On Saturday, January 2, Ammon Bundy led a group of protesters in occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge Building outside of Burns, Oregon. An outgrowth of a demonstration in support of two ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were convicted of allowing a controlled fire to engulf federal lands, the act of dissent was aimed to symbolize a much broader protest: the allegedly unconstitutional extension of the federal government and the revocation of local rancher freedom. The Malheur Refuge symbolized, they believe, the infringement of private land rights, and so they took possession of it in an armed occupation and vowed not to relinquish the property until their demands were met.
Ammon is the son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who has previously led a standoff with the American government; like his father, Ammon defends his actions through religious belief and justification. Most importantly, as a Mormon, Bundy mixes LDS symbolism with a libertarian language of disgust for the federal government. He claims he prayed and received inspiration that guided his activities: “The Lord was not pleased with what has happening with the Hammonds,” he said. His protest against federal overreach, he believes, is an extension of his Mormon faith. In another interview, Bundy explained: “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.” This is as much a religious mission as it is a political action. If Ammon followed the example of his father from several years before, then prior to their quest, he would have fasted and prayed for the “spirit of their forefathers to be with them.”
Even though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has already condemned Bundy’s actions, many have pointed out the consistencies within his beliefs and particular moments from Mormon history. Some have even noted how this Mormon context is necessary to understand Bundy’s activities. Indeed, the Mormon past provides a lot of evidence for this interpretation, as there were plenty of individuals and moments that have demonstrated a penchant for violence within the LDS tradition.
But this episode is also an important lesson in the danger of attempting to connect a straight line between traditions and individuals. Ammon Bundy is a product of Mormonism, but his Mormonism is also a product of his own making. His armed standoff is just another tale in the paradoxical history of LDS believers who have paved their own way by framing political beliefs through theological prisms. The Mormon tradition, like virtually any religious tradition, provides the material for both violent and pacifist strains, thus making it difficult, if not impossible, to simply connect the dots between the LDS faith and Bundy’s actions. Indeed, forfeiting superficial appeals to strict coherency or literal continuity within a faith tradition allows the true elasticity and dynamism of Mormonism, not to mention American religion, to come into view.
The name “Ammon” comes from the Book of Mormon, a scriptural text Latter-day Saints believe contains the story of an Israelite family who left Israel, settled in the Americas centuries before Christ, and established an extensive proto-Christian civilization. A son of one of the text’s most righteous figures, King Mosiah, the Book of Mormon’s Ammon spends his early years rebelling against the church. After being convinced of his wicked ways and converted to the gospel by an intervening angel, however, Ammon becomes an iconic missionary to the “Lamanites,” a neighboring and wicked tribe who had rejected God’s message. Once on his mission, he attempts to impress a Lamanite king by tending the royal flock of sheep yet is quickly ambushed by marauding bandits. Ammon successfully protects the king’s property by killing several thieves with a sling and immobilizing the rest by chopping off their arms. This act of bravery converted the king and eventually brought the entire kingdom into the folds of the gospel.
In some ways, Ammon’s story fits in with several violent narratives within the Book of Mormon. The entire story begins with the first protagonist, Nephi, decapitating an evil ruler in Jerusalem who had refused to release Nephi’s family and scriptural records; this action was justified, the text explains, because it is better for one man to perish than an entire civilization—the Americas, where the Nephite family would settle—to dwindle in unbelief. Much later in the story, another protagonist, named “Captain Moroni,” becomes a famous war general who raises a “Title of Liberty” and swears to fight in defense of his country, family, and freedom. One of the armed Malheur Refuge occupiers even called himself “Captain Moroni” when approached by reporters. A superficial reading of Book of Mormon might lead one to believe the text champions violent protest.
Yet like most scriptural texts, the Book of Mormon contains multiple—seemingly contradictory—messages. Several portions of the book can be read as profoundly anti-violence. For instance, the very people that Ammon converts later refuse to take up arms against warring parties, and many of them are slaughtered as a result; this story is a powerful counter-message to previous violent legacies. Further, the final chapters of the Book of Mormon are a dirge dedicated to the fall of the Nephite civilization due to their violent and warring predilections. One could argue that the overall message of the text is a condemnation of those who choose the sword over the Word of God.
The Book of Mormon is far from unique in this complex relationship to violence. Similar summaries could be given of the Bible or Quran, to name but two. Selectively reading scriptural texts in support of particularly contemporary political messages—amplifying some messages while silencing others—is a profoundly common tradition. Scriptural literalism and fundamentalism, of all stripes and within all faith communities, belie the evolving nature of religious appropriation. While violent readings of the Book of Mormon can justify violent actions, such activities often reveal as much about the reader as they do the text. When interpreted from another angle, the Ammon of the Book of Mormon can be as much a counter-weight to Ammon Bundy as he is a spiritual role model.
The tradition that accepts the Book of Mormon as scripture is equally full of mixed messages and paradoxical legacies. Perhaps the most extreme moment came in the late-1850s, in the years leading up to the Civil War, when U.S. President James Buchanan declared that the Mormons in the Utah territory were in rebellion, and he dispatched the federal army to bring them under control. The conflict became known as the “Utah War,” and while it was based in the territorial jurisdiction issues that plagued western settlement at the time, it was also tinged with a uniquely Mormon apocalyptic flair. Brigham Young and his followers were fed up with what they believed was a tyrannical government that infringed on their rights and ignored their interests. Young declared martial law, prepared a territorial army, and waited for the American troops to cross the Rocky Mountains.
Last-minute diplomacy helped evade the armed standoff, but that didn’t mean bloodshed was completely averted. While Utah was under this siege mentality, not to mention afflicted by a stalled economy and the grim complexities of frontier life, Mormon settlers attacked a caravan of immigrants passing through the southern territory. This confrontation led to the tragic massacre of more than a hundred men, women, and children. Sanctioned by local ecclesiastical leaders and later covered up by the LDS Church, the Mountain Meadows Massacre was the darkest moment in Mormon history and has framed how many have viewed the faith’s tradition since.
Yet it would be a mistake to allow the Mountain Meadows Massacre to define the LDS tradition, just as it would be a mistake to define any religious movement through the actions of a few adherents. A majority of Mormons in territorial Utah eschewed violence and sought to live peaceful lives. Some Mormons, like prolific author Edward Tullidge, even renounced violent Mormon actions in national newspapers and decried his leadership for not offering a stronger condemnation. To Tullidge, Mormon militarism was a betrayal of the faith’s legacy. Indeed, that Tullidge published his anti-violent messages in James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald is not a coincidence: The Herald featured a number of Christian anti-violent ministers during the years surrounding the Civil War who deplored the militarism that American Christianity had seemingly embraced. Religions often prove to be fertile soil for just as many internal debates over the role of violence as dogmatic defenses of a particular position.
This paradoxical balance within Mormonism continues. For instance, while the modern LDS Church, at least in America, has been closely tethered to the Republican Party and the rise of the Religious Right, there was a poignant moment when church leaders bucked that trend. In 1981, LDS President Spencer W. Kimball shocked Republicans when he announced his opposition to Ronald Reagan’s plan to build a missile base in Utah in an address that denounced the nation’s embrace of cold war militarism. Yet this was far from a new cause for Kimball. The previous decade, in a sermon titled “The False Gods We Worship,” he boldly declared:
We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become anti-enemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.”
Kimball dissented from the conservative establishment on defense and war, even while he continued to embrace many other cultural staples of the conservative movement. While many other Mormons would come to embrace the expanding military industry, especially as most American Mormons remained entrenched within the Republican Party, it is far from the unified front that is often depicted. The LDS Church refuses to be pigeonholed into neat political categorizations, as seen in their more progressive stances on immigration as well as labor laws for same-sex individuals. Just as it is difficult to pinpoint Mormon doctrine on many issues, then, it is similarly impossible to easily predicate Mormonism’s political tradition within traditional bifurcated divisions. Even on an issue as crucial as violence, the LDS culture has enough tools at its disposal to construct various, and seemingly conflicting, idols.
The thing about religious texts and traditions is that they often serve more as malleable building blocks than as strict blueprints. This lesson has recently come into focus amid resurgent fears regarding Islam, which have required reminders that the Muslim faith should not be judged on the basis of extreme, fringe militants and their mischaracterizations of the Quran. The Bible, and Christianity writ large, contain just as many potential justifications for violent warfare.
Mormonism’s many political theologies work the same way. Scriptural texts and historic examples leave a complex legacy of lofty ideals and gritty realities, as is the case with most human institutions. There is much in the Mormon tradition that has fostered a culture of violence and a reticence toward pacifism. Cliven and Ammon Bundy are certain inheritors of that tradition. But that form of cultural inheritance is still predicated upon a particular interpretation that is perched in personal predilections, social context, and intellectual angst. Mormonism is far too messy to be depicted as one-dimensional, as it is constantly remade over and over again by practitioners who appropriate their faith in new and innovative ways that fit their cultural values.
Indeed, examining the relationship between Mormonism’s tradition and the current standoff in Oregon is a reminder that the construction of political theologies is always an exercise in creating religion after one’s own image.
Benjamin E. Park is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Missouri’s Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy. Follow him @BenjaminEPark.