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.