'Captain Moroni' and company seize federal land: Some scribes spot the religion ghost

So that armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon: Does the coverage this morning in your local paper include a rather obvious religion ghost?

Here's how to find out. Call up the story -- let's check the latest from the Associated Press -- and search for the word "Mormon." If you're into generic religion you can search for "God."

What did you find? For the AP, here is the summary of what's going on in this fight over massive chunks of public land out West:

The armed group said it wants an inquiry into whether the government is forcing ranchers off their land after Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven, reported back to prison Monday.
The Hammonds were convicted of arson three years ago for fires on federal land in 2001 and 2006, one of which was set to cover up deer poaching, according to prosecutors. The men served no more than a year until an appeals court judge ruled the terms fell short of minimum sentences that require them to serve about four more years.
Their sentences were a rallying cry for the group calling itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, whose mostly male members said they want federal lands turned over to local authorities so people can use them free of U.S. oversight.

The group, AP stresses, is led by two of the sons of rancher Cliven Bundy -- a name that should ring bells in newsrooms, since he was involved in a 2014 Nevada showdown over grazing rights on public land. And does the "Bundy" name have a religion hook?

Contrast that summary AP material with the top of this story from The Oregonian. Spot any major differences?

As roughly 20 militants continue to occupy a federal wildlife refuge in southeastern Oregon, observers are left scratching their heads. Why would an out-of-state rancher lead a self-styled militia in defending federal land far from home?
Because God told him to, Ammon Bundy said in a YouTube video posted Friday. Bundy is a son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher known for his stand-off with the federal government over cattle grazing.
In the video, Bundy, who is Mormon, said he believed God wanted him to defend Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, a father-and-son duo convicted of arson on federal land in Oregon.
"The Lord was not pleased with what was happening to the Hammonds," Bundy said in the video. "If we allowed the Hammonds to continue to be punished, there would be accountability."

It would appear that, to the people at the heart of this story, religion has something to do with their actions. This Oregonian piece makes solid use of material from Oregon Public Radio digging into the same angle.

You know things are getting interesting when one of the armed militants refuses to identify himself and, instead, says he wants to be known as "Captain Moroni."

The Oregonian piece ends with a public statement from the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints condemning the takeover and lots of background material on the Mormon roots of the symbolism and language used by the Bundys. I thought this section was quite helpful:

Bundy has repeatedly said he feels the federal government is veering from the Constitution and must be stopped, rhetoric scholar Susanna Morrill said is consistent with early Mormon teaching. Morrill, a Lewis and Clark College professor who has studied Mormonism for 20 years, said leaders in the nineteenth-century Church of Latter-day Saints spoke about the country heading the wrong direction. ...
Bundy's rhetoric, though consistent with scripture and early Mormon teaching, is now considered extreme, and Morrill is skeptical about attributing his motives entirely to faith.
"While the Mormon stuff seems important, it also seems like these folks just have their own agenda and may be using Mormonism for that," she said.

As you would expect, this was the kind of material that also showed up in stories -- by religion-beat professionals -- at The Washington Post and The Salt Lake City Tribune. Bravo for assigning this national-angle story to reporters who can tune in the religion angle, which is clearly important in this case.

And besides, how often (check that Post lede) do you get to use a term like "stud muffin" in a spiritual context?

Capt. Moroni is “the military stud muffin” of Mormon scripture, says one U.S. religious history expert. It’s also the moniker adopted by an armed militia member occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. ...
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 stud muffin 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.

So was the Associated Press alone in ignoring the religion angle?

Clearly not. Check out the current "What We Know About the Standoff in Oregon" news-you-can-use feature at The New York Times.

No "God," no "Mormon" and, yes, there's no "Captain Moroni."

The same is true -- for the most part -- in the updated Times news story on the takeover. There is one very soft God reference.

In a forum here last month, Ammon Bundy was explicit about starting a national movement, and said God had instructed him to come here.

And that's that. The world's most prestigious newspaper turned to the Southern Poverty Law Center, once again, but not to religion researchers who know the Bundy world inside out.

So is there a crucial religion element here? What do you think?

FRONT-PAGE IMAGE: Captain Moroni ready for battle.

Please respect our Commenting Policy