Under the Banner of Heaven

Under the Banner of Heaven (a Story of Violent Faith) by Jon Krakauer (Doubleday 2003)

Readers may remember Jon Krakauer as the author of the compelling (and equally controversial) account of a fatal Everest expedition, Into Thin Air. His latest work, aided by a cast of about two hundred and seventy informants and contributors (the credits of some books nowadays resemble those of movies), is an exposé of how religious devotion can assume the shape of monstrous cruelty. It is the story of how followers of fundamentalist offshoots of Mormonism resuscitated the banned practice of polygamy, and exploited the dangerous principle of individual divine revelation to commit murder. It has not surprisingly upset the Mormon Church, which Krakauer presents as having an overall stabilizing effect on modern-day Utah society, but which also has a reputation for being secretive about its history.

The author skillfully weaves two threads together. The first focuses on Dan Lafferty, one of six Mormon brothers from Salem, Utah, who is persuaded by his reading of old texts to take up fundamentalist practices such as polygamy, and to believe in the philosophy of ritual atonement. Most of his brothers become of like mind, and Dan convinces his oldest sibling, Ron, to join him in a violent spree in which they murder their joint sister-in-law (and her infant daughter) because she challenged their beliefs, and encouraged Ron’s wife to leave him.

In the second strand Krakauer narrates the history of the Latter-Day Saints (as they prefer to be called), from Joseph’s Smith’s original revelation of 1823 and his founding of the Church, and his taste for nubile young women (he married forty of them, and dallied with multiple others) that led to his revelation that polygamy was ordained by God.  Krakauer describes the Church’s oppression in Illinois, the subsequent flight westward to Utah, and sheds new light on the massacre of non-Mormon trekkers at Mountain Meadows in 1857. He explains how the Woodruff Manifesto of 1890, which rejected polygamy, a commitment required for Utah to join the Union, was resented, and much ignored, but lay largely underground until a boastful practitioner spoke up on TV talk-shows in the late 1990s.

Krakauer is overall dispassionate. He lays out the facts without much commentary, occasionally inserting a provocative aside: “The veracity of the Book of Mormon is no more dubious than the veracity of the Bible, say, or the Qur’an”, sometimes a flaky bit of waffle: “The line separating religion from superstition can be indistinct”, and occasionally an evasive thrust: “Many people [not Krakauer?] would also argue that virtually everyone who has introduced a new framework of religious beliefs to the world – from Jesus to Muhammad to Joseph Smith to Ron Lafferty – fits the diagnosis for narcissistic personality disorder.” But the tale is a gripping one, painstakingly researched, with judicious use of source material. It concludes with the court-room drama of Ron Lafferty’s 2002 last-ditch attempt to set back his 1996 sentence of execution. Prosecutors suggest that Ron, who claimed God ordered him to murder, cannot be insane, as such a ruling would categorize millions of other religious zealots as insane. The court rejects his appeal, and he is due to die later this year.

The story ends with Krakauer’s “Author’s Remarks”, including a declaration of his own agnosticism, but he leaves us with a dewy-eyed mawkishness, hinting that fundamental Mormonism is just one of ten thousand religious sects that might comfort skeptics like himself. However, this is not a tale about kooky backwoodsmen straying from the path of righteousness: it is a story about institutionalized violence, rape of minors, incest, and bigotry, justified in the name of divine guidance, enforced through threats of eternal damnation, connived at by sympathetic law-enforcers, and offensive to both the U.S. constitution and to any rational judgment. That is the inevitable conclusion from reading Krakauer’s riveting book, but he shies away from any incisive perspective of his own. In an era of The Passion of the Christ, The Da Vinci Code and the La Haye/Jenkins Rapture books, such detachment and self-absorption disappoint.

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