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The Mormon messianism of the Oregon occupiers

It's not a new thing.

Captain Moroni, commander of the Nephite forces from approximately 74-56 BCE. Artist's interpretation. Digital ZSculpt by Josh Cotton.
Captain Moroni, commander of the Nephite forces from approximately 74-56 BCE. Artist's interpretation. Digital ZSculpt by Josh Cotton.

Captain Moroni, commander of the Nephite forces from approximately 74-56 BCE. Artist’s interpretation. Digital ZSculpt by Josh Cotton.

The militia that has occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters represents a strain of right-wing Mormonism that took shape after World War II.

That was when laissez-faire economics, accompanied by staunch anti-Communism, began to supplant traditional Mormon communitarianism in the Mountain West. The key figures in the shift were Ezra Taft Benson, the former Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower Administration who became president of the LDS Church in 1985; Benson’s son Reed, an active member of the John Birch Society; Ernest Wilkinson, president of Brigham Young University; and W. Cleon Skousen, a sometime member of the BYU faculty who worked for the F.B.I. and later served as chief of police in Salt Lake City.

In The Mormon People, Matthew Bowman points out that by the 1970s, Benson’s “moralistic libertarianism had gained a vocal following in the church.” Concurrently, dispensationalist theology was borrowed from Protestant fundamentalism by Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce McConkie, LDS leaders whose influential theological writings wove elements of premillennialism into traditional Mormon ideas of the End Times — what Mormons refer to as “the last days.”

Smith’s and McConkie’s approach was adopted by Skousen in a series of popular books that made much of the Book of Mormon’s sacralization of the American continent and preached a revived view of the United States as guarantor of individual liberty and place where Christ’s church would be restored. In such late works as The Majesty of God’s Law: It’s Coming to America and The Cleansing of America, Skousen went so far as to predict that America would be reborn as a “Zion society” with the entire population organized into Mormon wards, and a restored U.S. Constitution that eliminated political parties and popular voting for the president. In the latter volume, written in 1994 (though published posthumously only in 2010), Skousen envisioned an American Zion purged of wickedness that would serve as a refuge for Mormons from around the world while Planet Earth suffered through an End Times scenario culminating in the Battle of Armageddon.

Among the Malheur occupiers is Lavoy Finicum, a Mormon rancher from Arizona who is the author of Only By Blood and Suffering, a novel about one family’s efforts to “survive in the face of devastating end-times chaos.” Yesterday, Finicum told reporters yesterday that he’d prefer death over prison. Ammon Bundy, the leader of the Malheur occupation, and his father Cliven, who gained national notoriety for a similar standoff at his Nevada ranch in 2014, likewise belong to the Skousenite wing of contemporary Mormonism.

At a conference at Brigham Young four years ago, LDS Elder Dallin Oaks warned against their ilk.

Another example that I understand to be current among some members in this part of this church is the influence of right-wing groups who mistakenly apply prophecies about the last days to promote efforts to form paramilitary or other organizations. Such groups might undermine the authority of public officials in the event of extraordinary emergencies or even in cases of simple disagreement with government policy. The leaders of the church have always taught that we should observe the law and we should not try to substitute our own organizations for the political and military authorities put in place by Constitutional government and processes.

It’s hardly an accident that Salt Lake took little time to condemn the Malheur occupation.

Asked his name by a reporter, a Malheur militiaman identified himself as “Captain Moroni,” a military leader in the Book of Mormon whose anti-government stand for liberty has made him a hero on the Mormon right. As my RNS colleague Jana Riess has explained, the Book of Mormon delivers a more mixed verdict on Captain Moroni than some of his devotees make out.

“I still want to be like Captain Moroni,” writes one such devotee, “but armed with further knowledge I realize how nuanced and difficult this quest will be as the last days before the second coming of our Lord and Savior unfold themselves before our eyes.” I suspect the Malheur militia is about to learn just how nuanced and difficult that is.

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