Sunday, October 02, 2005

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

A Book Report

I have just finished reading Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer. The book begins with an account of the murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty in American Fork, Utah in July 1984. Brenda was 24, her baby Erica was 15 months old. They were murdered by two of Brenda’s brothers-in-law, Ron and Dan Lafferty, fundamentalist Mormons who had been excommunicated from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). The remarkable thing about the murders was that Ron and Dan Lafferty truly believed that God had commanded them to kill Brenda and her baby.

The book goes on to describe the modern Fundamentalist Mormon movements, giving details of their beliefs, their settlements and the people who lead them, as well as providing interviews with men and women who have left - or escaped, depending on your perspective. The book also offers a comprehensive history of the LDS church, which is absolutely fascinating and greatly increased my knowledge of the religion and its origins. The history covers both the mainstream church and the fundamentalist sects that split off from it.

I had previously known of the persecution of the Mormons and thus why they had been driven west to Utah, but I had not known how violent some of the Mormons themselves had been. The Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857 is perhaps the most extreme example.

I had known that polygamy had earlier been a part of LDS doctrine, but I had not known that the introduction of the principle of “plural marriage” had nearly torn the church apart and that the subsequent banning of the practice was, arguably, the reason for the fundamentalist split.

The book is extremely well-researched, and the edition I read (June 2004) included the LDS church’s response to the first edition (July 2003) as well as Krakauer’s response to the response.

“Powerfully illuminating…. An arresting portrait of depravity.” – The New York Times Book Review

“Scrupulously reported…both illuminating and thrilling. It is also the creepiest book anyone has written in a long time.” – Newsweek

Having finished this book at the same time as watching The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear, I could not help noticing the parallels in the stories which show how fundamentalist religious conviction will always eventually manifest itself in violence.

* Thanks to Little Sister for pushing me to buy the book.


Anonymous A-Hole said...

I've enjoyed all of Krakauer's books. Check this one out, it's my favorite.

As far as parallels go, well, I think the story of the LDS puts fanaticism and/or fundamentalism into proper perspective. Comparing Bush and his cabinet(not all even members of the same religion) to the radicalized element of the old-guard LDS seems like hyperbole given the context of personal family honor killings. If the Bush cabinet represented fundamentalists, then the religious fundamentalists in this country (Pat Roberts for example) wouldn't be so pissed off at them.

That book also reminds me of fundamentalism's position in this country. Upon reading or learning of the story within Under The Banner of Heaven, normal people are repulsed, apparently more so than any one in any Arab country is in regard to Sharia. In much of Arab lands, Sharia is the expectation. Were it not for pressure from Sharia elements, you'd likely not have a very powerful insurgency in Iraq. Outside of Arab lands, or in those Arab countries not ruled by Sharia elements, Sharia is excused and appeased. Even in America, many Muslims complicitly excuse it by refusing to repel its forces from the back rooms of their mosques. But Americans consistently speak out against religious fundamentalism (its own and others) and are put off by it. There is, obviously, a great difference between orthodoxy and fanaticism.

BTW, and on a virtually unrelated topic, I found this story of media omission fascinating.

Monkey's Max said...

Asshole, you have misunderstood me. Perhaps I am at fault for not being clear enough, or perhaps you did not understand because you have not watched the documentary. I was not comparing the Bush administration to fundamentalist Mormons. Not at all. I was comparing fundamentalist Mormons with fundamentalists Islamists.

The documentary, by the way, does explains how neo-cons have used religion to consolidate their power, but that is another issue.

Anonymous A-Hole said...

I guess I was under the general impression that you believe Bush, and cabinet, to be fundamentalists in their own right (though obviously not mormon). I was only using the fundamentalist mormons as context for the differentiation between, as I said, orthodoxy and fundamentalism.

But, yes, fundamentalist mormonism is similar to Islamist fundamentalism. Mormonism isn't even a religion. At best it's a sect, at worst a cult.

But that's another issue entirely.

Anonymous A-Hole said...


I didn't take me long to remember why I felt you believed that:

"Neo-cons are a tribe of their own, as far removed from normal Republicans as the extreme Islamicists are from your average moderate Muslims." --MM

Transitively, aren't you comparing Neo-Cons to Mormon fundamentalists?

Monkey's Max said...

Asshole, NO.

1st, I was only using the comparison as a marker of distance. I could also say that ultra-orthodox Jews are far removed from secular Jews, even if none of those under discussion are violent fundamentalists. Get it?

2nd, I never accused Bush of being a neo-con. You are making assumptions.

Any other questions, Little Brother?

Anonymous A-Hole said...


What is a "normal Republican?" As SS pointed out the other day, definitions of "neo-con" appear to vary; how do we then define a normal Republican?

And, yes, I am making assumptions, but it seems to follow that you believe that either a) Bush is a neo-con or that b) he's a neo-con puppet.


Monkey's Max said...

Okay, fair points. I should have used 'mainstream' Republican rather than 'normal'. However there can be some debate as to what 'mainstream' means. For now, let me just say that as I am using it in contrast to neo-conservative, I am using it to mean any Republican who is not a neo-conservative. And perhaps I am using neo-conservative in its extreme sense, as in the Project for the New American Century neo-conservative, Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Perle neo-conservative.

As to your assumptions, 'b) a neo-con puppet' is the correct answer. Well done, Asshole.

Monkey's Max said...

Oh, and Wee Brother, I would really really like you to watch the documentary. I want to know what you think about it. If you watch it and want to write about it, I'll let you have a guest blog right here.

Anonymous A-Hole said...

I think I'll take you up on that.

In exchange, you must promise to go here and give it more than a cursory perusal.

Monkey's Max said...

Bloody hell, Asshole, you have sent me to jihadwatch before. But okay, I promise to go again (I am there already) and have more than a cursory look. And not only will I see you, I'll raise you - I will even try to keep an open mind. Do you think you can do the same with The Power of Nightmares?

Anonymous A-Hole said...

No, sorry, my mind is already closed.

Kidding. I'll look in, I'll watch it and, in the coming days, I'll report on it in a guest blog.

Monkey's Max said...

Wicked. I look forward to it.

beamis said...

There is also a parallel between the fundamentalist split in the Mormon church and the break up of the U.S. in 1861. It was the ultimate question of who you were going to allow to be the highest authority in your life.

The Mexican War was a prelude to this, which was mainly fought to prevent California, Texas, Utah and New Mexico from forming their own republics and using this opportunity to steal vast acreage from the Mexicans.

The defeated and reconstructed Utah Mormons have become an obedient and reliable lapdog for Big Brother, who has bequeathed to them bombing ranges, nerve gas storage facilities and 126 above ground nuclear tests between 1951-63 causing untold numbers of dead, diseased and retarded citizens where these things had been virtually unknown before.

Good book.