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A new book examines the Bundy movement through the lens of Mormonism

American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God & Public Lands in the West (Torrey House Press, $18.95) provides a literate reminder that it is difficult to fully appreciate the struggle over public lands in the West without understanding its ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “A map of the American West is a Rorschach test,” writes author Betsy Gaines Quammen; “people see what they want to see as reflections of who they are.” In her narrative, Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy has blended the “legend of the cowboy with early Mormon beliefs” while convincing “himself and others that God wants him to go to war over our public lands.”

Although Bundy and his family filled headlines around the world, he was far from the first self-appointed member of his faith — or Mormon right-wing agitator — to break federal laws in service of “God’s higher authority.” But Bundy was fortunate to come away from the April 2014 standoff between his family’s supporters and federal officers with the criminal charges against him dismissed. They thanked God for their courtroom victory, basking in the “macho cowboy contest to show the feds that when you mess with the bull, you get the horns.”

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But they were more lucky than righteous. Thanks to the prosecution botching the case by deliberately concealing potentially exculpatory evidence from the defense, all the charges against Bundy and his sons were dropped and they left court free men. 

The state that spawned “the Sagebrush Rebellion” has no shortage of range war reactionaries in its past. Quammen writes about several decidedly colorful Nevada characters, including former Mormon and ex-Green Beret-turned-separatist spokesman James “Bo” Gritz. A closer look reveals that most of them are motivated as much by self-interest as the future of the Republic.

Quammen observes that Bundy places the Mormons’ presence on the land ahead of the Paiute Indians and other Native American tribes who had been on the land for centuries prior to the arrival of the Saints. “According to Cliven, land tenure changed when a Mormon man’s horse drank from a Paiute river — his rights arrived in the establishment of Zion. ‘And that’s what the range war, the Bundy war, is all about right now — it’s really about protecting three things: our life, liberty, and our property.’” He still maintains this stance, even though the property in question does not belong to him, according to decades of court rulings.

In the end, the strength of Quammen’s book is also its shortcoming. There is a much broader history left to be written. Still, American Zion tells a valuable version of events through the lens of religion, and against the backdrop of the Mormon experience in the American West. Sally Denton

Sally Denton has written extensively about Mormonism and the West, including the book American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857.

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