UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN
If God told you to kill somebody, and you really, truly believed that it WAS God telling you, would you do it?
In Under the Banner of Heaven,
journalist Jon Krakauer examines the lives of Dan and Ron Lafferty,
Mormon fundamentalist brothers who brutally murdered their
sister-in-law and her infant daughter for just that reason. He
intersperses sections about the Laffertys with the history of the
religion, other famous cases like the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart,
and numerous interviews with current and former adherents. Krakauer tells his story without rancor, and even with a bit of sympathy for Dan, but the overall effect is horrifying.
would be impossible for a non-Mormon reading this book to fail to
conclude that founder and prophet Joseph Smith was a talented charlatan
who used his powers of persuasion among his legions of followers to
screw dozens of young women (some 13 or 14 years old) with impunity (in
the form of polygamy), as did some of the leaders who came after him.
Other atrocities committed by the 19th
century Mormons have been well documented, and I wonder how those
events are presented by the Mormon church to the current masses. But then, many religions have bloody histories, don’t they?
Mormons officially disavowed polygamy in the late 1800’s, but it is
still practiced by fringe groups in the U.S. and in other countries. And it is still an excuse for powerful men to screw young girls. Krakauer
makes it clear that the Mormon Church has no use or sympathy for these
rebellious factions and wishes they would go away. Nor does the mainline Mormon Church allow members to go around killing people, even if they think God said so.
most interesting part of the book for me came at the end, when Krakauer
discusses the boundaries between religious belief and mental illness. It seems clear to an outsider that anyone who believes God told him to kill a defenseless woman and a baby is nuts. But
within the context of the Lafferty brothers’ upbringing and subsequent
switch from mainline Mormonism to fundamentalism, it’s murky, at best.
Some general rules:
- If your bizarre beliefs are codified by a well-established group, and were taught to you as a child, you are religious.
- If you made up your bizarre beliefs yourself, you are crazy.
- If you manage to convince someone else that the bizarre beliefs you made up are true, you are a visionary.
- If you convince a LOT of people, you are a prophet.
as an adult you become convinced the bizarre beliefs of a
well-established group are true, you are a convert, and therefore
you become convinced the bizarre beliefs of a small group reviled by
the mainstream are true, you have joined a cult and may require
deprogramming. Thus you fall right on the line between religious and crazy.
Personal revelations from God were a part of the religion followed by Dan and Ron Lafferty. They believed their instructions were clear, and trumped the laws of Man. Dan still believes it. Ron (on death row) is not talking. Were they crazy? Deluded? Brainwashed? Or religious?