By now you’ve likely heard of the armed occupation of a federal wildlife building in Oregon. It has made the national news (after some significant prodding by Twitter users) for a number of reasons, not least of which is the apparent double standard in how the news media and law enforcement officials are treating an armed group of white men as opposed to how the news media and law enforcement officials have been seen throughout 2015 to treat unarmed, peaceful black protestors. There have also been a number of “think pieces” on the situation explaining what Mormonism has to do with the Bundy family, the family that has been at the center of a number of situations like this and that is trying to take the lead (and press) in this situation. Russell McCutcheon has pointed out that these think pieces offer us insight into the theories of religion held by their authors and asks us to question whether “religion” motivates action or whether it is used as justification for action. The call here for a more advanced theory of religion is an important one and the national media reporting on this situation shows the lacunae that religionists can fill.
But just how do these justifications work? And how do those condemnations of the standoff by other Mormons work? We can rightly say that the use of such religious discourse is best explained as justification for very real, temporal, and situated actions, but we should not dismiss the fact that those employing such discourse do seem to believe it. What I find interesting, then, are the ways in which various religious discourses are employed and the different appeals to authority made by those who support the actions and those who do not.
Ammon Bundy, the son of Cliven Bundy, said in a YouTube video that after praying about the situation with the Hammond family — a father-son duo who were re-sentenced to meet federal minimum sentencing requirements for their arson on federal lands — that he “clearly understood that the Lord was not pleased with what has happening to the Hammonds.” Throughout his video he talks about the “urge” that he felt that spurred him on in his actions. Early on in the process he wrote a letter encouraging action and it was during the writing of the letter that he gained even more clarity from the Lord.
During that letter I began to understand how the Lord felt about the Hammonds, I began to understand how the Lord felt about Harney County and about this country, and I clearly understood that the Lord was not pleased with what was happening to the Hammonds and that what was happening to them, if it was not corrected, would be a type and a shadow of what would happen to the rest of the people across this country, and also that if we allowed the Hammonds to continue to be punished, there would be accountability.
He then felt an urge (the word he seems to use to indicate what he understands to be guidance from the Lord) to go to Burns, Oregon and to go to the Hammond’s ranch to help them fight the “gross violations of their God-given rights.” (Aside: It is unclear how the Hammonds’ burning of federal lands, even if it was to stop invasive species as they claim, is a God-given right; Bundy does not explain this in his video.)
There is no hint in Bundy’s soliloquy that he is not doing what the Lord wants him to do. For he has prayed about and received guidance from the Lord and at one point even says, “I did exactly what the Lord asked me to do.” It is interesting, though not surprising, that what Bundy felt the Lord asking him to do looked exactly like what he felt like the Lord had asked him to do with his own family’s ranch in 2014.
I then began to feel and understand some, what we were supposed to do; it became very clear. And I had a hard time with it because it was a very strong stand. And I wrestled back and forth with it, but I knew it was so clear what we were supposed to do. It was like exactly what was happening at the Bundy ranch when we were getting guided and directed on what we were supposed to do, that’s how it was.
The Lord’s plan for Bundy was another armed standoff. So, Ammon Bundy issued the call for others who felt like he did to join him in this cause. And yet, not everyone has. Many Mormons have taken to social media to condemn the action in Oregon with the hashtag #NotInMyName and #NotAllMormons. Mormon leaders have issued a statement condemning Bundy’s action and pushing back against reports that the group is acting “based on Scriptural principles.” They even go so far as to say that “this armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis.” Even Stewart Rhodes, the founder of Oath Keepers, condemned Bundy’s actions and said that his fight was not a “righteous moral high ground fight.” It is this statement by Rhodes that prompted Ammon Bundy’s justification video.
McKay Coppins has done a decent job over at BuzzFeed of detailing the cultural and political split in Mormonism that has been thrust center stage. Indeed, as Coppins says, there’s a reason no Republican candidate has publicly supported the armed occupation — most Mormons don’t support it and they want their votes. The Mormon church is also interested in their public image (though maybe not as much as we thought at one point). We see in this battle over who is the better Mormon the same tactics being employed in battles over who gets to count as a true Muslim. While Mormon leadership appeals to scripture as their source of authority, Ammon Bundy appeals to the guidance he has received directly from the Lord.
Which is more authoritative, the text and a particular reading of that text or the direct, personal experience of the Lord’s guidance? Both are common appeals to religious authority. Both employ a discourse that desires “to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal.” Lest we think that Bundy’s appeal to his personal experience is best explained by an explanation of post-modernism, remember that Paul used the exact same appeal to authority during his quarrel with the “Judaizers,” claiming that his message was more authoritative because it came directly from Jesus and was “not of human origin” (Galatians 1.11). Bundy, likewise, appeals to his unmediated contact with the Lord.
Ammon Bundy closes his video by asking his viewers to answer the question of whether his direct guidance from the Lord is more or less authoritative than what other Mormons are saying. (Note also that his video is addressed to his “dear friends.” There is a slight suggestion that his real friends will support him and his mission from God.)
From the time that I began to understand and these things became very lear to me until now they have only become more and more clear and they are wisdom in the Lord and so I am asking you to come to Harney County, to make the decision right now of whether this is a righteous cause or not, whether I am some crazy person, or whether the Lord truly works through individuals to get his purposes accomplished. . . . I ask you now to come to Harney County to participate in this wonderful thing that the Lord is about to accomplish.
There is no right answer here of course. There are only attempts at persuasion and appeals to authority that others either will or will not choose to accept. The Mormon leadership, beyond appealing to scripture, is also able to not-so-subtlely invoke the official authority of the institution of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. While Ammon Bundy releases a video that gets posted to YouTube, the church leadership issues an official church statement. Most likely, the Church will win this battle in the long run. But then again, Paul was triumphant in his quest to please God (Gal. 1.10). Perhaps Ammon Bundy’s quest will be met with similar success.
Image via Wikimedia Commons