Book Review: America’s Secret Jihad: The Hidden History of Religious Terrorism in the United States
by Stuart Wexler, Reviewed by Edwin A. Schwisow, September 30, 2015: As an Adventist I spent most of my early years in the United States’ Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, in my case) and became strongly aware of the connection among Religion, Reformation, and (in a whisper, now) Racism. Adventists that we were, we lived in small towns, usually out in the foothills, where we could escape the evil encroachments of asphalt and its sweltering summertime side-slurry.
During the 1950s those sleepy little towns seemed to be in umbilical synchronicity with Rip Van Winkle’s snooze. Things were very quiet as we pondered how much longer the crazed Communist Nikita Khrushchev would be restrained by divine favor, as he rattled his nuclear saber-heads and promised America free burial insurance from across the Straits.
Later I began writing professionally and interviewed at some length Sabbatarian families (not all Adventists) who espoused a “Patriot” point of view typical of many radical positions that opposed any and all influence of the Federal government and its claimed authority to ensure Civil Rights reforms in the United States.
It was at that time that I recognized that the small-government, anti-tax sentiments of these individuals were more than vaguely associated with Sabbatarianism; they were intrinsic to it. As the Internet came into its own, I was able to find literally dozens of small organizations that espoused worship on the seventh day, in addition to believing themselves to be members of a race of exceptional or even supreme destiny. The desire to remain racially pure and exceptionally perfect in performance of their calling was strong and fairly universal among these non-Adventist Sabbath-keepers in the wake of Waco and associated confrontations during the 1990s. In at least one case I was able to confirm that a non-Adventist Sabbatarian group was engaged in studies with an Adventist pastor, even as other lecturers came in to assure the people that only white folks are truly descended from Adam, as children of God. The rest are (according to the Christian Identity teachers) spawn of the devil, and possess the rib that Adam donated to form Eve (hence, the male offspring of Adam have one rib less at birth, a dead giveaway to their exceptionalism and divine parentage!)
Were groups such as these involved in fomenting terrorism? The domestic use of the term had not been fully defined in American culture at the time—we saw terrorism as an offshore problem related to Islam, not to Christianity. Was David Koresh of Waco a terrorist, or just a religious zealot who flouted law and order? By today’s standards, he qualified as a terrorist, for he abused, demeaned, and systematically broke down the personalities of his followers—particularly of women, children, and male heads of household. But the Patriots in Montana, while ready any day to write and forge bogus checks, had not yet become associated strongly with terrorism (other than through their strongly narcissistic belief in their own salvational role, as Aryans who were ordained by God to put the world aright—by whatever means it took. They also carried loaded firearms and allegedly used them in robberies to raise money).
In my meanderings as a writer, I met briefly in person with Vernon Howell, in New Orleans at a General Conference Session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and immediately caught a sense that the man was absolutely self-centered, narcissistic, and probably sociopathic. He was wrapped up entirely in his own insights about his mission as a latter-day (imperfect, sinful) Christ, and saw himself as a law unto himself in pursuit of his destiny. He quoted liberally from Ezekiel 13 and predicted that the streets of America would run with blood before the great and terrible Day of the Lord. I had never met Charles Manson, but had read about Manson’s apocalyptic vision and saw Koresh as a next-generation version of the killer who wanted blood to flow, so he (Manson) could step in, save the world and become its ruler.
Other American Tales
The book’s author, Stuart Wexler, does a good job piecing together the complex post-Civil War terrorist programs of such groups as the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, though in his writing on the Waco inferno, he seems to miss some central points of Koresh’s theology (borrowed from the Adventist Church and modified by Koresh). His writing in that chapter seems rushed and even confused; his sections on Civil Rights (granted, these situations went to court, unlike the final inferno of Koresh and his group) and the positions of the various groups and their religious convictions are contained in records and recordings that were not made or preserved in the case of Mt. Carmel, near Waco.
Wexler carefully goes through a litany of chapters, beginning with the early days of the US Christian Identity Movement, and moving through the integration struggles in the South, followed by the black militant reaction and onset of American terrorism from that source, culminating with apocalyptic religious terrorism, post 9/11.
It took the word “Jihad” several decades to make its way into our vocabulary, primarily in connection with the revolution in Iran that brought Islam to the fore in that rich and storied land. Gradually we learned that, more than just a “holy war” jihad had to do with submission of the will, to the point of giving one’s life for a cause of the heart. As we read reports of Muslims rejoicing at the prospect of martyrdom, we began to recognize that martyrdom can be a multi-edged sword. Those who died by the sword could also kill with the sword, and they could very well attack the kinds of souls we had always regarded as “good people.” Life after 1979 became very complex here in the Pacific Northwest, as Ayatollahs and Mullahs projected the same kind of unforgiving intensity we had earlier associated with Mr. Khrushchev.
The author’s prime point is that America has possessed jihadist propensities in its cultural soul for centuries, without recognizing that the combination of the Three Rs ( Religion, Racism, and Reformation) were essentially the same brew, domestically, as found in the Middle East.
These elements apparently transcend religions, but appear in more dynamic glory in highly dramatic spiritual curricula, emanating from the Abrahamic tradition.