How does a person change from a non-violent, non-racist Christian man with a wife and two young children into a radicalized, paramilitary soldier willing to blow up innocent people? How does this person reclaim his true self and become a positive member of society again? Kerry Noble lived that scenario as a high-ranking member of The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (CSA), a white supremacist, paramilitary, right-wing religious group active in the 1970s and 80s. I met Kerry after he had been arrested by the FBI, served a prison sentence, and was speaking about his experiences. We both were on a panel for the American Psychological Association at the invitation of then APA President, Dr. Philip Zimbardo. Kerry wrote about his experiences in Tabernacle of Hate: Seduction into Right-Wing Extremism. On February 4, we reconnected to talk about how he had been radicalized and its relevance to the January 6 insurrection attempt at the Capitol and events occurring today.
A Community Becomes Radicalized
In 1977, Kerry Noble and his wife, Kay, were expecting their second child and decided to spend some time in a small rural town in northern Arkansas with friends who were members of a Community Church. They planned to stay only a short while, have their child, and then return home. The Nobles ended up staying because they felt at home in this non-violent, non-racist Christian community. But slowly, more violent, racist, and survivalist theologies began creeping into the community. Initially, the introduction of concepts, that ultimately led to CSA’s establishment, may have seemed somewhat benign and stemming from good intentions. “Bit by bit,” Kerry says, “you move away from those good intentions until you are deep in boiling water.”
The radicalization process started in earnest when Jim Ellison, one of the community leaders, went to Shell City, Missouri, on a job. While there, he connected with Dan Gayman, leader of the Church of Israel, a right-wing, white supremacist church. When Jim Ellison returned, he brought with him tape recordings of Gayman’s sermons and gathered the community elders to listen to them. The sermons started with an appeal to patriotism and love of America. Still, they quickly veered into interpretations of Scripture designed to support the belief that Anglo-Saxons are the true descendants of Adam while the Jewish people are descended from Eve and Satan. They were also told that the story of Ham, one of Noah’s sons, showed that black people were cursed and inferior.
When I was in the Moonies, I had a similar interpretation of Scripture presented to me based on Ham’s story and used to justify racist attitudes. I have dealt with many authoritarian Bible cults who have used this racist “lens” over the decades. An interesting explanation of these interpretations can be found in this 2003 article, From Noah’s Curse to Slavery’s Rationale.
Gayman had joined forces with several other organizations based on Christian Identity (the primary racist theology of the religious right) to establish paramilitary training centers in preparation for the End of Days—when the final battle between good and evil would be fought prior to Judgment Day. One of the paramilitary training centers was established in the community where Noble and Ellison lived. It was called the Endtime Overcomer Survival Training School, and the community became known as The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (CSA).
Planning for Armageddon
Over the following six months, the CSA members continued to study these ideas, and the racist, white supremacist, and apocalyptic religious beliefs became imbued in the community. By the spring of 1980, CSA was armed with over $50,000 worth of guns, ammunition, and military equipment, members believed that society was collapsing, a third world war was likely to occur, and the “end of days” was imminent.
Ironically, the horrific mass suicide in Jonestown happened during the time that CSA was adopting these radical positions. When learning of the events, Kerry recalls they were all somewhat amused by the “stupidity” of Jim Jones’ followers, not making the connection with their own increasingly unrealistic beliefs and actions.
By this time, Kerry had absorbed and adopted the racist, homophobic and apocalyptic beliefs of CSA. In 1984, in an attempt to provoke race riots and usher in a second American revolution, he agreed to bomb a park in Kansas City that was known as a gathering place for gay people. Carrying a silenced gun, Kerry and another CSA member went to the park, but there were no people there, making it a useless target. They decided to target an adult bookstore. They walked in with a suitcase full of C-4 explosives but realized they wouldn’t be allowed to take it into the back of the store due to its anti-shoplifting policy. Kerry’s co-conspirator had previously lived in Kansas City and said on the next morning (a Sunday), they should go to the church he used to attend. When they arrived at the church, it became evident that the membership had changed—it was now a congregation with many gay and lesbian members. At first, it seemed this was a “sign from God.” Blowing up a church full of “sinners” would be quite a way to begin the apocalyptic end of the world they expected. However, as he sat there, Kerry observed men and women praying earnestly, seeking a spiritual experience. His conscience would not allow him to detonate the bomb. “I saw them as people trying to find their place in God. Rather than homosexuals, they became Christians (to me).” If the explosives had been used, this would have been the biggest domestic terrorist act to date in the U.S. At least 70 people would have died or been severely injured. While this experience may have been the first “crack” in Kerry’s allegiance to CSA, unfortunately, it wasn’t big enough to cause him to renounce his affiliation.
Weapon acquisition activities led to the CSA being under watch by the FBI. The CSA was one of the first paramilitary groups classified as a civilian SWAT team in the United States. In April of 1985, they were raided by 300 law enforcement officers, including ATF and the FBI Hostage Rescue Team. A four-day standoff ensued, during which Kerry served as the negotiator between CSA and the FBI. The negotiation ended the siege with no casualties but did result in prison sentences for Jim Ellison and Kerry Noble, as well as many other members. Kerry received a five-year sentence and spent 26 months in prison.
Waking Up to Reality
It was while in prison that Kerry had the time and space to “get my head straight.” After completing his sentence in the early 90s, Kerry joined Toastmasters International and began to speak about his experience being a violent cult member. Right-wing apocalyptic theology is a complex combination of mind control tactics and religious belief. I was delighted to learn that my first book, Combating Mind Control, had been helpful to Kerry in understanding what led him to adopt such a philosophy and be willing to commit acts that were violent, illegal, and definitely not Christian in nature.
After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, increased interest in paramilitary religious cults’ activities led to many speaking engagements and opportunities to collaborate with organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. When the Islamist terrorist attacks occurred on 9/11, attention shifted from domestic terrorism to focusing on foreign terrorism. Speaking opportunities declined significantly, and although Kerry set up a small website and newsletter, he began to feel like the “old man in the room.” Thinking that his experience was probably not as relevant as those of more recent defectors, Kerry retired from the speaking circuit.
During the last four years of Trump, there has been ample evidence that domestic terrorism and recruitment by destructive, authoritarian cults is still a major problem. In the words and actions of Donald Trump, Kerry saw the familiar cult tactics of bullying, lying, and manipulating, and the typical rhetoric of a narcissistic cult leader. He was relieved when Biden won the 2020 election but was not surprised at Trump and his supporters’ reactions, culminating in the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. All of this led Kerry to think his experience is still relevant and to contact me to explore how he might again contribute to the fight against cult mind control.
Modern Technology Requires Additional Tools to Combat Mind Control
The internet, social media platforms and the prevalence of cell phones are major factors in cult recruitment and control today. Technology is probably the most critical difference from the time period when Kerry and I were recruited into a cult. A bit of background on the concept of “Leaderless Resistance” is helpful in highlighting how the internet has allowed and enhanced cult recruitment activity.
Lone Wolf Terrorism, Also Called Fringe Actor Terrorism
In the early 90s, white supremacist Louis Beam developed a tactic of the right-wing movement called Leaderless Resistance. Beam realized that individuals in large groups that were successfully broken up by law enforcement were susceptible to turning on each other and cooperating with authorities. This is exactly what Jim Ellison did when CSA was raided—he suddenly decided that it was God’s plan for him to turn state’s evidence.
Beam advocated the creation of small cult cells that would operate somewhat independently from each other. This tactic was not overly successful until the internet was created. The New Strategy of Violent White Supremacy – The Atlantic, is a good source of understanding how they have evolved.
With the invention of the internet, however, destructive cults such as QAnon were able to engage in mind control and recruitment activities on a 24/7 basis through social media and aided by algorithms tracking individual activity to target the most susceptible. Personal contact was no longer necessary and destructive ideologies and practical information (how to make a bomb, for example) are readily available online. This type of frequent recruitment, reaching individuals in the privacy of their own homes, resulted in an increase in terrorist attacks around the world.
Cult Activity and Current Events
Cult recruitment and authoritarian control tactics are a major factor in numerous current events. COVID-19 vaccination efforts are being undermined by disinformation. There is a major uptick in authoritarian Bible cults, which are actively recruiting. The chaos surrounding the 2020 elections and the attack on the U.S. Capitol have caused high levels of anxiety and confusion among members of QAnon and other Trump supporters. While this confusion may have helped some question their beliefs and be open to change, sadly, it has also led to extreme depression and even suicide. I asked Kerry what advice he might give to them.
- Try not to panic! It hurts to realize you have been lied to, but I know from personal experience you can heal and go on to live a satisfying life.
- Remember, you are not stupid or weak. Educate yourself about undue influence and how easy it is to be taken in by a skillful manipulator.
- Remember that your experience has made you more susceptible to destructive influence. It is vitally important to learn how to protect yourself.
- Seek out support from reliable groups of people who have left a cult. They know what you are going through. (Some good resources are: #IGotOut, reveal.org, and Sparrow Ministries.)
For family and friends of cult members, we both advocate maintaining a relationship (or re-establishing one if contact had been suspended). Arguing against the cult position is not effective, as it further entrenches someone in their beliefs. Instead, talk about common interests and good memories. Ask them to explain their views and listen to what they are saying without responding or judgment. Small items of information from reliable sources may have an effect, if not immediately, perhaps at some future time, and can help create cracks in the rigidity of their position.
Kerry also has advice for anyone who is in the early stages of being recruited into a violent, paramilitary cult and might still think the idea attractive. “If you continue down the road of extremism, one of two things is going to happen. You’re going to spend a lot of time in prison, or you’re going to get killed.”
This advice is not just specific to a paramilitary cult, however. Not all cults engage in violent protests or advocate killing people. But all cult influence is designed to undermine a person’s ability to think for themselves and make them loyal to a leader who is not really interested in their welfare. Using destructive tactics to destroy a human being’s ability to exercise freedom of mind and choice is an act of violence.
Facebook Page: A Voice in the Light
Facebook Page: Sacredness Sanctuary
Previous Blogs on Christian Identity, White Supremacy and Extremism