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.
  • If
    as an adult you become convinced the bizarre beliefs of a
    well-established group are true, you are a convert, and therefore
  • If
    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?




29 thoughts on “

  1. “If 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.”For me this includes a large, well established group, as well.And that, in a nutshell (thankyouverymuch), is my opinion on organized religion! Tada. :DYou’re goooood.

  2. good questions.  Being from a Roman Catholic background I am all too familiar with the self-righteous murder and persecution wrought by “the anointed”.  The one thing I have come to believe about “organized” religions is that the more any one group is certain they “know the way”, the answer(s) or rules etc… the more I want to run in the opposite direction.
    I know I do not know.
    I know that I need and pray for mercy and tolerance……  the world, each individual, we need it desperately.  It also seems that ALL of these organized religions are dominated by males.  Problem number one in my humble opinion.

  3. For us Mormons polygamy is an inescapable fact of life.  Anyone who’s been Mormon for more than a few generations almost certainly has polygamy in their family tree, but when we discuss polygamy it’s more the Brigham Young-style polygamy: high-society man with educated, well-bred wives.  The origins of polygamy with Joseph Smith and co. don’t get much press time, and I’ve heard conflicting stories about how exactly it played out.  From our perspective in a highly sexualized society it all seems suspicious but from everything else I know about Joseph Smith, good and bad, he just doesn’t seem the predator type.   It’s tempting to make him out to be some nineteenth century Jim Jones like Krakauer and others have done.  It’s also lazy.

  4. Crazy, deluded, brainwashed or religious?  They are all of these things, and probably a good deal more.  Every religion produces  nutcase fringe groups. The more bizarre the religion, the more demanding the belief structure,  the nuttier, and possibly more dangerous the fringe group is likely to be.

  5. Nut-cases. A good many years ago, back in my home state of Ohio, there were some wack-fringe group murders as well up around Kirtland, former RLDS or something… I don’t recall exactly.

  6. I find it intersting how God rarely seems to have these loner/maverick religious nuts do sensible things. 
    A group with rituals, weird costumes and chanting..do I mean a cult…or the Catholic church?

  7. The lines are often even blurrier than that, since religious ideologies often appeal to people who are already mentally ill. Mentally ill people often feel excluded by society and often struggle to relate to it, so cult-like ideologies provide some justification for that feeling.

  8. The only thing I know for sure about the Mormons is that they tried to establish a colony here in IL back in the 1860’s or so, and one of the Smith brothers was killed by the locals. They hightailed it to Utah, and to that, I say good riddance. As for any organized religion, I stand by my opinion that people who believe a big sky dude is watching out for them and talks to them are delusional and/or mentally ill.

  9. This is clearly a terrific book.  As someone who grew up VERY Mormon and got over it, I can tell you that the devotion required by this particular religion would constitute as a cult.  They require kids to participate at level that is all but daily.  High school kids are indoctrinated 6 days a week, 9 times a week. 
    When I was a missionary I was scolded regularly for studying Buddhism and Shinto beliefs while I was in Japan.  I was told that I was not there to learn about other religions.  This is clearly a policy designed to keep even those who are dedicating 2 years of their lives to the church from thinking for themselves or having any exposure to ideas or concepts that do not align with the doctrines (or is that indoctrinations) of the church.
    The road from zealot, and while I think almost all Mormons are good folk and follow a strict moral code that is positive and good for society, is a very short path indeed.  Very like crossing over the center line of a highway.  It takes very little effort and is catastrophic when it happens.
    This doesn’t absolve the people that cross over the line, but it shows the way the church itself shields people from the type of thinking that might prevent it.  A very tricky issue indeed.

  10. RYC:  The rabbit really is sweet.  Anna held him in the pet store (with a friend) before we went back and paid for him.  She loved him because he was so calm.  I think he’ll be great with the kids.  We are still giving him lots of “quiet time” (well, relative quiet) to let him get used to his new home.  But he seems quite happy. 

  11. I vote for all of thee above – the reason I say all is because THEY believe they were religious and maybe they were according to what they were taught. 
    I personally could not listen to a God that gave something so beautiful to the world ( a child) and then was telling me ( a mere person ) to take it away…contradictory to beliefs, teachings whatever…sick sick men both of them
    RYC: Yes I do I have pictures!! LOL

  12. RYC:  You are quite welcome to give it a try.  Thank you for feeling that way.  There were days when I really wanted to do that or have someone do it for me.
    Does this apply to Charles Manson and his group also then?  How about the Jone’s community?  The Mormon religion is listed in the book, Kingdom of the Cults.  So many of the fundametalist groups had suicide squads supported by biblical passages, usually old Testament, that I am not surprised someone felt that GOD told them to kill.  However, since GOD promises life, not death, I have to think it was that other guy who was speaking to them.  Sad.  The questions you pose at the end are relevant because it is all a matter of perception, isn’t it?  Does not sound like a book I would be able to read.

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