitors in military fatigues erect tents in front of their trailer home at the intersection of rural dirt roads, and the sound of gunfire was routine.

"In Michigan, I don't think it's that big of a deal to be in a militia," said Tom McDormett, a neighbor. He added: "They would practice shooting, but that's not a big deal. People do that all the time out here."

But last Saturday night, Mr. McDormett watched through binoculars as the police raided the Stones' home, tearing off plywood from the base of their two connected single-wide trailers to search under the floors. By Monday, the Stones were in green prison garb in a federal courthouse in Detroit, two of nine defendants facing sedition and weapons charges in connection with what Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called an "insidious plan."

There is, of course, a big difference between these two headlines, and the top paragraphs in the two stories. The difference is the word "Christian." The edge in the AP story is that this is a "Christian" militia group, not merely a generic militia group.

There is, of course, no way around that using that label, to one degree or another, to describe a group of people who wear their approach to Christianity on the sleeves of their fatigues. There is no way to avoid the word "Christian" in this story, just as there is no way to avoid discussing the Islamic beliefs and motives of the members of many militant Islamic groups around the world. At some point you have to quote people when they offer, in their own words, their own justifications for their own acts.

It's painful, but it's the facts. The Times report introduces the word "Christian" rather carefully, linking it with a crucial adjective.

In an indictment against the nine ... the Justice Department said they were part of a group of apocalyptic Christian militants who were plotting to kill law enforcement officers in hopes of inciting an antigovernment uprising, the latest in a recent surge in right-wing militia activity.

The court filing said the group, which called itself the Hutaree, planned to kill an unidentified law enforcement officer and then bomb the funeral caravan using improvised explosive devices based on designs used against American troops by insurgents in Iraq. ...

The Hutaree -- a word Mr. Stone apparently made up to mean Christian warriors -- saw the local police as "foot soldiers" for the federal government, which the group viewed as its enemy, along with other participants in what the group's members deemed to be a "New World Order" working on behalf of the Antichrist, the indictment said.

Later, we learn that the Hutaree's online publications stress religious issues more than secular politics. Their nominee for Antichrist status, for example, resides in Europe -- not in the White House. This is precisely the kind of details that readers need.

It's painful to read, but there's more:

Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a liberal-leaning nonprofit group that tracks far-right networks, said the Hutaree's philosophy was drawn from a populist strand that fuses fear of a conspiracy to create a one-world government with a belief that a war is imminent between Christians and the Antichrist, as described in the Bible's Book of Revelation. ...

The Hutaree Web site features the motto "Preparing for the end time battles to keep the testimony of Jesus Christ alive" and a video showing rifle-toting men in camouflage running through woods and firing weapons. "Jesus wanted us to be ready to defend ourselves using the sword and stay alive using equipment," the Web site says, adding, "The Hutaree will one day see its enemy and meet him on the battlefield if so God wills it."

So where do we go from here?

If the goal is to learn more about the role that religion plays in this group's view of the world, I think it will be crucial for the Times to talk to conservative theologians who are very familiar with these kinds of beliefs and have rejected them. Too often, the press heads to academic institutions on the left side of the academic, political and religious aisle and then asks the experts from these institutions to interpret the beliefs of people from groups on the outer edges of the right-wing world. This is something like asking scholars at Pat Robertson's Regent University -- alone -- for insights into what went wrong with the liberal rebels at Jonestown.

It will also help to ask specific religious questions: Did these people go to church? Are they Pentecostals, independent Baptists, fringe Presbyterians or what? What religious books were found on the premises? Did this group have its own self-appointed clergy? Where did those clergy study, if they went to seminary? Had the Hutaree leaders become independent operators, perhaps after being tossed out of traditional churches or Christian organizations because of their extreme beliefs (as has been the case in almost all cases of violence against abortionists and abortion facilities)?

Clearly, religion is a major part of this story. Talk to experts on both sides and search for the kinds of facts and details that shed light as well as heat. Don't be afraid to ask doctrinal questions and then seek explanations. The Second Coming of Jesus Christ is in the Nicene Creed. This not a subject that traditional Christians are afraid to discuss, because all creedal believers are "apocalyptic Christians." That does not mean that their beliefs resemble those being proclaimed by the violent militants holed up in the wilds of Michigan.

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