Recommendation: This is worth reading, but I would suggest watching Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey on Netflix and the mini-series of the same name on Disney+ as well
Where to read: Between true crime podcasts
Read with: A good strong Heaven Hill Distillery Rittenhouse Rye bourbon cocktail
In brief: The inspiration for a new mini series of the same name starring Andrew Garfield, Under the Banner of Heaven is a disturbing and impeccably written examination of the history of the Mormon Church, modern Mormon fundamentalism and a particularly grisly murder from 1984. There is an excerpt of the first chapter on his website if you want to get a feel for yourself.
Jon Krakauer is an interesting author with a habit of writing fascinating books on eclectic subjects – from Chris McCandless in Into the Wild to his account of the 1996 Everest disaster of which he was a part and then, to his editor’s consternation, the Mormon Church.
Under the Banner of Heaven is ostensibly the account of the brutal murders in 1984 of Brenda Lafferty and her baby daughter Erica. The guilty parties were two of her brothers-in-law, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who blamed Brenda for the breakdown of Dan’s marriage and claimed to have received a revelation from God that Brenda had to be “removed”. Originally from a respectable, if a little hard line, Mormon family, the Lafferty brothers had become increasingly fundamentalist in their beliefs, seeking out the company of FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) and other schismatics and attempting to practice “plural marriage” in accordance with the original tenets of the Mormon faith. They were also hugely opposed to government taxation and regulation, militantly refusing to pay everything from land tax to speeding fines.
Brenda, an educated young woman from a non-LDS family with a background in journalism, disagreed vocally with their increasingly unhinged stances, which women were not allowed to do, and provided support to their wives as they sought to leave, which they were most definitely not allowed to do. As a result, according to the brothers, God had commanded that she and her daughter die, along with two prominent members of the LDS community who had been involved in excommunicating the brothers and assisting Ron’s wife when she divorced him. The religious aspects of what would otherwise be a fairly standard set of revenge killings made the trials highly contentious, with some arguing that Ron was incompetent to stand trial. The evidence of insanity was, however, that he heard the voice of God and was acting on religious commandments in a country where a very large proportion of the population, including the President, professed precisely the same views. It is a fascinating legal, theological and psychological question the courts had to manage, with the Court concluding (twice) that he was legally sane at the time of the offence.
This would be interesting on its own but Krakauer uses the Lafferty case as a framing for a broader discussion about the history of the early Mormon Church. His account, unsurprisingly, has been heavily criticised by the Church, which is, in Krakauer’s words, somewhat ‘prickly’ about aspects of its early history. That history involves some rather nasty murders, the brutal massacre of a migrant caravan they blamed on the local Native Americans and the indisputable fact that Joseph Smith and many of the early elders married a truly obscene number of women and espoused polygamy both as an essential step towards salvation and as a way of cementing the authority of men as heads of household. The Church also had, and arguably has still, a significant persecution complex which does have some historical basis but has also justified some truly heinous behaviour. Probably unsurprisingly, early Mormonism was also eschatological, emphasised the power of prophecy and an individual relationship with God and predicted the rise of ‘one mighty and strong’ to guide the Church back to righteousness.
In this history, or so Krakauer argues, lies the root of Ron and Dan’s murderous rampage. Polygamy, and their wives’ reaction to it, was both a path into isolation and radicalisation and a flashpoint and the doctrine of ‘blood atonement‘, which is effectively human sacrifice in order to expunge particularly egregious sins, set up a framework for religiously motivated murder. Mormonism’s sympathy for personal revelation also meant that Ron could formulate a kill list and be believed (in some circles at least) when he said it was divinely inspired. Less explicitly explored in Krakauer’s text, but expanded in the TV show, is the role of the deeply patriarchal Mormon hierarchy in disempowering women and facilitating violence. It is clear, for example, that the Lafferty’s father was abusive, beating his wife, rejecting medical care for the children and bashing the family dog to death with a baseball bat in front of them. That the sons carried on the cycle of abuse is no surprise.
Speaking of which, Krakauer touches on several of the contemporary fundamentalist Mormon sects which exist in the US (particularly Utah), in Canada and Mexico, the most prominent of which is the FLDS. As recently examined in the harrowing Netflix documentary Keep Sweet: Prey and Obey, “Prophet” Warren Jeffs (and frankly the sect at large) were involved in trafficking and raping young girls en masse in the name of plural marriage. Krakauer does discuss some of the crimes committed by fundamentalist Mormons seeking additional (often child) brides* but this episode, which came to light after Under the Banner of Heaven was published, is, I think, essential context in evaluating the dynamics of Mormon fundamentalism and the ease with which the Lafferty brothers could beat and murder a female family member.
As you would expect with Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven is well researched, well written and unafraid to wade into contentious waters. Contrary to some of the criticism, it did not strike me as a hit piece on Mormonism or religion generally and Krakauer’s respect for aspects of the faith (and Joseph Smith’s sheer gumption) is clear throughout the book. His often quixotic desire to rationalise what appears inexplicable to most, from the desire to climb Everest to McCandless striding off into the Alaskan wilderness woefully underprepared, is also apparent – he interviewed Dan Lafferty extensively and gives what appears to be a fair minded account of the man (who is, to my non-religiously wired mind, clearly madder than a bag of cats).
The context in which it was written is also notable – published in the wake of 9/11 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, part of the subtext is that fundamentalism (effectively jihad) is far from being an exclusive feature of Islam. While he does not seek to make a general point, his explanation of the Rafferty’s radicalisation and the ways in which fundamentalist Mormonism both accelerated and provided a permission structure for existing tendencies rings true more broadly. And the questions asked about sanity and insanity, faith and reason were urgent ones at a time when the President said things like “I feel like God wants me to run for President. I can’t explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen… I know it won’t be easy on me or my family, but God wants me to do it.” Comparing that to Krakauer’s interviews with Dan Lafferty recounted towards the end of the book is chilling.
Unfortunately, the issues raised in Under the Banner of Heaven remain relevant – the decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization and subsequent wave of laws outlawing abortion based on Christian doctrine, laws which are already killing women, are a brutal reminder of the cost of fundamentalism, messianic certainty which gives no regard to the rights or views of others, patriarchal religious structures and the belief that a woman’s proper place is in a kitchen, barefoot and pregnant.
*it should be noted that child marriage is in fact still perfectly fucking legal in the US: