The last place the Title of Liberty belongs is above the angry voices of an insurrectionist mob.
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Hello folks, welcome to the Self-Evident podcast. This is the first episode on this side of January 6th. There’s just so much to say about what happened, what led to it happening, and what comes next. I have a lot to say and a lot to write, but with school started up again I have very little time. So, I thought I’d start out with my biggest issue first, here in podcast form, and then move on to other issues in article form in the near future.
Last October, I wrote an open letter to Senator Mike Lee about Captain Moroni, a Book of Mormon military leader he had compared Donald Trump to at a rally in Arizona. In light of what appears to be Latter-day Saints involved in the insurrection at the US Capitol, who took Mike Lee at his word by hoisting what we Latter-day Saints call a Title of Liberty over the heads of the mob, I thought I’d address a few points of Latter-day Saint culture, imagery, scripture, and history to put that terrible image in context and offer my view of how just how backwards all of this is.
Before I begin though, let me just say that I am not speaking on behalf of my church but simply offering my view and understanding of history and scripture. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is officially politically neutral, rarely speaks out on matters of political concern, and encourages its members to be involved in their government as their consciences dictate.
Now, for those unfamiliar with Latter-day Saint scripture, Captain Moroni is one the most beloved figures from a book of scripture we believe tells the story of a Christian nation in ancient America. He was a strong and passionate leader who stoically defended the Nephite nation from enemies both within and without. He is often compared to Gideon and Joshua from the Old Testament.
Of Captain Moroni, Mormon (who we believe to be the author of the record, and therefore its namesake) said, “If all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men.”
Needless to say, Captain Moroni holds a special place in the hearts of Latter-day Saints, especially those of us who have served in the military or in law enforcement. Captain Moroni, along with another group of righteous warriors found in our scriptures known as the Sons of Helaman or Stripling Warriors, provide a spiritual and philosophical groundwork for being Warrior Saints within the Latter-day Saint tradition.
Because we operate with a lay clergy, many of our leaders, especially those of the greatest generation, have served in the military, including those we consider prophets and apostles. I was often met with surprise but respect during my own military service that my piety was accompanied by a strong commitment to the mission of a soldier. The idea of a Christian soldier is not unique to the Latter-day Saint tradition, but it is uniquely intense for those of us who step forward to serve and peculiarly specific in what values and ideals we step forward to protect: liberty, justice, and free society.
The Title of Liberty
According to the Book of Mormon, the Nephites were not only an ancient American society of Christians, they also formed a republican form of government. Several times during the lifetime of Captain Moroni, the Nephite nation faced internal rebellion from groups who wanted to replace the republic with a monarchy and raise up a king.
During one such rebellion, Captain Moroni rent his coat and made it into a flag, writing a message that he called the Title of Liberty. He went forth with this title and rallied his countrymen to the defense of their republic and the uprising was defeated. The words of the Title of Liberty are sacred to Latter-day Saints, especially those of us who have served in uniform, and are carried on pieces of cloth in the pockets of our uniforms, hung on barrack walls, and have even been flown from flag poles in Utah in times of strife for the American Republic, such as after the 9/11 attacks.
The Title of Liberty reads as follows: “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children.”
These are simple words, but they fill Latter-day Saint hearts with fire and a burning passion to preserve freedom for ourselves and our posterity at whatever cost.
There are three major instances in Church history that typify this tradition and the sacrifices members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are willing to make in the name of liberty and a government that preserves it.
The first occurred in 1834, and is known as Zions Camp. The previous year, Latter-day Saint settlers had been driven forcibly out of Jackson Country, Missouri by the “old settlers” who opposed the new religion in their midst as well as the abolitionist-oriented views of its members (who were largely from the New England region). The first leader of our church, Joseph Smith, sought redress for the violation of constitutional rights through the Missouri judicial system. It was intimated to Joseph Smith and other church leaders that state officials might be willing to assist in returning displaced Latter-day Saints to their property if the Church was able to provide an armed militia that could be deputized to protect the returning settlers.
After declaring he had received a revelation to do so, Joseph Smith agreed to the proposal, organized a group of 200 volunteers, and embarked on an expedition from Kirtland, Ohio, marching South to Missouri. But by the time they reached Missouri, the judicial system had bogged down and authorities refused to support the Latter-day Saint claims to the property that had been seized by the anti-Mormon mobs. Absent the official sanction to protect the Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith disbanded Zions Camp and returned to Kirtland. The Missouri legislature, however, did set aside Caldwell County for the resettlement of the Latter-day Saints that had been driven from Jackson County.
Zions Camp may seem like a failure on its face, but the leadership of the Church would largely comprise of men who made the march for the next half-century. It is remembered in the Latter-day Saint tradition as a kind of pilgrimage, a holy march of godly men who were prepared to fight and die for their faith and their freedom. But it is also remembered as a cautionary tale about understanding the difference between a righteous cause and an unrighteous desire for conflict.
Before Zions Camp had been disbanded, a mob composing of armed local Missouri militia had moved to confront this armed group of Latter-day Saints. Instead of preparing them for battle, Joseph Smith told his men that the Lord would fight their battles for them. As they took shelter, a storm moved in that flooded the nearby river and kept the Missourians from crossing.
However, when Joseph Smith announced that the camp was disbanded and they would be returning to Kirtland, many of the men were angry. They wanted to fight, whether the local authorities would sanction them or not. Joseph Smith warned them that there would be consequences for their pride. Indeed, the camp was struck with cholera and several members died.
The Mormon Battalion
The second story from Latter-day Saint history relevant to our tradition of stepping forward to preserve and protect freedom begins in 1846. By this time, the Latter-day Saints had not only been set upon by mobs once more in Missouri and driven from the state entirely, they had also been driven from Illinois and Joseph Smith, along with his brother Hyrum, had been murdered in Carthage, Illinois. The President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Brigham Young, had become the new leader of the church and led an American Exodus out of Illinois and into Iowa, where preparations were being made to trek westward and find a new home.
While the exiled saints gathered in tent cities spread around Council Bluffs, Iowa, a US Army officer arrived from Washington D.C. with a request from President James K. Polk to organize a volunteer unit for service in the Mexican-American War. In what is remembered with reverence as the “Mormon Battalion,” around 550 men volunteered for service, even though they’d be leaving their families alone on the trail and uncertain of even what their final destination would be. (I personally have several ancestors who served in the Mormon Battalion and my father, as a descendant, was able to march in a reenactment as part of the 1996 centennial parade celebrating Utah’s statehood in 1896).
The Mormon Battalion is the only religious military unit ever organized in American military history, and their 2080-mile march from Iowa to Southern California is among the longest military marches in history. Members of the battalion were present in California for the beginning of the gold rush, but chose to leave and reunite with their families in Utah rather than seek their fortunes in gold. A small detachment of the battalion was part of the detail that discovered the remnants of the Donner Party and helped bury those who had perished.
The Modern Stripling Warriors
The final story is less well-known as it is a more modern story and not quite as well known among everyday Latter-day Saints. But to church members in the uniformed services, it is remembered as the modern stripling warriors.
The stripling warriors were a group of young men in the Book of Mormon who volunteered to defend the Nephite nation in a terrible and costly war. They were raised by their mothers to be firm in their faith in Christ and were promised, as they marched into battle, that if they held to their faith, none would perish. In one vicious fight, every single warrior was wounded but not a single one died.
In a similar circumstance, a Utah National Guard artillery unit from Southern Utah became surrounded during the Korean War and had to fight off a direct assault from Chinese PLA forces. They fought, essentially surrounded, and were able to hold off the assault until the US line was reformed. After the battle, not a single Utah man had been killed, a feat considered a miracle.
Given our history, it is no surprise that we Latter-day Saints consider patriotism and service in the cause of liberty and justice as an integral part of our faith. Indeed, the Book of Mormon makes this connection clear by stating that the Spirit of Freedom is the Spirit of God.
Unfortunately, for a small but increasingly more visible few, this passion has been twisted towards the opposite of what it’s meant to stand for.
Like any religious movement, our history has had unfortunate and ugly moments where zealots have twisted our doctrines and arbitrarily sought to use them to justify violence.
In the late 1830s “Mormon War” in Missouri, some members of the church organized themselves into vigilante groups referred to as the Danites and engaged in illegal activities against anti-Mormon Missourians. Joseph Smith condemned them as “secret combinations” (a reference to another group from the Book of Mormon, the Gadianton Robbers, who plotted murder to gain power) and held them responsible for the later calamities that befell the Saints as part of Governor Lilburn. W. Boggs’ extermination order, when Latter-day Saints were ordered to leave Missouri or be killed.
In 1857, during a period known as the “Utah War,” a group of men from Latter-day Saint congregations in Parowan and Cedar City attacked a wagon train in what became known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a slaughter that left only young children alive. Brigham Young, the second leader of our church, saw to the conviction of his own adopted son, John D. Lee, who was sentenced to death. Church leaders from that time to the present-day have again denounced the massacre as a “secret combination.”
These terrible moments stand out as stains in what is otherwise a history of selfless service and true faith, found in a group of earnest Christ-loving pioneers who lived through an American Exodus that led to a desert region that would come to flower like a rose. But, disturbingly, there has been a growing echo of these past deviations in the last half-decade.
In 2014, a seemingly mundane land dispute between the Bureau of Land Management and a rancher named Cliven Bundy drew the country’s attention when the BLM brought in its law enforcement agencies to conduct a round-up of Bundy’s cattle. Cliven Bundy, a Latter-day Saint, appealed for help from Right-wing activists to stop the round-up of his cattle, including several armed militias.
The situation culminated with an armed standoff, with militia members taking positions on an overpass and aiming their weapons at BLM officers. The situation was defused when local law enforcement negotiated the release of the cattle. Pictures of the stand-off show the armed militia rallying under a banner that stated “Liberty Freedom For God We Stand” eerily reminiscent of the Title of Liberty.
Two years later, in 2016, Ammon Bundy (Cliven’s son) led an armed group to Oregon where it seized and occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. He was joined by members of various far-right groups and militias, among them radicalized Latter-day Saints (including Ammon, himself, and his brother, Ryan) who communicated their intent in scriptural terms, saying that God had called them to become “modern-day Captain Moroni’s” and take a stand against the federal government.
In both situations involving the Bundy family, Latter-day Saint leadership has been clear that it condemns violence and especially the use of Latter-day Saint imagery to evoke a sense of righteousness in unrighteous acts. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintains a politically neutral stance, has a history of encouraging its members to be active in both major political parties, and has had prophets and apostles who have been both lifelong Republicans and lifelong Democrats.
Despite this, a small but growing number of Latter-day Saints have become increasingly radicalized and have had a presence within the ranks and leadership of many far-right groups, many of whom continue to praise the Bundy family as patriots, glorify Lavoy Finicum (a Latter-day Saint who was killed by police as part of the Oregon standoff) as a martyr, and have become convinced that their faith and their patriotism compel them to support Donald Trump’s presidency by any means, including armed protest and violence.
Like the rest of the far-right movement in the Trump era, this fervent support for Donald Trump led to insurrection on January 6th, when Capitol Hill police were overwhelmed and the Capitol Building was assaulted and occupied. In the midst of the carnage, Latter-day Saints across the world were shocked and horrified to see a flag waving above the angry mob, the words of the Title of Liberty flapping in the wind.
Needless to say, this small but increasingly more visible and active group of Latter-day Saints has lost their way. And, the presence of the Title of Liberty, dear to my heart, at an insurrection that sickens me to the core requires me to draw a distinction between two groups found in Latter-day Saint Scripture: Freemen and King-men. The story of these two groups is eerily similar to what has been going on in America these last few months.
Freemen and King-men
The Book of Mormon tells of a time of great political disagreement within the Nephite nation, and a group of men began to speak against the republican form of government they currently had, desiring to establish a kingdom instead. The people were split over the argument, with one side of the debate calling themselves king-men and the other side, committed to their rights as established and protected by a free government, calling themselves freemen.
The disagreement was put to a vote and the freemen carried the day. But the king-men were so angry at the result that, when a hostile army arrived on the borders of their capitol city, the king-men refused to take up arms to defend their own nation.
With the urgency of an impending invasion, Captain Moroni sent his armies to compel the king-men to step forward in service of their country. The king-men instead revolted and attacked their fellow countrymen. Captain Moroni was forced to put down an insurrection, fighting against a portion of his own people who had so lost their way that they sought to replace their republic with a king and, when they were defeated in a free election, turned against the republic with violence and hatred.
It clearly isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison with the present situation in our own republic, but the similarities are enough to suggest that whoever hoisted that Title of Liberty over the insurrection at our nation’s capitol has put themselves in the opposite position from where they think they are.
Freemen stand for a free nation that holds to principles above loyalty to any one person. Freemen know that the endurance of a free society is more dependent on the endurance of their values and beliefs than it is on lifting any one person to power or maintaining that person’s power. Freemen believe in the sacred nature of an election, whereby a free people make their voice heard and establish legitimacy in their government. Freemen hold to the importance of a peaceful transition of power and honor the results of a free and fair election.
Donald Trump has not conducted himself as a freeman. His enablers have echoed his deceitful machinations to maintain power, falling far short of being freemen. His supporters have lifted up the importance of a man over the importance of their principles, believing that the nation is dependent on him retaining power as opposed to them standing for their values above all else, and have been fooled into believing they’re freemen while unwittingly standing for something far different. And, the insurrectionists who rejected the results of a free and fair election and assaulted the seat of power of our free government, who beat a cop to death, who forced our representatives to flee for their lives, and who occupied a building that had not fallen to an enemy force since the War of 1812 proved themselves to be king-men in both word and deed.
Hanging By a Thread
I call on all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to look to the scriptures that have been given to us as harbingers of the times we find ourselves in, and seek the discernment of the holy spirit to be certain we are not deceived by those who would wrest our beliefs and our convictions towards causes and actions contrary to our core beliefs.
We have only one king, and we have no use for any other. It is fear and pride, not bravery and conviction, that leads to the belief that a free nation rises or falls on the shoulders of a single man. Our God, our religion, our freedom, our peace, our wives, and our children are served by each one of us trusting in the strength of the truths we believe in and holding to the rod of our core principles, especially in the face of adversity.
We know the words of our own prophets. They tell us that our republic will not be saved in Washington. It will not be saved by leaders to whom we sacrifice all integrity, decency, and honor to promote and defend. It will not be saved in the halls of government through the crafting of any legislation, or the marginalization of any political opponent. It will most especially not be saved by rising against it as part of an armed mob participating in a political abomination of desolation.
Our republic will be saved by those who are enlightened and uplifted by the principles of free society and holding true to them above all other considerations. Our birthright is to be freemen, and freemen do not believe a republic lives or dies in any one election, they do not believe it rises and falls on the shoulders of a single man, and they do not believe in taking up arms against their own country. Freemen have faith in God, faith in each other, and hope that tomorrow can always be a better day so long as we can face it with our principles and values intact.