Why the Bundy militia mixes Mormon symbolism with anti-government sentiment
“I’m Captain Moroni, from Utah.”
That’s how one militiaman at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge responded to OPB’s Amanda Peacher when she asked for his name.
That name is not a silly response to deflect responsibility: In many ways, it encapsulates a deeply intertwined anti-federal sentiment mixed with Mormon symbolism. Captain Moroni is a crucial figure in the Church of Latter-day Saints. He’s also a heroic figure for anti-federalist extremists.
In the modern day west, Captain Moroni has become one of several powerful symbols for the Bundy militia’s anti-governmental extremism.
Who Is Captain Moroni?
According to LDS scripture, Captain Moroni took command of the Nephites when he turned 25. Moroni innovated weaponry, strategy and tactics to help secure the safety of the Nephites, and allow them to worship and govern as they saw fit.
In LDS texts, Moroni prepares to confront a corrupt king by tearing off part of his coat and turning it into a flag, hoisting it as a “title of liberty.” This simple call to arms inspired a great patriotism in the Nephites, helping to raise a formidable army. Vastly outnumbered, the corrupt king fled. According to the Book of Mormon, Captain Moroni continued to push for liberty among his people.
“And it came to pass that Moroni was angry with the government, because of their indifference concerning the freedom of their country.”
An Embrace Of The “Title of Liberty”
During an April 2014 standoff with federal officials, supporters and members of the Bundy militia cited Book of Mormon passages centering on Captain Moroni. There were also several flags quoting Captain Moroni’s own writing on his “title of liberty.” Often next to American flags, these banners read “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children.”
Cliven Bundy — the Nevada Rancher who called on militia and anti-government forces to help him in the showdown with the Bureau of Land Management — cited his own Mormon faith as a reason for what he viewed as a favorable outcome. As quoted by the Salt Lake City Tribune:
“If the standoff with the Bundys was wrong, would the Lord have been with us?” he asked, noting no one was killed as tensions escalated. “Could those people that stood (with me) without fear and went through that spiritual experience … have done that without the Lord being there? No, they couldn’t.”
Those remarks represent the deep commitment to the Bundy brand of faith. Abraham Bundy — Cliven’s great-grandfather — was a deeply religious man who was driven from prior homes first by flood, and then by revolution. He settled what would become Bundyville, home to a one-room schoolhouse and a scattering of homesteads in a harsh stretch of desert.
Ultimately, the small town Abraham Bundy founded would be abandoned, after the Bundy family could not secure water and grazing rights from the federal government.
Bundy has previously said in interviews that relocation played a significant role in shaping his family’s outlook toward the federal government.
Those views are intertwined with Bundy’s faith. Speaking in St. George, Utah, after the standoff with the Bureau of Land Management, Bundy posed these questions to a crowd of mostly conservative Mormons, as reported by the local newspaper The Spectrum :
“If our (U.S.) Constitution is an inspired document by our Lord Jesus Christ, then isn’t it scripture?” Bundy asked.
“Yes,” a chorus of voices replied.
“Isn’t it the same as the Book of Mormon and the Bible?” Bundy asked.
“Absolutely,” the audience answered.
A New Generation Of Mormon Extremism
David Ammon Bundy — Cliven’s father — relocated the family to Nevada in the 1940s. Cliven named his third son, Ammon, after his father. Ammon is also a figure in the Mormon faith, described as a “great servant” in LDS scripture.
Ammon Bundy is a self-described devout Mormon, with strong anti-federal feelings. He praises his father’s actions against the federal government, and once accused the Bureau of Land Management as using the Endangered Species Act as a type of eminent domain.
“They have this quota that they meet,” Bundy told the Cultural Hall podcast. “What we start to see is them using the resources and selling the land for their own benefit!”
Ammon Bundy uses much of the same language as his father, mixing Mormon religious symbolism with a disgust of the federal government.
Speaking to Harney County residents last December, Ammon Bundy explained why he became involved in the Dwight and Steven Hammond case that sparked this takeover of federal property.
“I got this urge that I needed write something,” Bundy said. “I asked the good Lord … I need some help. And he gave me that help. The Lord is not pleased what has happened with the Hammonds.”
And Bundy justified their armed-intrusion this way to OPB’s Amelia Templeton:
“The main reason we’re here is because we need a place to stand,” Bundy said. “We stand in defense, and when the time is right we will begin to defend the people of Harney County in using the land and the resources.”
Meanwhile, Bundy has called for “fellow patriots” to join him at the armed occupation. That call itself closely represents what Captain Moroni told his fellow Nephites in LDS scripture. And it’s part of the reason why “Captain Moroni” came to Burns.
The man identifying as Captain Moroni said he was inspired by the call, and that the inspiration was validated by God in the form of a flock of geese he saw flying.
“I just knew it was the right thing [to come to Oregon],” Captain Moroni said. “I’m willing to die here.”
Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Amelia Templeton contributed to this story. This report first appeared on OPB’s website.