This is the third and final installment in a three-part series examining the extremist elements involved in the takeover of the Malheur refuge in Oregon. Part One examined the pervasive, lasting influence of violent white supremacists and neo-Nazis in the so-called ‘patriot’ militia movement. Part Two focused on the enduring legacy of genocide against Native Americans within the ‘Sagebrush Rebellion.’
Almost as soon as the armed sit-in at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge began, the roots of its leaders’ passion were laid bare for the press when 34 year-old Dylan Anderson told reporters to call him “Captain Moroni from Utah.” Now arraigned on charges of conspiracy to impede an officer of the United States by force, intimidation, or threat, Anderson’s moniker was a clear reference to an important character in the Book of Mormon who militarizes the Nephites to ‘restore freedom.’ Religious historian Jana Reiss calls Moroni a “military studmuffin” who sees himself as a patriot leading a restoration against sinister forces which have oppressed his people, but makes very human errors of judgment while showing no mercy to his enemies. As one writer explains in an essay at Medium.com, Moroni is a terrifying and challenging literary figure.
For someone who believes in the voice of the people, Moroni has no tolerance for people who don’t agree with his own voice.
[…] In Moroni’s eyes, he fights for the cause of freedom and justice. In his own words, “I seek not for power, but to pull it down. I seek not for honor of the world, but for the glory of my God, and the freedom and welfare of my country” (Alma 60:36). Because of this conviction, Moroni justifies doing some very extreme things, like mass executions and violent reprisals against insurrectionists. In many ways, Captain Moroni is vindicated in the same way many war leaders are — he won.
Moroni is the forefather that the eponymous Mormon most admires, but is unable to emulate in restoring his society to righteousness in the eyes of God — a failure which ultimately leads to the destruction of the Nephites and makes the Book of Mormon such an entrancing epic tragedy, whatever we may think of it as scripture.
Now in its fifth week, the Malheur takeover has also proven to be an epic tragedy with a charismatic leader in Ammon Bundy, son of welfare rancher Cliven Bundy. Ammon has always maintained that his actions at Malheur were divinely inspired, and in the months leading up to the occupation of Malheur, his organizing emails called on readers to “act according to the prompting the Lord gives you.” Ammon “clearly understood that the Lord was not pleased with what was happening to the Hammonds,” the father-son ranching duo whose increased sentences for burning public acreage have served as the ostensible catalyst for the rebellion. The day before he led his group to Malheur, Ammon sought divine guidance. “I got on my knees and I asked the Lord,” he declared in a video. “And said ‘Lord, if you want me to write something then please help me clear my mind and show me what I should write.’ And that’s what happened.” He doubled-down the next day. “I did exactly what the Lord asked me to do,” he declared after taking over the refuge, justifying himself in the same way that his father has rationalized refusing to pay grazing fees for his cattle to the federal government.
“If our (U.S.) Constitution is an inspired document by our Lord Jesus Christ, then isn’t it scripture?” he asked.
“Yes,” a chorus of voices replied.
“Isn’t it the same as the Book of Mormon and the Bible?” [Cliven] Bundy asked.
“Absolutely,” the audience answered.
[…] “The Lord told me … if (the sheriff doesn’t) take away these arms (from federal agents), we the people will have to face these arms in a civil war. He said, ‘This is your chance to straighten this thing up.'”
While the Bundy family is hardly alone in believing that the United States Constitution is a divinely-inspired document, or that America has been marked by God for a special destiny, or that sinister forces are destroying the nation through federal power, it is important to note just which version of the Constitution the Malheur occupants have been waving around. Their pocket pamphlets are published by something called the National Center on Constitutional Studies, formerly known as the Freeman Institute, and bear the special annotations of Cleon Skousen, a now-deceased right wing crank who nevertheless remains a key figure for understanding why today’s conservative movement resembles what used to be considered the right wing ‘fringe.’
A son of the Mormon diaspora born in Canada, Skousen worked four years as a clerk and eleven years as a special agent for the FBI after 1935, earning a law degree from George Mason University before his retirement in 1951. While touring the country to lecture on the ‘red menace’ of communism and writing his book The Naked Communist, Skousen served as Salt Lake City police chief. But his four-year tenure enforcing Mormon morality ended when Mayor J. Bracken Lee fired him for using public resources to pen his screeds — and for breaking up card games in private clubs. Lee later wrote of Skousen’s zealotry:
[W]hile Mr. Skousen has written a book and talks against Communism, actually he conducted his office as Chief of Police in exactly the same manner in which the Communists operate their government. The man is also a master of half-truths. In at least three instances I have proved him to be a liar before the City Commissioners and the newspaper reporters. To me, he is a very dangerous man because he preaches one thing, practices another, does not tell the truth, and cannot be relied upon. He also was one of the greatest spenders of public funds of anyone who ever served in any capacity in Salt Lake City government.
The hypocrisies and fabrications of Skousen’s biography are piled deep, with further layers added by his fans and apologists. Contrary to Skousen’s claims that FBI service had given him special access to domestic intelligence on communists in the United States, and that he had served as J. Edgar Hoover’s administrative assistant, researcher Ernie Lazar has reviewed Skousen’s FBI personnel file and determined that he was just a desk-jockey who had no involvement in any investigations of communism. These facts shed an unflattering light on Skousen’s more dubious charges against American political figures, such as his assertion that Harry Hopkins, an aide to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, smuggled half of the American supply of uranium to the Soviet Union along with “fifty suitcases” of information about the Manhattan Project. Later described by the US Navy Judge Advocate General as a “money mad…unprincipled racketeer in anticommunism,” Skousen was so extreme that even ardent anticommunist groups disavowed him. When thousands of alarmed readers and lecture attendees inquired after his qualifications to speak with such authority on communist plots in the US, so did the FBI. And as Alexander Zaitchik has recalled, this discomfort with Skousen’s histrionics extended onto the campus of Brigham Young University, where he peddled his ever-expanding conspiracy theories as a professor in the 1970s.
In “The Naked Communist,” Skousen had argued that the communists wanted power for their own reasons. In “The Naked Capitalist,” Skousen argued that those reasons were really the reasons of the dynastic rich, who used front groups to do their dirty work and hide their tracks. The purpose of liberal internationalist groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations, argued Skousen, was to push “U.S. foreign policy toward the establishment of a world-wide collectivist society.” Skousen claimed the Anglo-American banking establishment had a long history of such activity going back to the Bolshevik Revolution. He substantiated this claim by citing the work of a former Czarist army officer named Arsene de Goulevitch. Among Goulevitch’s own sources is Boris Brasol, a pro-Nazi Russian émigré who provided Henry Ford with the first English translation of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
“The Naked Capitalist” does not seem like a text that would be part of the required reading list on any reputable college campus, but some BYU professors taught it out of allegiance to Skousen. Terrified, the editors of Dialogue: The Journal of Mormon Thought invited “Tragedy and Hope” author Carroll Quigley to comment on Skousen’s interpretation of his work. They also asked a highly respected BYU history professor named Louis C. Midgley to review Skousen’s latest pamphlet. Their judgment was not kind. In the Autumn/Winter 1971 issue of Dialogue, the two men accused Skousen of “inventing fantastic ideas and making inferences that go far beyond the bounds of honest commentary.” Skousen not only saw things that weren’t in Quigley’s book, they declared, he also missed what actually was there — namely, a critique of ultra-far-right conspiracists like Willard Cleon Skousen.
Posthumously, there are two entities which have advanced Skousen’s work and glossed over these contradictions. One is the John Birch Society, the ultra hard-right organization founded by candy magnate Robert Welch and funded by Fred Koch, father of the billionaire political funders Charles and David Koch. Skousen was a zealous supporter of the organization, defending it from attacks and delivering hundreds of talks to its membership even though he was never officially a member himself. The other is talk radio personality Glenn Beck. Both JBS and Beck are deeply influenced by the same strain of reactionary right wing Mormonism that informed Skousen. Beck has enthusiastically promoted Skousen’s books since 2007, even writing a foreword to the reprint of his book The 5,000 Year Leap, which consequently became a sort of bible for the Tea Party. I repeatedly encountered copies for sale at Tea Party events during 2010; the movement is in fact a clear descendant of Goldwater’s conservatism, in which extremism was held a virtue.
Skousenism boils down to three ideas: that the United States are divinely-appointed to serve as God’s own lamp of freedom to the world, with the darkness defined as communism; that the federal government violates God’s will by enforcing any form of human equality; and that true believers must tear down the existing federal government to restore a godly society. In short, Skousenism is a pseudo-historian’s revision of the story of Captain Moroni wrapped up in modern conspiracy theories about international elites secretly scheming to make America into a communist dictatorship — the so-called ‘New World Order.’ In our time, variations on this ‘conspiratorial libertarianism‘ are the single most common form of the right wing paranoid style, finding daily expression in the talk radio worlds of Alex Jones, Glenn Beck, and an endless parade of ‘patriot militia’ podcasters. Skousen’s religiosity is embedded in the western land use revolt; Ammon Bundy has appeared on at least one radio program to declare that the federal government is “violating scriptural precepts” by controlling land instead of letting him exploit it.
It’s also worth noting that the violent early history of the Mormon faith, when it was brutally suppressed in Missouri and its founder killed by a lynch mob, has left many Mormons with a legacy of resentment against the federal government.
“There is this persecution complex that Mormons have and have had for a long time,” Steve Evans, editor of the popular Mormon blog By Common Consent, told BuzzFeed News Sunday.
But the story of Mormonism’s relationship with authority is more complicated than a simple one about conflict and persecution. Evans — who counts himself among the many in the church who disapprove of Bundy’s actions — pointed out that Mormons see the U.S. government and constitution as divinely appointed, so when complaints about authority arise, they are viewed as the government straying from its purpose.
“You see two sort of counter currents going through Mormon history,” Evans said. “You see this major theme of ‘this country is here because God wants us to be here.’ And you see ‘we’re an oppressed minority, the government doesn’t always do what’s right.’”
Racial equality was anathema to Skousen, who has understandably developed very few nonwhite fans with his apologetics for African slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. During the 1970s, when the Mormon church came under increasing scrutiny for excluding blacks from its priesthood, Skousen accused its critics of being communists. Racism still permeates the entire Skousenite world. When Glenn Beck invents a Black Panther militia out of innocent African American children step-dancing, or accuses President Obama of “hating white culture,” he is invoking the ugliest aspect of Skousenism. Skousen’s bigotry remains influential in the ‘patriot’ movement and helps explain why the ‘Sagebrush Rebellion’ is so dismissive of Native Americans. Cliven Bundy infamously gave voice to this ugly side of his belief system in 2014 when he opined that blacks might have been better off as slaves rather than accepting food stamps and welfare — that is, federal programs which redistribute the money of white people to citizens of other races.
To be sure, these beliefs are not general to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or part of its accepted theology. In fact, they represent a very small fringe faction of the religion. Since the late 1970s, the LDS church has consistently distanced itself from Skousen, and it quickly condemned the takeover at Malheur last month.
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.
But far away from Salt Lake Temple, the church has always had limited power over some of its adherents and their proud pioneer ways. Indeed, the Bundy family is a good example of this phenomenon. Proud of his settler heritage, Cliven Bundy has been deeply influenced by his grandfather’s experience founding the town of Bundyville only to see it fail when he could not secure federal grazing and water rights. Brushing off his religion’s leadership, and contradicting his own son’s jailhouse request, Cliven Bundy has told the last remaining four militants at the refuge to stay put and demands “all federal and state policing agents” leave Harney County, Oregon.
As McKay Coppins explains at BuzzFeed, this divide between Bundys and church reflects a growing “political gulf” between a fundamentalist minority and a modernist majority within Mormonism.
“It makes me literally cringe when I hear the media report that some of these people are LDS,” said David Hall, a Mormon from Nevada, adding that when Bundy and his followers publicly suggest their actions are supported by church doctrine, “such statements border on apostasy.”
[…] Aggressively perception-conscious and concerned with fitting in, the church has spent decades working to cultivate an image of wholesomeness, hard work, patriotism, and normalcy — and its members tend to pattern their lives around this ideal. They go to dental school, or become CPAs. They start small businesses and big families. They drive their kids to Cub Scouts on Wednesday nights, and send cheerful Christmas cards to their suburban neighbors.
[…] “Nevada Mormons spend quite a bit of time trying to blend in,” said one Nevada Mormon who, perhaps fittingly, asked to remain anonymous. He added, “If a presidential candidate came out and backed the Bundys, they would probably lose a lot more Mormon votes than they would gain.”
The LDS church has experienced more than one such split over the years, most famously among those who refused to give up on polygamy. Moreover, these fringe beliefs have turned violent in the past, such as when brothers Dan and Ron Lafferty stabbed their sister-in-law and her baby to death in 1984 after they blamed her for their excommunication from the church for apostasy. In his true crime book Under the Banner of Heaven, author Jon Krakauer plumbs the depths of that horrifying double-murder in order to understand what could drive otherwise reasonable people to such extreme acts.
The zealot may be outwardly motivated by the anticipation of a great reward at the other end — wealth, fame, eternal salvation — but the real recompense is probably the obsession itself…. Thanks to his (or her) infatuation, existence overflows with purpose. Ambiguity vanishes from the fanatic’s world view, a narcissistic sense of self-assurance displaces all doubt. A delicious rage quickens his pulse, fueled by the sins and shortcomings of lesser mortals, who are soiling the world wherever he looks. His perspective narrows until the last remnants of proportion are shed from his life. Through immoderation, he experiences something akin to rapture.
This is as good a reference point as any for understanding the origins of the Malheur takeover, whose participants are not all, or even mostly, Mormons. One doesn’t have to be Captain Moroni, or believe in the Book of Mormon, to be inspired by the latter-day acolytes of Cleon Skousen. For the ‘patriot’ steeped in Skousenism, armed confrontation with federal power is deeply desirable because it banishes all uncertainty; war is the ultimate form of political polarization, allowing no gray areas. For the survivalist living off the land, being an outlaw elevates the individual against the state much more than a remote existence in a ramshackle cabin.
Despite its clear origins at the Mormon fringe, Bundyism is a blender in which militant anti-government militias, apocalyptic paranoia, and the racist legacies of manifest destiny have all been pureed. The resulting admixture may not look like the fruit which went into the blender, but you can still taste all those flavors if you take just a tiny sip.