Another story of violent faith.
Under the Banner of Heaven is far more than a story. True, it has the structure and pacing of a murder mystery It draws you in from the first page and won't let yon rest until you've finished the last. But along the way, Jon Krakauer manages to provide a thumbnail sketch of Mormon history, a description of LDS (Latter-day Saints) Church structure and methods, a case study of the psychology and theology of fundamentalism, an expose of Mormon polygamy, and an eloquent essay on the destructive potential of religious faith.
Krakauer's narrative is woven around the case of Ron and Dan Lafferty, who murdered their youngest brother's wife and daughter on July 24, 1984. (1) This act was in partial fulfillment of a revelation and divine command. We learn, however, that this was not the rash behavior of the criminally insane, but rather the conscious and calculated result of intense religious faith under worldly pressure. As Krakauer zooms back from the scene of the crime, the psychological, circumstantial, historical, and doctrinal bases for the Lafferty brothers' "violent faith" come into clear view. By alternately weaving these strands into an "intricate architecture," as Krakauer has described it, (2) the reader sees bow the brothers' acts were grounded in a rich, prescriptive history of beliefs and behavior extending deep into the doctrinal reels of the religion.
The central strand in Under the Banner of Heaven concerns Mormon fundamentalism, which grows directly out of the original doctrines of the church as revealed by God to the prophet, Joseph Smith. The six Lafferty brothers (and two sisters) were raised in a strict and devout, but mainstream, LDS family. Dan's curiosity, however, led him farther and deeper into church history and doctrine. His research led him to conclude that the mainstream church's rejection of Joseph Smith's revelations concerning polygamy, (3) a divinely ordained practice, was wrong. He was by no means alone; Krakauer details the persistence and extent of Mormon polygamy in fundamentalist communes and communities dotting the North American West and Mexico.
As Dan Lafferty stated in conversation with Krakauer, the contradictions and fraudulence of the LDS Church "inevitably [lead] you back to the religion as it originally existed, before it was corrupted" (p. 313). The other Lafferty brothers came under the sway of Dan's "quest to find the truth" (p. 138), but none more than Ron, the eldest. Perhaps compounded by a faltering career, Ron took this quest far beyond the modified dictates of the mainstream LDS Church, and even beyond that of established fundamentalist Mormon sects. His increasing rejection of secular society and law, imposition of ascetic strictures on his family; and insistence on plural marriage ultimately lad his wife to take their children and leave him. Ron placed primary blame for her decision on his youngest brother's vocal wife, Brenda, and two of his wife's extra-familial confidants. These three adults, together with his 15-month-old niece ("a child of perdition"), were ordained by Ron's divine revelation to be "removed." So fervent was his revelatory belief that his brother Dan became persuaded that the murder of their sister-in-law and niece was, indeed, "the will of God" (as well as the two persons outside the family, whose lives were ultimately spared by mere happenstance). Interestingly, by his own admission, it was Dan who wielded the killing blade, not Ron; to this day, Dan calmly contends from his prison cell that he "was doing God's will, which is not a crime" (p. xx).
By alternating chapters between the Lafferty story and accounts of the many aspects of LDS Church history that provide the context for the brothers' ideas and actions, Krakauer shows, without being the least bit didactic, how church beliefs and behavior gave rise to those of the brothers Lafferty. We see how the brothers found in LDS history and doctrine everything needed to receive and act on a "removal revelation," including the foundational revelations of Joseph Smith, a tradition of saints' direct conversation with God, a prophesied tenting of "one mighty and strong," and historical precedents that sanction vengeance, violence, and righteous execution.
In another strand of the narrative, Krakauer provides a glimpse of the dark side of polygamy among Mormon fundamentalists, even as it is practiced today. We learn of charismatic patriarchs, schisms and splinter-groups, the betrothal of under-aged girls to over-aged men, spousal envy incest, rape, physical abuse, violent conflict, and murder. All of this is Made possible by the forces of unquestioning faith, powerful personalities, and blind cultural transmission from generation to generation.
In yet another strand that lays out LDS organizational history, Krakauer provides sufficient detail about the institutional structure cud methods of mainstream Mormonism to remind at least this reader of its parallels with the classic Roman Church: patriarchy, centralized power within a pyramidal authority structure, the demand for unquestioning obedience, tight control of information flow, suppression and/or excommunication of critics and apostates, claims to be the one and only true church on Earth, aggressive proselytizing, political power, great wealth, a violent history, and much more.
It is hardly surprising that the mainstream LDS Church quickly expressed disapproval of Under the Banner of Heaven and Krakauer's critical treatment of Mormon history, doctrine, and fundamentalism. (4) Apart from the attempt to discredit Krakauer's work on the basis of selected factual disputes, the church's reactions remind us how religions seek to manage their images for mass consumption by accentuating the positive, and distancing themselves from the negative effects of their doctrines and histories. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is by no means alone in this. But as Krakauer has said elsewhere, "to suggest that there is no dark side to religion seems a strange form of denial.... It seems disingenuous to argue that religion has nothing to do with such things. If you're going to take credit for saints, then you have to take responsibility for those like Dan Lafferty." (5)
The rich narrative fabric of Under the Banner of Heaven is embroidered with one more strand--the lessons that Krakauer himself draws from this complex story, among them, that:
There is a dark side to religious devotion that is too often ignored or denied. [p. xxi] All religious belief is a function of non-rational faith. And faith, by its very definition, tends to be impervious to intellectual argument or academic criticism. [p. 68] Faith is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness a crucial component of spiritual devotion. And when religious fanaticism supplants ratiocination, all bets are suddenly off. Anything can happen. Absolutely anything. [p. xxiii]
It might be asked whether Krakauer offers any antidotes to the "dark side of religion." He has said publicly: "I don't know what the answer is, but it seems that recognizing the problem, and your responsibility for it, is a first step." (6) In Under the Banner of Heaven, he allows DeLoy Bateman, a former fundamentalist, now an atheist, to deliver stronger medicine:
It's amazing how gullible people are. ... But you have to remember what a huge comfort the religion is. It provides all the answers. It makes life simple. Nothing makes you feel better than doing what the prophet commands you to do.... But some things in life are more important than being happy. Like being free to think for yourself. [p. 331]
Krakauer himself admits in his closing remarks that he personally has
... come to terms with the fact that uncertainty is an inescapable corollary or life. An abundance of mystery is simply part of the bargain--which doesn't strike me as something to lament. Accepting the essential inscrutability of existence, in any ease, is surely preferable to its opposite: capitulating to the tyranny of intransigent belief. [p. 339]
Under the Banner of Heaven deserves a large and diverse audience. While it will no doubt disturb many, one can hope that it will penetrate some readers' defensive rationalizations and get them thinking. It is important for all of us to do what we can to move the species from its penchant for blind surrender and uncritical belief, religious or otherwise, in an effort to minimize the destructive consequences of this tendency. Jon Krakauer has already done more than his share in this endeavor with Under the Banner of Heaven.
(1.) He also touches on the more recent case of abduction of Elizabeth Smart by Brian David Mitchell in 2002, which, he indicates, grew from the same seed of Mormon fundamentalism as that of the Lafferty case.
(2.) In a presentation at the First Congregational Church, Portland, Oregon, July 29, 2003.
(3.) In 1890, while under U.S. Congressional, popular, and military pressure.
(4.) "Church response to Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven," Meridian Magazine, The Place Where Latter-day Saints Gather (www.ldsmag.com), August 5, 2003.
(5.) See Note 2.
Frank L. Pasquale, Ph.D., is a cultural anthropologist doing research and writing on religion, humanism, church-state separation, morality, and ethics.