Some are viewing accused Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Robert Rudolph as a “Christian terrorist.”
The question, as posed Monday in the Washington Post, is not just whether the 36-year-old Rudolph is a terrorist, or if he considers himself a Christian, but whether his alleged crimes were motivated by his beliefs. Investigators link Rudolph to the extremist “Christian Identity” movement and suspect he got many of his supposed anti-government, anti-abortion, anti-homosexual and white-supremacist ideas from there.
Rudolph’s arrest over the weekend ended a five-year hunt for the man described as the most notorious American fugitive on the FBI’s “Most Wanted List.” A survivalist and former soldier, he is presumed to have been hiding in densely forested mountains until his arrest Saturday in Murphy, N.C.
He is accused of killing two people and wounding more than 150 others in four bombings between 1996 and 1998. Police believe Rudolph wrote letters claiming responsibility for the bombings and declaring war on America, signed by a group called the Army of God.
“Based on what we know of Rudolph so far, and admittedly it’s fragmentary, there seems to be a fairly high likelihood that he can legitimately be called a Christian terrorist,” said Syracuse University professor Michael Barkun, quoted in the newspaper.
One of Rudolph’s alleged victims tended to agree.
“You don’t have to go to the Middle East to find terrorists,” Emily Lyons, a nurse seriously injured in Rudolph’s alleged bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Ala., told The Associated Press. “Rudolph is one of them. He terrorized and he murdered. I know he can’t hurt anyone anymore.”
Others object to the term “Christian terrorist,” saying beliefs like those attributed to Rudolph have nothing to do with Christianity. Gospelcom.net, an evangelical Web site, labels Christian Identity beliefs as “far astray from those of mainstream Christianity and … repellent to average Americans.”
Professor James Aho from Idaho State University told the Post he prefers to use the term “religiously inspired terrorist” for people like Rudolph. He said Christians who object to seeing the words “Christian” and “terrorist” used together might understand how Muslims feel when they hear the term “Islamic terrorism,” especially since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Religiously inspired terrorism is a worldwide phenomenon, and every major world religion has people who have appropriated the label of their religion in order to legitimize their violence,” Aho said.
The Christian Identity label describes a number of extremely conservative Christian churches and religious organizations, right-wing political groups and survivalists, according to ReligiousTolerance.org.
The largest Christian Identity movement has traditionally been the Ku Klux Klan, which was started and later disbanded by Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest just after the Civil War and restarted in 1915 by William Simmons, a Christian preacher inspired by the D.W. Griffith film “Birth of a Nation.”
Barkun estimates that as many as 50,000 people in the United States embrace the theology, which is anti-Semitic and racist. Their core belief is that Anglo-Saxons are the direct descendants of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel, and thereby are the true “chosen people” of God.
Rudolph is believed to be responsible for the 1996 bombing in Atlanta’s Olympic Park, blasts at an Atlanta-area health clinic and lesbian nightclub in 1997 and the 1998 bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Ala.
Rudolph’s mother, Patricia Rudolph, said in USA Today that she believes her son is innocent and the government has lied about him. Describing herself as a “pacifist” and a “Christian,” she said her son wasn’t taught violence in the home, that he never discussed abortion with her and has a brother who is gay, so she doesn’t think he would target a homosexual nightclub for attack.
Former sister-in-law Deborah Rudolph, who helped investigators develop a profile of the suspect, said on NBC’s “Today” show that she wouldn’t call him a white “supremacist” as much as a “separatist,” who opposed mingling of the races.
She said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that Rudolph opposed abortion because it killed too many white babies and that he had particularly harsh feelings for Jews.
“I think he hated the Jews more than probably any other race,” she said. “He felt that, you know, they’ve been run out of every country they’ve ever been in. They’ve destroyed every country they’ve ever been in. They have too much control in our country. ”
Much of the talk about Rudolph’s Christian Identity influences stems from time he spent with the separatist Church of Israel, an all-white, invitation-only church community near Schell City, Mo.
In 1984, when he was 18, Rudolph and his brother Jamie were brought to the Church of Israel compound by their mother. Patricia Rudolph had previously spent time with Nord Davis, a Christian Identity leader in North Carolina, who put the family in contact with Church of Israel pastor Dan Gayman because he believed the church could help them financially.
Gayman claims the Rudolphs were there for only a short time and kept to themselves most of the time. He said there was no reason to turn them away and he would have helped the family even if she were black.
Gayman’s estranged son and daughter-in-law, however, say the pastor is lying about his relationship to Rudolph. They and Eric’s younger brother say Rudolph idolized Gayman, saw him as a father figure and formulated much of his political philosophy while living there.
Tim and Sarah Gayman left the church in 1991. They say it is a dangerous cult and a breeding ground for hate. They say others have been taught to shun birth certificates, Social Security numbers and marriage licenses. Police say one reason it took so long to find Rudolph is his rejection of modern items like credit cards, which normally leave a paper trail.
Dan Gayman dislikes the term “Christian Identity” and refers to his followers instead as “Christian Israelites.” He is credited with coming up with the “two seedline doctrine,” a belief that Anglo-Saxons are descended from the biblical Adam and Eve, and that Jews derive from an adulterous union between Eve and Satan.
Gayman claims that his church teaches non-violence and that members are persecuted for their beliefs. “We very clearly and emphatically teach that all Christians have a duty and an obligation to respect law enforcement authorities,” Gayman told the Washington Post. “If Eric Rudolph had listened to his lessons here, he would have learned that acts of violence were absolutely and completely out of order and something this church would never have condoned.”
In a 2001 interview with the Joplin (Mo.) Globe, however, Gayman’s daughter-in-law offered a different view. “Regardless of what he says now,” Sarah Gayman said, “I’ll bet Dan Gayman was jumping up and down with joy when he heard about the bombing.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Bob Allen was the managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, writing more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure. He is currently the news editor at Baptist News Global.