Oath Keepers is officially nonpartisan, in part to make it easier for active-duty soldiers to participate, but its rightward bent is undeniable, and liberals are viewed with suspicion. At lunch, when I questioned my tablemates about the Obama-Hitler comparisons I'd heard at the conference, I got a step-by-step tutorial on how the president's socialized medicine agenda would beget a Nazi-style regime.
I learned that bringing guns to Tea Party protests was a reminder of our constitutional rights, was introduced to the notion that the founding fathers modeled their governing documents on the Bible, and debated whether being Muslim meant an inability to believe in and abide by—and thus be protected by—the Constitution. I was schooled on the treachery of the Federal Reserve and why America needs a gold standard, and at dinner one night, Nighta Davis, national organizer for the National 912 Project, explained how abortion-rights advocates are part of a eugenics program targeting Christians. I also met Lt. Commander Guy Cunningham, a retired Navy officer and Oath Keeper who in 1994 took it upon himself to survey personnel at the 29 Palms Marine Corps base about their willingness to accept domestic missions and serve with foreign troops. A quarter of the Marines he polled said that they would be willing to fire on Americans who refused to disarm in the face of a federal order—a finding routinely cited by militia and patriot groups worried about excessive government powers.
From the podium, ex-sheriff Mack told the crowd that he wished he'd been the officer ordered to escort Rosa Parks off the bus, because not only would he have refused, he would have helped her home and stood guard there. These days, he said, it's not African Americans who are under attack, but Christians, constitutionalists, and people who uphold family values: This time "it's going to be Rosa Parks the gun owner, Rosa Parks the tax evader, or Rosa Parks the home-schooler."
Mack runs the "No Sheriff Left Behind" campaign encouraging state and local authorities to disregard federal laws that they believe violate states' rights. During the 1990s, he successfully eviscerated a Brady Law provision requiring sheriffs to run background checks on handgun purchasers. Another sheriff who spoke, Mark Gower of Iron County, Utah, uses Mack's precedent to refuse to act against property owners who violate the Endangered Species Act. The conference's lifetime achievement award went to Army Specialist Michael New, discharged in 1996 for refusing to wear a United Nations helmet and patch while serving in Germany.
Oath Keepers steers clear of certain issues. Personally, Rhodes would prefer the list of objectionable orders to include detaining foreigners indefinitely at facilities like Guantanamo. And while he argues that torture should never be legal, the group takes no official stance on America's war on terror or overseas engagements. After an Oath Keeper who is also a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War touted IVAW repeatedly on Oath Keepers' Web forum, Rhodes deleted the guy's online testimonial. "The IVAW have their own totalitarian mindset," he told me. "I don't like communists any more than I like Nazis."
On the conference's final day, National 912 Project chairman Patrick Jenkins stepped up to talk about the National Liberty Unity Summits his group was organizing in cooperation with Oath Keepers. They would provide a chance, he said, for patriots to forge a common agenda and a plan to carry it out. At the first summit, in December, attendees included representatives of groups from FairTax Nation to the Constitution Party to Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum. On hand were Ralph Reed Jr. (former director of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition and recent founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition), Larry Pratt (head of Gun Owners of America), and Tim Cox (founder of Get Out of Our House, an organization praised on Fox News for its goal of replacing business-as-usual incumbents with "ordinary folks"). Most notable were representatives Broun and Gingrey, who according to summit organizer Nighta Davis have expressed willingness to introduce legislation crafted by summit attendees. (So, Davis says, have Steve King [R-Iowa] and Michele Bachmann [R-Minn.]. None of the representatives agreed to comment for this story.)
The December gathering was merely a windup. In mid-April, another summit is planned to coincide with a huge gun-rights march and a Tax Day Tea Party rally in Washington organized by Dick Armey's FreedomWorks PAC and the American Liberty Alliance—whose home page touts Oath Keepers as a key part of "the Movement." Organizers expect hundreds of thousands to turn out. The Oath Keepers will be there en masse.
IN VEGAS, Rhodes took me aside repeatedly to explain that many of those in attendance—including featured speakers like "Patriot Pastor" Garrett Lear ("When a government doesn't obey God, we must reform it")—might not represent Oath Keepers' official message. He and his Web staff have been overwhelmed, he told me, by the amount of policing required to keep people from posting "off message" commentary encouraging violence or racism. Last December, they shut down one forum because too many posters were using it to recruit for militias. The Constitution, of course, allows citizens to form militias so long as their intent is to defend and not overthrow the government, but active-duty soldiers can lose security clearances or get demoted for associating with them. Rhodes advises members to go ahead and join—just not in Oath Keepers' name. "As a matter of strategy, it is best to keep the two separate," he wrote in a post.
There may also be serious downsides for a soldier who follows through on his Oath Keepers pledge. Disobeying orders can mean discharge or imprisonment. "You have every right to disobey an order if you think it is illegal," says Army spokesman Nathan Banks. "But you will face court-martial, and so help you God if you are wrong. Saying something isn't constitutional isn't going to fly."
A soldier like Charles Dyer, who in his July4Patriot persona advocated armed resistance against the government, could risk charges of treason. As a Marine sergeant based out of Camp Pendleton, Dyer posted videos to YouTube last year, his face half-covered with a skull bandana. "With the DHS blatantly calling patriots, veterans, and constitutionalists a threat, all that I have to say is, you're damn right we're a threat," he said in one. "We're a threat to anyone that endangers our rights and the Constitution of this republic...We're gathering in defense of our way of life." For a while, he ran a training compound in San Diego, teaching civilians his Marine combat skills.
Dyer, who with Rhodes' blessing represented Oath Keepers at an Oklahoma Tea Party rally on July 4, was charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with uttering "disloyal" statements. He ultimately beat the charge, left the Marines, and reappeared unmasked on YouTube encouraging viewers to join him at his makeshift training area in Duncan, Oklahoma—"I'm sure the DHS will call it a terrorist training camp." In January, Dyer was arrested on charges of raping a seven-year-old girl. When sheriff's deputies raided his home, they found a Colt M-203 grenade launcher believed to have been stolen from a California military base. He now faces federal weapons charges and is being hailed by fringe militia groups like the American Resistance Movement as "the first POW of the second American Revolution."
Shortly after I asked Rhodes about Dyer—before his arrest hit the news—his testimonial vanished from the group's website. Rhodes once endorsed Dyer in glowing terms, but now claims he was never a member because he hasn't paid dues. Yet Dyer publicly referred to himself as an Oath Keeper, and Rhodes had previously insisted—to Lou Dobbs and anyone else who would listen—that you didn't need to pay dues to be a member.
In an interview prior to Dyer's arrest, Andrew Sexton, another uniformed YouTube star who argues the need for armed resistance, criticized Dyer for making himself a target. Sexton, an Army reservist who served in Afghanistan with US Special Operations Command, also keeps his Oath Keepers ties under the radar. Most soldiers, he told me, don't talk openly about such things, but it's easy enough to tell which ones have been woken up. The Department of Defense, Sexton added, will be shocked by the number of service members willing to turn against their commanders when the time comes. "It's an absolute reality," he says. He views last April's DHS report on right-wing extremists as a "preemptive attack because they know it's coming."
Rhodes isn't calling for violence—indeed, he insists that his group is about laying down arms rather than turning them on citizens. Yet when he writes that "the oath is like kryptonite to tyrants, as the Founders intended. The time has come for us to use it to its full effect," some followers take that as a call for drastic action.
Chip Berlet, of the watchdog group Political Research Associates, who has studied right-wing populist movements for 25 years, equates Rhodes' rhetoric to yelling fire in a crowded theater. "Promoting these conspiracy theories is very dangerous right now because there are people who will assume that a hero will stop at nothing." What will happen, he adds, "is not just disobeying orders but harming and killing."
Rhodes acknowledges that there are certain risks. Freedom "is not neat or tidy," he says. "It's messy." For example, he concedes that "there may be a downside" to police refusing to engage during a riot situation. "Someone could be beaten or raped, but the potential risks involved are far less dangerous than having soldiers or police always do whatever they are told."
LEE PRAY thinks Rhodes downplays the threat Oath Keepers represents to a rogue administration. "They have to be careful because otherwise they will be labeled as terrorists," he says. "You have to read between the lines, but I wish they were more up-front with their members."
It's not hard to see the appeal of Oath Keepers for guys like Pray and Brandon, frustrated young men nervous about their future prospects. They signed up to defend the greatest country in the world, only to be cast aside. Even their injuries were suffered ingloriously. Brandon can't sit for long after being flung from a pickup truck; Pray now walks with a cane, possibly for good. The men sincerely believe their country is headed for disaster, but as broken warriors they are powerless to do anything about it. They have tried writing to Congress, signing petitions, and voting, all to no avail. Oath Keepers offers a new sense of pride and comradeship—of being part of something momentous.
And when the time comes, Pray insists he is battle ready. "If the government continues to ignore us, and forces us to engage," Pray says, "I'm willing to fight to the death." Brandon, for his part, is resigned about their odds fighting the US military. "If we take up arms, realistically we would lose, and they would label us as terrorists," he says. Pray nods sadly in agreement. But they'll take their chances. They consider it their duty.