Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
by Jon Krakauer
Reviewed by Doug Brown
On July 24, 1984, two fundamentalist Mormon brothers brutally murdered their sister-in-law and her baby girl, believing they were fulfilling a revelation that one of the brothers had received from God. Today they reside in federal prisons. The older brother, Ron (who had the revelation), is on death row and following every avenue for appeal. The younger brother, Dan, is serving a life sentence and seems okay with it (Krakauer says he refers to prison as a "monastery"). Krakauer spoke to Dan for the book, but not Ron. Under the Banner of Heaven tells in parallel the story of the Lafferty brothers and their descent into fundamentalism alongside the history of the Mormon Church.
The modern Mormon Church is quick to distance itself from fundamentalists; most are excommunicated from the Latter-Day Saint (LDS) community. The church downplays the history of plural marriage (polygamy) in Mormonism, to the point of maintaining that Brigham Young was monogamous (history says otherwise). Polygamy is a central point of contention with fundamentalists -- they feel the church went astray when it cooperated with U.S. law and renounced the practice in the late 1800s. A practice that is still a part of the church, though, is revelation. Mormons are encouraged to listen for messages from God, and much of the basis of Mormon dogma is a sequence of revelations that Joseph Smith and later church leaders have had. One doctrine of Mormonism that has terrible consequences is "blood atonement"; if acts are committed against Mormons, Brigham Young said this could sometimes only be rectified if the "sinners have their blood spilt upon the ground." Fundamentalists are naturally drawn to blood atonement, and this element of Mormonism became a focus for the Lafferty brothers.
A fundamental point of Ron's trial was whether he was insane. The defense argued he was; the prosecution argued no. As Krakauer details, if Ron Lafferty is insane, it could be argued that so are most religious people. He believed he was receiving revelations from God, but revelation is a tenet of Mormonism. Despite carrying out horrible crimes, he felt he was doing the right thing, and was thus divorced from reality. But so is everyone who goes to war with a cross or a star or a crescent around their neck. Ron did what he did because of his faith. Sure, the motive seems self-serving -- Brenda Lafferty (the victim) had convinced Ron's abused wife to leave him, so naturally Ron said that God wanted her "removed." But there was much discussion between the brothers and their circle about whether the "removal revelation" was legitimately from God; the final decision, for Ron and Dan anyway, was yes. This discussion is a particularly sore point for Brenda's family -- several people knew about the revelation months before it was carried out, and no one warned her. Krakauer maintains one of these people was Allen Lafferty, Brenda's husband. Ron had shown him the revelation and asked what he thought of it. Allen spoke against it, but never felt inclined to say, "Hey, honey, I had the creepiest talk with my brothers..."
Even before Under the Banner of Heaven was on the shelves, the LDS church preemptively attacked it. In a five-page screed that is reprinted in an appendix for the paperback, Krakauer is taken to task for focusing on the negative aspects of the church. It emphasizes that the Lafferty brothers weren't members of the LDS church, having been excommunicated. Krakauer responds to each of the charges. In a few cases, he acknowledges having gotten facts wrong in the initial release (which were subsequently corrected for the paperback edition). But, for the most part, he defends the points made in the book.
Events have happened in the history of Mormonism that the church would rather sweep under the rug, like the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre (detailed in the book). And while the Laffertys had been excommunicated from the LDS church, their beliefs were rooted in the church. They believed they were being better Mormons than the LDS church leaders. To me, that was an important take-away lesson of the book -- religious fundamentalists don't necessarily believe something completely different from the mainstream; they just interpret the same texts more inflexibly and believe in their interpretation more deeply. In the hands of fundamentalists, religious belief is by definition intolerant, and often used for brutal ends. Under the Banner of Heaven is a scary book about the dark fringe of extremist religion and believers who are willing to lethally impose their dogma.