Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith,
by Jon Krakauer
(New York: Doubleday, 2003)Summary:
"Jon Krakauer's literary reputation rests on insightful chronicles of lives conducted at the outer limits. In Under the Banner of Heaven, he shifts his focus from extremes of physical adventure to extremes of religious belief within our own borders. At the core of his book is an appalling double murder committed by a pair of Mormon Fundamentalist brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who insist they received a revelation from God commanding them to kill their blameless victims. Beginning with a meticulously researched account of this crime, Krakauer constructs a multilayered, bone-chilling narrative of messianic delusion, savage violence, and unyielding faith. In the process, he uncovers a shadowy offshoot of America's fastest-growing religion, analyzes the abduction of fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart (and her forced 'marriage' to her polygamous kidnapper), and raises provocative questions about the nature of religious belief.
"Krakauer takes readers inside isolated communities in the American West, Canada, and Mexico, where some forty thousand Mormon Fundamentalists believe that the mainstream Mormon Church went unforgivably astray when it renounced polygamy. Defying both civil authorities and the Mormon establishment in Salt Lake City, the leaders of these outlaw sects are zealots who answer only to God. Marrying prodigiously and with virtual impunity (the leader of the largest fundamentalist church took seventy-five 'plural wives,' several of whom were wed to him when they were fourteen or fifteen and he was in his eighties), fundamendalist prophets exercise absolute control over the lives of their followers and preach that any day now this world will be swept clean in a hurricane of fire, sparing only their most obedient adherents.
"Weaving the story of the Lafferty brothers and their fantastical brethren with a clear-eyed look at Mormonism's violent past, Krakauer examines the underbelly of the United States' most successful homegrown faith and finds a distinctly American brand of religious extremism. The result is vintage Krakauer, an utterly compelling work of nonfiction that illuminates an otherwise confounding realm of human behavior."
"Almost everyone in Utah County has heard of the Lafferty boys."
I'll give Krakauer credit, and assume that much of what he describes was more shocking when he first published his book 9 years ago, before so many similar news and fiction accounts have been aired. That said, it's a good book and I still like his work, but would have liked him to have focused more on contemporary Mormon Fundamentalism and less on the history of Mormonism. I know his point is that the faith's violent past somehow leads to the fundamentalist horrors that bubble up now and again, but he doesn't sufficiently convince the reader how Mormonism is different in this regard from, oh, Judaism or Christianity -- both of which have plenty of violence in their own histories. Is it just because Mormonism is more hierarchical and values absolute obedience more highly? Or is there something else? A decent read, but again, the history seemed a bit too Wild West for my liking without a clear explanation of how it got us (or Mormon Fundamentalists, anyway) where we (they) are now.