Uncivil Religion: January 6, 2021

Captain Moroni and Modern Mormonism’s Political Imagination

Those who took part in the insurrection of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, wore a wide array of outfits. Many donned hoodies and jeans as if they were out for a leisurely stroll, while others dressed in fatigues and camouflage as if preparing for battle. 

One participant, however, stood out more than any other: Nathan Wayne Entrekin, dressed up as Captain Moroni, a central figure from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint’s Book of Mormon.

In a frenzied interview with a reporter at the scene, Entrekin described Moroni as a “freedom fighter” from ancient times. He then regaled the reporter and astonished bystanders alike with a hurried explanation of the sacred text: that Native Americans were descendants of Israel, and that pre-Christ Christians lived in the Americas and made the land a sacred place for republican principles. He clarified that the flag he was waving mimicked a flag that Moroni himself had carried when confronting the evil “King Men” during the First Century BCE: “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children.” 

Entrekin was correct about Moroni’s banner. However, like many others who use scriptural figures to promote political causes, his proof-texting of the Nephite figure reflected more contemporary than ancient interests. The scriptural Moroni defended the religious liberty and individual rights of his family and community; the Trumpian Moroni sought to overturn an election and restore a defeated president to his throne.

In a day filled with tragedy and shock, Entrekin’s outfit seemed to add some levity. (It also added confusion—one report described him as wearing a “roman gladiator costume.”) But the moment also captured several trajectories within modern Mormonism’s political imagination. First, it demonstrated how the Book of Mormon has increasingly been seen as a political tool from which Latter-day Saints draw when shaping partisan views. And second, Entrekin’s participation in the insurrection exhibits how those views are increasingly framed through a particular conservative, and often libertarian, lens.

While the Latter-day Saint Church’s founding correlated with the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830—forever linking the denomination with its “Mormon” nickname—the role of the scriptural text has evolved over the subsequent years. Many members of the Church read and cited the book within the community, but most public declarations and sermons relied on the Bible—a text Mormons shared with other Christians. Moreover, the Book of Mormon was often understood as a text that transcended partisan contexts and was instead solely attached to divine truths. The text was useful for spiritual, not political, ideals.

Attitudes towards the text started to change in the 1980s. Ezra Taft Benson, a longtime apostle who became the church’s leader in 1985, spent much of his presidency pressing for the preeminence of the book. He urged members to read it every year. He planned for missionaries to “flood the earth” with free copies. The Book of Mormon was “of greater worth to mankind than the development of flight or space travel,” he proclaimed.

On the surface, it was odd timing for Benson to make such a push. Highlighting the faith’s unique scripture threatened to heighten tensions with America’s Evangelicals who were already skeptical of Mormonism’s place within mainstream Christianity, especially in a decade that saw an increase in anti-cult rhetoric. Yet Benson tried to avoid these frictions by emphasizing how the Book of Mormon actually strengthened the faith’s connection to Evangelicals in both theological and political ways. Theologically, Benson emphasized the book’s focus on Christ, and even added “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” as the Book of Mormon’s subtitle. And politically, Benson read the book through a libertarian lens that had been developed over decades of partisanship.

Before Benson was the president of a global faith, he was one of the central figures of a national political movement. He had served as Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of Agriculture and one of the nation’s most outspoken opponents of the supposed socialist threat. His dalliances with the John Birch Society and propagation of numerous anti-communist conspiracies eventually drove a wedge between him and the Republican Party and earned him censure from LDS leaders. But he succeeded in guiding many American Latter-day Saints away from their previous attachments to the Democratic Party and toward a new conservative coalition. Perhaps more than nearly anyone else, Benson had made modern Mormonism, at least in America, the Republican stronghold it is today.

So when Benson presented the Book of Mormon as a renewed “keystone” of the LDS faith in the 1980s, he did so in a way that reaffirmed this ideological drift. The scripture spoke of “secret combinations” that he likened to the corrupt global powers that supposedly shaped the world, thereby using the text to fuel political conspiracies. He characterized the Nephite and Lamanite civilizations found within the book as fleeing the evils of hierarchical control and instead embracing republicanism. And most importantly, he presented the text as reaffirming a form of religious nationalism where America is a chosen land meant to be ruled by godly figures, divine truths, and libertarian values.

This cultural overlap between the LDS Church and the GOP has become so strident that Mormons overwhelmingly supported Trump in both 2016 and 2020 and many have continued to support him after his electoral loss. Indeed, one poll found that forty-six percent of Latter-day Saints believe Trump’s lie that the election was stolen from him, a figure that outpaced all other religious groups except White Evangelicals.

It is not a surprise, then, that when Entriken participated in the insurrection to overturn what he imagined was a corrupt government, he believed he was fulfilling his religious duties. Nor is it surprising that he pulled a character from the Book of Mormon to capture his message. Captain Moroni, he told one reporter, was “the William Wallace of the Book of Mormon.” This fusion of religious and political ideals was one he had likely heard since he was a child, one that had become deeply embedded in America’s most successful homegrown religion. The Captain Moroni costume fulfilled a trajectory that dated back several decades and embodied where the modern Mormon political imagination had arrived in 2021.

Benjamin E Park teaches American religious history at Sam Houston State University. He is the co-editor of Mormon Studies Review, editor of A Companion to American Religious History (Wiley-Blackwell), and author of Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier (Liveright). He is currently working on a general history of Mormonism in America.

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