Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion Politics

Dear Mormon militiamen: Stop the insanity

Ammon Bundy, son of rancher Cliven Bundy, files a criminal complaint against the Bureau of Land Management at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department in Las Vegas, Nevada on May 2, 2014. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Blake
Ammon Bundy, son of rancher Cliven Bundy, files a criminal complaint against the Bureau of Land Management at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department in Las Vegas, Nevada on May 2, 2014. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Blake

Ammon Bundy, son of rancher Cliven Bundy, files a criminal complaint against the Bureau of Land Management at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department in Las Vegas, Nevada on May 2, 2014. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Blake

2:54 p.m.: See the end of this post for an update about a statement just issued by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

New year, same embarrassing news story.

Over the weekend, a small group of militiamen claiming to defend the United States Constitution broke into a federal wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon.

They’re saying they’re planning to occupy it indefinitely – “for years,” according to leader Ammon Bundy.

And they’re encouraging their friends to come along for the occupation, with guns in tow.

You may remember the Bundy name from two years ago, when Ammon’s father Cliven Bundy got into a much-publicized standoff with the federal government over his refusal to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars that he owed in grazing fees that went unpaid for more than twenty years.

Now Ammon Bundy is publicly taking up the cause of anti-government by traveling to Oregon to defend the Hammond family, a father and son who have been convicted of setting fire to public lands.

The Hammonds are scheduled to begin their five-year sentences today, but the protesters want the sheriff to offer them sanctuary instead of serving their time.

The protesters occupying the wildlife refuge so far number only about twenty, according to OPB, prompting one who identified himself as “Captain Moroni” to criticize his fellow insurgents as unfaithful to the cause he’s ready to die for.

“I feel quite betrayed” by the small numbers, he said, noting that “everyone just craps out” on follow-through even when they identify with the movement.

What’s particularly fascinating to me is the way this self-styled “Captain Moroni” has appropriated Book of Mormon history for new (and unworthy) ends.

People are drawn to the historical Captain Moroni because he’s the military studmuffin of the Book of Mormon; the character is brash and decisive, even “angry” (Alma 44:17, 59:13). He gets the job done. He sees himself as a Nephite patriot who loves God and country and gets rid of interlopers.

But he’s also, on at least one occasion, flat-out wrong, and that lesson should be a cautionary tale here.

There’s a telling scene in the Book of Mormon when Captain Moroni writes to Pahoran, the chief judge who’s responsible for keeping the military well-stocked. (See here for a longer post about what this passage teaches about the perils of anger.)

In the story, Captain Moroni has just about had it with the government, which has effectively “crapped out” on him and gone AWOL. In his case, the anger arises because the government hasn’t done enough, while in the Bundy case, it’s because the government has allegedly interfered too much. Still the result is the same: the good captain offers a veiled threat that the next time he’s in town he’s going to bring some armed ragamuffins along with him to make his point more forcefully (Alma 60:25–27; 30).

Stupid damned government, not caring a whit about the people. Stupid government agents, sitting on their thrones and grasping for power (Alma 60:11, 18).

I won’t give away the rest of the story, but it turns out that Captain Moroni is 100% wrong about Pahoran, who is in fact a righteous representative of a decent government with the people’s best interests at heart. Whoops.

So here is what I wish. I wish that the Bundy family and the self-proclaimed “Captain Moronis” of Mormondom would take a closer look at what they are doing. Do they really imagine that God is on their side, inspiring them to cheat on their taxes and set fire to government land?

I want to be clear: There is definitely a time and a place for Mormons to ignore the general rule as stated in our Articles of Faith that we are to obey the governments that rule the nations where we live.

For example, last year I posted about new research about Mormon Nazis in the 1930s and 40s who wholeheartedly embraced Hitler’s program. A tiny handful of Mormons stood up to Hitler in Germany at that time, and later they all explained their acquiescence by quoting that Article of Faith. What might have changed if they had stood up to injustice?

So, yes there are times and places in history when Latter-day Saints have a moral duty to oppose oppressive regimes. However, this is not one of those times.

Ammon Bundy is not a moral hero, standing up to a government that systematically harms citizens; he’s illegally opposing a government that dares to ask his family to pay taxes like everybody else.

A government that says whenever they graze their cattle on lands legally owned by the government, they should pay a fee for that.

Or that people should not set fire to federal lands.

Or that they should honorably serve their prison sentences when they’ve been convicted in a court of law.

It’s a blight on the Mormon faith that some of the armed militia men taking over a federal building are LDS. This is a place where innocent people go to birdwatch, for crying out loud.

Moreover, they have caused the whole county to cancel school this week because people are afraid to send their children to school when armed strangers have set up shop in town.

Enough with this crazy and illegal behavior – and with pretending that it is sanctioned by God.

2:54 p.m. update: The LDS Church issued the following brief statement today, condemning the actions of the militia organizers: “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.”

Related posts:


About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


Click here to post a comment

  • On the bright side, no sane person is going to associate the actions of these extremists with the actual LDS church, references to Captain Moroni notwithstanding. Most people will probably assume they are fringe nutjobs like the polygamous splinter groups, and won’t presume that they somehow have the sanction of Salt Lake.

  • What riles me up about this story is how ABC news treated these people as “armed protesters” rather than the more appropriate term, “terrorists”. An armed protest is not a protest. Its an act of intimidation in order to project the fear of using deadly force, menacing.

  • These Bundys are related to the Leavitts as in Mike Leavitt and Dudley Leavitt.
    Mike was in with the Bush cabal.
    Dudley was in on Mountain Meadows Massacre.according to some historical accounts What do you expect?

  • For those who want more information on this crackpot and dangerous group, check out the sovereign citizen movement. DOJ (Dept. of Justice) says that law enforcement agencies are very concerned with their potential for violence. They do not accept the right of the federal government to make and enforce laws, and they are sometimes looking for a confrontation with law enforcement officers. At times, their vehicles have been stopped for failure to display license plates, and when asked to provide identification, well, they don’t have that either. In a couple of instances, they have lead to shootouts, including in one southern state, the police chief’s son, a member of the force, was killed in the violence. Their rejection of lawful authority by this group is definitely a potential for confrontation and violence. The Bundy – led confrontation a couple of years ago with BLM agents that was national headline news

    Pr chris

  • I’ve been disappointed by the church’s response to this so far. Church-owned Deseret News didn’t even have an article up about it until just a couple of hours ago. And the article they did finally put up is an Associated Press article that doesn’t even mention the Mormon connection. Nothing on the Newsroom page either.

  • This is a tangent, I know…

    That particular story of Captain Moroni is not entirely given justice. Yes he was wrong. But I would also suggest 2 additional morals to the story.

    1st – be sure you understand promptings of the Spirit. God told Moroni to “clean house” if needed, before continuing to engage the Lamanites. This is EXACTLY what Moroni ended up needing to do. Though not with Pahoran, which is what Moroni apparently assumed. How many times do we, as individuals or as a Church, misapply promptings because we didn’t take the time – or assumed, or were too angry, hurt, distrustful, etc. – to listen to the whole message?

    2nd – don’t be afraid to admit you are wrong. Though the scriptures don’t describe an apology, they state Moroni is immediately relieved and happy in Pahoran’s faithfulness. And he immediately goes to Pahoran aid, to “clean house” and restore Pahoran to his office.

    More to the original point, this is a “militia” of crazies.

  • Randy, don’t let the people in Oregon cause you to become as unhinged as they are. Connecting the Leavitts and the Mountain Meadows Massacre to the situation in Oregon is simply ridiculous. I was once in a ward with Mike’s brother, Dane, and Dane’s wife. Some of the most charitable and kind people I have ever known. Criticize those involved if you like, but you don’t get a free pass to attack people you dislike who have nothing to do with the situation.

  • Nice to see the church getting at the forefront of the issue:

    “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.”

  • I am a decedent of the Leavitts and related to the Bundys. I have lived a law-abiding life and think that what “Captain Moroni” and his compatriots are doing is insane. Let’s remember that each person is responsible for their own actions despite what family they may originate from.

  • I wish you had said “on land owned by the people of the United States” rather than on land owned by the “government.”

  • 1. The Hammonds had already served time, but an appellate judge decided it wasn’t long enough and added more years.
    2. The Bundys are drama queens who decided to exploit the Hammonds’ plight.
    3. For a guy who loved freedom and democracy, Captain Moroni had thousands of his political enemies killed and then gave command of the army to his son.

  • Jana, Kudos and a tip of the hat to you for calling them out.
    Dennis Prager, in his ten commandment series, cited, in my opinion, issues like this that are an example of breaking the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of the Lord Thy God in Vain.” Where someone is citing scripture to justify an action the our Lord would not justify.
    Please keep up the good work!

  • I think in general these guys are being given a pass by the media and the public. Can you imagine the response if another armed group, citing a religious hero from a scripture other than the Bible and bearing names as unfamiliar-sounding to most Americans as “Ammon” and “Moroni” would have taken over a government building? Wouldn’t we be talking about terrorism, jihad, war having arrived on our shores?

    It makes me so uncomfortable to see the benign reaction they are evoking, and then to imagine if instead of “Mormon” the label they claimed was “Muslim” and wonder what we would be seeing in Burns, OR right about now.

  • So, speaking of admitting when you are wrong…

    I apologize, Jana. I just read the Moroni/Pahoran post you linked. I think it was a great post and certainly does the story justice. Should have read it before making my previous comment.

  • “…the historical Captain Moroni …” how is that assertion substantiated other than the pseudo epigraphic Book of Mormon?

  • A “strong statement” would have involved the excommunication of the traitors and terrorists.

    But the LDS Church hasn’t done that.

  • The headline should have read:

    “Dear Mormon Church, please excommunicate the LDS traitors and terrorists who are engaged in an armed holdup in Oregon (with the intent of stealing public lands). Please hold a church court and excommunicate them just as you excommunicated Kate Kelly for asking church leaders if it’s okay for women to hold the priesthood.”

    But, alas, that headline might have gotten our dear Jana excommunicated.

  • An article describing how White (Christian) Privilege colors the media portrayals here:

    “The mainstream corporate news media is continuing to coddle and “whitewash” the cosplay cowboy terrorists in Oregon with headlines such as: “Armed anti-government protesters”; “Armed Occupiers”; and “Oregon Group”.

    150 armed white men who take over federal property in Oregon are “patriots” or a “militia” while 1 black kid with a toy gun named Tamir Rice is a “threat” who is killed in less than 2 seconds by a cop.

    Sometimes it is just that simple.

  • Or, better yet, on public lands … lands owned by the people and held in trust by our democratically elected government.

    And it would be nice to contrast that with the terrorist’s demands — that these public lands be given to them and their buddies.

    Framed as it really is, the sordid Bundy affair looks like nothing more than an old fashioned armed robbery.

  • The distinction between terrorists and insurgents is easily made. When it’s your country, they are terrorists. When it isn’t, they are insurgents. Technically they are the same thing, but insurgent has a more objective and dispassionate ring to it.

    Armed protestor is a contradictory term, so is calling these people here “peaceful”.

  • Thanks, I’m not sure if you meant to do it, but you actually proved my point. Words like insurgent and terrorist do not describe the same thing. There is a significant degree of overlap in some cases, but in many cases there isn’t. Words like terrorist are used most often for the emotions they convey, and not because they are accurately describing the behavior. So when you call them terrorists, because you liked a more “passionate” term, that’s exactly my point. And the definition changing on based on the government’s point of view is also my point. In modern language terrorist is often used because its an emotional word that delegitimizes people that the government (or you) needs marginalizing. Not because the people actually are terrorists.

    For the record, I think they’re a bunch of kooks closer to the individuals in Shays’ or Whiskey Rebellion. But not terrorists. But I’m also annoyed at the careless use of terrorist that obscures more than it clarifies. Thanks…

  • If Moroni was 100% wrong on Pahoran, why did Mormon so ravishly praise Moroni, never praise Pahoran, and not include one mention of this situation actually being a mistake? If Pahoran was right and Moroni wrong, what would have happened if Moroni had not sent his angry letter and just waited for Pahoran’s lead? Probably the entire destruction of the Nephites. Pahoran heard multiple requests from Moroni for help for “many months” without sending one explanation or update to Moroni or requesting help to kick out the king men. In my reading, Pahoran was a pathetic leader who could have and should have at least updated Moroni on the situation and asked for support at least “many months” earlier. Instead he ignores multiple deaperate messages from his military generals until Moroni finally sends one that gets his attention and Pahoran responds immediately. Moroni was right that Pahoran was not proactive enough. Pahoran was an effective propagandist, and absolutely wrong on this…

  • And I totally agree that the Bundy family in their Oregon protest are out of line, and not at all following Moroni’s example of fighting only in defense and only to protect your life after attacked three times.

  • Moroni did not have all the facts (he “mourned exceedingly” at Pahoran’s report of rebellion – Alma 62:2), but he was not clueless. The first rebels inciting invasion were “lower judges” (judges being the rulers or ‘governors’ of the nation) (Alma 46:4). Later rebels were also identified as “high-born” (Alma 51:8). The power-seeking antagonists here in fact constituted an aristocratic / political class. Besides their rhetorical skill of flattery, maybe from legal training (as in Alma 10:15), they had power to “withhold provisions” during the Pahoran coup (Alma 61:4).

    Thus, Moroni does not write to Pahoran alone, whom he indeed wrongly suspects of treachery; he also addresses “all those who have been chosen by this people to govern and manage the affairs of this war” (Alma 60:1) and threatens the “governors” (v.33), whom he successfully removes.

    To say he was “flat-out wrong” or he opposed a “decent government” is a gross distortion of the instructive facts of…

  • (So also Helaman had warned Moroni, “We fear that there is some faction in the government” that had confiscated the supplies – Alma 58:36.)

2019 NewsMatch Campaign: This Story Can't Wait! Donate.