[6 August 2003]
Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.
On July 24, 1984, a Utah woman named Brenda Lafferty and her baby daughter Erica were brutally murdered by her husband’s older brothers, Dan and Ronald, who were members of an extremist sect of Mormonism. While not denying the killings, Dan Lafferty has steadfastly maintained he is not guilty of homicide.
So who’s the culprit?
None other than the Almighty Himself. Dan Lafferty claims that God instructed him to kill his sister-in-law and little niece.
In Under the Banner of Heaven, popular author Jon Krakauer focuses his attention upon the small group of excommunicated Latter Day Saints that spawned the likes of the Rafferty brothers, conscience-less men capable of horrific acts done in the name of God. In an In Cold Blood style, Krakauer chronicles the events surrounding the crime and probes into the intimate lives of the Lafferty family and other members of this rogue band of self-styled ‘true believers.’ These are the Mormon ‘purists,’ living in isolated communities in the West, who continue the practice of polygamy (instituted as a divine law by founder Joseph Smith and later banned by church leadership in 1890) and who, more significantly, believe in the unquestionable veracity of private revelation. The portrait of religion gone awry is a grim and harrowing one, where misogyny, racism, rape, incest, abuse and even murder can be justified, if ordered and sanctified by a personal God.
Under the Banner of Heaven is a curious blend: part tabloid journalism and part pop scholarship. Krakauer devotes a significant portion of the book to Mormon history, and that’s where things start to get really hairy. The seeds of extremism can be found the origins of Mormonism itself, a religion founded upon divine revelations to Joseph Smith in the early 1800s, and then to his successor, Brigham Young. Later LDS leadership, who simultaneously believed that both Smith’s earlier revelations and their own present ones were divinely inspired, ultimately reversed Smith’s revelation regarding “plural marriage” to make Utah conform with Federal law.
Hmm, apparently, God changes His mind, when it’s convenient.
Predictably enough, in the theocracy of Salt Lake City, the current leadership of The Church of the Latter Day Saints has not received this book favorably. Face it. Nobody—not a religion nor a country nor a corporation nor an individual—enjoys being reminded of the discrepancies, inconsistencies and seamy underbellies of their past. But we all have them, and the history of religion is, unfortunately, excessively cluttered with them, much to the embarrassment of the denominations in question.
The Catholics have The Inquisition and the Vatican’s blind eye to Hitler’s activities in Europe and the current hot topic of child molestations by priests that have been covered up for years. The Lutherans have their founder’s well-documented drunkenness, foul mouth and espoused predilection to zeal beyond lawful bounds in dealing with those who questioned his view of dogma: “It is Christian and an act of love to strangle the enemies confidently, to burn and do all that is harmful until they are overcome,” Martin Luther wrote. Presbyterian’s John Calvin burnt the Spaniard, Michael Servetus, at the stake for questioning the doctrine of the Trinity. The Reformation Protestants, formerly victims of persecution themselves, made life so intolerable for other Christians who didn’t agree with them that groups such as the Pilgrims and others had to seek religious freedom in the unexplored territory of the New World. In colonial America, however, the persecuted soon became persecutors themselves, causing Catholics to carve out a little space for themselves in Maryland, and the benign Quakers to turn Pennsylvania into a haven of religious tolerance for all.
That all these denominations have done good for humanity since their unfortunate episodes of excessive and misplaced fanaticism is not in question. The point is that the origin of most denominations is shrouded in controversies and events that church people would prefer to forget. Though our human nature wants to make the founding fathers of our many institutions into heroes, the myth is inevitably disproved, much to our chagrin. Religion is, by its very nature, exclusive. Hidebound creeds and dogmas divide, not unite. And when religion turns into an experiential thing, it becomes even more divisive and exclusionary.
Personal revelation is the Pandora’s box of religion. Using one’s ‘inside voice’ to dictate one’s actions is perilous, spiritually speaking. Who knows what will result—some good things, no doubt, but it is also an open door to excesses and abuses that provides the person with a psychopathic personality an easy justification for his aberrant and violent behavior. During the Reformation in Europe, the splits in the Church occurred—ostensibly, at least—over doctrine. Starting in 1800 in America, however, something changed. Instead of arguing over dogma, people started to ‘hear from God’ in a startling variety of ways. The Age of Reason became the Age of Revelation, and do-it-yourself, personalized religion became the wave of the future. Mormonism was one of many religions that sprung up during a period of unprecedented religious revival in 19th century America. They all had one thing in common: the acceptance of ‘personal revelation’ as a reason for anything and everything.
The Age of Revelation started off with quite a bang. In 1801, the famous Cane Ridge revival in a Lexington, Kentucky Presbyterian meeting house became the Woodstock of its day and marked a new era in religious history. An estimated 40,000 people flocked there spontaneously. An event that was supposed to last a weekend became a 24/7 ‘happening’ for over a week, resulting in mass conversions and what are known as ‘manifestations of the Holy Ghost’—fainting, jerking, shaking, singing, prophesying and other symptoms of religious ecstasy—a phenomenon that has become standard practice for many fundamentalist sects and even some mainstream churches.
After the Cane Ridge revival, new denominations began springing up everywhere as ordinary people received visions and revelations that spurred them on to start their own private reformations of religion. In the early 1800s, a Baptist preacher named William Miller discerned from scripture that Jesus would return to earth on between 1843 and 1844. He didn’t (obviously), and this failed prophecy became known as “The Great Disappointment.” However, the remnants of disillusioned believers regrouped their forces and became the Seventh Day Adventist Church, as scripture was reinterpreted to make up for Miller’s big oopsie in timing. In 1877, Mary Baker Eddy wrote Science and Health with Key to Scriptures, which she claimed was the final revelation of God to mankind and which became the ‘bible’ of Christian Science.
This 100 year-or-so period also saw the founding of the Disciples of Christ, Church of God, the Holiness churches, Assemblies of God, Amy Semple McPherson’s Foursquare Church, the famous Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, and countless groups not blessed with longevity that boasted faith healings, miracles, signs and wonders, glossalalia, prophetic knowledge and other ‘gifts of the Spirit ,’ and an evangelical and apocalyptic focus. And right in this middle of all this religious foment was Joseph Smith, with his revelations, those mysterious golden tablets, the angel Moroni, and a solid conviction that his religious POV was the only right one.
Krakauer’s book purports to be an exploration of the outer limits of religious belief. The author has already made a name for himself in examining extremism of an external sort—that is, man vs. nature. In both Eiger Dreams and Into Thin Air, he probed into the man vs. nature themes in the arena of mountain climbing. In his new book, he undertakes a study of extremism of the inner sort—and with somewhat less success. The morass of religious history, with all its convolutions and vagaries, its seething undercurrents and explosive emotions, is undertaken at a different but equally great risk as scaling Mount Everest. One offends no one by climbing a mountain; one offends millions by addressing the faith they live by.
Krakauer, however, is no stranger to controversy. His Into Thin Air documented the ill-fated 1996 expedition he participated in to reach the summit of Mount Everest, which ended in the tragic deaths of several members of the party. The book was greeted with scathing criticisms for inaccuracies and misrepresentations of people and events. While the In Thin Air air brou-ha-ha ultimately seems to boil down to a he-said/she-said scenario of conflicting recollections from legitimately traumatized survivors of an apparently avoidable debacle in the annals of mountain climbing, it could well serve to cloud Krakauer’s credibility in this new book, where he draws so much upon history, despite source notes at the end of chapters and a bibliography. Critics have already capitalized on the author’s agnoticism as grounds for disqualification in offering a sympathetic analysis of God’s supposed dealings with humankind in recent centuries, and Mormon detracters have implied that his version of their history is skewed. In reality, readers may simply be left to decide these issues on their own, as they read the book.
In the concluding Author’s Note, Krakauer states that he originally intended to write a book entitled History and Belief, dealing with:
?the inner trials of spiritual thinkers who “walk in the shadows of faith,” as Teilhard de Chardin described it: How does a critical mind reconcile scientific and and historical truth with religious doctrine? How does one sustain belief when confronted with facts that appear to refute it? I was fascinated by the paradoxes that reside at the intersection of doubt and faith, and had a high regard for congenital skeptics, like Teilhard, who somehow emerged from the fray.
Krakauer states that, “for better or for worse,” he found himself attracted to the Lafferty crime case and decided to abandon his original premise for the book and pursue this new angle. The reality remains that in a country that has seen cult leaders of the magnitude of Charles Manson, Jim Jones and David Koresh, the inbred and ingrown aberrations of a truly minor league religious fringe group don’t seem to merit the 300-odd pages that Krakauer has devoted to it, despite the last-minute inclusion of a section on the abduction of Elizabeth Smartt. Ultimately, the reader is left wondering exactly what this book actually meant to accomplish.
The message that fanaticism—be it political or religious, or even worse, a combination of both—leads to extremism is clear to thinking people. And certainly, in a post-9/11 world where jihad has become a part of the average person’s vocabulary, there is a desperate need for serious and objective books on the subject of faith-based violence. All ‘cults’ do share striking similarities, but the book fails, for the most part, to get beyond the sensationalist details of a ghastly crime and take the theme of “extreme religion” to a level higher than the tabloids. Regrettably, it appears the author—despite the fact he does tell a darned good story—opted for a shrewd marketing strategy instead of doing what he set out to do.
In conclusion, I’d simply offer two suggestions: 1) To the Mormon leadership disgruntled over the treatment your church has received at the hands of this author: Get over it. Every denomination has skeletons in their closet—you’re in good company; and 2) To the author: try writing the book you originally had in mind. It won’t be a bestseller, but well—like I said—get over it.