San Diego 'I have known persecution and oppression all my life," Neuman Britton says and clasps his callused hands above his coffee cup in an Escondido Denny's.
"Oppression and prejudice. We were more discriminated against than any Mexican or nigger. We were the lowest of the low."
He pauses. Considers his hands.
"I've known controversy all my life too."
In a certain light, Neuman Britton's earliest spiritual forebears appear to be the 16th-century Puritans who believed the Last Days were at hand, and that Britain, and, later, America, were destined by God for a singular role in the establishment of the eternal, shining "New Jerusalem."
The Puritan understanding of Anglo "chosenness" wasn't racial. But the notion was powerful enough to energize later British thinkers who sought a more literal link between their national destiny and Providence. By the end of the 19th Century, this longing formalized into a movement called British-Israelism which, through painstaking Biblical interpretation and recondite study of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, established Anglo-Saxons as direct descendants of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel.
It wasn't until British-Israelism achieved a following in 20th-century America, however, that the movement developed the idea of Anglo chosenness more fully. The movement's logic revealed that not only Anglo-Saxons, but also their Teutonic and Celtic brethren, were descendants of the Lost Ten Tribes. And if all white Christian Europe were the true inheritors of God's covenant with His "chosen people," who were the Jews if not impostors? From this premise it was only a very small leap to understanding that the so-called Jews were none other than the "seed of Satan," the product of an unfortunate sexual union between Eve and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden. Begotten by evil, Jews were therefore destined to do evil. To beguile, deceive, sow dissent, foster doubt, to blind humanity with sham intellectualism, and, ultimately, enslave the entire world through such devilish trickery as racial equality, Communism, and international banking.
These and other startling revelations coalesced into a loose-knit American theology known as Christian Identity, and it was Neuman Britton's introduction to this theology after World War II that transformed him from Dust Bowl Pentecostal to one of the most significant figures in right-wing extremism today. Last week Britton was tapped to become successor to Richard Butler, head of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, the religious arm of Aryan Nation.
Britton's journey to Aryan Nation's armed compound in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, began 70 odd years ago in northeastern Oklahoma. Britton was one of ten children. Their father was a farmer and Pentecostal minister, a calling then considered questionable. Although Pentecostalism has now entered the American mainstream, the movement encountered often violent suppression throughout the 1910s and 1920s. This was especially true for the non-Trinitarian, or "Oneness" Pentecostal denomination to which Britton's family belonged. Historical accounts of that period offer many instances when Pentecostal preachers were beaten, gagged, shot with shotguns, thrown in jail, or threatened with death and mutilation.
As Britton contends, his introduction to unpopularity and controversy began early in life, although, he remembers, "our neighbors were very tolerant. They never bothered us. They knew my father and they respected him."
Britton describes his early childhood as happy. Not wealthy, not poor, his father was a "little more prosperous than other farmers in the area." But the 1929 Depression and the mid-1930s Dust Bowl forced his family to Tulare County, California, where Britton's father found work on a large cattle ranch near Visalia. Britton remembers being struck by California's lushness and by the hills and mountains.
"I'll never forget it. It must have been the first day after we got here. Me and my brothers climbed the highest mountain in the area. We liked to hike and look around. We climbed to the top. It must have been 4000 feet. It was very beautiful. We saw a lot of deer, I remember, on the way up. We felt like we could see forever.
"We were excited. But when we got to school we were excluded. We were Okies. Religiously, we were different. And we were so poor. We didn't dress as well as the other kids. We'd watch the other kids stand around, exclude us, talk about us, make fun of us, laugh at us. We were lower than niggers and Mexicans. It was bad."
The move to California was good for Britton's family. His father established a congregation and continued to preach. Britton and his brothers excelled at sports. Britton was graduated valedictorian from eighth grade. When he finished high school he and one of his brothers found work building Norton Air Force Base near San Bernardino, "one of the best jobs, the best-paying jobs, in the area at that time."
In 1943 Britton was drafted and served in New Caledonia, near New Zealand, as a mechanic until the end of the war. His military service seems to have left little impression on him. When he returned to the United States, his family had moved to San Bernardino and his father had established a close relationship with Conrad Lynch, another Pentecostal minister, who had begun to investigate and preach a gospel very different from the one Britton had grown up with.
Conrad Lynch, who much later cut a wide swath through the extreme Right, was at the time of Britton's return befriending a Los Angeles-based minister named Wesley Swift, a man whom political scientists now regard as the "single most significant figure in the early history of Christian Identity."
It was Swift who successfully combined British-Israelism, demonic anti-Semitism, and political extremism to form the Church of Jesus Christ Christian. And it was Conrad Lynch, enthralled by his theology, who on September 16, 1963, the day following the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, told a group of exultant Klansmen that the four little girls killed in the blast were "old enough to have venereal diseases" and were "no more human or innocent than rattlesnakes."
"So kill 'em all," Lynch shouted, "and if it's four less niggers tonight, then good for whoever planted the bomb. We're better off."
Britton, his father, and Lynch couldn't have dreamt of such triumphant rhetoric in the first years after Britton's return from the war. Their apprehension of Christian Identity was still unformed. Their great leap forward occurred in 1950 when Lynch was invited by a woman Pentecostal minister to address a gathering of racially minded Pentecostals in Mangrum, Oklahoma.
Britton traveled from San Bernardino to Mangrum with his father and three of his brothers in his father's brand new Chevy. Britton remembers the gathering with awe.
"A great glory seemed to travel with us to and from Mangrum. Connie Lynch's message was very inspiring and convincing. It was inspired by the Holy Spirit. All the prophets in the Bible were our race. Jesus was our race. We were God's champions for the white race.
"I wasn't the same person for several weeks after the meeting. That was when my real conversion to Christian Identity thinking occurred. It was more of an intellectual thing than a spiritual one. It was one that happened more in my mind than in my heart. Both were involved. But mostly the change came through studying the Bible. My entire family became convinced as well."
The Pentecostal denomination founded by Conrad Lynch, the General Assembly of Jesus Christ, was not as moved by Lynch's new-found message. In the spring of 1951, he held an all-night meeting with 75 of his pastors to convince them of Identity theology's validity. They expelled him from his church.
"If anything," says Britton, "Connie Lynch's expulsion created feelings of greater tenderness and compassion for him in our family. It was quite a transition for him, from heading a denomination of thousands to be on his own, alone."
The following years were very busy. Britton married and had six children. He and his brothers built a plastering business that thrived. The Civil Rights movement gained momentum in the South, and Connie Lynch was instrumental in creating its political opposition, the States Rights Party, to which Britton and his brothers contributed generously.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Britton traveled frequently to the South to address Lynch's party meetings and Klan gatherings, but Britton's feelings for this period of his life are mixed.
"It was a very exciting time, a very turbulent time. It was very exciting to be such a part of patriotic Americans who understood the tyranny we were under, who understood what Martin Luther King was up to, his closeness to Communism.
"But it was also a very difficult time. In 1963 and 1964, the Alabama attorney general 'excluded' Connie Lynch from the state. In 1965, because of our political activity, the fbi kept me and my brothers under surveillance, and we were harassed in other ways. Safety inspectors, who you might expect to visit your job sites twice a year, came to us every day. It was harassment. And there were forces who tried to have our business license revoked. The San Bernardino paper called my home the 'Crossroads of Hate.' "
Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968 brought Britton little joy. That same year Britton's wife Mary died of a brain tumor and he was left with six children to raise on his own. Of the King assassination, Britton remembers only that he was never convinced of James Earl Ray's guilt. Britton contends that some years after the assassination he met King's true killer, a "a fine man" Britton says, who was "moved by the Holy Spirit" to shoot the civil-rights leader.
Britton remained alone for two years after his wife's death. In 1970, his father introduced him to an Arkansas woman who was raising five children of her own. In 1972, Britton married her, moved to Arkansas, and built a home for their large, new family. Their time together, however, was brief. In 1975 Britton's second wife died and so began a long, grief-stricken period in Britton's life. Britton offers few details of these years. He wandered. He returned, he says, to the religion of his childhood. He turned, he says, to "more spiritual matters." He left Arkansas. Worked in Texas for a while. In 1988 he moved to Vista to live near and work with his son, who by this time had his own plastering business.
He renewed his activity with the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, which, under Richard Butler's leadership, had moved to Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, and become synonymous with Aryan Nation. Britton started his own organization in Vista called the National Identity Crusade, held monthly meetings, and sought new members from the ranks of racially minded folks in North County and central California. Britton also spent a lot of time in Coeur D'Alene, lecturing at gatherings and networking with the new generation of men and women attracted to Christian Identity. In 1992, Britton met his third wife, Joan Kahl, the former wife of Gordon Kahl, a member of the Posse Comitatus killed in a shootout with law-enforcement officials in Arkansas in 1983.
After marrying Kahl, Britton devoted himself to helping her with her legal troubles, although the two of them did continue to speak regularly on the Christian Identity circuit. Britton says that last week's decision by Butler to name him as successor took him by surprise.
"It was destiny," Britton says.
He's quick to point out that Butler hasn't announced that he's immediately stepping down. Britton feels that Butler will make that decision some time within the next year, which is good because Britton is just now coming to terms with the enormous responsibilities required of the position.
Of the talents he will bring to the job, Britton feels the most significant is his skill at public speaking, a "gift of the Holy Spirit" he acquired as a very young child in his father's church. He is known as an effective, "fiery orator" by both people who love and hate him.
The religion he will preach is in some ways not very different from his early Pentecostalism. The Church of Jesus Christ Christian teaches that the Last Days are at hand, that Jesus is soon to return, that there is little time left to prepare for the Second Coming. Like Pentecostals, Britton believes that salvation can be as easily lost as found. But to Britton, the "apex of sin is race mixing" and the Second Coming, heralded by a racial apocalypse, will be a time when race traitors, and Jews, and "mud people," and all the others who have thwarted, denied, or undermined the true Christian message will get what's coming to them.
Until then, Britton hopes to make the Church of Jesus Christ Christian the "spearhead for the whole Identity movement."
"It may sound narrow," he says, "but I firmly believe that the Church of Jesus Christ Christian is the only place where Christ can minister in this day. And I also believe that his appearance will be in our association."