If you had to name just one topic that has dominated the global conversation in the first few years of the 21 century, so-called "Islamic Extremism" would probably be at the top of your list. It's certainly dominated conversation in the United States ever since September 11, 2001. But Islam isn't the only religion that's been twisted and distorted to justify acts of terrorism. The recent capture of the man believed responsible for the 1996 Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta is an important reminder that "Christian Terrorism" was in the United States long before its Islamic counterpart was unleashed on New York and Washington, DC.
Eric Robert Rudolph was on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list for nearly six years, before police in rural Murphy, North Carolina, discovered him rummaging through a trash dumpster late one night at the end of May. Mr. Rudolph is believed to be responsible for the Olympic Park bombing in July of 1996, which killed one person. He's also been linked to a bombing at an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed another person, as well as bombings at a gay nightclub and an abortion clinic in Atlanta.
All of the attacks took place within a few months of one another and someone belonging to a group called the "Army of God" claimed responsibility for three of them. The Army of God is an offshoot of a radical religious movement Eric Robert Rudolph once belonged to, known as "Christian Identity".
"This is an attempt to try to use a Christian ideology to try to forge a kind of racial and social purity," said Mark Juergensmeyer.
Mark Juergensmeyer, a sociology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, says members of the Christian Identity movement believe that people of white, northern European ancestry are the descendents of the Lost Tribes of Israel and are, therefore, God's "chosen" people. Mr. Juergensmeyer, author of Terror in the Mind of God, which examines the global rise of religious violence, said the groups teach that Jews are imposters, and homosexuals and feminists are considered dangerous aberrations.
Professor Juergensmeyer says his contacts in the Christian Identity movement tell him the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta was meant to be a punishment for what some saw as the "pro-gay" stance of the Olympic Committee. Committee officials, it seems, wouldn't let the Olympic torch pass through a county in the state of Georgia that had issued a resolution condemning homosexuality. And Mr. Juergensmeyer says Christian extremists felt a bomb was an appropriate response to this decision, because they see themselves as warriors for God.
"In the Book of Exodus, in the Old Testament of the Bible that both Jews and Christians revere, there's a passage that says - and this is God speaking - 'I will spread my terror before me, and spread my confusion to all the people.' Now most Christians and Jews regard this as one image of God which, in the minds of most Christians, is a very loving, peaceful God," he said. "And yet, there is this passage within the Bible that if you read it closely, justifies terrorism. "
Mr. Juergensmeyer says if Eric Robert Rudolph is the person responsible for the bombings in Atlanta and Birmingham, he's a Christian terrorist. But that's a term that's offensive to the Reverend Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council.
"I don't believe there is such a thing as Christian terrorism, and the reason I say that is because peace and non-violence are at the core of Christian tenets of belief," said Rob Schenck. "That's very clear, not only from the words of Jesus Christ, but from the role model of Jesus Christ. So it's a bit of an oxymoron to say 'Christian terrorism'. "
And yet Jesus as "pacifist" is just one depiction of Christ in the Bible. Members of Reverend Schenck's own organization, the National Clergy Council, have pointed to other, less gentle images when justifying blockades of abortion clinics? and even the war in Iraq. In the Book of Revelation, for example, Jesus is depicted as a soldier, vanquishing the enemies of God. Christians believe these passages describe a future battle between Christ and Satan, known as Armageddon. But according to Michael Barkun, a political science professor at Syracuse University who advises the FBI on Christian extremist groups, some people believe Armageddon isn't in the future. It's happening now.
"The emphasis on violence often accompanies the view that history is coming to a close, that there will be a final battle, a kind of literal Armageddon that will decide whether the victory is God's or Satan's," he said. "And that kind of apocalyptic strain is one of the strongest motivators of violence. "
Michael Barkun estimates the Christian Identity movement has between 20,000 and 50,000 members in the United States. He says most were racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-gay long before they joined the movement and that religion simply gives what he calls a "cosmic" dimension to their hatred. This opinion is shared by Mark Juergensmeyer of UC Santa Barbara.
"I've studied religious terrorism all over the world," said Mr. Juergensmeyer. "I've studied Jewish terrorism, Islamic terrorism, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist terrorism. In every case, I've discovered that it's not religion that leads to terrorism, but it's rather some social conflict, some problem in the world, often a real sense of repression, and people are looking out for some basis for launching into an aggressive stand. And they use religion as the ideology of rebellion. "
In the case of Eric Robert Rudolph, the Christian Identity movement may have provided him with a platform to rebel against his impoverished, fatherless, and somewhat nomadic childhood. The FBI believes he was exposed to the movement at the age of 14, when he lived at a Christian Identity church in Missouri, until his mother could gather enough money to rent a place to live.
Even though three of the four bombings he's accused of took place in Atlanta, Mr. Rudolph will be tried in Birmingham first. Federal authorities say the evidence against him in that case is stronger. Attorney General John Ashcroft has said he expects the trial to be "short".