Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer

Reading Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven brought up some memories for me that I hadn’t thought about for a long time. The memory that stuck out the most clearly was my indignant struggle in Sunday school and confirmation classes over the attempted sacrifice of Isaac. Although I attribute a lot of my loss of Christian faith to Good Omens and Lamb because they articulated so many of these things I was having a hard time accepting, the root might be when my pastor tried to portrait a god that wanted a faithful person to murder their own child only to be told that it was a test as a good thing. I just couldn’t understand wanting to follow a god that would do something like that. I felt the same angry astonishment as Krakauer took me into the bloody history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and how it led directly to the murder of Brenda and Erica Lafferty by Brenda’s brothers-in-law.

I’ve lived in Utah for eleven years now, but I’ve lived in LDS-majority places since I started junior high, many, many moons ago. When I moved to Pocatello, Idaho from very liberal Washington, I experienced a steep learning curve about the LDS church. I had no idea what the other students were talking about when they talked about wards, stakes, testimonies, and the rest. Lutherans are very low-key about their faith. We weren’t raised to not talk about our religion; it’s just that church and religion were things that happened on Sundays. For faithful LDS, church is embedded into everyday life. It was incredibly foreign to me. I’m still learning about the people I’ve found myself living among in Utah. That’s why I grabbed Under the Banner of Heaven. I want to know more, but from a source that won’t proselytize to me or hide the less savory parts of the religion’s history.

In Under the Banner of Heaven, Krakauer takes us back and forth in history, from the early decades of the LDS Church to 1984, when two men following a splinter of a splinter of the fundamentalist version of Joseph Smith’s faith thought that god told them to kill a woman and her fifteen-month-old daughter. The path is a crooked one; I could have used a genealogy chart to keep track of everything, but I understand that it wouldn’t be possible to make one that would fit in a standard hardcover. (It helped a lot to have listened to Last Podcast on the Left’s multi-part series on Mormonism beforehand.) Throughout, Krakauer highlights a central tension in the LDS religion: direct revelation from god. As Krakauer says a few times, there will always come a point when members of the faithful will have a revelation that contradicts the prophet. When that has happened, historically, a new splinter group would form. Because Mormons have sought out remote areas to practice their faith without a lot of official scrutiny, communities like the ones at Colorado City-Hildale, Bountiful (in Canada), and Los Molinos (in Mexico) have sprung up as retreats for people who have split off from mainstream Mormonism to practice polygamy and where self-styled prophets can rule without question. These retreats became places where Dan and Ron Lafferty, who murdered their sister-in-law and niece in 1984, learned about divine revelation and the doctrine of blood atonement.

Towards the end, Krakauer gets into the legal debate that threatened to stymie Ron Lafferty’s prosecution. At what point does religious faith become mental illness? The insanity defense has a long tradition in British and American law, whereby people who do terrible things can be found not guilty because they didn’t understand that what they did was wrong. Ron and Dan Lafferty, however, believed that what they were doing was right because of a series of revelations Ron had before he and his brother killed Brenda and Erica. Krakauer quotes several of the psychologists who were called in by the prosecution to argue that the Lafferty brothers were not insane. I found their arguments very compelling. The Laffertys are not insane; they do not have schizophrenia. What outsiders might see as bizarre, convoluted delusions are just the product of how the Laffertys were raised and what they taught themselves over the years in the hinterlands of Mormonism. If they can be diagnosed with anything its narcissism.

Even though I’ve fallen away from Christianity and consider myself an atheist now, there is still one tenet that has stuck with me. I refuse to accept anyone else as an authority over my moral behavior and the state of my soul. So, not only was the vocabulary unusual to me, the dedication that I saw with Mormons in Idaho and Utah and the extreme zealotry I saw in Under the Banner of Heaven hit me right in that little knot of Lutheran resistance in me and struck sparks. When I looked at the Lafferty brothers and the other advocates of polygamy and obedience to a prophet, all I see is an offensive sense of entitlement over others. But I also saw how unshakeable fundamentalist Mormons are in their beliefs. Logic has no effect. Appeals to empathy have no effect. Not only are these zealots right, but they see the rest of the world as doomed and evil.

In Under the Banner of Heaven, Krakauer simply tells us the story of the Laffertys and the LDS church(es, mainstream and fundamentalist) and offers no solutions. This book is not about anything other than trying to explain how faith, which can do amazing things, can be twisted by people who use it to manipulate, defraud, and even murder innocents who threaten their dominion. This book is a remarkable work of journalism and scholarship, the product of three years of research and a year of writing. It is one of the most impactful things I’ve read in a long time.

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