Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

Under the Banner of Heaven is an honest exploration of the founding of the Mormon religion and several violent incidents related to Mormon fundamentalists.

This book got a lot of flak for the describing the connection between Mormonism and faith-based violence. If you wouldn't enjoy reading a strong case for the link between extreme religion and violence, this probably isn't the book for you. But I loved it. I actually thought he worked hard to differentiate mainstream, modern Mormonism from its fundamentalist offshoots. Krakauer repeatedly made clear that the Mormon church condemned the splinter sects that were practicing polygamy and all that. I thought Krakauer wrote most of his descriptions of Mormonism in a very credulous manner. It was not obvious that the author was not himself Mormon, or that the descriptions weren't something the Mormon church would condone. The book portrayed mainstream Mormons very positively, in my opinion.

Krakauer gives a well-researched and disinterested introduction to Mormonism. He points out that the Mormon church attempts to "clean" its history by hiding evidence for certain rather... immoral... events in the church's history. Krakauer's account highlights both atrocities committed by, and those committed against early Mormons. It seems to be a remarkably unbiased account.

He also described several remarkably horrifying crimes committed by Mormon fundamentalists. The most space in the book is devoted to the murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty by Brenda's brothers-in-law, with focus also on the religiously motivated rape and kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Krakauer points out that these crimes would not have even been conceived without the strong, unquestioning faith of the perpetrators.

Krakauer describes pretty much every individual involved in these and other crimes extensively. You can't help getting a feel for what makes them tick. It is easy to see how a context in which otherwise good people are encouraged to surrender their own judgment and common sense would lead to disasters such as the Lafferty murders or the Mountain Meadows Massacre. When you are raised in a religion where God talking to people is normal, acting on divine instructions would surely seem like the right thing to do. Individuals acting on "instructions from God" and murdering, stealing and raping is simply taking complete faith to its logical conclusion. Similarly, the Mormon religion has a history of declaring that the laws of man are irrelevant when contradicted by the laws of God. A religion that encourages its members to break certain laws could be expected to lead to crimes.

One major take-away from this book for me was the issue brought up during the trial of a fundamentalist Mormon murderer. The defense attempted to prove that he was insane due to his extreme (and unusual) faith. The prosecution pointed out that considering faith to be mental illness would be a powerful legal precedent as well as an unpopular position, since most Americans to some extent or another hold views that are not supported by evidence. Would this make any religious person legally insane? Only if his religion was unusual? Is faith only sane if it's a popular faith? The court ultimately decided that his faith was not mental illness, but it is an incredibly interesting issue to consider.

The most upsetting part of the book, for me, was not the recent murders or historical massacres but the descriptions of polygamy as it is practiced today in places like Colorado City. Girls are commonly married to much older polygamist men as soon as they reach puberty. They are inevitably raped by their new "husbands" and if that is the first time in their childhood that they have been raped or molested, they are among the luckier girls. Sure, rape and child abuse happen in all kinds of settings. It's obviously not an exclusively Mormon thing. But in these fundamentalist communities it is condoned and pervasive. It is normal. It's the only life these girls know. They can't go to the authorities, because the only authority in these communities is participating in their subjugation. The most sickening part is the way people (generally young girls) are manipulated by their faith. They are told if they are not sweet and compliant they will go to hell. Old men (often their fathers or close relatives) are telling them that if they struggle while being raped, they will burn in hell. I pretty much felt like throwing up while reading sections of this book. It is hard to think that this goes on in my own country, my own state even.

I guess what I didn't care for in Krakauer's writing is the way he sort of jumps around. He likes to summarize an event and go back and elaborately describe the period leading up to it and the important people relating to the event. With my overly-linear brain and short attention span, this required me to reread sections. His writing is beautiful. There were many wonderfully phrased quotes I flagged in "Under the Banner of Heaven" as well as ideas I will take with me. I don't think the jumping around pacing would bother most readers like it does me.

I would recommend this book to almost anyone. It was very edifying, memorable and beautifully written. I think the unpleasant manifestations of extreme faith in America is something we should all be aware of.

Emma 6, Emily 4


  1. I think it might be interesting for you to read a non-fiction book that explores some of the good sides of religion?

    In my experience, nothing by Jon Krakauer is "unbiased". We went through two of his books in a class I took in college; if you look close enough, there's a motive under the writing.

  2. I also would not qualify anything written by Krakauer as "beautifully written". In Into Thin Air, he was self-congratulatory, self-centered and a bit of a revisionist. In Into the Wild, he romanticized the life and death of a kid too stupid to think through his actions, and who lived his life based on a philosophy that was paper-thin and totally ridiculous and hypocritical.


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