Cult Violence and the Identity Movement

Cultic Studies Journal, 1990, Volume 7, Number 2, pages 150-159

Cult Violence and the Identity Movement

Thomas J. Young Ph.D.

Criminal Justice Department

Washburn University


Although most cults are not dangerous, some of the theopolitical cults associated with the Identity Movement have proven to be quite violent. These cults combine conspiracy theories, white supremacy, and religious survivalism into a theology of hatemongering and violence. By seeing others as evil and impure, Identity cult members engage in self-idealization. The cult leader also acts as a transitional object and helps members express their hostility.

Some have estimated that approximately three million Americans are involved in about 25M to 3,000 cult which vary in size from two dozen followers to thousands of ardent members (Saliba, 1987; Singer, 1978, 1979). Others, however, claim that “no evidence of the existence of a large number of religious groups, either cultic or otherwise, has been produced” (Melton, 1986, p.5). A more conservative count estimates that one can find some 500 to 600 cults in the United States, most of which have a few hundred members or less, resulting in an estimated membership total of 150,000 to 200,00. Furthermore, many of those who join cults tend to leave within a few years (Melton, 1986).

Although there is still considerable disagreement and confusion over the term "cult," several distinct features can be outlined. First, cults are generally led by authoritative, charismatic leaders who control the public and private lives of their followers (Wright & Wright, 1980). Second, cults typically bring about a fundamental change in the lifestyles of those who become members (Clark, 1979). Third, many cults are apocalyptic and members believe they are the chosen few who will survive the won approaching end of the world. Finally, cults tend to follow an “ends justify the means” philosophy (Rudin & Rudin, 1980).

Clearly, not all cults are the same. West and Singer (1980), for example, have stated that most of the new religious movements can be classified into ten types: (1) neo-Christian religious cults; (2) Hindu Eastern religious cults; (3) occult, witchcraft, and Satanism cults; (4) spiritualist cults; (5) Zen and other Sino-Japanese philosophical cults; (6) race cults; (7) flying saucer and outer-space cults; (8) psychological cults; (9) political cults; and (10) communal cults. Other scholars, such as Galanter (1982), have offered similar typologies.

In recent years cult-related violence, such as the Manson family killings (Livsey, 1980) and the murder/mass suicide incident at the People's Temple in Guyana (Dwyer, 1979; lea, 1982), has attracted considerable media attention. As a result, the public tends to perceive cult life as inherently dangerous and life-threatening. The evidence, however, does not support this view since most cults are apparently nonviolent (Melton, 1986). Nevertheless, some cults have shown a long-term tendency for violent confrontation and involvement in a variety of criminal activities (Raschke, 1990). A number of theopolitical cults associated with the so-called Identity Movement, for example, have proven to be especially violent. The findings of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B’rith (1983, 1986) and Melton (1986) undergird the following review and analysis of groups associated with the Identity Movement.

The Identity Movement

What is now referred to as the Identity Movement originated with Richard Brothers (1757-1824), a Canadian-born visionary. Brothers, who self-proclaimed a right to the throne of England as a descendant of King David, identified Anglo-Saxons as the literal descendants of the ten Northern tribes of ancient Israel and as God's chosen people. Since Brothers was eventually declared mentally deranged and committed to an asylum, his Anglo-Israelite hypothesis received little attention until the publication of Our Israelitish 0rigin by John Wilson in 1840. Although Anglo-Israelism gained support in Bible study circles throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, it did not find a large audience until the 1930S when WJ. Cameron became president of Howard B. Rand's Anglo-Saxon Federation of America. The federation, under the guidance of public relations executive Clarence S. Warner, promoted the development of Anglo-Israelite groups across the United States, some of which became large independent congregations and publishing centers for the movement. Following WWII, a new generation of Anglo-Israelite leaders emerged, including the infamous Gerald L.K Smith. In 1947 Smith formed the Christian Nationalist Crusade and published the Cross and the Flag. a violently anti-black/anti-Semitic periodical (Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, 1982,1983; Melton, 1986).

Today, the Identity Movement is composed of numerous independent ministries, each of which is built around one prominent minister who functions as leader, writer, and media spokesman. The largest ministry to share some affinity with the Identity Movement is The Worldwide Church of God, which grew out of the Seventh Day Church of God Movement under the leadership of Herbert W. Armstrong. The Worldwide Church of God claims approximately 100,000 members worldwide and publishes four international periodics including The Plain Truth which has a circulation in the millions. The church also produces a radio and television show called “The World Tomorrow," which is heard in English, Spanish, French and German. Unlike some of the more extreme Identity Movement ministries, the Worldwide Church of God is apparently nonviolent. Since the 1970s, however, the church has been involved in one controversy after another. For example, in 1974 Armstrong's son, Garner, was charged with multiple counts of sexual improprieties and in 1979 a group of former members filed suit against a number of the church leaders claiming fiscal mismanagement.

Within the Identity Movement is a violent wing that preaches white supremacy and paramilitary-religious survivalism. Many of these theopolitical cults have ties to various extremist hate-groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazi party, and the militant income tax protest group the Posse Comitatus. According to some estimates these Identity Movement ministries have approximately 10,000 to 20,000 members.

Over the Iast decade, the more extreme Identity Movement ministries have joined ranks with white supremacy groups in a recruitment campaign throughout the rural South and the Midwest. Their message to anomic whites who are poor or uncertain about their economic future is simple: the U.S. government is in a conspiracy with Jews and blacks against white people. A popular theme in their literature is that the Federal Reserve Board, which is allegedly controlled by Jews, has plotted to bankrupt farmers and take their land. Some Identity Movement leaders have encouraged farmers to engage in violent confrontation with law enforcement officials to prevent and/or protest foreclosure proceedings. One such case occurred on October 23, 1984, when Arthur Kirk, a farmer in Cairo, Nebraska, and a member of the Anti-Semitic National Agricultural Press Association, died in a shoot-out at his farm with a state law enforcement SWAT team. A state investigation of Kirk's violent confrontation and death uncovered a large amount of hate literature at the Kirk farm, which the special investigator described as “the thread of the whole thing” (Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith,


Perhaps the most notorious ministry within the Identity Movement is the Aryan Nations Church. The church, under the leadership of the Rev. Richard Butler, is openly tied to 10an and Nazi groups and describes itself as a white theopolitical movement whose goal is the reestablishment of white Aryan sovereignty. Specifically, Butler “teaches that the preservation of the white race is demanded and directed by Yahweh and that a battle is now being fought between the present-day children of darkness (i.e., the Jews) and the children of light (the Aryan race)” (Melton, 1986, p. 57). This group's adherence to violent nostrums has been documented repeatedly. For example, one member of the Aryan Nations Church is believed to have murdered Denver talk-show host Alan Berg, and another bombed a federal office building, a hardware store, and a fast-food restaurant (Reed, 1989).

In 1972 The Church of Israel was formed as a result of a schism in a small Mormon splinter group, the Church of Christ at Halley's Bluff, Missouri. In the 1960s one of the pastors for the Church of Christ Daniel Cayman, began to print his extreme racial views in the church's periodical and also used the church's youth camp as a military training ground for white supremacists. Although Gayman temporarily gained control of the congregation, a court ruling later returned almost all of the church property to former members of the congregation's priesthood. Following this incident, Gayman's supporters reincorporated and replaced the teachings of Joseph Smith with the Identity Movement's theology of white supremacy. Citing Genesis 3:15, Gayman teaches that whites have descended from Seth and are predestined to be part of God's family while blacks and Jews have descended from Cain, the child of Satan's impregnation of Eve (Melton, 1986).

Another far-right group within the Identity Movement is The Christian Conservative Church of America, which was founded by John R. Harrell in 1959 and is currently headquartered in Louisville, Illinois, in a full scale replica of Mt. Vernon. According to Harrell, the purpose of the church is to blend Christianity and patriotism to oppose Zionism and communism. The church teaches that the U.S. government is in imminent danger of collapse and advocates that white Christians should join forces for survival within a geographical area referred to as the “Golden Triangle” (i.e., the land between Pittsburgh; Atlanta; Lubbock, Texas; and Scottsbluff, Nebraska). Three auxiliary groups are associated with the church: the Christian-Patriots Defense League, which educates and organizes white Christian survivalists for the coming collapse; the Citizens Emergency Defense System, a private militia standing ready for the Collapse of the government; and the Paul Revere Club, which receives funds to support the other organizations.

A similar Identity Movement ministry is The Covenant, the Sword, the Arm of the Lord (C.S.A.), founded in 1976 by the Rev. Jim Ellison from San Antonio, Texas. C.S.A. also foresees the collapse of the U.S. government and a major internal war in which white Christians will be set against Jews, blacks, homosexuals, Satanists, and foreign enemies in the battle of Armageddon. In preparation for this battle, Ellison established a survivalist commune near the Arkansas-Missouri border. The commune produces its own food and income is derived from courses on Christian military tactics and survivalism. Over the past decade, C.S.A. has apparently been at the center of a number of violent crimes. In 1983, Gordon Kahl, a Posse Comitatus leader wanted for the murder of three U.S. Marshals and the attempted murder of three other law enforcement officers, died in a shoot-out with a sheriff near the C.S.A. commune. The following year, Richard N. Snell, a former resident at C.S.A., was arrested and convicted for murdering an Arkansas state trooper, and in 1985 Ellison and several other C.S.A. members were arrested and convicted on racketeering charges.

Despite their recruitment efforts, most of the Identity Movement ministries have enjoyed only a limited degree of success. In fact, some have lost members due to the imprisonment of their leaders. Nevertheless, as the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (1986) has pointed out, “general failure of results does not rule out specific dangers” (p.1). The potential for cult violence in the Identity Movement is illustrated in the case of Michael Ryan (State of Nebraska v. Ryan, 1986).

The Michael Ryan Case

From 1984-1985 Michael Ryan was the leader of a religious-survivalist cult located on a farm near Rulo, Nebraska. The cult, which consisted of about 20 adults and children, followed the teachings of the Identity Movement and was also influenced by James Wickstrom, the national director of counterinsurgency for the Posse Comitatus.

In keeping with the philosophy of the Identity Movement, Ryan and his followers believed they were part of the chosen few, the true Israelites, who would play a role in the battle of Armageddon. In preparation for the ultimate confrontation between good (i.e., white Christian survivalists) and evil (i.e., Jews, blacks, homosexual judges, and law enforcement officials) Ryan ran his cult in a paramilitary manner. Men were given military ranks and other titles ranging from slave to Michael Ryan's status of six-star general and king. Ryan's sixteen-year-old son, Dennis, held the rank of high prince. Cult members were trained in Christian military tactics, which in part consisted of Michael Ryan's shooting at his followers. Food, military clothing, and weapons were stockpiled at the farm, all of which were made possible through the theft of cattle and farm machinery. Audiotapes of Wickstrom and the movie “Red Dawn” (in which Soviets invade a small U.S. town) were played constantly at the farm to reinforce the cult's anticipation of Armageddon.

Life at the Ryan farm revolved around the use of an arm test in which one person would apply pressure on the arm of another. The arm test allowed members to communicate with Yahweh and was used to guide every aspect of the cult's activities, including routine matters, such as what to eat and wear. The group abstained from alcohol, smoked marijuana frequently, and engaged in polygamy, bestiality, and homosexuality. Michael Ryan had five wives, four of whom he married in unofficial ceremonies, and three children. His oldest son, Dennis, was taught to avoid erections by thinking about Yahweh, Armageddon, and killing blacks and Jews.

In August, 1985, federal state, and local law enforcement officials raided the Ryan farm. In addition to finding a large cache of weapons (39 handguns and rifles) and hate-literature, two bodies were discovered in unmarked graves. Luke Stice, a five-year-old child, was apparently killed after his father, the cult's former leader and original owner of the farm, was forced to have sex with his son, another male cult member, and a goat. The other victim was twenty-five-year-old James Thimm.

Court testimony indicates that Thimm was tortured in a hog shed over a two day period by the Ryans and three other cult members. Michael Ryan ordered and directed the punishment because he felt Thimm had “bad thoughts” and had once poisoned a turkey. For atonement, the cult forced Thimm to have sex with a goat and repeatedly inserted a shovel handle into his rectum. On the day Thimm died, the five cult members took turns whipping his bare back for about thirty minutes. Each of the five also shot Thimm's fingertips with a pistol.

Despite his torture, Thimm allegedly apologized to the cult and asked for forgiveness. The elder Ryan told Thimm that he was going to die because Yahweh “wasn't fooling around.” Michael Ryan then kicked one of Thimm's arms until it broke, and Dennis Ryan broke one of his legs with a wooden board. Next, Michael Ryan proceeded to kick Thimm in the head and then jumped up and down on his chest, crushing Thimm's ribs and killing him. Later, the thirty-seven-year-old Ryan used a razor blade and pliers to strip an eight-inch piece of skin from one of Thimm's legs. After the cult members had lunch, Thimm's body was placed in a grave and Michael Ryan ordered another farm resident to shoot their already dead victim in the head with a .45 caliber pistol.

Legal counsel for the Ryans used the insanity plea as the main argument in their defense. Several psychologists and a couple of psychiatrists for the defense testified that Michael Ryan suffered from a paranoid disorder or paranoid schizophrenia, while Dennis Ryan was said to have a dependent personality which resulted in a shared-psychosis. A prosecution witness, an associate professor of psychiatry at Creighton University Medical School, contradicted the clinical picture offered by the defense by testifying that there was no evidence that either Ryan was mentally incapacitated during Thimm's slaying. Sadistic tendencies, not mental illness, drove the Ryans to torture and kill Thimm, the psychiatrist testified. The jury agreed with the prosecution's clinical expert and found Michael Ryan guilty of first-degree murder and Dennis Ryan guilty of second-degree murder. The other defendants turned state's evidence and were prosecuted at lesser charges as part of their plea-bargain arrangement.


Freud noted that conspiratorial beliefs explain away personal weaknesses, failures, and inadequacies and thereby maintain an unrealistic self-concept (Cameron, 1959). That is, adherence to a conspiracy theory allows a person to see himself or herself as perfect and infallible in comparison to others who are seen as evil and defective. To perceive oneself as pure, impure feelings and impulses must be projected into the world where they become embodied in others. Furthermore, when “deserved” success does not materialize, it is obviously “they” who stand in the way of advancement (Toch, 1965).

Adherence to the Identity Movement allows members to see themselves as “the chosen few” and as such the last hope for civilization. This type of view divides the world into two categories: an idealized group to which the person belongs and an immense human garbage pail comprised of all others. Behind the exaltation of “we,” however, is self-idealization. In this case the ever narrowing in-group would be as follows: whites, Americans, Christians, and finally -- 1. In other words, the in-group provides members with a standard of measurement that makes them appear perfect (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950).

Cults such as those in the Identity Movement probably attract people who are searching for a "magic helper.” As Fromm (1941) noted, people have a tendency to fuse themselves with something or somebody in order to acquire the strength they believe they lack. When an authoritarian cult leader assumes this role, followers endow him/her with magical qualities -- the more the idealized other possesses, the more secure the follower feels.

Similarly, the cult leader may serve as a transitional object for people who are in a transition between developmental stages (Wright & Wright, 1980). For example, a young person who joins a cult may separate from the family of origin while at the same time retaining a parental figure and a surrogate family.

As a transitional object, cult leaders may also help members express hostile impulses. One study found that cult members tend to score high on “overcontrolled hostility” (Ungerleider & WeUis* 1979). When the cult leader initiates an antisocial act, however, cult members become free to act in a guiltless and violent way. The cult leader makes it possible for others to do what they always wanted to do but were forbidden by internalized norms.


Adorno, T.W, Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, DJ., & Sanford, R.N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (1982). Hate groups in America. New York: ADL.

Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (1983). The Identify churches.- A theology of hate. New York: ADL.

Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (1986). The American farmer and the extremists. New York: ADL.

Cameron, N. (1959). Paranoid conditions in paranoia. In S. Arieti (Ed.), American handbook of psychiatry Volume I (pp. 512-519). New York: Basic.

Clark, J.G. (1979). Cults. Journal of the American Medical Association,; 242,279-281.

Dwyer, P.M. (1979). An inquiry into the psychological dimension of cult suicide. Suicide and life4hreatening Behavior, 9, 120-127.

Fromm, E. (1941). Escape from freedom. New York. Rinehart & Winston.

Galanter, M. (1982). Charismatic religious sects and psychiatry. An overview. American Journal of Psychiatry, 139, 1538-15M.

Lea, G. (1982). Religion, mental health, and clinical issues. Journal of Religion and Health, 21, 336-351.

Livsey, C. (1980). The Manson women: A family portrait.. New York: Richard Murek.

Melton, GJ. (1986). Encyclopedic handbook of cults. New York: Garland.

Raschke, C. (1990). Painted black. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Reed, B. (1989, July 3). Nazi retreat. The New Republic 10-11.

Rudin, A. J., & Rudin, M. (1980). Prison or paradise. The new religious cults. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress.

Saliba, JA. (1987). Psychiatry and the cults: An annotated bibliography. New York: Garland.

Singer, M.T. (1978). Therapy with ex-cult members. National Association of Private Psychiatric Hospitals Journal. 4 9, 15-19.

Singer, M.T. (1979, January). Coming out of the cults. Psychology Today, 72-83.

State of Nebraska v. Michael Ryan, 22 Neb 875, 387 N.W. 2d 705 (1986).

Toch, H. (1965). The social psychology of social movements. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

Ungerleider, J.T., & Wellisch, D.K (1979). Coercive persuasion (brain washing), religious cults, and deprogramming. American Journal of Psychiatry, 136, 279-282.

West, L.J., & Singer, M.T. (1980). Cults, quacks, and non-professional psychotherapies. In H. Kaplan, A. Freedman, & B. Sadock (Eds.), Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry Volume III (pp. 3245-3258). Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins.

Wright, F., & Wright, P. (1980). The charismatic leader and the violent surrogate family Annals of New York Academy of Sciences, 347, 266-276.

Thomas J. Young, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Washburn University. He received his doctorate in Psychological and Cultural Studies from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and completed two years of postdoctoral study in Developmental Psychology at the University of Kansas.