Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer, examines Mormonism in its most extreme forms, but also shows how the mainstream religion can be the underlying influence of those extremes. As a former member of the Mormon (LDS) faith, reading it was both emotional and eye opening. Although there were times I felt the book was harsh on the religion as I once knew it, I do agree with Krakauer’s inference that the church’s doctrines and history are at least partially responsible for the actions of those who live it in a more fundamental and extreme way.
It is an intense story of a 1984 double murder committed by fundamentalist Mormons (FLDS), told with an alarming narrative and concentrated focus. This is far more than just the retelling of a horrific murder. Krakauer delves into the mindset of the men, Dan and Ron Lafferty, when they killed Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter Erica (their sister-in-law and niece). One wonders how these religious men could be so emotionless and indifferent when talking of the event, and how they displayed a complete lack of remorse. Finding that out requires an open-minded journey through the world of Mormonism, its beginnings, its doctrine, and the history of its expansion into the West. Krakauer does this brilliantly in this non-fiction, yet highly literary account.
Fundamentalist Mormons differ from mainstream Latter-day Saints in many ways, but their practice of polygamy, notions of “blood atonement”, and the belief in the importance of personal revelation (their listening to that “still small voice” of God on an individual level), make them outlaws in the eyes of the Mormon establishment. Dan Lafferty’s desire to return to the ways of the original church doctrines led him to fundamentalism, which in turn led him to believe his brother Ron’s personal revelations. Those revelations included one that Brenda and Erica must die for the good of the Lord’s work. (The fact that Brenda had encouraged Ron’s wife to leave him most likely led to that “revelation.”) Krakauer goes deeply into the Mormon religious experience, its downfalls, violence, and historical fight against the growing power of the government. Throughout its history, the LDS church has had many doctrines (polygamy, black people not being able to “hold the priesthood”, etc), events (Mountain Meadows Massacre, etc), and behaviors (Joseph Smith’s fraudulent background, Brigham Young’s racist statements, etc) that they love to “ignore” and sweep under the rug, never to be discussed. Krakauer brings it to the forefront in a bold way. Current mainstream LDS members love to say that those things are in the past and not a part of today’s church. In some ways, that is true. But it’s also true that some current teachings and underlying factors contribute to the way some members may venture into extremism. This is similar to other religions, such as Islam, that also have members who are “cast out” due to their extreme behaviors and beliefs. I believe it was Krakauer’s intention to show how the mainstream religions are to blame for the foundations that lead to that extremism. He does a good job, in my opinion, at showing how simple ideas and thoughts that are fabricated, and based on fraudulent beginnings, can escalate into a despicable act of violence.
Krakauer also brings in the thoughts and experiences of another former FLDS member (who hasn’t killed anyone and has escaped the extremist group) to make the book more relatable. He expresses his pain and what it’s like to be removed from that group…to be an outcast when you were once “part of the fold”. That member is now an atheist, and in an especially moving moment in the book, he is looking down the mountain at the “city” where the FLDS currently practices, and he suggests that those people are probably “happier than he is right now”. It’s a sad statement, but one that I understand all too well. When you grow up in a religious group, and you believe with all your heart and soul that it’s true, you always yearn for that feeling. Even when your eyes have been opened, you still long for that notion that you had it right….that you were working towards an eternal reward…that you had a purpose and were part of something “bigger”…a family even. Although I feel more freedom now, and I know that I will never go back to religion, Mormonism has left its mark on me. Just as the character at the end of the book still misses parts of his former “church family”, I still haven’t quite found my new niche and it’s painful at times.
Krakauer manages to bring these emotions out, while at the same time taking the reader through the planning and completion of a horrific crime. The bottom line is that the fundamentals of religion…in this case Mormonism…led to the circumstances that allowed two men to rationalize abhorrent behavior. Just as extreme beliefs led to the tragic events of 9-11, too often the beginnings of tragedy can often be traced back to religion. Jon Krakauer manages to unmask this “Violent Faith” as it justifies everything “Under the Banner of Heaven”.
A must read for anyone who is now on the outside looking in.
Paula S. Jensen
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