It is nearly 50 years since the chaos of the “Birmingham Summer,” and people still burn crosses here in Alabama. Does anybody want to talk about progress?
As though there weren’t enough pyrotechnics for the Fourth of July weekend, over in the town of Beaverton, in Lamar County, an organization called Church of God’s Chosen capped off its three-day “Annual Pastors Conference” with a “Sacred Christian Cross Lighting Ceremony.” If you wonder why a church in the Bible Belt would choose to set fire to the icon of the Son of God’s crucifixion, the answer could be gleaned from a flyer that advertised the event, and a phrase upon it: “All White Christians Invited.”
The pastor of Church of God’s Chosen is Rev. William Collier, and he believes that God’s chosen are “the white race,” as he told Alan Collins of Fox 6 News. According to Collier, the invitation to whites-only was a response to not having received any invitations to black, Muslim or Jewish events. Besides, as he explained, “We don’t have the facilities to accommodate other people.”
The unusual theology espoused by this church and others like it is termed “Christian Identity,” which sounds innocuous until you start delving into exactly what that means. It’s a spinoff of something called Anglo-Israelism, a theory hatched in Great Britain suggesting that the Lost Tribes of Israel busted out of captivity in Assyria circa 600 B.C. and made their way to southeastern Europe, where they became the Saxons who invaded England 400 to 600 years after Christ. With these precepts folded into a tide of anti-Semitism flooding America in the 1930s, the theory’s advocates made the case that Jews in America were “false” Israelites and that white Europeans were the real deal.
This was appealing stuff to one Wesley Swift, a charismatic preacher who used the theory, under a new name, Christian Identity, as part of the foundation in the 1940s of what would become the Church of Jesus Christ Christian. Its theology was appealing to racial extremists, including many members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The KKK was originally founded after the end of the Civil War to terrorize carpetbaggers, scalawags and newly freed slaves, but its initial impetus petered out in the early 1870s. Reborn as an all-purpose hate group in the early 20th century, the Klan incorporated cross burning into its pageantry but cloaked the pagan rite in Christian ceremony, reciting prayers and singing hymns such as “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “The Old Rugged Cross.” (Wyn C. Wade, in his KKK history, The Fiery Cross, cited an ominous foreshadowing of the Birmingham Summer, when Klansmen in the mining country of Pennsylvania would light dynamite charges along with their crosses.)
Thus did the religion of love and the practice of hatred become evilly entwined, to the point at which a church in west Alabama in the 21st century could straightfacedly convene a conference of Christians excluding any believers possessed of the wrong pigmentation.
To answer your question, yes, they can get away with it.
The U.S. Constitution is often an inconvenient document. It permits citizens to utter vile and repugnant speech while allowing religious institutions to worship whatever they please. The framers of the document were pretty serious about this; they put these rights at the top of the list.
To answer your other question, they’re just average folks. People who hate other people with differing skin tones don’t generally sport horns and tails. Their general motivation is fear – fear of otherness, fear of the unknown, fear of what they don’t understand. They tend to be undereducated and to be on the low side of the economic scale, but don’t be fooled by the stereotype. You can find haters in Mountain Brook as easily as in Beaverton.
The followers of Christian Identity churches seek religious justification for their prejudices, which often include not just racial but anti-government animus, making these people a source of concern for groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the latter of which has noted, “Christian Identity is not inherently violent, but individual believers have been involved in many violent incidents and have sometimes advocated violence.” (Convicted Birmingham abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph was one such believer, though, according to his sister-in-law, he was fonder of pot smoking than of church attendance.)
The keynote speaker for the Annual Pastors Conference, Rev. Mel Lewis of Christian Identity Ministries, told curious TV videographers that the conference wasn’t breaking any laws. Indeed, the schedule for the three-day event even included games of horseshoes for the attendees to play, interspersed among messages on “A Christian Nation” and “Resistance.” Then, Friday evening, in the torrid outback of Lamar County, a little group of people, who believe themselves to have been chosen by God because their skin is white, set fire to a cross. It may not have been much of a blaze, but it was a reminder that, for too many people, the fires of hatred are never banked. And for the world outside Beaverton, the words “Alabama” and “for whites only” were joined together again in the shadows of a burning cross. Does anybody want to talk about progress?