WASHINGTON (ABP) — A former conservative Congressman and ordained Baptist minister says extremists like Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church and members of a Christian militia group arrested in Michigan for plotting to wage civil war against the United States are giving Christians a bad name and should be repudiated.
J.C. Watts, a former four-term Congressman from Oklahoma and the first black Republican elected to the U.S. House of Representatives since Reconstruction, said in a newspaper column that "depraved people" like Phelps and nine members of the self-named "Hutaree" charged with seditious conspiracy and other crimes help feed "a growing and troubling anti-Christian bigotry" that is sweeping across the nation.
Along with battles like "Merry Christmas" becoming politically incorrect and negative portrayals of Christians on television and in movies, Watts, now a business consultant who left Congress in 2002, said Christianity now has to contend with "nut cases hijacking the name 'Christian' while committing atrocities in the name of Christ."
Watts, a former youth minister and associate pastor at Sunnylane Baptist Church in Del City, Okla., said every Christian in America should be "outraged" by both the Christian militia and the independent Baptist congregation from Topeka, Kan., notorious for picketing funerals of American soldiers with placards including "God Hates Fags."
"Christians cannot allow the lines to be blurred, which is what the secularists want," said Watts, who spoke last August at the New Baptist Covenant Midwest Regional meeting in Norman, Okla. "Christians should denounce such groups because what these people are doing does not reconcile with true Christianity or biblical principles."
On April 7 Baptist Press carried a story repudiating Westboro Baptist Church that made it clear the small congregation composed mostly of members of the pastor's extended family is not affiliated in any way with the Southern Baptist Convention.
American Baptist Churches USA updated their webpage with a "news flash" denouncing Westboro Baptist Church's tactics and pointing out it is not an American Baptist church.
Media in Michigan, meanwhile, reported that David Brian Stone, 45, ringleader of the group accused of plotting to kill police officers, had attended Thornhill Baptist Church, a congregation in Hudson, Mich., affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Elton Spurgeon, pastor of Thornhill Baptist Church, told the Detroit News that Stone had attended infrequently for about eight years. Stone's 21-year-old son, Joshua, who is also named in a federal indictment unsealed March 29, had recently gotten married in the church, but Spurgeon did not officiate.
Both Spurgeon and his wife, Donna, said they did not condone the group's activities and had no clue about what was going on. They said they knew the family owned guns and wore camouflage but thought they were hunters.
Donna Spurgeon said she recently had lunch with Joshua Stone, who described himself as "second-in-command" to his father, but she did not know what he was talking about and thought it was odd.
Authorities say the Hutaree (pronounced Hu-TAR-ay), the name that Stone picked for the group, planned to kill an unspecified member of law enforcement and then ambush other officers by using homemade bombs to attack the funeral motorcade. They then would retreat to a staging area defended by booby traps. They hoped the attacks and retaliation would become a catalyst for other militia groups to engage in a more widespread uprising against the government.
Authorities don't know what the word Hutaree means. They suspect it is a made-up word with no meaning except reference to the group.
A Hutaree website defines the term as "Christian warrior."
"We believe that one day, as prophecy says, there will be an Anti-Christ," the website proclaims. "All Christians must know this and prepare, just as Christ commanded."
"Jesus wanted us to be ready to defend ourselves using the sword and stay alive using equipment," it continues. "We, the Hutaree, are prepared to defend all those who belong to Christ and save those who aren't. We will still spread the word, and fight to keep it, up to the time of the great coming."
The pastor of Thornhill Baptist Church says the group didn't get its religious views from him, but Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates, a liberal think tank that focuses on the political and Christian right, said the notion that the end times are an upcoming historical event is fairly common for a large segment of American Christianity.
Popularized in 1970 by Hal Lindsey whose book The Late Great Planet Earth has sold over 19 million copies, Berlet said about 30 percent to 40 percent of Americans believe the end is near and they watch for signs of the times for Christ's second coming.
It provides the theological basis for the Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, which have sold 70 million copies in the United States.
LeAnn Snow Flesher, a professor at the Baptist Seminary of the West, countered in a 2006 book at the Left Behind novels "perpetuate a massive misunderstanding of the nature of Scripture and how Scripture should be studied" and "create and support a separatist worldview in which all who disagree are deemed 'the enemy.'"
She said the book of Revelation, frequently quoted as Bible prophecy, does not contain a call to arms or contain any examples of human combat. In fact, she says the book's fundamental message is non-violent resistance to evil and faith in the power of suffering love as revealed through the cross of Christ.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been investigating the Hutaree since 2009, says that, said the 1990s saw the rise of several anti-government paramilitary groups, but they moderated after the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City's federal building that killed 168.
With the election of American's first black president, the group says the movement is back and this time, fueled by an influx of non-white immigrants, is more racialized.
In a report released in March, the SPLC documented 512 antigovernment "Patriot" groups, which include armed militias, operating by the end of 2009. That represents a 244 percent increase over the previous years count of 149. The number of militia groups rose from 42 in 2008 to 127 in 2009.
The SPLC documented a total of 75 domestic terrorism plots between the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and 2009. The majority of those plots were concocted by individuals with extreme antigovernment views.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.