UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN by Jon Krakauer

Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book'em ...take our poll!

(December 15, 2005) Under the Banner of Heaven Fundamentalist religious groups have commanded public attention in recent times. Book-'Em members had an eye-opening look at one particular group, fundamentalist Mormons, in Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven. In a desire to explore "what might be learned about the nature of faith," the author focuses on the 1984 slaying of Brenda Lafferty and her three year old daughter by two of Brenda's brothers-in-law. Ron and Dan Lafferty are members of a fundamentalist Mormon sect that believes in polygamy and personal revelations. They claim they were commanded by God to commit the murders.

The Church of The Later Day Saints, or Mormons, is a homegrown, all-American, highly successful religion founded in 1830 by the charismatic Joseph Smith. Krakauer relates the often-violent historical origins and oddities of the faith and describes the splintering off of several fundamentalist sects in the late 1890's after the Mormon Church disavowed polygamy.

The Saints, 11 million strong today and the fastest growing faith in the western hemisphere, are a patriarchal religion that believes they are God's favored children. Some of their original tenets, "revealed" to Smith and laid out in The Doctrine and Covenants, were jettisoned by later prophets to accommodate acceptance by mainstream America. The 30,000 fundamentalist Mormons sprinkled in pockets of western North America still believe in polygamy, maintain that the earth is merely 7,000 years old and that man has never walked on the moon, and are forbidden alcohol, caffeine, profanity, television and non-church issued written media.

Our discussion was animated, even agitated at times, and remained topical for an unusually lengthy period. Members expressed shock and horror at these brutal murders and at the defiance of anti-polygamy and sexual abuse laws, which characterize these sects. "The very basis of the religion is disgusting" was one comment made. "How is it that nothing is done about it?" was another. Many of the multiple or "spiritual wives" are underage women who have been forced by their families into early marriages and motherhood. Because multiple wives are not recognized by law, they qualify for public assistance as technically "single mothers" and collect welfare even if the family patriarch has the means to support them. This "bleeding the beast" (the U.S. government) is considered a virtuous practice by the Fundamentalists.

The book's title is a reference to this statement of the late 1800's by Mormon President, Prophet, Seer and Revelator John Taylor: "God is greater than the United States and when the government conflicts with heaven, we will be ranged under the banner of heaven." Our book group explored parallels between LDS fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism. A lack of personal responsibility for one's actions characterizes their similarities. As Dan Lafferty relayed to the author from his prison cell, "I was doing God's will which is not a crime."

One Book-'Em reader noted, "Our society must be so lacking in something, so desperate, that [the tenants of] their religion has such appeal." Quite a few of our members have Mormon acquaintances and were impressed by the strong support system which exists in the mainstream LDS church. At the risk of stereotyping, we felt that the order, structure and comfort derived from the religion produces personable, motivated, ambitious and self-possessed individuals. Their religion is their way of life. Not all religions are able to accomplish this.

While illuminating in content, there was a fair amount of criticism of the book's structure. Copious footnotes were distracting and ultimately annoying to most of us. Krakauer's non-linear approach to presenting the history led to some confusion in discerning what applied to both the mainstream church and the fundamentalist sects. This might give readers a distorted view of the official Latter Day Saints church.

Nevertheless, in Under the Banner of Heaven Jon Krakauer has laid out a fascinating story in an easy to read style. Many of us felt that it probably was more lengthy than necessary but that some sections could be skimmed easily. Our structural criticism should not deter any group from pursuing this stimulating title as a selection.

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