Who Is Captain Moroni?

January 4, 2016

Two days ago, on January 2, a group of well-armed, self-described “patriots” broke into the headquarters/visitors center of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, saying they will not move until their nebulous and unspecified demands are met. I wasn’t surprised that, among the leaders of the takeover, was Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, whose refusal to pay federal grazing fees led to an armed confrontation in Nevada in April 2015. The elder Bundy had cited his Mormon beliefs in support of his defiance of federal law. Fortunately, the month-long standoff did not result in bloodshed, but it certainly looked as if it might.

In an article for Oregon Public Broadcasting, John Sepulvado tries to explain the Mormon connection to the current standoff. I think he did a fair job of it, but I wanted to explore a little bit more of what is behind the peculiar mix of right-wing insurrection and Mormon theology.

As Mr. Sepulvado correctly explains, these armed groups take their cues from Mormon symbolism, particularly the episode in the Book of Mormon involving a man called Captain Moroni gathering the free and righteous under the “Title of Liberty.” This explains why one armed man at the Malheur refuge identified himself as “Captain Moroni, from Utah.”


As Mr. Sepulvado explains, the story is basically that, at a time when the free government of the Nephites (the protagonists of the Book of Mormon) is under attack by evil dissenters (known as “king-men”), the righteous warrior, Captain Moroni, is outraged at the government’s refusal to come to his aid and therefore threatens to take up arms against the government–ironically to preserve the government. Here’s Sepulvado’s summary:

According to LDS scripture, Captain Moroni took command of the Nephites when he turned 25. Moroni innovated weaponry, strategy and tactics to help secure the safety of the Nephites, and allow them to worship and govern as they saw fit.

In LDS texts, Moroni prepares to confront a corrupt king by tearing off part of his coat and turning it into a flag, hoisting it as a “title of liberty.” This simple call to arms inspired a great patriotism in the Nephites, helping to raise a formidable army. Vastly outnumbered, the corrupt king fled. According to the Book of Mormon, Captain Moroni continued to push for liberty among his people.

“And it came to pass that Moroni was angry with the government, because of their indifference concerning the freedom of their country.”

This is only partially correct. There was no king at the time described, but a “chief governor,” elected more or less by the voice of the people. The chief governor was a man named Pahoran, who, according to the Book of Mormon, was not corrupt and did not flee. Rather, Pahoran supported Captain Moroni but explained that he had been driven out of his capital by the king-men:

I, Pahoran, who am the chief governor of this land, do send these words unto Moroni, the chief captain over the army. Behold, I say unto you, Moroni, that I do not joy in your great afflictions, yea, it grieves my soul.

But behold, there are those who do joy in your afflictions, yea, insomuch that they have risen up inrebellion against me, and also those of my people who are freemen, yea, and those who have risen up are exceedingly numerous.

And it is those who have sought to take away the judgment-seat from me that have been the cause of this great iniquity; for they have used great flattery, and they have led away the hearts of many people, which will be the cause of sore affliction among us; they have withheld our provisions, and have daunted our freemen that they have not come unto you.

And behold, they have driven me out before them, and I have fled to the land of Gideon, with as many men as it were possible that I could get.

And behold, I have sent a proclamation throughout this part of the land; and behold, they are flocking to us daily, to their arms, in the defence of their country and their freedom, and to avenge our wrongs. (Alma 61:2-6)

Subsequent chapters in the Book of Mormon describe how Captain Moroni and Pahoran work together to drive out the king-men and reestablish government control over the land. It’s a bit strange that Bundy and his friends see themselves as latter-day Captain Moronis, given that they clearly oppose the elected government of the people. If anything, the actions of Bundy and his friends more closely resemble the actions of the king-men described in the Book of Mormon. Unlike Pahoran and Captain Moroni, they have no legitimate claim to represent the government or the people. They are, in fact, guilty of sedition at best, treason at worst.

So, how did the symbolism of Mormonism become so tightly entwined with right-wing, anti-government ideology?

First, as most Americans understand, early Mormons experienced violent opposition from their non-Mormon neighbors in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois in the 19th century. Their attempts at redress from the federal government fell on deaf ears. Finally, after a mob murdered church founder Joseph Smith and his brother, the Latter-day Saints were compelled to flee the United States and establish an isolated homeland in what was then part of Mexico. Within a couple of years of their settling Utah, the Mexican-American War resulted in Utah Territory coming under United States jurisdiction. The Mormons in Utah resented being governed by Washington, and they more or less used church ecclesiastical structure for day-to-day business and law. By 1857, federal appointees in Utah, tired of having their powers “usurped” or ignored by the Mormons, asked Present James Buchanan for help in putting down a “rebellion” in Utah. Buchanan sent 2,500 armed soldiers to install a new federally appointed governor and enforce federal law. The resulting Utah War ended with few casualties but a healthy suspicion of the federal government among Mormons. Anti-polygamy laws that disenfranchised Mormons, criminalized their religious practices, and seized church assets further ingrained a culture of suspicion toward the government.

But that’s only half the story. By the time of the Great Depression, Utah would follow most of the country in supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” which rested on strong federal government action to lift the country out of economic catastrophe. Indeed, more than 60% of Utah voters supported Roosevelt in 1936, 1940, and 1944, with support at 70% in 1936. It seemed that Mormons had made their peace with strong central government.

Then the Cold War came.

After World War II, America became gripped by a fear of Communist takeover. Most of us are familiar with the House Un-American Activities Committee, blacklists, and Joseph McCarthy. Out of the “Red Scare” came an extreme right-wing ideology that saw a Communist conspiracy in most efforts at international cooperation (such as the United Nations) and “big government” policies. Most prominent among proponents of this ideology was the John Birch Society, founded in 1958 by Robert Welch. He stated, “Both the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians. If left unexposed, the traitors inside the U.S. government would betray the country’s sovereignty to the United Nations for a collectivist New World Order, managed by a ‘one-world socialist government'” (The Blue Book of the John Birch Society).

As we’ve seen with the Bundy folks, the idea that there are secret, treasonous forces at work within the government resonates with Mormon beliefs. Throughout the Book of Mormon are warnings against “secret combinations,” or secret organizations dedicated to the destruction of freedom and righteousness.

And there are also secret combinations, even as in times of old, according to the combinations of the devil, for he is the founder of all these things; yea, the founder of murder, and works of darkness; yea, and he leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever. (2 Nephi 26:22).

One prominent adherent of the Birch Society was well-known Mormon W. Cleon Skousen. His book, The Naked Communist, became an important part of the Birch Society canon, and was followed by The Naked Capitalist. The latter book draws mainly on Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope (a history of modern European imperialism and multinational organizations) to suggest that, behind the lofty rhetoric of these international bodies lies an insidious effort to control the world through a single socialist government. Most serious students of history rightly dismiss Skousen’s theories, though such luminaries as Glenn Beck wholeheartedly endorse them.

But the link to Mormonism wasn’t cemented until apostle Ezra Taft Benson gave outspoken support to Skousen’s ideas and the Birch Society. Benson grounded his attacks on the United Nation, the Civil Rights movement, and other alleged instruments of Communism in his defense of the U.S. Constitution, which he referred to as “miraculous,” “a heavenly banner,” and “divinely inspired.” Indeed, LDS scripture has God saying, “I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80).

In this way, Benson not only linked the principles of republican democracy and freedom to belief in God, but he specifically called out anything beyond a strict-constructionist reading of the Constitution as being inspired of the devil. Seen in this light, the following statements from a Bundy rally in Utah are completely understandable:

“If our (U.S.) Constitution is an inspired document by our Lord Jesus Christ, then isn’t it scripture?” Bundy asked.

“Yes,” a chorus of voices replied.

“Isn’t it the same as the Book of Mormon and the Bible?” Bundy asked.

“Absolutely,” the audience answered.

In my experience, the folks who most loudly proclaim their love for the Constitution know the least about it, its history, and its development. A few years ago, I heard from a longtime friend who had somehow immersed himself in this right-wing ideology. After a few minutes talking with him, I realized he had only a superficial understanding of the Constitution and how it works. I asked him if he had ever read the Federalist Papers, a must for anyone wanting to understand the “heavenly banner.” I wasn’t surprised when he said he hadn’t. But, he said, “I understand Constitutional principles.”

In his response, my friend told me everything I need to know about these supposed freedom fighters: they have somehow mixed their political beliefs (and fears) with a particular reading of Mormon scripture. To them, it makes perfect sense that one would take up arms against the government in order to preserve our system of government. It seems to me that what they are really saying is that they refuse to be ruled by the voice of people who disagree with them.

I have just learned that the LDS church has issued a statement:

While the disagreement occurring in Oregon about the use of federal lands is not a Church matter, Church leaders strongly condemn the armed seizure of the facility and are deeply troubled by the reports that those who have seized the facility suggest that they are doing so based on scriptural principles. This armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis. We are privileged to live in a nation where conflicts with government or private groups can — and should — be settled using peaceful means, according to the laws of the land.

Some might wonder if these armed men will listen to the church and reconsider their actions. If I were a betting man, I would say they will ignore the church’s clear condemnation, perhaps even believing that the church itself has been infiltrated by the enemies of God.

Trump Diaries, Sept. 2, 2015

September 2, 2015

[Authenticity cannot be verified. —Ed.]

September 2, 2015

Hit the ground running this morning. I’m trying to broaden my horizons and talk to as many real Americans as I can, so in that spirit, I asked our doorman, Manny, what he thought of my Immigration Reform proposal. He looked a little flustered and said, “Maybe you should rethink it. It plays into some negative stereotypes.” I didn’t have time to ask him what he meant, so I flipped through the proposal in the car on the way to the office. I have to say those fellas did a helluva job on the proposal. I didn’t know half that stuff. Somebody told me that illegal immigrants contribute $150 billion to our economy, and more than 70% pay state and federal taxes, including Social Security and Medicare, which they are not eligible to receive. If I hadn’t skimmed the proposal this morning, I wouldn’t have had any idea that these freeloaders receive more than $4 billion in free tax credits. I’m gonna have to remember to ask Corey and Mike what they mean by “free tax credits.” Also, someone should make sure Manny is here legally.

But maybe Manny is right, and the tone is wrong. I’ve asked my speechwriters to improve the tone by putting more emphasis on the rapes and murders, though that bit about the “trail of blood” was awesome. The whole thing needs to be punchier. Find me some more examples like those illegals who attacked a 64-year-old woman, “crushing her skull and eye sockets with a hammer, raping her, and murdering her.” That’ll hit home.

I was totally on a roll, crushing it.

As soon as I got to the office, however, things took a sour turn. I had on my schedule a meeting with the Hair Club for Men, and that kind of stuff always gets me excited. I was all set to talk about how I get my hair so naturally thick and perfectly coiffed, but when the door opened, in came those geeks from the Club for Growth–you know, those idiots who say they want to shrink the government down to the size at which they can drown it in the bathtub. They want me to sign a pledge that I’ll never raise taxes. I don’t know why they keep asking because I’ve already said I’m going to lower taxes and make sure the hedge-fund guys pay their fair share. How much more specific do I have to get?

So, this loser ex-Congressman (he totally failed trying to run for governor of California) comes in and starts pitching his no-new-taxes bullshit. Yeah, like I’m stupid enough to fall for that. Who do they think I am, Poppy Bush? I told these guys they were barking up the wrong tree. Trump signs pledges for no one! But I said I sympathize with their goals, so I told them if they picked their top candidates for the House and Senate, I’d donate a million bucks to further the cause. So, this no-talent hack Mcin-something accuses me of trying to buy them off. If I’m going to buy someone off, it’s not going to be for pocket change. Who the hell do they think they are? I told them to get the hell out of my office and come back when the guy in charge isn’t named after a muppet.

Had lunch with Glenn Beck. That is one scary fella. If he doesn’t have his chalkboard handy, all he does is cry.

Spent the afternoon getting my tweets just right. This one was for the ages:

The president of the pathetic Club For Growth came to my office in N.Y.C. and asked for a ridiculous $1,000,000 contribution. I said no way!

Pathetic and ridiculous. That’ll teach ’em.

Then I went in for the kill:

When I intelligently turned down The Club For Growth crazy request for $1,000,000, they got nasty. What a waste of money that would have been.

Still crushing it. For real.

Got an unexpected gift from Jeb Bush in the form of direct attacks, in English and Spanish, no less. Hey, numb-nuts, we speak English in this country! So, your wife is an immigrant, big freaking deal! So’s mine, only M. is from a real country, and I didn’t pick her up on some high school charity trip, neither. M. has a college degree, and I married her because she’s so smart, not because she’s a model. She could get a job anywhere she wants. All I’d have to do is pick up the phone, and bam! she’s hired. At least my wife spoke English when I married her. Are we even sure Señora Bush is actually a citizen? Remember to get someone to check.

I hear Jeb wants to focus on policy, not personality. I guess you go with what you have. Obviously not much personality there. But how can he say I’m not outlining policy? I’ve been talking about it nonstop for months: greatness, victory, wall. That moron acts like I’m some kind of idiot. Everyone knows I’m brilliant. People are shocked at how smart I am! Who the hell is he? Calling in the Twitter guys now.


October 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens on Mormonism. Brutal.

Romney’s Mormon Problem

Bad Prose and Bad Web Design of the Day

August 26, 2011

My father is a huge fan of Glenn Beck. I am not. I consider myself pretty conservative, and a lot of my friends are mystified at what they see as my right-wing tendencies. But I’ve never understood the appeal of Glenn Beck. My dad actually Tivoed Beck’s last broadcast so that I could watch it with him, and I just couldn’t maintain any interest at all, so I went back to reading a book about autism.

But this post isn’t about Beck, but rather about some of his hapless followers here in Utah. Salt Lake Tribune columnist Paul Rolly wrote yesterday about the strange saga of a “Come to Jerusalem in Utah” rally (in the small town of Jerusalem, Utah) scheduled to coincide with Beck’s “Restoring Courage” in the other Jerusalem. This event was, according to its organizers, a “non-partisan, ecumenical, festival of sun, fun, and food.” Rolly notes that the Utah group originally claimed to have booked big-name speakers, such as Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, all three of Utah’s Congressmen, Governor Gary Herbert, and an “unspecified LDS official,” along with a rabbi to be named at a later date. Of course, none of these people had any idea that such an event was being planned. Furthermore, the town of Jerusalem, Utah, had not heard of the event.

In response, the organizers (I’m using that term loosely) responded with what Rolly calls an “unsigned diatribe” against him. So, I went over to the web site (Come2Jerusalem.inUtah.tv) and checked it out.

Oh, boy.

First of all, the layout is beyond amateur, it’s downright awful, almost as if someone intentionally designed it so as not to be usable. There are three vertical panels that make up the page: white down the middle, with yellow down the sides and around the top and bottom margins. Perhaps they think the yellow makes the white stand out.

The headlines at the top of the screen are small, in three colors (blue, red, and green), randomly capitalized (Utah is even all-caps with an exclamation point thrown in for good measure), and betray the writer’s glancing familiarity with grammar. From there, we get a carat (>) symbol. Why? Well, why not?

Then comes a homemade-looking logo for the event. The top two-thirds of the logo is a jaundiced sort of tan color, with badly pixelated text (“Utah Stands With Israel”) in what looks like an attempt at a slightly lighter shade of the same diseased tan color. Below the tan is a white section covering about one-fourth of the logo, followed by a bright “royal” blue colored bar bearing the site’s web address in white. Superimposed over the middle of the logo are, from left to right, the seal of the state of Utah, the snake illustration from the Gadsden flag (though the snake has been stretched wide by the “designer” and tinted blue), and a Star of David in blue. Note that none of the shades of blue match each other. At the very bottom of the logo are the words “FORTRESSES OF COURAGE” in a red font designed to look like bricks (where the hell did they find that?).

Moving on, we find a thick blue rule spanning the white panel, followed by blue text in what looks to be Times New Roman. I could spend time picking apart the grammar, but that would be too easy. What I love the most about these paragraphs is the attempt to create common ground between Utah and Israel. First of all, we are told of Glenn Beck’s planned even in “Jerusalem, there” and the corresponding event “here, in Utah.” Apparently someone thought readers might confuse the two.

The next sentence is a thing of beauty: “We in Utah, know what it is to have a pioneer history of being driven hither under penalty of death, into a land that, like Israel, has from its inception been a Fortress of Courage.” Leaving aside the surplus of commas and the overblown diction (“hither under penalty of death”), I ask myself how the pioneer experience of our Mormon ancestors relates at all to the Holocaust and the formation of Israel. Last I checked, millions of Jews were killed by the Nazis, and to this day Israel is under repeated attack from its neighbors. Inflating the experience of our ancestors (which was deplorable, obviously) to the level of the Holocaust crassly cheapens both peoples.

Here we come to the heart of the matter. Paul Rolly seems to have pissed these folks off more than a little. A large white text box bordered by a thick blue line contains the “unsigned diatribe” against “gossip mongerer” [sic] Paul Rolly in a large, black, sans-serif font. And “diatribe” is a good description. In the blue border, we read “Jerusalem Stumbles. When Will They Learn?” I honestly have no idea what that is supposed to mean.

In the big text box, the writer says that Rolly “caused a small kerfuffle” by publishing “outright lies” about the event. (One wonders what kind of response a large kerfuffle would have provoked.) The writer then speaks of the moral and financial value of the event, which is compared to Woodstock, and spends a few paragraphs tediously describing the minute details of the event planning (again, in poor grammar).

Here’s a representative sentence:

Through the auspices of the non-profit corporation leading the structural planning of the event, Come2Jerusalem.inUtah.tv, influenced by the old Boy Scout admonition of leave an area better than found, consideration to improve the bleachers of the Moroni Civic Arena were planned and networking to leave the arena with permanent lighting fixtures was contemplated.

I, for one, am happy to hear that consideration was contemplated.

The writer then discusses the Moroni City Council’s actions, which essentially ruined the original plans, and concludes:

My personal belief is that the individual [the Moroni City Council member] is a misogynist, anti-Semite, whose rabid hatred blinds him to the larger benefits that would accrue. … Members of the organizing committee have prayed and fasted to seek direction of how to meet the obstruction of one craven individual exercising unrighteous dominion. Those organizers present at Tuesday night’s planning session can bear testimony that the Spirit was greatly moving among us as we sought His guidance.

Yep, that sounds awfully ecumenical, doesn’t it? I think my favorite bit is this:

The obstruction by the one is known to many in the planned community and County. While the organizing entity reserves the right to seek redress for violation of our civil rights in the courts of this realm, given the nature and theme of the event, we will leave it to Him to smite His foes. If those individuals with knowledge and authority to rein in the unrighteous do not, have not, they share in the smiting that will be poured out.

We are advised to “stay tuned. Stay prayerful.” God will work things out. Ironically, He appears to have found a solution for them, but they’ve hidden it in tiny red and white print (with italics, even) in the blue border along the bottom of the text box. Unless you’re looking for it, you won’t see that they’ve moved the event to West Valley City, a suburb of Salt Lake City, where clearly the city council is more in tune with the Spirit and less smite-worthy.

I would love to know what happened at this event, but I don’t know anyone who would would have attended. Even my dad wouldn’t have bothered.