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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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    The Hutaree website seems to be long on poor design choices and short on details, though this page notes their opposition to belief in a pre-Tribulation rapture (i.e. the “Left Behind” in the Left Behind books):
    http://www.hutaree.com/ezrafiles.htm

    That seems significant, since it’s one of the few direct theological statements on their website, as well as a belief that sets them apart from many other conservative Christians. It would be nice to have some quotes from theologians or sociologists of religion explaining why this would be a big deal and how it might affect their survivalist mentality. But a journalist who’s not familiar with the various flavors of eschatology might not pick up on the “pre-trib” reference.

  • Jon in the Nati

    because all creedal believers are “apocalyptic Christians.”

    This may be true, but it is also misleading, TMATT. With all respect (because I do respect you and your work), surely, as an Orthodox Christian, you know that a colossal range of theories exist in the arena of Christian eschatology, and most of them fall outside the realm of those held by the ancient churches and old-line Protestants. Certainly, all creedal Christians believe in the eventual Second Coming, but the idea of the Rapture, and a war with a political-religious figure known as the Antichrist, and various other “literal” interpretations of the Revelation of St. John such as those of the Left Behind crowd, are of relatively recent vintage, and almost the exclusive province of modern American evangelical Protestantism.

    I don’t want to make this about theology, but simply saying that these people are “apocalyptic” is not enough. And if you want to point out that “all creedal Christians are apocalyptic” since it is in the Nicene Creed, then it is probably important to point out that these folks are not “apocalyptic” in the same way as most mainstream Christians.

  • Harris

    I would wonder if the NYT took its tack because of the evolution of the group. An interview with the divorced wife (Detroit News reporter, on NPR) noted that the group began as a kind of Bible study, but grew increasingly violent — that was the reason she walked out.

    The choice of target — police — also belies the usual millenialism. Had their target been as first reported, members of the Arab community in nearby Dearborn, then the religious roots would be more significant. For now, it seems that religion is but a cover for a different, more secular martyrdom.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JON:

    I could not agree more.

    I said that the SUBJECT is not something that creedal Christians would avoid or find strange, not that many, many of the beliefs out there in wider Christendom are not strange — strange indeed.

    The SUBJECT. The subject of the doctrines.

  • Roberto Rivera

    This not a subject that traditional Christians are afraid to discuss, because all creedal believers are “apocalyptic Christians.”

    “Apocalyptic?” or “eschatological?” The Nicene creed makes eschatological claims but it doesn’t contain language like that of the more, err, colorful parts of Daniel and Revelation.

    I agree that we could all benefit from an exploration of the various ways that Christians interpret “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and His kingdom will have no end.” People will more, err, colorful takes on the subject make better copy and have a way of crowding out other believers when the subject you refer to is discussed in the media.

  • Jerry

    One thing I like to do with stories such as this is to do word substitutions to see what they sound like from another perspective. Change the group into a small Islamic group who expects the coming of the false prophet, Dajjal, and which is preparing for a final battle with infidels by arming themselves to conduct jihad once the end time arrives.

    Further let’s assume that the same arrest happens with the same allegation of learning how to make IEDs, planning to attack a police officer and then, following the middle-eastern pattern, ambush those who arrive on the scene.

    What would the media reports look like and what would people be saying about such a group?

    From a journalistic perspective, the reports should of course be identical save for any explanation needed about the specific theology of the group.

    You can draw your own conclusions about the journalistic quality of how this story hsa been covered compared to stories involving Muslim terrorist groups.

  • Jon in the Nati

    I said that the SUBJECT is not something that creedal Christians would avoid or find strange, not that many, many of the beliefs out there in wider Christendom are not strange — strange indeed.

    The SUBJECT. The subject of the doctrines.

    Gotcha, TMATT.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    RR:

    “Apocalyptic?” or “eschatological?”

    That is a great, great point.

    Wouldn’t you say that we do believe that the physical world is — aging sun blowing up at the least — heading toward an apocalypse of some kind?

  • Dale

    tmatt:

    If I’m not mistaken, “apocalypse” roughly translates as “revelation”, even if the word is popularly used to mean a sudden end to civilization or the cosmos. So apocalyptic literature is that which describes the revealing of God in the physical world (thus the need for extensive metaphor and allegory–how else do you describe the indescribable?).

    If this “Christian militia” is expects to take on the Antichrist, one might suspect that it’s not expecting God to reveal Himself. So I don’t know if “apocalyptic” is the appropriate word here.

  • Jon in the Nati

    So I don’t know if “apocalyptic” is the appropriate word here.

    It is appropriate. While you certainly are correct about the Greek roots of the word, but that really matters little, because it has largely lost that meaning among the vast majority of people. Given that journalism is, almost by definition, for the masses, one must pay attention to the meaning that a word carries in common parlance, and what it means to most people most of the time.

    Words have meaning; see, e.g., GetReligion’s ongoing (and justly waged) war for proper use of the word “fundamentalism” in media stories about religion.

  • http://blog.chasclifton.com Chas Clifton

    Tmatt’s post makes good points about how the descriptor “Christian” in “Christian milita” ought to be unpacked.

    Well, don’t hold your breath.

    When it comes to the so-called militias, here is how the stories are covered.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    One side point regarding journalism – It’s a hilarious double-standard that you actually have to pick up a gun and kill somebody to be considered a ‘militant’ believer, but all you have to do to be considered a ‘militant’ atheist is write a book.

    I’m aware that ‘militant’ can mean either ‘physically violent’ or just ‘vocally aggressive’. But somehow, when it comes to religious topics, that second definition only seems to get applied to atheists. Nobody seems to call, say, Bill Donohue a ‘militant’ Catholic – despite the fact that his declarations contain at least as much vehemence as, say, P.Z. Myers.

    No, outside of a few inside-baseball ‘church militant’ references, the only time you’ll hear anyone say ‘militant Christian’ is when they’re talking about freaks like these Hutaree schmucks.

  • Roberto Rivera

    Wouldn’t you say that we do believe that the physical world is — aging sun blowing up at the least — heading toward an apocalypse of some kind?

    Yes, and, believe me, like Alvy Singer, I think about this kind of stuff all the time. “Our sun only has 5 billion years worth of nuclear fuel left!”

  • Jerry

    Someone else had a similar take to mine with the difference at how this Christian militia was covered compared to how similar Muslim groups are covered: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/yasmin-mogahed/are-all-christians-militi_b_519968.html

  • Jon in the Nati

    Isn’t journalism supposed to raise questions, and then let readers decide for themselves based on what they read?

    Luckily, I am not planning that far in advance…

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    I know nothing about this group, but when I lived in the coal mining region of PA, some good old boys were arrested for planning to blow up a local dam…locals were amused by the story, and I asked one patient why no one was upset.

    Ah, he said, it’s general knowledge that if someone hearing you talk against the government comes up and suggests that you bomb something, the guy is probably from the FBI…
    ;-)