The Fundamentalist Religious Views That Inspired Ammon Bundy and His Militia to Occupy a Remote Federal Facility in Oregon
Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the brothers in command of the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom — an armed group that has taken over a cluster of government buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in an empty swath of eastern Oregon desert — explain that they have occupied the facility to protest the “terrorism that the federal government is placing on the people.”
To understand the source of the Bundy’s self-righteous anger, it’s helpful to examine their religious views, which are rooted in a maverick strain of fundamentalism found throughout rural Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. I became intimately familiar with this worldview when I was conducting research for the book Under the Banner of Heaven.
My book tells the true story of two brothers, Dan and Ron Lafferty, who killed their sister-in-law and her infant daughter thirty-two years ago. Dan was sentenced to life in prison. Ron was sentenced to death. Dan claims they murdered this smart, compassionate woman and her baby because God commanded them to do so.
Below, are two excerpts from the book — five paragraphs from the Prologue, and Chapter Twelve in its entirety — which provide insight not only into the rationale given by the Lafferty brothers to justify these murders, but also into the rationale offered by the Bundy brothers for their own transgressive acts.
Dan Lafferty isn’t reticent about describing exactly what happened on July 24, 1984. He says that shortly after noon, he, Ron, and the two drifters who had been traveling with them, Ricky Knapp and Chip Carnes, drove to the apartment of his youngest brother, Allen, in American Fork, twenty minutes down the Interstate from where he is now imprisoned. Inside the brick duplex he found his 15-month-old niece, Erica, standing in her crib, smiling at him. “I spoke to her for a minute,” Lafferty recalls. “I told her, ‘I’m not sure what this is all about, but apparently it’s God’s will that you leave this world; perhaps we can talk about it later.’” And then he killed her with a ten-inch boning knife.
After dispatching Erica, he calmly walked into the kitchen and used the same knife to kill the baby’s mother. He insists, very convincingly, that he has never felt any regret for the deed, or shame.
Like his older brother, Ron, Dan Lafferty was brought up as a pious Mormon. “I’ve always been interested in God and the Kingdom of God,” he says. “It’s been the center of my focus since I was a young child.” And he is certain God intended for him to kill Brenda and Erica Lafferty: “It was like someone had taken me by the hand that day and led me comfortably through everything that happened. Ron had received a revelation from God that these lives were to be taken. I was the one who was supposed to do it. And if God wants something to be done, it will be done. You don’t want to offend Him by refusing to do His work.”
These murders are shocking for a host of reasons, but no aspect of the crimes is more disturbing than Lafferty’s complete and determined absence of remorse. How could an apparently sane, avowedly pious man kill a blameless woman and her baby so viciously, without the barest flicker of emotion? Whence did he derive the moral justification? What filled him such certitude? Any attempt to answer such questions must plumb those murky sectors of the heart and head that prompt most of us to believe in God — and compel an impassioned few, predictably, to carry that irrational belief to its logical end….
The zealot may be outwardly motivated by the anticipation of a great reward at the other end — wealth, fame, eternal salvation — but the real recompense is probably the obsession itself…. Thanks to his (or her) infatuation, existence overflows with purpose. Ambiguity vanishes from the fanatic’s world view, a narcissistic sense of self-assurance displaces all doubt. A delicious rage quickens his pulse, fueled by the sins and shortcomings of lesser mortals, who are soiling the world wherever he looks. His perspective narrows until the last remnants of proportion are shed from his life. Through immoderation, he experiences something akin to rapture….
After Dan Lafferty read The Peace Maker in the early 1980s and resolved to start living the principle of plural marriage, he announced to his wife, Matilda, that he intended to wed her oldest daughter — his stepdaughter. At the last minute, however, he abandoned that plan and instead married a Romanian immigrant named Ann Randak, who took care of the horses on one of Robert Redford’s ranches up Spanish Fork Canyon, in the mountains east of the Dream Mine. Ann and Dan met when he borrowed a horse from her to ride in a local parade. She wasn’t LDS, says Dan, “but she was open to new experiences. Becoming my plural wife was her idea.” Ann, he adds, “was a lovely girl. I called her my gypsy bride.”
Living according to the strictures laid down in The Peace Maker felt good to Dan — it felt right, as though this really were the way God intended men and women to live. Inspired, Dan sought out other texts published by a well-known fundamentalist and Dream Mine backer, Ogden Kraut, about Mormonism as it was practiced in the early years of the church.
It didn’t take him long to discover that polygamy wasn’t the only divine principle the modern LDS Church had abandoned in its eagerness to be accepted by American society. Dan learned that in the 19th century, both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young had preached about the righteousness of a sacred doctrine known as “blood atonement:” Certain grievous acts committed against Mormons, as Brigham explained it, could only be rectified if the “sinners have their blood spilt upon the ground.” And Dan learned that Joseph had taught that the laws of God take precedence over the laws of men.
Like fundamentalists in other faiths, Dan Lafferty was intent on adhering unfailingly to God’s “true” commandments, as determined by a rigorously literal interpretation of his church’s earliest and most sacred texts. And he was no less intent on adhering to the “true” commandments of his country’s earliest and most sacred texts, as well. To Dan, such documents as the Book of Mormon, The Peace Maker, the United States Constitution, and The Declaration of Independence are all of a piece: They are holy scriptures that provide a direct link to the Almighty. The authority that flows from their divinely inspired sentences is absolute and immutable. And it is the duty of righteous men and women to conduct their lives according to a stringently literal reading of those sentences.
Legal theory was a subject of particular interest to Dan. His curiosity had first been aroused when he was training to be a chiropractor in California, following a run-in he had with state and county authorities. At the time, he supported his family primarily by running a small sandwich business out of their home. Dan, Matilda, and the oldest kids would get out of bed before dawn every morning in order to make and wrap stacks of “all natural” vegetarian sandwiches, which Dan would then sell to other chiropractic students during the lunch hour.
“It was a very profitable little hustle,” Dan says proudly. “Or it was until the Board of Health closed me down for not following regulations. They claimed I needed a license, and that I wasn’t paying the required taxes.” Just before he was put out of business, Matilda had given birth to a baby boy. Money was tight. Losing their main source of income was problematic. It also proved to be a pivotal event in Dan’s passage to fundamentalism.
“After they shut me down,” Dan recalls, “I didn’t know quite what to do. It didn’t seem right to me, that the government would penalize me just for being ambitious and trying to support my family — that they would actually force me to go on welfare instead of simply letting me run my little business. It seemed so stupid — the worst kind of government intrusion. In The Book of Mormon, Moroni talks about how all of us have an obligation to make sure we have a good and just government, and when I read that, it really got me going. It made me realize that I needed to start getting involved in political issues. And I saw that when it comes right down to it, you can’t really separate political issues from religious issues. They’re all tied up together.”
Upon completing his chiropractic training and returning to Utah, Dan went to work as a chiropractor for his father. By then the Lafferty parents had sold their farm and bought a house in the old part of downtown Provo; Dan’s father ran his practice out of a basement office in this home. In 1981, shortly after Dan started working for Watson Sr., the LDS Church sent both of the elder Laffertys abroad on a two-year mission, at which point Dan and his younger brother, Mark (who had graduated the Los Angeles College of Chiropractic six months after Dan), agreed to take over the practice in their father’s absence.
Dan and Mark had always enjoyed one another’s company. “As children,” says Dan, “we were inseparable.” Every morning and evening they sat together across a milk pail to milk the family cow. They spent their summer vacations practically joined at the hip, “playing in the barns, jumping in the hay, throwing the football, playing in our tree hut,” he recalls. “It’s funny to remember how hard it was to stop playing even long enough to get a drink or take a pee. Nothing tasted so good as cold water from the faucet that filled the watering trough, and nothing felt so good as taking a pee when the pressure got so bad we had to stop playing because you couldn’t hold it any longer.” When their younger brothers — Allen, Tim, and Watson Jr. — were old enough, the smaller boys eagerly joined in Dan and Mark’s escapades. Then, says Dan, “we’d all line up along the fence, oldest to youngest, and have a group pee. The little guys loved to do what Mark and I did, especially lining up to pee on a fence.”
When Dan and Mark started working together in their father’s office, the special closeness they had shared in their youth was rekindled. During breaks between patients they engaged in heartfelt discussions about everything that was most important to them — and increasingly what seemed most important concerned religious doctrine, and its power to remedy the insidious evils inflicted by the government on its citizens.
Regarding the timing of these heart-to-heart talks, Dan reports, “I began to observe a fascinating phenomenon.” Dan and Mark were usually so busy seeing patients that several days would often pass between their religious/political discourses. But on those days when they would unexpectedly have gaps in the schedule in which to talk at length, says Dan, “rather mysteriously, my younger brothers would show up, unannounced. And we would have some very, very valuable time discussing issues.” These impromptu get-togethers happened often enough, says Dan, “that it seemed like it had to be more than just a coincidence.” Five of the six Lafferty brothers — Dan, Mark, Watson, Tim, and Allen — were usually present for these ad hoc conferences; the only brother who failed to attend was Ron, the eldest of the Lafferty offspring, who was six years older than Dan, and had always acted less like a sibling than a father figure to his brothers.
Dan usually led the discussions, which inevitably described how the government had far exceeded its constitutionally mandated reach, and was dangerously out of control. Buttressing his arguments by quoting scripture from the Book of Mormon, he patiently explained to his brothers that the government had no right to require American citizens to obtain any kind of license, or pay taxes, or submit to the oppressive burden of a Social Security number. “I had come to realize,” Dan says, “that a license was simply an agreement with the government to let them have control of your life. And I decided I didn’t want them to have control of my life…. I already had a basic right to enjoy all of the basic activities of a human being, without their permission.”
Although Dan had not yet allied himself with any established fundamentalist church or prophet, his self-directed studies had transformed him into a de facto Mormon Fundamentalist — and an exceedingly ardent one. The impetus for most fundamentalist movements — whether Mormon, Catholic, Evangelical Christian, Muslim, or Jewish — is a yearning to return to the mythical order and perfection of the original church. Dan Lafferty was moved by this same desire.
The more he studied historical Mormon documents, the more certain Dan became that the LDS Church had blundered off course around 1890, when then-president and prophet Wilford Woodruff was coerced into doing away with the doctrine of plural marriage by the godless government in Washington, D.C. The modern LDS Church, Dan had become convinced, was an elaborate fraud.
Like fundamentalists in other faiths, he was intent on adhering unfailingly to God’s “true” commandments, as determined by a rigorously literal interpretation of his church’s earliest and most sacred texts. And he was no less intent on adhering to the “true” commandments of his country’s earliest and most sacred texts, as well. To Dan, such documents as the Book of Mormon, The Peace Maker, the United States Constitution, and The Declaration of Independence are all of a piece: They are holy scriptures that provide a direct link to the Almighty. The authority that flows from their divinely inspired sentences is absolute and immutable. And it is the duty of righteous men and women to conduct their lives according to a stringently literal reading of those sentences.
For people like Dan who view existence through the narrow lens of literalism, the language in certain select documents is assumed to possess extraordinary power. Such language is to be taken assiduously at face value, according to a single incontrovertible interpretation that makes no allowance for nuance, or ambiguity, or situational contingencies. As Vincent Crapanzano observes in his book, Serving the Word, Dan Lafferty’s brand of literalism
encourages a closed, usually (though not necessarily) politically conservative view of the world: one with a stop-time notion of history and a we-and-they approach to people, in which we are possessed of truth, virtue, and goodness and they of falsehood, depravity, and evil. It looks askance at figurative language, which, so long as its symbols and metaphors are vital, can open — promiscuously in the eyes of the strict literalist — the world and its imaginative possibilities.
For his part, Dan scoffs at this sort of pointy-headed exegesis. “I was just on a quest,” he insists. “A quest to find the truth.”
After seeking guidance through prayer, and receiving confirmation that he was acting in accordance with the Lord’s wishes, Dan sent his driver’s license back to the state of Utah, revoked his marriage license, and returned his Social Security card. He ignored posted speed limits, which he believed were illegal, and simply drove “wisely and carefully” instead. And he quit paying taxes of any kind — including the sales tax when he shopped in local stores, which provoked frequent confrontations with cashiers.
Energized by the self-evident righteousness of his crusade, in the summer of 1982 Dan declared himself a candidate for sheriff of Utah County and embarked on a lively political campaign, speaking at public forums, writing letters to the Provo newspaper, doing radio interviews, and riding in small-town parades. He promised, if elected, to enforce the laws according to a scrupulously literal interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. As he explained, “My motive in running was to restore the primacy of Common Law juries, and to restore the fundamentals of the Constitution.”
On October 4, 1982, Dan was driving home after meeting with another candidate for sheriff (the American Fork police chief, with whom Dan had hoped to engage in a public debate), when he was stopped on Interstate 15 by the Utah State Troopers for speeding and not having a vehicle inspection sticker. “I had already had some confrontations with the officer who pulled me over,” Dan allows. “He knew I would be driving home from this debate meeting, and he had set a trap for me. They wanted to get a felony against me so I couldn’t run for office, and they swarmed me on the freeway. I had just published an important article in the paper — a very important article — which had really unnerved a lot of people, about how the powers of government were being improperly used through improper warrants of arrest — how it was unconstitutional to stop a person on the freeway and arrest them.
“When the officer pulled me over, he told me he had read my article — ‘I’ve got it right here in my car,’ he said. So I told him, ‘Well, if you’ve read the article, you understand why you can’t arrest me right now. If you want to arrest me go get a warrant from a judge, bring it to my home, and I’ll conform to the proper procedures.’” Dan had by now locked the car doors and rolled up all the windows, leaving only a one-inch gap at the top of the diver’s window, which, he says, “I figured was narrow enough to keep a hand from reaching in and grabbing me, but would allow me to talk to the officer.”
The trooper wasn’t amused. He ordered Dan out of the car. “When I refused to get out,” says Dan, “the cop did something I hadn’t anticipated: He grabbed the top of the window with both hands and pulled hard, pulling the window out of its tracks, and then he tried to reach in and grab me. So I said, ‘Well, I gotta go now! See you later!’ and took off.”
The State Troopers gave chase and apprehended Dan a short while later. He was charged with five crimes, including second-degree felony escape, third-degree felony assault by a prisoner, and evading an officer. Then he was thrown in the county jail. At his Justice Court trial, Dan served as his own attorney and attempted to mount a defense based on several arcane points of constitutional law. The judge repeatedly pointed out, however, that Justice Courts in Utah are not empowered to hear constitutional matters, which infuriated Dan. He was further angered when the judge overruled his objection to the makeup of the four-woman jury (Dan argued that he was entitled to have at least one male on the jury).
When Dan ignored the judge’s instructions and continued to argue his case on constitutional grounds, the exasperated judge declared him in contempt of court — at which point Dan’s brothers and several other supporters staged a riot in the courtroom, shouting that they were placing the judge, prosecutor, and court clerk under “citizen’s arrest.” In the middle of this melee, Dan stood up and loudly admonished the judge, “In the name of Christ, do justice or be struck down!”
In the end, the theatrics didn’t do anything to help his case. Dan was sent to the state prison for a 45-day psychiatric evaluation, and then locked up in the county jail to serve a 30-day sentence.
His stay behind bars only hardened his resolve. As a matter of principle, he stopped paying the property taxes on his father’s home and business. His father’s property, Dan explains, was “owned free and clear. By paying property taxes, you are basically telling the government that they’re the ones who really own the property, because you give them the right to take it from you if you don’t pay your taxes. And I was willing to force a stand-off to determine who actually owned that property.”
When that inevitable standoff occurred, Dan did not prevail. The Utah County assessor notified him that the county was taking possession of the Lafferty home for nonpayment of taxes, as well as seizing all of Watson Lafferty’s office equipment. At which point Dan politely informed the assessor’s office “that I intended to defend myself against any invasion of my constitutional God-given rights.”
Dan’s four younger brothers fully supported him in his ongoing battles with the state. But when Dan’s father — who was still out of the country on his LDS mission — learned that his home and business equipment were about to be auctioned off for non-payment of taxes, he was furious. Watson Sr. called Dan from abroad to express his profound displeasure, and to accuse Dan of “hypnotizing” his brothers; the Lafferty patriarch even suggested Dan was trying to hypnotize him and Claudine from afar, over the telephone line.
Watson managed to save his home from the auction block by cutting short his mission and rushing back to Provo with Claudine, but he remained furious at Dan. Although his father’s wrath saddened Dan, it did not dissuade him from his crusade.
During the last months of 1982 through early 1983, that crusade became more overtly religious, and Dan’s four younger brothers became increasingly infected with his fundamentalist zeal. The Lafferty boys started meeting on a more regular basis to discuss the merits of polygamy and other principles advocated in The Peace Maker. When three of Dan’s brothers attempted to impose these principles in their own homes, however, their wives refused, and began to complain to Dianna — the wife of Ron, the eldest Lafferty brother — about the disturbing changes in their husbands’ personalities.
NOTE: On January 4, 2016, in response to media inquiries, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued this statement, on www.mormonnewsroom.org, about the takeover of the federal facility in Oregon by the Bundy brothers, who are members of the LDS Church:
“While the disagreement occurring in Oregon about the use of federal lands is not a Church matter, Church leaders strongly condemn the armed seizure of the facility and are deeply troubled by the reports that those who have seized the facility suggest that they are doing so based on scriptural principles. This armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis. We 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.”