Lafferty, Posse Comitatus and Mormon Remix Culture

Yesterday, Hulu released the first two episodes of Under the Banner of Heaven, an Andrew Garfield-led adaptation of Krakauer’s book by the same name.

And honestly, I don’t have anything to say about it. I haven’t had time to watch it and, in any event, I’m not a television critic. (If you want a set of insightful and sophisticated responses, Juvenile Instructor has you covered!)

But its renewed salience brings up something that I think Krakauer gets wrong about Mormonism. But the thing is, it’s also something most Mormons get wrong about Mormonism: there’s a sense that Mormonism exceptionalism. For critics of the church, that can mean that the bad things about Mormonism are unique to Mormon beliefs and culture. For members, it can mean that the good things are revelatory and unique to us, the result of direct revelation.

And honestly, neither describes Mormonism well. Mormonism (like, I suspect, most institutions) takes religious and cultural ideas and remixes them into something new, but something rooted in the world around us. And that’s not a bad thing! But we’re not as different as we think we are.

And how does this relate to Under the Banner of Heaven? Well, in Chapter 13, Krakauer writes about Dan Lafferty’s anti-government, anti-tax beliefs (which, surprise! is what piqued my interest). In 1982, “[a]fter seeking guidance through prayer and receiving confirmation that he was acting in accordance with the Lod’s wishes,” Krakauer writes, Lafferty

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.

Ultimately, he was pulled over. He locked his doors, rolled up his window most of the way, and refused to get out of the car. He was surprised when the police officer pulled the window off of its tracks. He sped away and was later arrested.

The Provo Daily Herald reported on Lafferty’s trial. He represented himself, he tried to challenge the court’s jurisdiction, he argued that his Constitutional rights had been violated, and he objected to an all-female jury, arguing that he had the right to have at least one man on his jury. (You can read the articles here and here.)

These are a very specific set of actions and arguments. And you know what? They didn’t spring from Lafferty’s head and they weren’t revealed to him. Yes, they’re cloaked in Mormon language and thought, but they should sound very familiar.

Because they’re basically Sovereign Citizen (and its predecessors) actions and arguments. What is the Sovereign Citizen movement? It’s basically a group of people who claim to not recognize the authority of government and renounce their obligation to follow laws.

And the traffic stop thing? In an article in Aggression and Violent Behavior, Christine M. Sarteschi describes what happens when people who have adopted the Sovereign Citizen ideology are pulled over:

Upon being stopped for a traffic infraction, sovereigns can become argumentative, combative and non-cooperative. They will often engage in conflict-oriented tactics such as demanding that officers prove jurisdiction, refusing to answer questions or insisting that they “do not consent” to the actions of law enforcement. Another common tactic is when asked to roll down their vehicle’s windows, they will only crack the window, claiming that the window is broken. This makes communication difficult or impossible.

That sounds almost identical to Lafferty’s experience being pulled over.

Now, Lafferty engaged in all of his anti-government actions in 1982; Treasury says it has been investigating illegal activities of members of the Sovereign Citizen movement since the 1990s, so this may have predated the Sovereign Citizen movement. But it was absolutely in line with at least a couple of the precursor organizations to the Sovereign Citizen movement.

Most notably, a lot of what he did lines up with the Posse Comitatus. The Posse Comitatus movement was founded in the Midwest in 1969. Its members

claimed the right to defend the U.S. Constitution, forming their own courts and arresting public officials who were acting unconstitutionally. Its members rejected all authority higher than the county sheriff, accepted only the first twelve Amendments as legally binding, and believed that an international Zionist conspiracy had taken control of the U.S. government. Many members belonged to Christian Identity, a radical Christian sect that preaches white supremacy, racial separation, and anti-Semitism. Members of the Posse argued that “the government is nothing but an expansion of the Christian church,” the Bible is the source of the Constitution, and God himself establishes law.[fn1]

Posse Comitatus members also tried to regain their sovereignty by returning or destroying drivers licenses and other documents from the government that “intrude[e] upon their God-given individual rights.”[fn2] This lines up pretty well with Lafferty returning his drivers and marriage licenses, as well as refusing to pay taxes and making (frankly frivolous) allegedly-constitutional arguments in court.

The Posse Comitatus movement was largely a movement of farmers and it reached its height in the 1980s, in the face of grain embargoes, land value falling, and interest rates rising, which started pushing farmers into bankruptcy. And, while Posse Comitatus predated the misinformation-spreading of the internet, it spread instead through seminars. (It basically died in 1983–the year after Lafferty’s actions–when a member killed two U.S. Marshals.)

Did Lafferty explicitly identify with Posse Comitatus or (if it existed at the time) the Sovereign Citizen movement? I have no idea. Krakauer seems to have been entirely unaware of the context of anti-government groups and sentiment in the 1980s; he takes Lafferty at his word that it was inspiration or revelation.

And certainly there are Mormon trappings to Lafferty’s movements. You could draw a line from Benson’s embrace of the John Birch Society (another Mormon remix of the broader culture, fwiw) to the Utah anti-tax movement in 1970s (another adoption of a broader trend at the time) to Lafferty (and honestly, probably through Lafferty to Bo Gritz and to the Bundy clan). And Lafferty mixed his embrace of Posse Comitatus ideas with the Book of Mormon and polygamy and personal revelation.

But in the end, his actions echoed the actions of dozens or hundreds or even thousands of other people who adopted similar conspiracist ideology and took similar actions, not because of the Book of Mormon or because of personal revelation, but for a myriad of personal reasons.

[fn1] Francis X. Sullivan, The “Usurping Octopus of Jurisdictional/authority”: The Legal Theories of the Sovereign Citizen Movement, 1999 Wis. L. Rev. 785, 787 (1999).

[fn2] Charles E. Loeser, From Paper Terrorists to Cop Killers: The Sovereign Citizen Threat, 93 N.C. L. Rev. 1106, 1112 (2015).

Photo by Krys Amon on Unsplash


  1. I don’t think you’re disagreeing that some people do reach sovereign citizen sorts of positions by way of the Book of Mormon and personal revelation. Just that when they get there they are not alone but find plenty of others who got there by other routes.

    Also, a reminder that in the federal income tax world the sovereign citizen argument is frivolous and subject to a penalty which itself has been found constitutional. Don’t go there.

  2. Chris, he may well have come to anti-government positions through the Book of Mormon or other purely-Mormon sources (though those other sources are mostly descendants of other cultural movements). In fact, in the book, he says he started to adopt his anti-government ideology during his chiropractor schooling, when California shut down his selling food to other students.

    What I am saying is that his manifestation of those ideas comes straight out of the Posse Comitatus/Sovereign Citizen movements. So irrespective of the derivation of his ideas, he implemented them by remixing the broader culture with his Mormonism. And I’d love to know whether he went to a Posse Comitatus seminar or one of his classmates bought into it and talked to him or his farmer uncle (n.b.: I have no idea whether he had a farmer uncle) had joined the movement. But Krakauer didn’t spend enough time looking at the historical context to ask those questions; he treated Mormonism as a separate silo, unrelated to the rest of the world (in a way that we, as Mormons, often do too).

    And to your second point, 100% agree. I tend not to give tax advice here. But if anybody’s tempted to argue that the federal income tax is unconstitutional or otherwise not good law, just don’t. Not only is that stupid (and it is!), but it will subject you to increasing fines at every level you make the argument.

  3. OMG, at BYU in ~2003 my roommate wanted me to have some big political debate with a libertarian friend of hers, but he came out of the gate saying that drivers’ licenses were a usurpation of God’s authority and I decided he was too stupid to debate. I did not realize until today that it was part of this larger anti-government ideology.

  4. Interesting, Mily, thanks.

  5. I watched episode 4 last night and so many of these ideas came up in that episode- including Dan getting pulled over and it going down as described here.

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