News broke over the weekend that a group of armed militiamen commandeered a federal building housed in Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, an action they said was meant to protest the conviction of two local ranchers found guilty of setting fire to federal land. Media outlets were quick to note the group’s leaders included Ammon Bundy, the son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who staged a similar standoff with the U.S. government in 2014 when he refused to remove his cattle from federal land. The family, it seemed, was rapidly becoming heroes of a national — and increasingly militant — anti-government moment.
But while the Nevada standoff and the armed Oregon occupation is often framed by pundits and politicians as a dispute over the role of government, the Bundy family also appears to be influenced by something else: their Mormon faith.
Granted, it would be a mistake to call the Bundy’s armed campaign against the government a “Mormon movement,” as some of their supporters do not share their faith and the Mormon church has condemned the Oregon occupation. Also, thousands of Mormons, or members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), serve proudly in the U.S. military, not to mention the U.S. government.
But religion has undoubtedly played a key role in the lives and activism of the Bundys, as well as many of their passionate — and often armed — supporters. To fully understand those staring down government agents in Oregon, you first have to unpack their faith — and why their church rejects it.
The Bundy family claims a Mormon faith as inspiration for their cause…
As John Sepulvado pointed out over at OPD, Cliven Bundy repeatedly cited his Mormonism to justify his standoff with the United States government in 2014, insisting he has a right to graze cattle on federal land because his Mormon ancestors worked it long before the federal Bureau of Land Management was established.
“If the standoff with the Bundys was wrong, would the Lord have been with us?” Bundy said. “Could those people that stood (with me) without fear and went through that spiritual experience … have done that without the Lord being there? No, they couldn’t.”
Bundy even said that God inspired him to resist and “disarm” federal agents, arguing that failing to do so would result in civil war.
If the standoff with the Bundys was wrong, would the Lord have been with us?
“I have no idea what God wants done, but he did inspire me to have the sheriffs across the United States take away these weapons, disarm these bureaucracies, and he also gave me a little inspiration on what would happen if they didn’t do that,” Bundy said while speaking on the radio program KUER later that year. “It was indicated that ‘this is our chance, America, to straighten this problem up. If we don’t solve this problem this way, we will face these same guns in a civil war.’”
Bundy’s family reportedly fasted and prayed for the “spirit of their forefathers to be with them” during the 2014 incident, and Bundy’s son, Ammon Bundy, articulated a similar vision to explain his involvement in the recent takeover in Oregon. In a video posted on January 1, Ammon — whose name is the same as a famous figure from the Book of Mormon — explained that it was God who called him to leave his home and campaign on behalf of the Hammond family in Oregon.
“I clearly understood that the Lord was not pleased with what was happening to the Hammonds,” Ammon said in between various references to prayer. He also reflected on God guiding him through the process: “It was exactly like it was happening at the Bundy ranch, when we were guided and directed as to what we were supposed to do…[Our plan is] wisdom in the Lord…And I ask you now to come participate in this wonderful thing in Harney County that the Lord is about to accomplish.”
Other Mormons have responded to the Bundys’ call to action. Several militia members who participated in the Nevada standoff quoted Mormon scripture and waved Mormon flags, for instance, and members of the Oregon occupation are already making references to Mormon religious figures.
…But the Mormon church doesn’t agree.
The LDS Church was mostly silent during the 2014 standoff, when Cliven Bundy told reporters that he “never had a problem with the bishop” regarding the dispute. On Monday, however, officials released a statement strongly condemning the Oregon occupation.
“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,” the statement read. “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.”
Indeed, most members of the LDS church have a deep, abiding respect for the U.S. government — especially the Constitution, which the church sees as divinely inspired. In addition, the 12th article of faith for LDS members compels them to obey governmental authority, saying, “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”
The Bundys may be influenced by a distinctly Mormon style of Libertarianism
Regardless of the church’s current position, the Bundys’ rejection of the federal government mirrors that of many non-Mormons within the political right, but it might also originate from their faith. According to Matthew Bowman, a historian and author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, the family’s political beliefs appear to reflect the theology of two prominent (and politically active) 20th-century Mormons: Ezra Taft Benson, former Secretary of Agriculture under president Dwight D. Eisenhower and the 13th president of the LDS Church, and Cleon Skousen, an influential Mormon political thinker and theologian. Bowman told ThinkProgress that both men forged a Libertarian approach to politics based on their religious beliefs.
“There is an important concept in Mormonism called free agency,” Bowman said. “Mormons don’t believe in original sin, so everyone is on this earth to choose how to live their lives, which [ to Benson and Skousen, was] with maximum possible individual liberty.”
The Bundys very closely link their Mormonism to conspiratorial Libertarianism.
“For Benson and Skousen, essentially we need to live in a Libertarian society for liberty to be effective,” he said, noting that Skousen is often lauded by conservative pundit and Mormon Glenn Beck, who called his book The 5,000 Year Leap “divinely inspired.”
The political concept is decidedly fringe within modern-day Mormonism, but Bowman acknowledged that “there remains a cadre of mormons who are very much followers of his idea.” He pointed to websites such as the “LDS Freedom Forum,” where Mormons vigorously debate right-wing Libertarian ideas on a number of message boards.
“A lot of people cheering for Bundy on that website right now,” he said, adding, “the Bundys very closely link their Mormonism to conspiratorial Libertarianism.”
Ammon Bundy appeared to envision this kind of Libertarian utopia when outlining his plan for the Oregon occupation.
“While we’re here, what we’re going to be doing is freeing these lands up, getting the ranchers back to ranching, getting the miners back to mining, getting the loggers back to logging, where they can do it under the protection of the people — and not be afraid of this tyranny that has been upon them,” Bundy said.
Bowman didn’t draw a direct connection between the family’s specific land-use ideas and Mormon theology, but noted that it was “a kind of radical localism” that “echoes of the Mormon settlement in the West.”
Militia members and Bundy supporters are pointing to Mormon scripture to justify their actions
As other writers have already pointed out, one of the gun-toting militants holed up on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is refusing to identify himself as anything other than “Captain Moroni.” The cryptic name is a direct reference to Captain Moroni from the Book of Mormon, an important religious figure who is remembered for resisting a tyrannical government. According to scripture, Moroni rose to power when a group of dissenters tried to establish their leader Amalickiah as king over the captain’s people, the Nephites. Moroni became so outraged that he tore off his clothing, wrote a slogan on it, and fashioned it into a flag, using it to rally his army and drive out Amalickiah’s forces.
“And it came to pass that [Moroni] rent his coat; and he took a piece thereof, and wrote upon it — In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children — and he fastened it upon the end of a pole,” the scripture reads.
Moroni killed any dissenters who did not flee, and his banner, now known as the “Title of Liberty,” was raised over every Nephite tower. Similarly, flags bearing Moroni’s slogan “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children” were waved by Bundy supporters and militia members at a rally last summer in Nevada, when the family organized an event to mark the anniversary of the rancher’s refusal to comply with federal laws.
“Captain Moroni is the prototypical Mormon defender for freedom of worship and freedom of liberty,” Bowman said.
Although the LDS church believes the U.S. Constitution is divinely inspired, there is a long history of armed, anti-government Mormon militias
Bundy supporters haven’t specifically mentioned Mormonism’s previous military entanglements, but the group’s history is still rife with examples of the faithful resisting rulers — specifically the United States government. This isn’t to say Mormons were ever apolitical: The religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, ran an unsuccessful campaign for president that ended abruptly when he was attacked and killed by a mob that disagreed with his political beliefs. Smith’s chief campaigner and successor, Brigham Young, ultimately lead most of the remaining Mormons to modern-day Utah, where he was appointed the first governor of what was then a U.S. territory.
It’s possible that higher-level authorities could get involved at some point, but that would be the exception instead of the rule.
But relations with the U.S. government and the religious settlers quickly deteriorated, resulting in the Utah War, sometimes called the “Mormon War.” Stretching from 1857–1858, the conflict began when the U.S. government sent an expedition of federal troops to the region, which the Mormon population — having endured oppression and violence before moving to Utah — saw as an attempt to annihilate their people. In response, the Mormons mustered an armed militia to harass the government soldiers, and while there were no formal battles, there were several skirmishes between the two forces. The conflict also set the stage for the infamous Mountain Meadows massacre, when Mormon-affiliated militiamen murdered 120 California-bound settlers over several days as they crossed through northern Utah.
Ultimately, though, the Bundy’s faith may just be the Mormon version of a mindset common throughout the American West — regardless of faith tradition.
“We can talk about the Bundys as Mormon, but their beliefs are very Western as well — it’s not a mistake that you see this happening in the West,” Bowman said. “There is a pervasive Libertarianism in the region.”