“Off the charts unbelievable”—so ran the headline about the acquittal of seven protesters who had occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon earlier this year.
It wasn’t all that unbelievable, though, once you realize that their defense was based on religious faith. These days, it seems just about anything can be justified that way.
Ammon Bundy, the ringleader, first came to public attention at a Nevada protest in 2014 where his father, Cliven Bundy, was the principal figure. Cliven had grazed his cattle on federal land for years without paying for a federal permit to do so—a permit that cost a whole $1.35 per animal per month. The trial in the Nevada case, involving counts of assault on a federal officer, extortion, and use of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, is scheduled to begin next year.
But instead of just waiting to present his case in Nevada, Ammon Bundy and his gang took it upon themselves to forcibly occupy the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last January. The triggering event, according to Ammon Bundy, was his dismay over the sentencing of Dwight and Steven Hammond, a pair of convicted arsonists who had destroyed 139 acres of property. The connection between those fires and the Malheur takeover seems a little strained, but what does logic matter when God himself gets involved? Ammon Bundy posted a video right at the outset telling us how much he prayed over the matter, the upshot of which was that “The Lord was not pleased with what was happening to the Hammonds.” God even issued a threat: “If we allowed the Hammonds to continue to be punished, there would be accountability.”
You don’t want to mess with threats from God. Just last month in Italy, according to Catholic theologian Giovanni Cavalcoli, God inflicted a devastating earthquake as “divine punishment” for “the offence to the family and the dignity of marriage, in particular through [same-sex] civil unions.” Ammon Bundy wasn’t going to take any chances.
The Bundys are Mormons, a church with a long history of doing what they say God wants rather than what duly elected governments require. The current leadership of the LDS condemned the Malheur takeover, but that doesn’t bother them. Once you’ve ascertained that God is on your side, you can do whatever you want, whenever you want. This is called “religious liberty.”
At the trial, Ammon Bundy clung steadfastly to his religious defense. “These principles,” he piously insisted, “they’re not something that comes and goes.” We don’t know what exactly the jury’s reasoning was in letting him go—whether it was swayed by the religious liberty appeal or whether the prosecution was simply incompetent. We do know that some awfully odd things happened in the jury room, including one juror succeeding in getting a fellow juror dismissed for “bias.” A bias, apparently, in favor of the rule of law.
The root issue here is Bundy’s objection to the fact that so much land in the western third of the country is controlled by the federal government. Perhaps he has a valid point. When you look at a map, it does seem like an awfully high proportion of federal control. Proponents of federal land control, though, have their arguments too. These arguments on both sides can be weighed rationally, allowing us to decide based on evidence and experience what balance of control—federal, local, and private—is best for long-term human happiness. A balance that can change over time, as additional evidence and experience accumulate. But injecting God into a dispute like this is utterly antithetical to a rational decision-making process. It is impossible to resolve disagreements over what God wants, other than by deciding who shouts louder, or who has more guns.
It doesn’t take much of a crystal ball to predict that the Bundy acquittal will lead to more and more defiance of the law, especially of the religious variety. In a marvelous example of odd bedfellows, the right-wing Bundys themselves are big fans of the largely left-wing protest at Standing Rock, which also has spiritual overtones. One of the acquitted Malheur defendants said of the Standing Rock protesters that “They need to take a look at this and realize battles can be won. They need to stay strong and not let the federal government push them around and coerce them into believing that they might be guilty.” Ammon Bundy’s sister-in-law says “I’m proud of them for standing their ground.” Taking seriously a religious ploy to thwart an elected government trying to achieve the most sensible balance of federal vs. local control on one hand, and economic efficiency vs. environmental protection on the other, is a prescription for chaos.