How Mormon history helps explain today’s public-land fights

Betsy Gaines Quammen’s new book looks at the Bundy family and religion’s connection to the Western landscape.

 

In late March, rancher Ammon Bundy pledged to use force if necessary to oppose attempts by the state of Idaho to enforce shelter-in-place measures aimed at stopping the spread of the new coronavirus. As historian Betsy Gaines Quammen demonstrates in her latest book, Bundy and his family’s militant resistance to government authority of all kinds — especially oversight of public lands — is best understood within the context of the history and theology of their Mormon faith.

When Gaines Quammen began researching American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God and Public Lands in the West more than seven years ago, she had in mind a work of historical scholarship, not an up-to-the-minute explainer. Gaines Quammen, who was interested in how religions interact with the landscapes around them, chose the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Intermountain West as her research topic.

But in the intervening years, the relationship between Mormon theology, settler colonialism and political extremism has become inescapably relevant. This is especially true when it comes to the Bundys, who base their militant resistance to federal oversight of public lands on a fundamentalist interpretation of their religion, though the church itself rejects many of their more extreme beliefs. Gaines Quammen, a historian, conservationist and writer, said her scholarship on Mormon history is crucial to understanding “the actions that we’ve seen in this region, from the Sagebrush Rebellion on to the Bundys.”

American Zion, from Torrey House Press, recounts how Joseph Smith founded the Mormon church in the early 19th century. His followers fled from religious persecution, moving from Ohio, to Missouri, to Illinois, and eventually, to the Great Basin region of what is now Utah. They claimed a God-given right to the area, despite the fact that it was already home to the Ute, Navajo and Paiute tribes. The book balances deep historical scholarship with contemporary analysis that helps explain the Bundy family’s actions and persistent influence in some corners of the West.

High Country News recently spoke to Gaines Quammen, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, about Mormon history, the Bundy family and public lands. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Historian Betsy Gaines Quammen writes about how Mormon theology impacts relationships with land in the Intermountain West. “When some Mormons look at conservation efforts and see spaces put aside without grazing, mining, drilling, logging, it’s not just a missed opportunity for income — though that’s a big part of it — it’s also not developing a space in a way that would please God’s eye,” she said.
Lauren Brown/Courtesy of Betsy Gaines Quammen

High Country News: Can you talk about the link between some interpretations of Mormonism and the idea that public lands belong to members of the faith? 

Betsy Gaines Quammen: It’s important to note that the Mormon Church has come out very strongly that the Bundys should not be using tenets of faith to back up their rebellion.

But it starts with the fact that the early church history begins with Mormon settlement. There’s no acknowledgment of history beyond when the first Mormon settler arrived. Settlers drank out of a Paiute river; all of a sudden it became a Mormon river. Ownership was established when they settled there. And along with this came the fact that they were persecuted by the federal government, and they came West, and this was a place that had been overlooked by other white settlers. Mormons believed they had earned this landscape by, as they would say, “making the rose bloom.”

Their acts of settlement and development were forms of sacralizing the landscape. And you had that on top of some of these prophecies that Joseph Smith offered: He said they were entitled to Zion, they were entitled to this land, and it was where the Second Coming (of Christ) would happen. 

HCN: In the book, you relate Mormon theology to mythologies of the West and the dispossession of Native land. Can you describe this connection?

BGQ: First, there’s the Mormon belief that God gave them Zion. This is the Mormon homeland that they are entitled to, and it’s in the Western U.S. Of course, this homeland was placed on land that was already home to tribal nations.

There’s also the belief that a sacred landscape is a developed landscape, it’s a built landscape. So, when people say, “Oh, we want to protect a wilderness area,” that is so divergent from what some Mormons feel is appropriate. When some Mormons look at conservation efforts and see spaces put aside without grazing, mining, drilling, logging, it’s not just a missed opportunity for income — though that’s a big part of it — it’s also not developing a space in a way that would please God’s eye. And as a historian, I wanted to tie the Bundy story to this deep religious history.

HCN: Do you see a connection between Ammon Bundy’s ability to build a following and Joseph Smith as a charismatic figure who claimed to converse with God?

BGQ: I've thought about this long line of Mormon men who have had revelations and acted on them, some in more nefarious ways than others. But there is something of a prophetic figure in Ammon Bundy. Like Joseph Smith, who at the time built the second-largest military body after the U.S. Army, he’s militarized his theology. This is a religion where, when they feel they are being oppressed, they turn to military might.

That history of Mormon militant theology has been around since early, early in the church. During the “Utah War” (an armed confrontation between Mormons and the federal government that began in 1857, when the U.S. sent an expedition into what is now Utah, and ended in negotiations in 1858), the Mormon militia had a standoff with the U.S. Army at the borders of Salt Lake. They also were involved in the Mountain Meadows Massacre (where Mormon militias killed 120 members of a wagon train in 1857 in order to scare away other potential settlers).

Ammon is soft-spoken and compelling. He seems reasonable when you talk to him. And I can very much understand why he’s so attractive as a leader. After talking to him the other day, it’s so clear that he’s different from some of his followers. A lot of his followers are certain that Donald Trump is this hero who’s going to protect them and fight dark forces and all this stuff, and Ammon doesn’t believe that. He’s careful (in talking about Trump). He has said to me, “The jury’s still out.” He’s different than some others on the right. He’s suspicious of both parties and government in general.

HCN: What have Ammon Bundy’s anti-government beliefs meant for his response to the coronavirus?

BGQ: When I talked to him about COVID-19 — and I must say this is one of my own concerns — he talked about how those in power try to consolidate more power in times of crisis. We’re seeing governments around the world, and places in our own country, going into total lockdown, which might be the only way to contain this virus. Ammon’s concern is that this will be used to take away freedoms and that when we return to normal, that our rights will have eroded a bit.

HCN: What was the most surprising thing you learned in writing this book?

BGQ: When I first starting researching this, I thought the Bundys and their followers were a fringe group. They aren’t.

The first time I visited the Bundys — and they were incredibly open and friendly with me, always have been — we talked for about three hours, and Ryan walked me to my car, and Cliven signed a Book of Mormon for me and asked me to read it. And I left thinking, Wow, I spent time with an outlier, a group of people who represent a small group of anti-government people. And over the years, I realized how much support and influence the Bundys have across the region.

HCN: What do you think happens next for the Bundys with public lands in the West?

BGQ: I know the Bundys are very much interested in making their next stand. They’re looking for an injustice. However, there’s so much public land that isn’t being monitored. The Bundys still have cows grazing in Gold Butte, Nevada (the site of Cliven Bundy’s 2014 standoff, which launched the family as the national face of anti-government movements). I think the federal government doesn’t know what to do with these people. They are allowing lawlessness, especially under the Trump administration. This is part of the problem for the Bundys: They are winning right now. `

Nick Bowlin is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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