During the current standoff that began this weekend, one member of the occupiers told an Oregon reporter that his name is “Captain Moroni,” a warrior-hero in the Book of Mormon who faces off against an unfeeling government.
As Jana Riess, Mormon writer and U.S. religious history expert puts it: “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’… He gets the job done.” In an essay Monday, Riess writes that the captain’s story is a bit more complex in Mormon scripture, and in fact sometimes he’s wrong about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.
It’s not clear how many people are involved in the standoff, which began Saturday. One member of the Bundy family told a reporter in Oregon that “150 militiamen” were there, but at least one person who saw them leave for the refuge said there were “maybe a dozen” people.
It’s also not clear how much empathy the occupiers have among Mormons, who mostly live in the West and are familiar with tensions over government power. The church’s early decades were marked with confrontation with and persecution from the U.S. government, a reason why Mormons headed West to begin with. These days, perhaps church officials’ highest priority is their concern that the government is infringing on the freedom of religious conservatives with liberalizing changes such as gay marriage and mandatory contraception coverage in health-care plans.
Reddit sites for Mormons and former Mormons were buzzing with mostly criticism for the armed occupiers. There was also some debate about the Mormon teaching that deifies the creation of the United States and the righteousness of the U.S. government, and whether the government had properly behaved in this case and thus merited Mormon devotion.
On Monday, the church confirmed that the Bundys are Mormon but said their actions are not sanctioned by the faith.
“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,” the statement reads.
The church also released an excerpt from a 1992 talk by one of the top leaders, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, titled “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall.” Here’s the excerpt:
“Love of country is surely a strength, but carried to excess it can become the cause of spiritual downfall. There are some citizens whose patriotism is so intense and so all-consuming that it seems to override every other responsibility, including family and Church. I caution those patriots who are participating in or provisioning private armies and making private preparations for armed conflict. Their excessive zeal for one aspect of patriotism is causing them to risk spiritual downfall as they withdraw from the society of the Church and from the governance of those civil authorities to whom our twelfth article of faith makes all of us subject.”
This weekend, a camouflage-wearing armed occupier said this when asked his name by Oregon Public Radio: “I’m Captain Moroni, from Utah.”
The Bundy family, whose members were involved in a standoff with the U.S. government in 2014 over land in Nevada, have cited Mormon scripture before.
According to Oregon Public Radio:
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.
The Spectrum, a newspaper covering the Utah-Nevada area, in August 2014 quoted Cliven Bundy saying at a political event that God showed his favor by protecting members of the Bundy group from being killed during the earlier standoff:
“If the standoff with the Bundys was wrong, would the Lord have been with us?” Bundy asked, noting that no one was killed as tensions escalated. “Could those people that stood without fear and went through that spiritual experience … have done that without the Lord being there? No they couldn’t.”
“If our (U.S.) Constitution is an inspired document by our Lord Jesus Christ, then isn’t it scripture?” Bundy asked the crowd. “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.
In her essay critical of the Oregon occupiers, Riess said, “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.”
Riess said the man who became the Angel Moroni — a major figure in Mormon theology — was probably named after the captain.