An Interview Sheds Light On The Religious Context Of The Militia’s Actions
Wisconsin Public Radio (1/29/16)
It makes sense that Scott Carrier would be among the reporters who converged on the small city of Burns, Ore. this month to report on the takeover of a wildlife refuge by an armed militia. Carrier, after all, is a Peabody award-winning radio producer who has made a career seeking out interviews with people “on the ground,” from refugees to right-wingers.
However, the opportunity to collect some compelling new material wasn’t the only reason Carrier made the trip. He wanted to confirm his suspicion that the takeover of the refuge wasn’t just a political act, but a religious one as well.
In newspapers and radio reports, Carrier recognized something in what the men were saying that he was intimately familiar with: The rhetoric of Mormonism, or the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Carrier knows such rhetoric well thanks to living in Salt Lake City, the headquarters of the LDS church and the home of a large population of Mormons.
When Carrier arrived at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, he quickly found a member of the militia to speak with: Brand Thornton, who had driven up from Las Vegas to join Ammon Bundy and others in the standoff. Carrier asked Thornton whether the people involved in the takeover were Mormon.
The militia member confirmed: “We’ve got quite a few current LDS.”
Thornton was quick to note that his views were solely his own. But those views present a fascinating — and at times, downright strange — portrait of the spiritual life of the compound.
According to Thornton, spirituality wasn’t secondary to the group’s mission — it was a central part of it.
“I have to call this a spiritual organization,” he said. “Really, we don’t have any leaders, per se.”
He added: “The spirit of god is the leader. And Ammon (Bundy) received that spiritual message and he conveys it.”
When Carrier asked about the justification for the occupation, Thornton referenced the Declaration of Independence, saying, “When government becomes corrupted, you actually have the sacred obligation and responsibility to replace that government.” But when Carrier asked about the religious justification, Thornton cited Section 98 of the LDS “Doctine and Covenants,” a sacred text that comprises revelations to the Mormon prophets, particularly Joseph Smith.
In Thornton’s interpretation of this section, when the government commits egregious acts, the first step of the people is to petition the government. But if those petitions go unanswered, it’s possible to do something called a “priestly curse” — a process that involves a person petitioning the Lord against their oppressors while washing their own feet. Thornton told Carrier that when he got to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, it was the first thing he did.
Thornton also cited religious texts from the LDS church when describing what he believed to be federal overreach.
“We were promised in the Book of Mormon that there would never be a king on this land,” Thornton said. “But you’re seeing attempts to establish a king on this land.”
When Carrier asked Thornton if this entire occupation was a mission from God, he didn’t hesitate in his response: “Absolutely, God told us to do this,” he said.
Reflecting on the interview a few weeks later, Carrier said that it was specifically these religious elements — and the lack of reporting on them — that he found troubling.
“They are kind of crazy, from my point of view, because they are getting directions from God,” he said. “You can’t be reasonable when it’s not reason that’s driving you on, it’s the will of God.”
According to an Associated Press report, Brand Thornton left the compound on Monday, before the subsequent series of events that dramatically changed the situation at the reserve. Law enforcement officers arrested Ammon Bundy and several other members of the group Tuesday after they’d been pulled over during a traffic stop. During the incident, gunfire resulted in the death of militia member LaVoy Finicum. On Thursday, officers arrested three more people, leaving estimates of the amount of occupiers left at the wildlife refuge down to five or less. Earlier this month, the LDS church issued an official statement distancing themselves from the group’s assertions.