Behind a Recent Stunt in Idaho Lies a Dangerous Theocratic Movement

From a Black Rifle Real Estate Craigslist ad.

Last Tuesday, just days before Idaho became one of a handful states to see a record high in new COVID-19 cases, 15 Republican members of the Idaho House of Representatives went rogue, gathering in the House chambers for what they had billed as an “extraordinary session” of the state legislature called to rein in what they claim is the overstepping of authority by Governor Brad Little, also a Republican, in his response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The gathering was “protected” by heavily-armed men, including infamous “Vanilla ISIS” terrorist Ammon Bundy, a Mormon anti-government extremist who led the occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. Having failed to gain the backing of the state GOP apparatus or of any state senators, the small group of extremist legislators ultimately admitted that they did not have a quorum. Nevertheless, they grandstanded and read the proclamation they’d put out claiming that Governor Little’s handling of the coronavirus crisis was unconstitutional, particularly with respect to the spending of federal money and the issue of contact tracing.

It’s a somewhat impressive feat to be right of center in the already quite red and theocratically-inclined Idaho GOP. After all, in March, the state passed two bills enshrining discrimination against transgender people into law, prompting California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to add Idaho to a list of states banned by California from taxpayer-funded travel. But, representing a sort of nexus of New World Order conspiracy theories, apocalyptic Christianity, (often not overt) white supremacism, and gun-toting militia members, the legislators involved in the June 23 stunt managed to pull it off.

“I feel that the Republican Party in my state right now has been taken over by anti-government libertarians, and it is very split,” explains local political organizer Alicia Abbott, who works with an initiative called Reclaim Idaho, in a phone interview with RD. An entrepreneurial professional home builder and remodeler, Abbott focuses her advocacy on issues like Medicaid expansion and improving education rather than on candidates or parties. 

While she’s quick to point out that she’s not a journalist, Abbott feels compelled to do what she can to observe, document, and raise awareness of the extremist, conspiratorial, and theocratic positions and related activities of certain Idaho state politicians and their supporters. When she does so, she finds that many of their constituents don’t like what they see. Indeed, evidence of more mainstream Idahoan conservative frustration with the radicals can easily be found online.

In an op-ed on the events of June 23, Idaho Statesman opinion editor Scott McIntosh described the rogue session as exhibiting “all of the passion and religious fervor of a good Sunday service.” McIntosh’s choice of words is neither accidental nor unique. Abbott, who posted video of the event via Facebook Live, has taken to calling such spectacles “political sermons,” and she sees the threat posed by Idaho’s far-right radicals as theocratic at its core, an assessment essentially in agreement with analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

While he didn’t exactly preach a sermon at the June 23 session, Idaho State Representative Tim Remington, senior pastor of a “non-denominational Bible teaching” church in Coeur D’Alene called The Altar, did open and close the unsanctioned event in prayer. Remington was appointed to his seat by Governor Little after its previous occupant, John Green, was removed because of a felony tax fraud conviction.

Remington’s church may be non-denominational, but it’s clearly fundamentalist. The Altar’s website, for example, calls evolution a “lie,” and claims to demonstrate that this foundational scientific theory is “unscientific” by citing Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. The site further laments, “The sad part is they [scientists] refuse to accept the Genesis account of Creation [sic.], because that would mean they are responsible to God.” This rhetoric, which slides from supposed concern with science into (equally nonsensical) moral consequentialism, is a perfect example of the fundamentalist approach to apologetics known as presuppositionalism.

Meanwhile, Remington, Green, Idaho State Representative Heather Scott, and failed state senatorial candidate Scott Herndon all spoke at a church service in Coeur D’Alene back in December that was dedicated to a political effort to ban abortion in Idaho without exception and to make abortion doctors and their patients legally liable for murder. Scott, who is Abbott’s state representative, leads this initiative, and in January 2020 she introduced a bill with the Orwellian title of “Idaho Abortion Human Rights Act.” Although the bill has no realistic prospects for passing, simply arguing in the state legislature that abortion doctors and those who have abortions should be tried for murder pushes the Overton window to the right and can inspire violence.

The video of the church service, which Remington closed in prayer, featured a slide presentation entitled “Idaho Abortion Human Rights Act: Abortion Abolition through State Sovereignty.” The subtitle is telling, as elevating “states’ rights” over the federal government has long been used by white American conservatives to “justify” human rights violations like slavery and Jim Crow. 

Appropriating the language of abolitionism is also in line with white conservatives’ proclivity for claiming the mantle of the Civil Rights Movement in bad faith efforts to undermine both racial justice and women’s rights. In the video, Scott explains at length to those in attendance about how to contact their state legislators in support of her bill. The video also reveals that the church was prepared to mail out letters to legislators produced in advance from those in attendance; the letters were reportedly available to sign after the service.

On June 25, according to local reporter Nathan Brown, the Idaho state GOP adopted both the nullification of “federal court rulings the state deems unconstitutional” and the defining of “all abortion as murder, including in cases of rape or incest,” as official planks of the party platform. Both proposals, the inclusion of which represents a serious danger to women and trans men, were introduced by Herndon.

In her phone interview with RD, Abbott brought up the December 22 service as an example of likely illegal political organizing by a tax-exempt church, which she says is one of her biggest concerns. A self-described “fourth-generation Bonner County girl” who forthrightly states, “I deeply care about consensus issues; I hate political parties,” Abbot referred to the year of Trump’s election as a “paradigm shift.” Since roughly 2017, she’s been live-streaming every public meeting she attends “and making sure there is coverage for them, which is not something our fundamentalist faction appreciates,” as its members would prefer not to have a spotlight trained on their activities.

Because of her advocacy, Abbot says she faces intimidation from members of the anti-government “Patriot” movement, who represent the base for politicians like Heather Scott. Following James Wesley, Rawles (he insists on the inclusion of a comma in his name), these anti-government extremists view eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming as “The American Redoubt,” a place where right-wing survivalists can go to hunker down and prepare for a supposedly coming catastrophe and/or the next civil war. A self-described “Constitutionalist Christian libertarian” and “religious separatist,” Rawles stokes fears of a “globalist” agenda and of “the Second Civil War… caused by the gulf between the right and left—or between the godly and the godless—or between the libertarians and the statists—or between the individualists and the collectivists.” (This “American Redoubt” just happens to overlap quite neatly with the decades-old neo-nazi separatist project known as the “Northwest Territorial Imperative.”)

Not coincidentally, at the June 23 session, Scott stated, “I truly believe a civil war is coming if we do not put an end to what we are seeing.” Meanwhile, Rawles, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer, has clearly inspired many people to move to the Western enclave he and his fellow travelers consider a haven for religious conservatives. Although it would be very difficult to determine precisely how many have done so, local observers are feeling the impact. “I have a firm grasp on the number of Heather Scott supporters in my district,” Abbott says, “and in two years, from roughly 2018 to 2020, her base has increased roughly from 3800 to 6000. That’s quite a jump, and it’s definitely correlated to new residents.”

When asked where the new residents came from, Abbott explains, “We have an active community of American Redoubters who advertise our area in publications across the country.” She pointed specifically to Black Rifle Real Estate, which she describes as “so damaging to our community.” The company’s website states, “That’s right liberals, Rural America and the Redoubt is for law abiding Liberty-minded Patriots only. So go back to your sh#thole Sanctuary City and live in your crime infested streets.” In case you have any doubts about the import of that statement, the site also states: “This means Snowflakes, Liberals, Socialists, Marxists, Communists and other Tyrants that hate our Constitutional Republic and the Bill of Rights are not allowed to engage our services.” (The erratic incorrect capitalization is in the original in both cases.)

A recent Black Rifle Real Estate Craigslist ad features a mushroom cloud reminiscent of the legendary “Daisy” political ad produced for the Lyndon B. Johnson campaign in 1964, and features the text: “Time is not on your side, Flee [sic.] the city NOW before the coming collapse!” Like the company website, however, the ad features no explicitly religious language. Indeed, Black Rifle Real Estate’s website informs potential buyers:

“We are conservative Constitutional Libertarians who believe you can do anything you want on your land as long as you’re not hurting anyone. Don’t preach to me and I won’t preach to you. Let’s disagree but respect one another.” 

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What gives?

Inasmuch as the American Redoubt project is theocratic, it is, in a certain sense, “ecumenical”—an example of what I’ve elsewhere called “bad ecumenism.” The collaboration of both Mormon and evangelical fundamentalists illustrates this. Religious studies scholar Cristina Rosetti commented to RD, “Early Mormon focus on the government’s protection of human agency informs contemporary Mormon belief about government. Mormon Libertarianism is centrally located in historic weariness of a government that both failed to protect and overstepped at crucial times in the history of the Saints.”

Seen in the light of LDS history, she explained, “the libertarian political ideologies of the Bundys” are “not a radical departure from Mormonism.” To be sure, many anti-government extremists do not view themselves as anti-government. As Rosetti relates, “When we asked Ryan Bundy about his views, he recoiled at the sentiment that he is ‘anti-government.’ He described himself and fellow ‘patriots’ as pro-government, as long as it is righteous and not practicing unrighteous dominion. This speaks to a very specific reading of the 12th Article of Faith and the historic memory of Mormon persecution.” It’s also perfectly in keeping with the extreme Calvinist ideology of Christian Reconstructionism, whose adherents seek Christian dominion over the United States in order to bring it under what they understand to be “biblical law.”

University of North Florida Religious Studies Professor Julie Ingersoll literally wrote the book on Christian Reconstructionism and its wider influence, a topic she’s covered extensively for RD. Asked to explain how economic libertarianism gels with authoritarian Christianity, Ingersoll told RD, “These perspectives are compatible because, for far right-wing Christians, a society organized according to biblical law will leave patriarchal families operating unfettered by an extraordinarily limited civil government.” 

As an example, she mentioned Christian Reconstructionist leader Gary North, a sometime economic adviser to Ron Paul, “working in concert with more secular libertarians in the Von Mises Institute to promote Austrian economics.” Indeed, the cross-fertilization of more “secular” anti-government and apocalyptic conspiracy theories with more “religious” ones has been well underway at least since 1991, when Pat Robertson pushed New World Order conspiracies in a bestselling book. This trajectory has culminated at present in the QAnon phenomenon, which has attracted evangelical adherents. 

In some contexts—perhaps in the case of Black Rifle Real Estate’s advertising—it may be seen as more strategic to downplay specific religious views, as they may be off-putting to some. However, this may just be the company’s preference. And yet Abbott is not wrong to frame the extremists she works to expose as oriented toward theocracy. 

Religions are complex cultural systems, and the toxic mixture that comes together in the American Redoubt movement represents a feedback loop between American-style white supremacist patriarchy on the one hand, and the varieties of Christianity that have been invoked throughout U.S. history to uphold it, on the other. A similar dynamic can be observed in the conspiratorial John Birch Society (JBS), in which Catholic and Protestant members come together in advocating a return to the gold standard, undermining the federal government, waiting for the outbreak of a “race war,” and finding “Communists” behind every bush and tree.

In her work, Abbott has observed that many Idaho Republicans care about public education, but her own state representative is part of what she calls “the anti-education crowd.” She reports, “Heather Scott and a few others regularly tell people in their speeches to take their kids out of public school.” The Birchers have recently stepped up their efforts in pursuit of this same goal, and Scott praised JBS literature as “really informative” in one of her recent speaking engagements, adding that her husband reads it whenever he gets the chance. The new “Public School Exit” initiative, which is a project of the JBS and the Council for National Policy, pushes Christian schools and homeschooling so that children can be closely controlled by their parents and indoctrinated into right-wing extremism.

Abbott says she often receives phone calls from Idaho Republicans asking her what to do about the party’s extremism problem. Noting that the extremists “are organized, and they show up,” Abbott tells these concerned Republicans that they need to start showing up themselves if they want to reclaim their party and stop local officials from refusing to enforce state and federal directives. “You can’t just sit back and not say anything,” she says.

Meanwhile, the spread of nullification and unchecked extremism in the Republican Party is hardly limited to the Northwest. Unfortunately, the Trump administration seems far more concerned with preventing and punishing the destruction of racist monuments and with painting those protesting racial injustice as “terrorists” than it does with reining in the excesses of anti-government extremists like the American Redoubters, with whom the administration shamefully holds much ideological common ground.