Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer

Under the Banner of Heaven tells three interwoven true stories: the history of the Mormon faith, the current life of Mormon fundamentalists, and the 1984 murders of an innocent woman and her baby daughter at the hands of brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, two such fundamentalists. The implication is that the Lafferty murders were not an isolated incident, and indeed, the history and current practice of Mormonism are littered with acts of brutal violence.

Krakauer writes as if he takes the insane things that the killers and other Mormons believe at face value. It’s sort of an inside perspective, describing not what is objectively true, but what the major players believe to be true. This can be humourous when writing about, say, Dan thinking that his bowel movements are a sign from God. Krakauer doesn’t need to inject his own opinion into the descriptions; the stories are ridiculous enough in a straight telling.

That same matter-of-fact style can also be heartbreaking. Like when describing the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which Mormon militia slaughtered an entire wagon train of innocent travelers. Or when the timeline of the Lafferty murders is described in great detail, partly through Dan Lafferty’s own unrepentant words (Krakauer interviewed him directly in prison, where as far as I can tell, he still lives to this day). It’s hard to understand how any sane person could murder a baby.

Yet Krakauer argues that the Lafferties are not insane. The take-it-at-face-value writing underscores that, given what the brothers believed and their rationalizations for any setbacks, they acted rationally. At worst, he identifies Ron as having symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. The combination of the radical beliefs of Mormon fundamentalists, coupled with an extreme personality — the same sort of personality that has fueled the prophets behind all of Mormonism’s violent history — can be a dangerous mix.

This quote illustrates some of the workings of extreme religious minds:

“In one of Ron’s revelations, God had, in fact, instructed him to send his brother Mark to Nevada to wager on a horse to race to raise funds for the City of Refuge. With the Lord letting Mark know which mount to bet on, it seemed that they couldn’t lose. But they did. Afterward, Onias couldn’t resist telling the brothers ‘I told you so,’ causing relations between Ron and the prophet to deteriorate even further.”

With examples like these, on top of more serious ones, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could believe in prophets. In the history of mankind, no prophecy capable of coming true has ever come true. Ever. The bickering and splintering of the church over whose “divine” revelation is better further emphasizes that they are pure fantasy. Yet people do believe. There are over 13 million Mormons worldwide, their faith based on a prophet who, less than 200 years ago, claimed to have “translated” a book of golden plates an angel showed him in the woods, by putting a magical rock in a hat then stuffing his face in the hat. And these are the less delusional, non-fundamentalist ones.

What may disturb readers is that their own beliefs — especially other religious ones, but this applies to some atheists too — could be just as unfounded and dangerous if left unchecked. Krakauer briefly makes an explicit link with Christianity, but I think the lessons of this book are even broader. All beliefs should be questioned, as should all sources of authority – be it the voice of God, a charismatic prophet, or Richard Dawkins.

If I had to complain about one aspect of the book, it would be its overemphasis on polygamy. The polygamist relationships of both modern and historical Mormons are whipped out as if the mere mention of multiple partners should send shivers up the reader’s spine. I may write a follow-up post to this, but my opinion, in short, is that it’s not polygamy itself that is troubling. Rather, it is the irrational beliefs that are the cause of polygamy in Mormons, and the monumental abuse of women and girls that polygamy often (but not always) leads to, that should be eradicated.

Sarah lent me this book, thinking it’d be up my alley, and she was so right. It’s hard to say I “liked” it, since much of my reaction to it is jaw-dropped horror, but especially in the early chapters when both the historical background and the murder story are fresh, it is an astounding, mind-blowing read. Anyone with any interest in religious belief, true crime, or both, should pick up Under the Banner of Heaven immediately.

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