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If Ammon Bundy and other Mormons involved in taking over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon believe their religion is backing them, they should reconsider.
Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints "strongly condemn the armed seizure of the facility," spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a news release Monday, "and are deeply troubled by the reports that those who have seized the facility suggest that they are doing so based on scriptural principles."
The release further states that "this armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis."
Americans "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."
That statement echoes the church's 12th article of faith, which declares, "We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law."
The Utah-based faith's statement, posted on mormonnewsroom.org, also links to a 1992 speech by senior LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, in which he warns against "excessive zeal" in creating so-called militias.
"I caution those patriots who are participating in or provisioning private armies and making private preparations for armed conflict," Oaks said in the address given at church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo. Such people "risk spiritual downfall as they withdraw from the society of the church and from the governance of those civil authorities to whom our 12th article of faith makes all of us subject."
Mormons involved in the Oregon protest include Ryan Bundy and brother Ammon, apparently named after a figure in the Book of Mormon. Another militia member dubs himself Captain Moroni, a warrior in the LDS faith's signature scripture.
They are sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who made headlines in 2014 after an armed standoff with U.S. authorities over grazing on federal land. The elder Bundy mentioned his family's LDS faith, but his sons have made their religion more explicit in the latest dispute.
Throughout its 185-year existence, Mormonism has had a complicated relationship with the U.S. government, explained historian W. Paul Reeve. "There are significant crosscurrents in the history."
On one hand, believers see the Constitution as being "an inspired document," said Reeve, who teaches history at the University of Utah, "but they experienced difficulties including a state-sanctioned extermination order against them in Missouri and frustrations with those who administered the laws. They continued to apply to the government for redress, but were rebuffed."
Even amid these problems, Mormon founder Joseph Smith ran for U.S. president and was assassinated during his 1844 campaign rather than choosing to opt out of the system. Today, Latter-day Saints view themselves as among the most patriotic of Americans.
After severe persecution and Smith's murder, Mormons fled to Utah with considerable animosity toward the United States, he said, yet they provided hundreds of men and some women to help the U.S. in its fight with Mexico.
Upon arriving in the Great Basin, they applied to be a U.S. territory, Reeve said, and later sought statehood multiple times before being added to the country 120 years ago Monday, on Jan. 4, 1896.
Throughout the Mormon experience, the LDS Church and Washington have seesawed between love and hate.
"Sometimes [Latter-day Saints] take positions in opposition to a federal proposal," Reeve said, "and, in other cases, in support, but the central message is honoring and sustaining the law of the land."
A 21st-century Mormon "would be hard-pressed," said Reeve, author of "Religion of a Different Culture: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness," "to justify an armed opposition to the federal government through their religion."
LDS writer Jana Riess denounced the protesters' use of Mormon scripture particularly the story of Captain Moroni to defend their anti-government siege in Oregon.
"People are drawn to the historical Captain Moroni because he's the military studmuffin of the Book of Mormon; the character is brash and decisive, even 'angry,' " Riess wrote Monday on her Religion News Service blog. "He gets the job done. He sees himself as a Nephite patriot who loves God and country and gets rid of interlopers."
But, she argued, Captain Moroni is sometimes "flat-out wrong."
The Oregon zealots are flat-out wrong, too, according to Riess and top LDS leaders.
"It's a blight on the Mormon faith that some of the armed militia men taking over a federal building are LDS," Riess wrote. "This is a place where innocent people go to bird-watch, for crying out loud."