What is the link between the Oregon militants and Mormonism?
On the afternoon of Tuesday the 26th of January, LaVoy Finicum, a rancher from Mohave County, Arizona, was shot and killed by law enforcement officers. It happened on Highway 395 in Oregon after he and other members of an armed right-wing group were subject to a police stop. They were on their way to try to spread their mission of resistance to the U.S. government to neighbouring counties.
On the video released late on Thursday by the FBI, we can see the action as captured by a drone overhead. In the final moments of his life, Finicum attempts to avoid police by driving a car — containing three other members of the group they called Citizens for Constitutional Freedom — into a roadside snow drift.
He emerges from the suddenly stationary vehicle with his hands outstretched, and appears to talk to the two state police officers trying to apprehend him with their guns drawn. Then he reaches for his pocket, where he has a loaded pistol, according to law enforcement. He is immediately shot by one of the officers, and falls to the ground.
We see a 55-year-old family man, who has had ample time to think, make a conscious choice to throw his life away.
In many ways, Finicum was the philosopher of the group. He acted as a spokesman, and pushed their stark constitutional originalism in media appearances and press conferences.
The conspiracy theorists in the broader patriot movement are already working on the ambiguities that the footage – any footage – makes available to the paranoid. But Finicum’s choice to die is in keeping with what he repeatedly told me and other journalists during the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Time and again, he said that liberty was more important than life. That despite missing his ranch and his family, he would rather die than go to prison.
What is capable of turning a grievance over grazing rights into a matter of life and death? When do political beliefs become something one is prepared to both kill and die for?
The first clue is in what Finicum shared with the Bundys at the Refuge, and with their father Cliven at home in Nevada. They were all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and all from a corner of the country with a habit of departing from the respectable path the church’s hierarchy has been charting for more than a century.
The second are the pocket Constitutions the group ostentatiously carried around from the first morning of their stay. On the surface those were simply underscoring the occupiers’ claims that in their alleged persecution of Dwight and Steven Hammond – local ranchers sent back to prison for arson on federal property – and their general management of public land, the federal government was acting unconstitutionally.
Courtney Campbell, a professor of religion at Oregon State University, says that in part, “Why these protestors are carrying around the constitution is that they do feel their constitutional rights to freedom of religion and association, to due process and the law have been violated by the government.”
But these are not any old constitutions. They are editions published by the National Center for Constitutional Studies, founded by W. Cleon Skousen, who like the Bundy family and Finicum, was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. If you order in bulk, you can get them for as little 35 cents apiece.
Skousen’s editions pair the text of the constitution – which many Mormons believe to be divinely inspired – with highly selective quotes from the founding fathers, with the intention of persuading readers that the republic was a Christian enterprise from the outset, and was part of a divine promise.
Skousen – who died in 2006 at the age of 92 – was a popular, prolific writer who had stints in the FBI and as Salt Lake City police chief. He was also one of the most prominent and influential ultraconservative political activists in mid-century America, inspiring the John Birch Society’s febrile brand of anticommunist conspiracy thinking.
He insisted – at the height of the Cold War – that various government agencies were riddled with Communist infiltrators, and that this put America in existential danger. In books like The Naked Communist, first published in 1958, Skousen gave a lurid picture of the degree to which communists were embedded in public life, their tactics and what he saw as the godless nihilism of their world view. More conciliatory foreign policy, divorce law reform and campaigns against school prayer were just some of his examples of communists working toward the subversion of American life.
But Skousen was also a deeply involved Latter-Day Saint, serving for a time as a professor at Brigham Young University. Seth Payne, a former Mormon who began researching LDS conspiracy beliefs at Harvard Divinity School, explains that “when Skousen would talk to LDS audiences about these subjects he would bring in the religious element. He would describe these conspiracies as ‘secret combinations’. Secret combinations are not just criminal gangs or people looking for power. At the root of secret combinations is a Satanic influence.”
He was able to find support for these claims in the LDS church’s central text, the Book of Mormon.
When LDS founder and prophet Joseph Smith was assembling his prophetic book in the late 1820s – supposedly as a translation of golden plates left for the purpose by the angel Moroni – he incorporated elements of all the popular enthusiasms swirling around in upstate New York, where he was then living. His testament purported to tell the story of ancient inhabitants of the Americas who were descendents of the tribes of Israel, and who were visited by the risen Christ. But in a sense it was very much a book of its time.
It reflects Protestant revivalism, Israelism (the idea, popular in the 19th century that certain peoples, or groups were descended from the lost tribes of Israel), occultism and folk religion, and then-current anti-Masonic ideas.
Payne explains that while Smith did not specifically call out Masons, he used “secret combinations” as a familiar euphemism for Masonic activity. In the Book, “secret combinations” of satanic conspirators brought about the end of the Jeredites and the Nephites, two of the civilizations the book describes.
These were working in the interests of “Satan’s plan.” In Mormon theology, the conflict between this and God’s plan goes back to the beginning of time. While Lucifer wanted humans to be compelled to be obedient to God so they would be guaranteed a return to heaven, God wanted humans to be able to freely choose, so they would benefit from their time on earth.
In this way, Payne says, the Book of Mormon melds “classical Liberal thought with religious thought – the Protestant ethic and Protestant theology of the early 19th century – so tightly so that there really is no separation.” Liberal individual autonomy is a gift from God, and compelled behavior – even if it results in good deeds – is worthless for salvation, and even an artefact of the devil’s continuing effort to erode the power of human will.
Anti-Masonic enthusiasms are long-forgotten, but the idea of secret combinations carrying out Satan’s plan is very much alive. In a paper, Payne explains that “modern LDS conservatives tend to view any government action which compels behavior — even if that behavior is moral and productive — as being a version of Satan’s original plan to force God’s children to do good.”
That’s why many conservative Mormons, even those who would stop short at actions like those that the Bundys have taken, are bitterly opposed to welfare and other government programs that have a benevolent purpose.
In Skousen’s thought, this all mapped neatly onto his anticommunist zeal. He was faced, he thought, with “secret combinations” of communist infiltrators, and socialist schemes were not just politically disagreeable, but setbacks in “a cosmic battle going on where Satan is trying to infringe on individual liberty or state sovereignty.”
Except among conservative Mormons, Skousen’s influence faded long before the end of the cold war. Then Glenn Beck—another conspiratorially inclined, conservative Mormon—reintroduced it to a broader audience late last decade, managing to lift books like The 5000 Year Leap back onto the bestseller lists. Beck managed to recast Skousen’s thought to cast suspicion on the ambitions of President Obama, in particular, his plans to deliver universal health care.
Payne says, “Glenn Beck reintroduced Skousen’s ideas—his anticommunism and fears about sovereignty —to a broader community. That resonates with people who think that the president is a communist.”
Meanwhile, other Mormon conspiracists like Joel Skousen, nephew of Cleon, continue all the while to push the idea of secret combinations in the service of Satan’s plan, which was now identified less with communism than the institution of a single world government under the control of “globalists.” In one sense, this bears similarities to the conspiracy ideas of essentially secular figures like Alex Jones. There’s enough common ground for Joel Skousen—also an icon of the prepper movement—to have appeared several times on Jones’ radio program.
But the distinctive spiritual dimension of LDS-derived conspiracism raises the stakes for a segment of ulturaconservative Mormons. For some, like the Bundy group, such ideas are a stimulus to radical action.
Disaffection with federal government agencies is widespread throughout the western interior. Whether it is the festering issue of grazing rights, and perceptions that the BLM is antagonistic toward ranchers, or the feeling that conservation of native species like wolves or the spotted owl is taking precedence over ranchers’ interests, the emerging “sagebrush rebellion” takes in a lot of actors and sympathizers who are not Mormons.
But like the vast majority of conservative Mormons, very few ranchers have shown themselves willing to carry out armed occupations of federal buildings.
The resurgent militia and sovereign citizen movements have beliefs that overlap with the more religiously inclined conspiracists. They also fear world government and federal government tyranny, espouse an eccentric form of constitutional originalism, try to reassert local and state jurisdiction over federal land, and are prepared to use tactics of harrassment and intimidation, as they’ve shown in Harney County.
But even those who had been cooperating with the Bundys in organizing locals in opposition to the reimprisonment of Steven and Dwight Hammond were appalled in the early days of the occupation that the Bundy group had departed from a longer plan and involved the federal government. And in this circumstance, none have shown that they are willing to die.
In explaining Finicum’s actions, we need to take into account his particular form of radically ultraconservative Mormon belief. As Payne says, “for a believing Latter-Day Saint who takes these things seriously, they aren’t just looking at some political machinations for money and power, they’re looking at an eternal cosmic struggle that’s been going on since the beginning of time.”
The Bundys—and Finicum—see themselves as “soldiers in this resistance against not just political tyranny but also Satanic tyranny.”
This belief may be reflected even in the names they have been given and chosen. Ammon Bundy’s first name comes from an important personage in the book of Mormon—a warrior who spreads God’s word to unbelievers. The scriptural Ammon, Campbell says, “provides a model for the sort of person who stands up to oppression and unjust governments, resists and prevails.”
Campbell also points out that Finicum made veiled references to “the Title of Liberty,” a story from the Book of Mormon in which Captain Moroni of the Nephites “in the face of of a government that’s become tyrannical, individuals and their communities need to stand up for their liberty, their religion, and their land.” Another of the occupiers, Dylan Anderson, used Captain Moroni as his alias when talking to reporters.
Other references to Mormon lore came before the occupation, such as in a video where Bundy said that the constitution was “hanging by a thread,” an allusion to the so-called White Horse Prophecy, in which Joseph Smith reportedly predicted that a time would come when Mormons would have to restore constitutional government.
Payne points out that there are serious doubts as to whether Joseph Smith ever said such a thing, and that it comes from secondhand accounts of his remarks by followers. The LDS church itself felt bound to say that the prophecy “has not been substantiated by historical research” after Mormon politicians like Orrin Hatch and Rex Rammel referred to it in the early years of the Obama administration. “It’s an urban legend, a folk myth.” Nevertheless, over the years “it has taken hold in the LDS community; even in mainstream LDS you’ll hear that phrase used.”
People like the Bundys and Finicum, “take that phrase and see themselves as elders of Israel who are going to save the Constitution.”
What is one man’s life in the face of such a cause, and such a danger?
The LDS church was quick to disown the occupation and the Bundys’ actions. In 2012, sensing a growing wave of Skousenite Mormon activity, LDS Church Elder Apostle Dallin Oaks warned against “the influence of right-wing groups who mistakenly apply prophecies about the last days to promote efforts to form paramilitary or other organizations… 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. We counsel against joining or supporting paramilitary organizations.”
No doubt this reflects the sincere disapproval of the vast majority of Mormons, even conservatives. And the Bundys represent a significant departure from the teachings of the church, according to Campbell. “They really emphasize that there needs to be obedience to the laws of the land. Even if there’s some kind of injustice that’s occurred, you don’t take over property, you don’t take over land.”
Actions like these also imperil the respectability Mormons have worked so hard to maintain from the beginning of the 20th century. In the 19th century, they came into open conflict with the federal government. First, in the 1850s, over their own territorial ambitions and a perception that the Utah Territory under Prophet Brigham Young was in insurrection. And later, in the 1890s, as they were forced to give up the practice of polygamy.
Payne explains that rebellions such as the Malheur occupation are embarrassing to the church hierarchy and many ordinary Mormons, since they “harken back to a period that most Mormons are embarrassed about from time to time—those days of conflict with the federal government and the American society as a whole.”
The Utah/Arizona/Nevada tri-state area, where the Bundys and Finicum are from, has been a reliable source of such embarrassments. Northern Arizona was the long-time locale for the polygamist holdouts of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints under Warren Jeffs. Not far away in Nevada, the Bundy ranch standoff provided the immediate precursor for the occupation just ended.
People in such areas of the American West are culturally isolated, even from the moderating influences of contemporary Mormon practice.
“It’s certainly peculiar to areas in the western United States that are difficult to get to because they’re mountainous or arid,” Campbell says of these fundamentalist currents. “They’ve been historically bypassed by other people as they migrated to western Oregon or California. As a result there has been a tradition of anti-government anti-authoritarianism, where a person is accountable to God and not to civil authority.”
LaVoy Finicum clearly had a lot to lose: his ranch, his family, his life. But by melding his political beliefs with cosmic struggle, by embracing a tendentious reading of scripture and prophecy, by viewing those he disagreed with not just as political adversaries but as agents of the devil, Finicum turned a cause into a death wish.