It is tempting to tackle a review of Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven as an examination of Fundamentalist Mormonism, it’s almost necessary outgrowth from the Latter Day Saints movement of Joseph Smith at large, and how a church with a violent history created the circumstances for a violent man. However, that review merely leaves the book as a piece of sensationalistic screed, and that sells Krakauer short. Instead, Under the Banner of Heaven is a measured account of the story of a religion that is, in a sense, one of the United States’ real triumphs. Now, measured does not mean sentimental, nor flattering at times – but the research is there, and it is clear Krakauer struggled with the topic. Moreover, the book really illustrates how fundamentalism itself, in any form, can lead to horrifying results … that it occured in the LDS merely makes it like any other religion.
The book starts with the initial fact of the murder. The case of course is well known, and Krakauer does not use that for suspense. However, the murder allows Krakauer to delve into the insights of Dan Lafferty, serving life in prison as one of the killers (perhaps THE killer depending on whose version of events is most accurate). The simplest insight comes first:
He [Lafferty] still insists that he is innocent of any crime, but, paradoxically, does not deny that he killed Brenda and Erica. When asked to explain how both these apparently contradictory statements can be true, he says, “I was doing God’s will, which is not a crime.” (page xx)
And his faith is real. His voice in the book is that of calm. In fact, from Krakaeur’s depiction, Dan Lafferty is probably the best expert testimony on what happened during the murder itself and the Lafferty mindset in general. The detachment he speaks with is frightening – the absolute conviction that he did the right thing, the lack of fear or acknowledgment that the murder was in any way “tragic”. He was merely a true believer doing his duty.
But how did Lafferty get here? Krakaeur uses this detachment as a springboard to delve into the spread of fundamentalist Mormon onclaves in Colorado City, Arizona and Bountiful, British Columbia, and the fundamental (sorry) schism in the church’s history over plural marriage. All of this exposition is absolutely necessary. As one expects, these societies seem extremely patriarchal, and the notion of choice for potential wives is essentially absent. However, there is not a ton (although there is some) insight from women who support the practices – which would have been enlightening. However, for readers who are familiar with cults and other varieties of fundamentalism, these communities have plenty of the familiar symptoms.
If this were all Krakauer did though, it would explain the murder, but not explain the underlying belief. How did the fundamentalists get here, and why the defiance over a simple tenet, albeit one that defines a notion of family? For that, Krakaeur goes into the history of the Church of Latter Day Saints and Joseph Smith. The history of the church, as Krakaeur notes is unique in that it took place “a mere 173 years ago, in a literate society, in the age of the printing press” (336). It is an American story, and Joseph Smith’s ability to get the Church going in the face of a lot of opposition, is a remarkable accomplishment. The LDS’ movement from upstate New York to Missouri to Illinois and finally to Utah is an Exodus for our time – disregarding the details of the sources of perception of persecution – and like other persecuted peoples, Krakaeur implies that the resulting defiance is sort of a manifestation. The fundamentalists seem to be continuing the struggles of Smith and Young, at least in their own minds.
The book finishes with a look at Ron’s re-trial, where the defense tried to use his beliefs as grounds for insanity – however the case argued by the district attorney and the eventual ruling place the notion of belief in a focus of unusual clarity. The conclusions are well known, but in a sense the jury and Krakaeur reached the same place.