Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer

“I was doing God’s will, which is not a crime.”

Since 9/11, Americans have talked a lot about fundamentalism and the dark side of religion, but that criticism is usually portrayed as solely an Islamic problem. John Krakauer wants to broaden their perspective by exploring the world of Mormon fundamentalism.

The above quote was said by Dan Lafferty who in 1984 entered the home of his younger brother Allen, who was at work, and brutally murdered Allen’s wife and 15-month-old daughter. His older brother, Ron, who assisted in the crime and is now on death row, had received a revelation from God mandating that Brenda and Erica Lafferty be ”removed” so that, as God put it, ”my work might go forward.” Allen’s wife Brenda, a spunky and happy young woman who harbored dreams of being a television news reporter was deeply unhappy with the brothers’ conversions to radical fundamentalism and fought with her husband to try to keep him from joining his brothers. She also counseled Ron’s wife to leave him as he became more physically and verbally abusive. In their words, she was a “bitch” and impeding their fundamentalist mission.

Though organized around the Lafferty brothers’ crime, ”Under the Banner of Heaven” recounts the always interesting history of Mormonism, starting with the day in 1823 when Joseph Smith met an angel named Moroni. Krakauer wants to show how the Lafferty murder is rooted in the Mormon past. He emphasizes, for example, the doctrine of ”blood atonement,” stressed by Smith but later dropped by the church. The history of Mormonism is steeped in violence, from the anti-Mormon violence that eventually killed Joseph Smith, to the murders of innocent travellers committed by Mormons dressed up as Indians.

But “Under the Banner of Heaven” is not an anti-Mormon diatribe, as anyone who has actually read it can attest. Krakauer is careful to point out the differences between fundamentalists and the LDS Church. The Mormon Church was founded, in part, on the idea that true believers could speak directly with God. But while the mainstream church attempted to be more palatable to the general public by rejecting the controversial tenet of polygamy, fundamentalist splinter groups saw this as apostasy and took to the hills to live what they believed to be a righteous life. When their beliefs are challenged or their patriarchal, cult-like order defied, these still-active groups, according to Krakauer, are capable of fighting back with tremendous violence. Most religions, and certainly the monotheistic ones, have odes to violence in their scriptural past (see The Old Testament). The question is what makes some people more inclined than others to latch onto these passages.

Parallels between the Lafferty brothers and Islamic terrorists aren’t obvious, and Krakauer doesn’t explore them very explicitly. Still, by setting Mormon fundamentalism in its historical and scriptural context, and by powerfully illuminating Dan Lafferty’s mind, Krakauer provides enough raw material for a seminar on post-9/11 questions. What drives people toward fundamentalism, and then toward violence? Where is the line between religious fanaticism and insanity? How heavy is the influence of religious history, in particular scripture, as opposed to the material conditions of modern life?

The human mind is great at justifying its goals, and it does so by whatever medium is handy. Dan Lafferty, asked to distinguish himself from Osama bin Laden, another man who killed allegedly on account of his religious beliefs, says, ”I believe I’m a good person.” Krakauer writes that ”as a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane . . . there may be no more potent force than religion.” But sheer instinctive self-righteousness may ultimately be a bigger part of the problem. It is a common denominator of crimes committed in the name of religion, nationalism, and racism.

And it isn’t the only element of the Lafferty story with this kind of versatility. Dan and Ron Lafferty saw their quest for security and stature frustrated and then found someone to blame — a description that, in one sense or another, applies to Mohamed Atta, or Timothy McVeigh. ”Under the Banner of Heaven” is an real bummer but worth the read.

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