On Monday, three Virginia men were charged with plotting to attack and bomb black churches and Jewish synagogues, reportedly with the goal of triggering a “race war” in the United States. Suspects Ronald Chaney and Robert Doyle, who FBI officials say are also plotting to kill a local jewelry dealer and rob an armored car, were outspoken white supremacists, bound by a common desire enact violence against Jews and African Americans.
But documents show that the two men, and possibly accomplice Charles Halderman, also share something else: A common, peculiar faith.
“Doyle and Chaney, and others known and unknown to the FBI, ascribe to a white supremacy extremist version of the Asatru faith,” read the FBI’s report.
Traditionally, most American white supremacists claim to be Christians — hence the Ku Klux Klan, which uses a burning cross as its symbol, and the Phineas Priesthood, a group that preaches an anti-immigrant message and whose members attempted to burn down the Mexican Consulate earlier this year in the name of Jesus.
But like Doyle and Chaney, a number of white supremacists are abandoning Christianity for a very different religion: Odinism, sometimes called Asatru, Vanuatrú, or Dísitrú. The faith, which has several different strains, is a modern expression of an ancient, polytheistic Nordic belief system that reveres a slew of gods such as Thor. Most of its U.S. adherents, many of whom self-identify as “heathens”, are nonviolent and inclusive, more concerned with preaching virtues than calling for a race war. Norse paganism, once the religion of Vikings, is currently undergoing a revival among young residents of Iceland, where it is recognized as a state religion.
Yet an unsettlingly virulent strain of Odinism has coalesced in the United States over the past few decades, attracting white supremacists who see it as more purely “white” than Christianity.
Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, explained that many join the fledging faith as a way of criticizing Christianity.
“From white supremacist point of view, they embrace these neopagan religions because they see them as antithetical to Christianity and Judaism,” he told ThinkProgress. “They say, ‘What did the Jews and Christians do? They made these religions about turning the other cheek and caring for the poor.’ They see Christianity as a feminized, weak, self-destructive theology created by Jews and forced on white people who were by nature supposedly very different.”
Indeed, as CNN reported in 2014, similar ideas were spouted by Frazier Glenn Cross, the man who shot and killed three people outside Jewish organizations last year. Although Cross was once a leader of the KKK, his online manifesto professed a firm belief in Odinism, which he reportedly converted to before his rampage.
“Odinism! This was the religion for a strong heroic people, the Germanic people, from whose loins we all descended, be we German, English, Scott, Irish, or Scandinavian, in whole or in part,” Cross wrote. “Odin! Odin! Odin! Was the battle cry of our ancestors; their light eyes ablaze with the glare of the predator, as they swept over and conquered the decadent multi-racial Roman Empire. And Valhalla does not accept Negroes. There’s a sign over the pearly gates there which reads, ‘Whites only.’”
Like many right-wing Odinists, Cross explained that his opposition to Christianity is rooted in the idea that it was a “trick” invented by Jews to “enslave” the white masses.
“Christianity is the second biggest trick the Jews ever played on us. The biggest was legalized abortion!” he wrote.
Other racists enjoy Odinism’s ties to Nazi Germany, where it was reportedly inculcated into the Third Reich’s cultural theology of white supremacy.
“Odinism, which is closely related to Asatrú, was much favored in Nazi Germany,” reads a 1998 report on the phenomenon by the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Its Nordic/Teutonic mythology was a bedrock belief for key Third Reich leaders, and it was an integral part of the initiation rites and cosmology of the elite Schutzstaffel (SS), which supervised Adolf Hitler’s network of death camps. Decades later, Odinism also influenced George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party.”
Today, followers of the tradition are few in number, but represent a notable percentage of violent white supremacists. Ryan Giroux, a white supremacist who allegedly murdered one person and wounded five others in March, bears a tattoo of Thor’s hammer on his chin. Maurice Thompson Michaely, who was convicted in 2012 for trying to burn down a historic black church in Virginia, reportedly now belongs to an “Odinic Wolfcult” in Lynchburg. Speakers at a November gathering of white supremacists in Washington, D.C. wore the hammer symbol around their necks.
Potok noted that the tradition is also increasingly popular among prison populations, where many white supremacists sport tattoos of Norse emblems alongside fading brands of swastikas and celtic crosses. Casper Crowell, a former leader of the racist Aryan Brotherhood gang, runs “the Holy Nation of Odin, Inc.” from a maximum-security prison in California, where he is serving a life sentence for shooting a man in 1995.
“To followers, [the Norse gods] are the big tough white guys who, when they see a woman they want, grab her by the hair and pull her in the cave,” Potok said. “It’s seen as this ultra-male, super muscular religion, which is antithetical to Christianity and Judaism.”
“It’s a comic book religion in a lot of ways,” he added.
But while many right-wing Odinists celebrate the Norse gods, they aren’t necessarily fans of popular depictions of Thor in films and comic books. In 2011, the White Nationalist group Council of Conservative Citizens boycotted the movie Thor because it cast black actor Idris Elba as a Norse god.