The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cliven Bundy’s fight against the feds has roots in interpretation of Mormon scripture

Rancher Cliven Bundy looks out over his 160-acre ranch in Bunkerville, Nev., in May 2014. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Fifteen years before Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy led an armed standoff against federal agents near his arid desert ranch, the practicing Mormon combed through Latter-day Saints scripture and writings with his neighbor, another rancher upset about how the government regulates the public land around them.

The pair found support for their beliefs, and they have since passed their findings on to others who continue to challenge what they consider federal overreach and a collapse of the U.S. Constitution.

They compiled the works, highlighted and annotated, into an anthology called “The Nay Book,” named for rancher Keith Nay, Bundy’s late neighbor. The nearly 200-page booklet starts with a letter from Bundy outlining the document’s central question: “What is the Constitutional duty of a member of the Lord’s church?” Bundy found answers in the scripture that he believed directed and justified him in “defending my rights and my ranch against the federal government’s tyrannical” usurpation of his land.

“The Nay Book” is a document rarely found outside Bundy’s inner circle, and it appears to lay a religious foundation for the rancher’s strong and consistent views that the federal government has been trampling his rights. More than an issue of the control of public land and federal taxation, it shows that Bundy and those close to him tie a unique interpretation of Mormon tenets to fundamental American governance and believe that defending their land is both a political and a religious necessity.

Three years after Nevada ranch standoff, Bundy federal trial begins in Las Vegas

An illustration of Betsy Ross stitching an American flag is on the book's cover, the words "Freedom, Liberty, for God We Stand" hanging over her head. The book explores what the Nay and Bundy families believe Mormon prophets have said from the beginning about the Constitution — that it is a sacred document but that American society is on the "brink of ruin" because its meanings have eroded. It includes references to scripture and writings from church leaders, and Bundy, in his introductory letter, urges readers to think about what they read and come to their own conclusions about it.

Bundy family supporters have discussed the book in recent days outside the federal courthouse in Las Vegas, where Bundy — along with his sons Ryan and Ammon, and a Montana militiaman named Ryan Payne — are on trial for a standoff at the Bundy Ranch near Bunkerville, Nev., in April 2014. In a livestream from the courthouse in November, Shawna Cox, who has said in the past that she is Bundy’s personal secretary, read aloud from “The Nay Book.”

"The book is phenomenal," she said to a huddle of people around her, noting that it has given the Bundy family strength. "Cliven has been pushing, pushing, pushing to get everybody to understand this book. . . . They know why they're here. They know that they have to stand."

She offered to make a copy of the book for those who wanted one.

The long fight between the Bundys and the federal government, from 1989 to today

Carol Bundy, Cliven’s wife, confirmed that Nay did most of the research and compilation for the book, but she said it affirms what her family believes about the Constitution. Cliven Bundy, who has been granted release while facing prosecution but refuses to leave jail, did not respond to requests for comment. Bret Whipple, a lawyer who represents Bundy, also declined to comment; Whipple said he hasn’t seen the book.

“It’s a book of things we’ve compiled of things written by other people that explain why we believe what we do and what our stand is,” Carol Bundy said. “It’s our belief. It’s where we get our strength. It’s things we’ve gathered from teachings of our prophets, our scriptures. It’s why we believe so strongly in that the Constitution is a divinely inspired document.”

Latter-day Saints scholars who read a copy of the booklet obtained by The Washington Post said the brand of Mormonism that appears to be at the heart of Bundy’s anti-government activities is an interpretation of the uniquely American faith that centers on defending the Constitution at any cost.

"This document absolutely represents a fringe ideology within the church," said Matthew Bowman, a history professor at Henderson State University and the author of "The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith." He said it is not representative of what the mainstream church teaches and is the kind of thinking that has been used to legitimize notorious fights with the U.S. government. "They are the kinds of ideas that can be held by people in dangerous confrontations with authorities, as we saw at Ruby Ridge, at Waco, at Bundy Ranch."

Kathleen Flake, a professor of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia, called the booklet an example of “radical libertarian dogma.”

The LDS Church has never supported the Bundy cause. In early 2016, the church condemned Ammon and Ryan Bundy’s armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge — a bird sanctuary — in Oregon, noting at the time that church leaders were “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.”

Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the church, said he was unfamiliar with “The Nay Book” but said trying to base standoffs such as Malheur on scripture is “wrong.”

Bundy, a 71-year-old melon farmer who owns a 160-acre ranch in a remote area of southern Nevada, made national headlines in 2014 when he called in armed militias from across the nation to square off with Bureau of Land Management employees who had rounded up his cattle. Bundy allegedly had been illegally trespassing his herd on public land since 1993, when authorities say he stopped paying a $1.30-per-cow fee to graze on that land, allowing his cattle to wander over 587,000 acres of desert filled with native petroglyphs and endangered species, including the desert tortoise.

Bundy’s struggle had been playing out in court for two decades before his ranch standoff. During that time, Bundy defied court orders and wrote several letters in which he talked about his situation having “the potential to be the next Waco or Ruby Ridge,” two deadly federal sieges of private compounds in Texas and Idaho in the early 1990s.

The Bundy standoff in Nevada culminated in a dusty wash under Interstate 15, where federal employees were vastly outnumbered by men and women on horseback, militiamen carrying semiautomatic weapons and Bundy supporters positioned on a freeway overpass with sniper rifles. The federal agents backed away slowly as Bundy’s cattle were freed, and his supporters claimed victory.

In a Las Vegas courtroom, the trial has often steered toward Bundy's firmly held belief that the land the government holds belongs to him. Bundy has long echoed the statements of western Sagebrush rebels, telling newspapers that he became tired of being told what to do. In a Reno Gazette-Journal article on April 4, 1995, Bundy and Nay complained about an increasing number of restrictions being put on ranchers who graze their cattle on public land.

"I'm not being regulated to death anymore," Bundy said. Nay agreed: "The federal government just wants to control us. But I'm not going to be controlled."

“The Nay Book” cites passages in Mormon doctrine that support the fight. Following a letter from Bundy dated February 1999, and a note from Nay’s widow, Marilyn Nay (now Marilyn Cattoor), the book includes a color-coded index for the photocopied scriptures that follow: Yellow is for mentions of the Constitution as a sacred document, pink is for references to calls to “save and maintain the Constitution.”

Melissa Laughter, a former Bundy supporter who is Mormon, criticized “The Nay Book” as an adulteration of her religion. She thinks it could be used to manipulate people toward the Bundy cause. “This is how incorrect teachings spread,” she said. “It becomes a cancer to society. And it becomes a cancer to all of us.”

She says “The Nay Book” has been distributed among Bundy supporters, and she considers it the Bundy family’s “manifesto.”

The booklet also includes writings from Ezra Taft Benson, who served as agriculture secretary during the Eisenhower administration from 1953 to 1961 and later as president of the LDS Church. Benson also had strong ties to the John Birch Society, an organization that adheres to "extreme anti-government doctrines," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Nay’s widow, Cattoor, 80, says she recalls assembling the book to help people understand the Constitution.

“Our government is upside-down. We tried to educate other people. Slowly they’re coming around, but until it hits you on the head, it doesn’t matter,” she said, noting that she simply believes in the Constitution, as did her late husband. “It should be a guide for us.”

Cattoor, who has known Cliven Bundy since they were children, says that the version of America that protected ranchers like her and Bundy has dissolved, and that she feels many were forced to go out of business. But "Cliven is a Bundy, and they make a stand," she said. "Right is right and wrong is wrong. And there's a lot of wrong going on."

“If Cliven could win, he wins for all of us the right to hike, the right to four-wheel, the right to mine,” Cattoor said. “It’s the Constitution that gives us the rights, and they’re getting away from it. They’re trampling the Constitution, and it needs to get back to the basics.”

Bowman said that many Mormons accept the notion that the Constitution is a divinely inspired document, but he also said that Nay and Bundy have put a twist on that concept.

"A lot of Mormons will tell you the Constitution was inspired in order to create religious liberty so sufficient so our church could be founded in this country," he said. "If you asked Bundy . . . they would say the Constitution was created in order to create a very small government that respects the rights of its citizens."

Flake agrees that the Constitution is a document that Mormons hold dear because it promises religious freedom, a theme she said is reflected in "The Nay Book."

"You get that theme in this book: Mormons are the defenders because we know what it's like to not have the liberty promised in the Constitution," she said, referencing persecution of Mormons in the mid- to late 1800s. "The Constitution is the symbol of the nation. In this vein, people like Bundy become the saviors of the nation. And that's how they talk about themselves. They wrap themselves in the flag. . . . Symbolic battles can be more fierce than other battles because there's no concrete way to solve them."

Bowman says the Bundys' belief that they need to defend and uphold the Constitution potentially indicates that they view their fight with the federal government as akin to a holy war. LDS members believe in the idea of "free agency," he said, and attempts to destroy free agency are considered works of Satan.

Benson believed "big government is Satan's plan," Bowman said. "What we're doing on Earth is . . . a continuation of this war in heaven when Satan was going to restrict all of our freedoms."

And that's something that speaks to people far beyond the boundaries of Mormonism, Flake said. "They're organizing people around a political issue, not a religious issue," she said. "That's why you have all these other people joining them."