Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Book Report: Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
--Steven Weinberg

I first visited Nauvoo, IL around 1980. The town looked like the set of Little House on the Prairie, all dirt roads, buggy rides and quaint mid-19th century shops. It all seemed innocent enough, despite the gleaming white temple in the middle of town with the huge, weird statue of an angel standing guard outside. I knew nothing then about the Mormons and assumed they were just another Christian sect, akin to the Lutherans or Presbyterians. I still don't understand how all of these faiths can claim to worship the same god but disagree so vehemently on how to do so, but I suppose that's a topic for another day.

I was in Nauvoo again with my children two summers ago, as part of our driving trip following the path of the Mississippi River. This time the town seemed considerably creepier, and the kids were bored stiff there. So we sauntered around briefly, collected our brick with NAUVOO emblazoned on it, and took off. Had I encountered Jon Krakauer's frightening book Under the Banner of Heaven in the interim I would have stayed as far away from this midwestern Mormon outpost as possible.

Krakauer tells the story of the 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter Erica by Ron and Dan Lafferty, two fundamentalist Mormons. But the bulk of the book is taken up with Krakauer's astute and even handed analysis of the faith, its history and its adherents. The question he tries to answer is this: What kind of faith system would encourage two men to believe that it was god's will that they murder two members of their own family?

Very briefly, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (as Mormons are officially known) was begun in 1830 by their first prophet, a man named Joseph Smith. Smith communicated with an angel named Moroni, who revealed the tenets of the new faith to him through a set of magical golden plates. (Incidentally, it is the figure of Moroni which guards the Mormon temple in Nauvoo.) It seems that the main attraction of the new faith was the notion that all individuals can communicate directly with god. Every member of the church is therefore capable of receiving divine revelations. It was one of these revelations, given to Ron Lafferty, that led to the double homicide that Krakauer examines in the book.

There are a couple of controversial points that were revealed to Smith during his tenure as prophet and published by him in The Book of Mormon. First, the LDS church believes that women must be subservient to men in every way. The only way to god for them is through surrender of their liberty, especially to their husbands. "Celestial marriage", what those outside of the faith call polygamy, is but one heinous example of this subjugation. Second, only white men can serve as members of the governing body of 15, consisting of a prophet, his two counselors and the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. No women or non-whites may become members of the elite group that sets all policy and adjudicates all disputes within the church.

Both of these original tenets of the LDS faith have been challenged and, for the time being, set aside by the mainstream church. In fact, it is this deviation from Smith's revelations that has inspired the creation of the fundamentalist Mormon movement, known as FLDS. Members of a group from Eldorado, Texas affiliated with the FLDS were recently in the news regarding allegations of polygamy and child abuse.

As chronicled by Krakauer, this schism between Mormons has often been bitter and has sometimes turned violent. The history of the LDS itself is rather bloody, but that doesn't necessarily distinguish Mormonism from other religions. But the church is very guarded about its past and regularly withholds information and documents that might reflect poorly on the character of Mormons, especially the prophets and other important figures. Smith himself had a rather sordid side, but this aspect of his biography is swept under the proverbial rug by the LDS leadership. "Lying for the faith" is considered a laudatory act by Mormons, and it is practiced regularly by the leadership as well as the lay members of the church.

The FLDS seeks to restore both the racist and sexist components of Mormonism that were extant during the time of Joseph Smith. Krakauer estimates that there are roughly 40,000 people who identify as members of the FLDS, primarily living in isolated communities in the western U.S. This is as frightening to me as the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

Mainstream Mormons number about 13 million worldwide, according to their official website. The LDS church actively proselytizes and the number of adherents is consequently growing rapidly. The mainstream church downplays the role of "celestial marriage" but the laws are still on the books. Many who have studied the faith believe that the LDS is biding its time until the church becomes so powerful as to be able to demand legislation allowing them to practice their religion as they see fit, at least in areas (like Utah) where Mormons are in the majority.

When people firmly believe that the voices in their heads come from a supreme being who is perfect, omniscient and omnipotent, they can and will do unspeakable things without remorse. It doesn't matter if the supernatural being is "familiar" Jesus or "strange" Allah, the results can be the same. If children are brought up in insular communities, kept ignorant of other ways of living, and indoctrinated into a faith without the ability to question and make personal choices, this creates a very dangerous situation.

The Lafferty murders, chronicled and impeccably researched by Jon Krakauer, are examples of how destructive this kind of blind devotion can be. If you want a good dose of cultural reality (and a scare that will rival any horror movie ever made), read Under the Banner of Heaven.