Friday, February 11, 2011

Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer

When a group of fundamentalist Mormons murdered a young woman and her toddler in 1984, claiming to have received the instruction to do so in a revelation from God, Krakauer decided to investigate, and this book is the result.

While he cannot escape discussion of the mainstream Mormon religion, his focus is on the fundamentalist fringe, and not surprisingly, they begin to sound like fundamentalists of every other religion: in Colorado City under Rulon Jeffs [leader of one fundamentalist sect] bears more than a passing resemblance to life in Kabul under the Taliban. Uncle Rulon's voice carries the weight of law... His sermons frequently stress the need for total submission. 'I want to tell you that the greatest freedom you can enjoy is in obedience,' he has preached. 'Perfect obedience produces perfect faith.'

What happens when a man claims to speak with the voice of God as it has come to him?  In other words, when he has declared himself a prophet?  Direct prophecy has been a key component of Mormonism from the start, beginning with the founder, Joseph Smith.  He quickly ran into trouble, however, when his followers started receiving prophecies that conflicted with his own.  He acted quickly, saying

that God had belatedly given him another revelation: 'No one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jr.'  But the genie was already out of the bottle. The simple fact was, God's words were always going to carry more weight than Joseph's, and there wasn't much the prophet could do about it. This goes a long way toward explaining why, since 1830, some 200 schismatic Mormon sects have splintered off...

The God of Mormon revelations is very detail-oriented, naming names (as above) and concerning Himself with minute details, as whether or not the Lafferty brothers should kill their sister-in-law and her baby with a gun or a knife.  (He specified the knife.)  Krakauer generally handles the religion respectfully, but a non-Mormon reader is likely to go through much of this book with eyebrows raised, even suppressing the occasional chuckle.  God actually gave the Ron Lafferty a specific hit-list of four names.  After the men had killed the woman and child, they proceeded toward the home of the President of the mainstream LDS church for their next assignment.  The driver, however, missed the turn.  When Ron Lafferty pointed this out to him, he wearily replied, "If the Lord wanted you to kill someone else today, you'd already be there."  (God hadn't yet invented the GPS.)

Krakauer spends a fair amount of time discussing polygamy, a key tenet in the fundamentalist Mormon belief system, and one which critics claim is nothing more than religiously sanctioned pedophilia and adultery.  The nearly incessant strife between the US Government and the Mormons also gets a few chapters.  The Mormons have historically held themselves above and outside secular laws, answering only to God's law as their leaders deliver it.  Interestingly, because polygamy is illegal, only the first wife's union is recognized.  Krakauer points out that, being single mothers in the eye of the courts, women in Mormon 'plural marriages' are eligible for financial assistance.  The fundamentalist community of Rulon Jeffs alone -- one sect of many -- received more than $6 million a year in public funds.  Although they refuse to abide by  the laws or to pay taxes, they have no qualms about collecting welfare checks.

For me, the most thought-provoking section of the book focused on the testimony of several psychiatrists during the Lafferty brothers' trials.  Were they insane?  They claimed to have received direct instruction from God to kill, yet they showed no other signs of psychosis.  There is the risk of setting a precedent that believing in something irrational (as most religions are) is insane, but one psychiatrist insisted, "A false belief isn't necessarily a basis of mental illness."  Speaking of Ron Lafferty, the doctor continued, "He says, 'It just gives me a sense of peace, and I know it's true,' and it becomes a part of his own unique article of faith.  This is not a product of a schizophrenic, broken brain."  In other words, a zealot is not necessarily mentally ill.  From the testimony:

"This is a man who enjoys a good joke." Gardner [psychiatrist] recalled that Ron laughed a lot, and "laughter is always something that is a shared experience... One thing I can tell you in working with hundreds of schizophrenics over my lifetime, is schizophrenics don't have shared humor with people around them. Most of the time they are quite humorless. Once in a while, they'll have their own idiosyncratic humor, laughing with themselves at things that have nothing to do with their environment... the difference is this:  These people [the defendants] shared the same reality, doing the same thing; praying together, reading together, talking together, weighing whether these really came from God or not, whether they were genuine. You do not find schizophrenics sitting in a group together talking about shared experiences."

When compared to the Islamic fundamentalists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, Dan Lafferty said this:

"I have to admit, the terrorists were following their prophet...  They were willing to do essentially what I did. I see the parallel. But the difference between those guys and me is, they were following a false prophet, and I'm not."

This absolute certitude of righteousness is more terrifying to me than the delusions of a schizophrenic killer.   A man who had left one of the fundamentalist Mormon sects because he could no longer accept the requirement of blind, unthinking obedience pointed out how comforting it is to take refuge in such an all-encompassing religion:

"It provides all the answers. It makes life simple. Nothing makes you feel better than doing what the prophet commands you to do... all the responsibility for your actions is now totally in his hands... And that's a real big part of what holds this religion together:  it's not having to make those critical decisions that many of us have to make, and be responsible for your decisions."
The secular courts, however, did hold the Lafferty brothers responsible for their actions, sentencing Ron to death, Dan to life imprisonment.  Both are stolidly unrepentant, insisting that they acted upon the Instructions of the Lord.


  1. I prefer "Mormonology" to "Mormonism". Sounds cooler, don't you think?

  2. Daniel, I think you may be the first person ever to use the words "Mormon" and "cool" in the same sentence.

    (To all Mormons: no offense intended, but you must admit, your religion does not radiate an ultra-cool image, right?)


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