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Most mainstream news accounts of antigovernment protesters’ occupation of a Fish and Wildlife Service facility in Oregon have ignored or downplayed the group’s religious beliefs. Ammon Bundy’s small band of armed followers turn out to be religious fanatics, and — inconveniently for the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — Mormon religious fanatics.
Ammon — the name is prominent in the Book of Mormon — is one of the 14 children of Cliven Bundy, the Mormon patriarch who made headlines in 2014 for a similar confrontation with the Bureau of Land Management. One of Ammon’s band has identified himself as “Captain Moroni.” Moroni is the golden angel whose image looks down from the steeples of Mormon temples in cities around the world.
The Bundys’ challenge to federal authority has deep roots in the church’s history. After an angry mob lynched Mormon’s founding father Joseph Smith in 1844, every man entering the church swore an “oath of vengeance” against the United States, which refused to recognize Smith’s new religious awakening.
When the Mormons reached Utah in 1847, Smith’s successor Brigham Young founded the breakaway state of Deseret (the word for “honeybee” in the Book of Mormon), which rejected many US laws, specifically those that forbad the Mormon practice of polygamy. US troops invaded Mormon Utah in 1857. Last-minute diplomacy narrowly averted a bloodbath.
Like Joseph Smith, Brigham Young preached that the American Constitution was a divinely inspired document being perverted by secular politicians in Washington. In a famous speech recorded in the church’s “Journal of Discourses,” Young “said if the Constitution of the United States were saved at all it must be done by this people” — meaning the Mormons.
The Bundys likewise believe that Washington politicians have hijacked the Constitution, and Ammon thinks the Mormon church agrees with them. In a 2014 podcast, he reported that, in his Arizona church, “the majority came and showed their support for me and my family” when he and his father tangled with the BLM that year.
Bundy said that his local Mormon bishop had considered “releasing,” or expelling, him from the church, but then thought better of it. “Once I explained the Lord’s involvement” in the Bundys’ politics, Ammon said, the bishop “said he understands and has felt some of the things I have felt.”
The Mormon church kept quiet — too quiet — during the Cliven Bundy standoff, but not so now. “Church leaders strongly condemn the armed seizure of the [Oregon] 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,” according to an official statement released Monday afternoon in Salt Lake City. “This armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis. We . . . 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.”
This time the Mormons doubtless will expel Ammon Bundy — though I suspect that will be the least of his problems.
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