Austin shooter Larry McQuilliams may have been inspired by the Phineas Priesthood, a loosely affiliated Christian terrorist group.
Last Friday, Larry McQuilliams was shot and killed by police after unleashing a campaign of violence in Austin, Texas, firing more than 100 rounds in the downtown area before making a failed attempt to burn down the Mexican Consulate. The only casualty was McQuilliams himself, who was felled by officers when he entered police headquarters, but the death toll could have been far greater: McQuilliams, who was called a “terrorist” by Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, had several weapons, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and a map pinpointing 34 other buildings as possible targets — including several churches.
While the impetus for McQuilliams’ onslaught remains unclear, local authorities recently announced that he may have been motivated by religion — but not the one you might think. According to the Associated Press, police officers who searched McQuilliams’ van found a copy of “Vigilantes of Christendom,” a book connected with the Phineas Priesthood, an American white supremacist movement that claims Christian inspiration and opposes interracial intercourse, racial integration, homosexuality, and abortion. Phineas priests take their name from the biblical figure Phinehas in the book of Numbers, who is described as brutally murdering an Israelite man for having sex with a foreign woman, who he also kills. Members of the Phineas Priesthood — which people “join” simply by adopting the views of the movement — are notoriously violent, and some adherents have been convicted of bank robberies, bombing abortion clinics, and planning to blow up government buildings. Although McQuilliams didn’t leave a letter explaining the reason for his attack, a handwritten note inside the book described him as a “priest in the fight against anti-God people.”
McQuilliams’ possible ties to the Phineas Priesthood may sound strange, but it’s actually unsettlingly common. In fact, his association with the hateful religious group highlights a very real — but often under-reported — issue: terrorism enacted in the name of Christ.
To be sure, violent extremism carried out by people claiming to be Muslim has garnered heaps of media attention in recent years, with conservative pundits such as Greta Van Susteren of Fox News often insisting that Muslim leaders publicly condemn any acts of violence perpetrated in the name of Islam (even though many already have).
But there is a long history of terrorist attacks resembling McQuilliams’ rampage across Austin — where violence is carried out in the name of Christianity — in the United States and abroad. In America, the Ku Klux Klan is well-known for over a century of gruesome crimes against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and others — all while ascribing to what they say is a Christian theology. But recent decades have also given rise to several “Christian Identity” groups, loose organizations united by a hateful understanding of faith whose members spout scripture while engaging in horrifying acts of violence. For example, various members of The Order, a militant group of largely professed Mormons whose motto was a verse from the book of Jeremiah, were convicted for murdering Jewish talk show host Alan Berg in 1984; the “Army of God”, which justifies their actions using the Bible, is responsible for bombings at several abortion clinics, attacks on gay and lesbian nightclubs, and the explosion at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia; and Scott Roeder cited the Christian faith as his motivation for killing George Tiller — a doctor who performed late-term abortions — in 2009, shooting the physician in the head at point-blank range while he was ushering at church.
These incidents have been bolstered by a more general spike in homegrown American extremism over the past decade and a half. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of hate groups in America rose 54 percent according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and white-supremacist groups — including many with Christian roots — saw an “explosion” in recruitment after Barack Obama was elected the country’s first African-American president in 2008. In fact, the growth of this and other homegrown terrorist threats has become so great that it spurred then-Attorney General Eric Holder to revive the Domestic Terror Task Force in June of this year.
Christian extremism has ravaged other parts of the world as well. Northern Ireland and Northern India both have rich histories of Christian-on-Christian violence, as does Western Africa, where the Lord’s Resistance Army claims a Christian message while forcibly recruiting child soldiers to terrorize local villages. Even Europe, a supposed bastion of secularism, has endured attacks from people who say they follow the teachings of Jesus. In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik launched a horrific assault on innocent people in and around Oslo, Norway, using guns and bombs to kill 77 — many of them teenagers — and wound hundreds more. Breivik said his actions were an attempt to combat Islam and preserve “Christian Europe,” and while he rejected a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” he nonetheless championed Christianity as a “cultural, social, identity and moral platform” and claimed the faith as the forming framework for his personal identity.
Chillingly, experts warn that something like Breivik’s attack could easily happen in the United States. Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Homeland Security analyst, said in a 2010 interview that the Hutaree, an extremist militia group in Michigan that touts Christian inspiration, possessed a cache of weapons larger than all the Muslims charged with terrorism the United States since the September 11 attacks combined.
Yet unlike the accusatory responses to domestic jihadist incidents such as the Fort Hood massacre, news of McQuilliams’ possible ties to the Christian Identity movement has yet to produce a reaction among prominent conservative Christians. Greta Van Susteren, for instance, has not asked Christian leaders such as Pope Francis, Rick Warren, or Billy Graham onto her show to speak out against violence committed in name of Christ. Rather, the religious affiliation of McQuilliams, like the faith of many right-wing extremists, has largely flown under the radar, as he and others like him are far more likely to be dismissed as mentally unstable “lone wolfs” than products of extremist theologies.
Granted, right-wing extremism — like Muslim extremism — is a complex religious space. Some participants follow religions they see as more purely “white” — such as Odinism — and others act more out of a hatred for government than religious conviction. Nevertheless, McQuilliams’ attack is a stark reminder that radical theologies exist on the fringes of most religions, and that while Muslim extremism tends to make headlines, religious terrorism is by no means unique to Islam.