IT's a bright spring morning in northern Idaho, clear and still under the tall pines, the chill air warming quickly as the shadows shorten. A brother and sister are playing on the swings behind a country church. It's Easter weekend, and there's a sense of anticipation.
But there's something else here, a dark feeling, a mood of wariness and isolation, a hint of alienation. The sign back up the rutted dirt driveway tells part of the story. ''Whites Only,'' it reads. ''Church of Jesus Christ Christian ... Aryan Nations ... Pastor Richard G. Butler.'' And a little farther up the driveway, nailed to a tree, another hand-painted sign: ''Welcome Kinsman.''
This is the headquarters of the largest white-separatist group in North America. The one whose publications denounce Jews and nonwhite races, whose recent increase in organizing activity has made it an umbrella for young skinheads, ex-Ku Klux Klan members, and white people in prison searching for a philosophy, the one critics say incites hatred and violence.
The visitor is wary. The place has been described as a ''compound'' where paramilitary activity may take place. But today it looks more like a small summer camp in need of repair. One modest white house, several other beige buildings, a half-dozen pickup trucks and older cars. No sign of weapons or security devices.
No one knows for sure how many members Aryan Nations has.
''It's very difficult to keep tabs,'' says Chip Berlet, an analyst with Political Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass., a think tank that studies the political right wing, including racist groups and militias. ''They're all very secretive and suspicious for the most part.''
But the Klanwatch Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., reports that the number of states in which the Idaho-based group is active grew from three to 18 this past year.
''The phenomenal growth of Aryan Nations was the most startling development in the white supremacist world in 1994,'' Klanwatch warned recently. ''Aryan Nations's unexpected return to the forefront of the organized hate movement is the direct result of at least two years of aggressive recruiting in North America and Europe.''
''We don't get into numbers,'' says Tim Bishop, staff director of Aryan Nations.
''But it's getting up there. Right now what we're doing is getting the machinery into place, the recruiting and the structure.''
Mr. Bishop, who holds the rank of ''colonel'' in an organization he joined in 1984 (after being associated with the Ku Klux Klan in Kansas), claims 21 state offices. ''We'll have 30 or more by the end of the year,'' he predicts. The group also counts organizers in Rome, Helsinki, and Copenhagen.
This weekend, some 250 to 400 members of the ''youth corps'' -- most of them skinheads -- will gather for what has become an annual Aryan Youth Assembly. Bound for Glory and other rock bands favored by skinheads will play. A couple of volunteers are straightening up the dank bunkhouse, making sure gear in the camp kitchen works, and cleaning the outdoor facilities.
In July, the organization expects 500 to 600 adult members and supporters to attend the Aryan Nations Congress here.
But the concern is not about the number of official members Aryan Nations counts. Just four people live at organization headquarters on about 20 acres outside of Hayden Lake, Idaho: Pastor Butler and his wife Betty, prison ministries director Gerald Gruidl (a former California chaplain for the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, now drawing workman's compensation after working as a janitor), and handyman Stan McCollum (former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama).
At last Sunday's Easter service in a converted barn with a small pulpit and electric organ, a wood stove, and folding chairs, there were no more than two dozen people in the congregation -- five of them children, who later raced around hunting for colored eggs under the trees as the adults prepared a potluck dinner in Aryan Hall.
Content, not quantity
What worries human rights supporters is the message Aryan Nations spreads and the influence it may be having on those who are politically disaffected, vulnerable to a religion that promotes the superiority of the white race, or simply antisocial in the extreme.
Inside the office and print shop attached to the small church, hundreds of pamphlets, books, leaflets, newsletters, and tape recordings line the walls and fill the back storerooms. Their titles reveal Aryan Nations' philosophy and attitude: ''Was Adolph Hitler a Bible Christian?'' ''The Aryan Warrior,'' ''Who Runs the Media?'' ''Inter-Klan Newsletter and Survival Alert,'' and the ''National Socialist Vanguard Report.''
It's a decidedly low-tech publishing operation. Fingers get ink-stained. Collating is done by hand. But the amount of material going out is considerable. Some half-dozen plastic bins a day are trundled down to the post office.
Swastikas and photos of Hitler are prominent. There are crude cartoons about blacks and Jews. One sign reads: ''God has a plan for homosexuals ... AIDS is the beginning.''
''We do a lot of rabble-rousing around here,'' jokes Pastor Gruidl, a rotund man with a high giggle. ''You might say we're prejudiced. Why lie?''
Butler is a great-grandfather and former aircraft engineer who moved from southern California to Idaho in 1973 to found Aryan Nations. In 1988, he was tried and acquitted of federal sedition charges. One of those tried with him was Richard Wayne Snell, who was scheduled to be executed in Arkansas yesterday for the murders of a black state trooper and a Jewish pawnshop owner.
Butler, a leader of the ''Christian Identity'' movement, mixes his interpretations of Biblical scripture with race theories in Sunday sermons that are recorded for distribution by mail.
''More powerful than a marching army is an idea whose time has come,'' he says in an interview. A black storm-trooper helmet, leather bullwhip, and picture of Hitler are among the paraphernalia around his cluttered desk.
His vision of the future is a North America that is totally white. ''Others will be returned to their areas of origin. No two cultures, no two religions, no two peoples can occupy the same place at the same time ... one has to go.''
''Here in America today we are now prisoners of the anti-Christ -- in the media, in the pulpits, in the school system,'' he said in his Easter sermon. And he leaves no doubt as to who he thinks is responsible: ''The Jews -- they are our adversaries.''
Butler and others here insist that they do not promote violence or hatred.
''When we say we're racist, we're saying we're proud of our culture,'' explains Tom Panvini a barber from Queens, N.Y., who now lives in a small town along the Idaho-Montana border and was commissioned as an Aryan Nations ''lieutenant'' during the Easter service. ''It has nothing to do with hatred.''
The leader of the Aryan Nations youth corps is Sean Haines, a 17-year-old affiliated with the group since he was 11.
''I try to avoid situations that would bring me into confrontations,'' says this young man with a swastika tattoo and a Nazi insignia on his black bomber jacket. He also studies martial arts. ''We preach vigilance, not violence,'' he says.
He is not a racist, he says, but a ''racialist,'' by which he means ''one who practices race promotion, one who follows purity laws and laws of nature.''
On his own since he was 15, Mr. Haines works full-time now installing irrigation systems. But he intends to get his high school equivalency degree and then attend junior college in nearby Spokane, Wash. He wants to study desk-top publishing.
Outside, a youngster is helping his dad unfurl the red flag with the swastika that will fly over Pastor Butler's church. And just beyond the swing set where the kids were playing is a pile of charred wood, remnants of a burned cross.