Publisher: First Anchor Books Edition
Cover: John Fontana
reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 8/5/2005
Summary: Must Read. An exceptional look into Mormonism in particular and religion in general. The murder of Brenda Lafferty and her daughter, Erica.
America is the most spiritual nation in the world. There are something like two-hundred plus religious groups constantly seeking converts from among the ever-shifting sands of the religiously minded. (See http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/ for a list).
This reviewer does not have a religious affiliation though he was raised in a household of Baptists who became Catholics and spent two years schooled by Catholic nuns. This is not to say that I am not a spiritualist nor devoid of a god or God or gods. I have prayed daily since at least the age of thirteen. It does say that the fourteen months I spent in the war torn Republic of Vietnam with NO PREF embossed on my dog-tags meant exactly what it said-I have no religious preference. This “no preference” status is something shared with Jon Krakauer, author of UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN. However, I do have a definite preference for religious tolerance and the iron-wall separation of Church and State. This in turn produces a classic dilemma.
Jon Krakauer’s UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN is a disturbing book. It pushes you into that unbridled sanctorum of relative ethics where the difference between saying, “the devil made me do it” and “God made me do it” is reduced simply to semantics. The book is about the rather cut-and-dry 1984 murder of a woman, Brenda Lafferty, and her infant daughter, Erica. Krakauer goes far beneath the surface to unearth the circumstances of the crime and the rational of the perpetrators. He shines a light into the cobwebs of the Church of the Latter Day Saints-the Mormons. They are called Mormons because they adhere to the revelations of Moroni, as interpreted by Joseph Smith. Moroni was the son of Mormon, a “heroic figure of uncommon wisdom” among the Nephites. The Nephites and their kin, the Lamanites, belonged to a group of people who left Jerusalem six hundred years before the birth of Christ, landing in America. There is neither scientific nor historical evidence to support any of this. But, in the world of religious history, facts are delightfully irrelevant.
BRIGHAM YOUNG, the 1940 movie starring Dean Jagger as the lead character and Vincent Price as Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, is the mass-media reference for one of America’s first homespun religions. While the movie was not about the religion, the pioneering, can-do spirit of Smith and his followers was, as portrayed in the movie, as American as you could get. That aura clings to Mormonism itself. The devil however is in the details.
According to Krakauer, on July 12, 1843, Joseph Smith codified the doctrine of polygamy for the Church of the Latter Day Saints. A year later, on June 27, 1844, Smith was killed along with his brother while confined to jail for destroying the printing presses of a newspaper that criticized him. The four-page newspaper, published by Joseph Smith’s former friend, William Law, took issue with Joseph Smith’s “disdain for the separation of church and state, his usurpation of political power, and his shady financial dealings . . .” More significantly, the paper exposed Smith’s doctrine of polygamy. William Law was prompted into rebelliously exposing the doctrine of polygamy by Smith’s attempted seduction of his wife. It would not be until 1852 that the church officially acknowledged the concept of plural marriages. By that time the group was in the wilds of what would become the State of Utah, away from the savagery of the peoples of Missouri and Illinois, having only the native American Indians, or their kin folk, the Lamanites, and the weather to deal with.
While reading UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN, you have to remind yourself that there really are two subject lines here. One is the story of the murder of a mother and her child. The other is the story of a religious movement-the Mormons and the Fundamentalist Mormons. Is it fair that the two subjects should both be linked by the congruity of ideas and rationalizations? If one is of a cynical bent, the connection between the two can be explained away with the rationalization that if it were not this religion, it could have been another.
Religion is the glue that cements both the mind and spirit of people to the limited and predictable trappings of human endeavor. Whether the religion is Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism or the innumerable variants, religion constrains the response to Life by sanctioning acceptable wants and needs on the one hand and behavior on the other. All is in the box. In this regard, one religion is no worst nor better than another. Where they differ are the points of threat-survival they establish. The more mature the religion, the more movable, the more fluid are these triggering points at which the religion finds itself threatened. A new religion-Islam in the 7th century, the Catholic Church in the 10th and 11th centuries, Mormonism in the 1830s and 1840s for example-had very short threat trigger-lines. The orthodox Mormon church, like the Catholic Church, could tolerate change as it matured because the threat of extinction was less real.
As Krakauk points out, the Mormons renounced polygamy in 1890. They modified their views of the original concept of “the chosen people” in 1978 to allow for inclusion of peoples of color. (In a footnote, Krakauk states that it was Brigham Young who introduced racism into the early Mormon Church. Joseph Smith, the founder, had ordained an African-American man into the Mormon priesthood in 1836). Today, for those with only a superficial knowledge of The Church of Latter Day Saints, it is not at all odd that someone like Kim Clark, a dean at the Harvard School of Business, would leave that post to become President of Brigham Young University Idaho. What was once just another religion, as Christianity was once just another religion, is now a religo-business enterprise with a threat matrix far beyond the realm of ideas and dogma and faith.
But there are the fundamentalists. For fundamentalist Mormons, fundamentalist Islamists and fundamentalist Catholics, the original religion, the original ribbon-wrapped box of do’s and don’ts supercedes the impetus to survive. It is impossible not to sympathize with fundamentalists. It is a very short mental skip from the youthful exuberance of immortality to the realization that only change itself is immortal. The bottom line for fundamentalists is that ever changing Life itself is an evil which must be corralled by rituals and faith. Rituals and faith surviving through time are prima facie evidence of their validity. No need for change.
The doctrine of polygamy enjoyed a relatively brief official acceptance in the Mormon Church-a little less than forty years. Jon Krakauer provides a glimpse into the divisiveness of the doctrine at the time Joseph Smith was killed and Brigham Young took over. Smith’s first, pre-plural wife, Emma, joined a splinter group of Mormons as the main church headed west. This splintering of the Church of Latter Day Saints is, as Krakauer observes, built into the church itself. Everyone in the church can have direct communication with God, which is why there are far-flung offshoots of the religion in Canada and Mexico. There are also offshoot within the State of Utah. In addition to the Mormon belief in their “divine entitlement”, the doctrine shared by the offshoots is a belief in the plural marriage–polygamy.
Ron and Dan Lafferty, two of six borthers, were conventional Mormons and drifted into fundamentalism as adults. Krakauer chronicles their story, intermixed with the history of the Mormon church. His exposition is brilliant. By the time he gets to the pivotal event of the book, Ron and Dan entering the house of their sister-in-law, Brenda, and killing her and her baby, we are in no doubt as to why. Nor is there the least bit shock in reading that the rationale for the murders was a “revelation from God”.
Krakauer does an excellent job of ferreting out the issue of religious faith and insanity. The issue exists on a contiguous plane where an acceptance of others degrades into toleration and then, the ultimate engine of religious creed, narcissistic disdain. In this narcissistic zone of intolerance all sorts of good and bad deeds are perpetrated in the name of God. In the case of Dan Lafferty, a “revelation from God” allowed him to a silence the voice of a woman who fought to keep her husband, Allen Lafferty, Ron’s bother, out of the fundamentalist camp. More significantly, the “revelation from God” allowed Ron Lafferty to have his revenge upon a woman who had urged his wife to leave him. We see in Ron Lafferty’s “revelation from God”, a lot of nifty rewards for Ron Lafferty.
UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN is an exceptional look into Mormonism in particular and religion in general. Krakauer admits that he had an extensive and equally exceptional library of material from which to draw. He continues a tradition.