Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer


Mormons have been in the news a lot lately. From the Broadway show to the trial of Elizabeth Smart's kidnappers, it seems every time I turn on the TV or pick up Newsweek or People, there's an article about Mormons. And considering that there are over 11 million of them in the U.S. and it's the fastest-growing religion, I shouldn't be surprised. Did you know there are more Mormons than Presbyterians or Episcopalians? Of course the only Mormons I've ever met were the missionaries earlier this spring who knocked on my door and wanted to convert me.

I had heard about this book when it first came out and it was intriguing, but I never picked it up. Jon Krakauer is an amazing writer. I loved Into Thin Air, and I didn't finish Into the Wild because I hated Chris Chandless, not because of Mr. Krakauer. But this book has never completely left my book consciousness, and so when I saw it at the Friends of the Library book sale, I snapped it up. A comparison on the front cover to In Cold Blood didn't hurt

The heart of the book is the story of the murder of Brenda and Erica Lafferty by two of Brenda's brothers-in-law (her daughter Erica was less than two years old). But in explaining why Dan and Ron Lafferty committed this horrible crime, Mr. Krakauer has to explain fundamental Mormon splinter group and zealotry. And to explain that, he has to explain Mormonism. So in this book, we get a full and complete history up through 2003 (the recent crisis of teenage Fundamentalist Mormon boys being turned out of their homes and abandoned in cities, so they don't compete with the elders for young teenage wives hadn't become known yet) of the only successful American-born religion.

Yes, a lot of what I read about Mormonism sounds absolutely insane. However, as one of the psychologists who explained how Ron was sane to stand trial explained, so does any religion - we're just used to the insane things about traditional Christianity/Judiasm. But what does make the Mormon religion stand out is its history of violence, and its initial embrace of polygamy. The mainstream Mormon religion denounced polygamy a century ago, however fundamentalists sects all over the West (including in Mexico and Canada) practice it today. Personally, if all polygamists were like on "Big Love", I wouldn't have a problem with it. My problem comes with abuse, incest (which includes adoptive and step family members), child molestation, brain-washing, etc. Many of these fundamentalists sects have more in common with the Taliban than even with mainstream Mormonism. The women and children aren't allowed to watch TV or movies, read books (except fundamentalist Mormon books) or magazines, drive, go in public alone, wear pants, hold jobs, and so on. As a former fundamentalist at the end of the book explains, education is what they fear.

And while mainstream Mormons have a reputation for being upright and hardworking, their past is a bit scary. Yes, all religions have some violence in their past, but for Christianity and Judaism, it's centuries ago so with the time there is distance. Plus, unlike Christianity (except for the Crusades) and Judaism (but not perhaps all branches of Islam), they seem to have often sought out violence. In the early days in Missouri and Illinois, they were trying to be peaceful at first, but it seems like when that didn't work they decided violence was the way to go. I had heard about the Mountain Meadows Massacre before but didn't know anything about it.

This book was well-researched, and thoroughly explained an aspect of American history I knew nothing about. Of course the Mormon church doesn't like this book (and in the paperback edition, Mr. Krakauer prints a dissension by the head of Communications for the LDS, he does fix a few errors that were pointed out, and refutes the rest.) But as a fan of American history, I think it's important that I now know about this segment of our country. By no means do I think all Mormons are violent, or that the mainstream Mormon religion condones violence in any way, but fundamentalist branches sometimes do, and they are scary. At the rate this religion is growing, it would behoove everyone t know more about them. This book was riveting, fascinating, hard to put down, and while towards the end I did get overwhelmed with names and more so with confusing relations between people (thanks to incest and polygamy), I learned a lot and now have some ammunition, should the missionaries stop by again.

I bought this book used at the Friends of the Library sale.

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