Before I even begin, this book has a very controversial theme. I'm not going to be saying whether or not the theme is correct, rather I'm just going to talk about how effective the book is in delivering that theme. Also, you may notice the cover says "A story of VIOLENT faith" - this book has a lot of violence, and naturally the review will have some as well.
And without further ado, let's begin!
As you may have read on the cover, this book takes a look at the motivation that led the Lafferty Brothers to kill an innocent woman and her child. The book has a thrilling start, describing Allen Lafferty coming home to find his wife and daughter lying in pools of their own blood. It then begins to take a look at who did this atrocious act, and what inspired them to do so.
Our Villains, the Lafferty Brothers
What motivated them to do so (in a very loose nutshell) was their religion: Fundamentalist Mormonism. Krakauer provides a fascinating history of Mormonism by looking at modern events, and then looking back at Mormon history to see what caused those events. This technique primarily uses the Lafferty brothers’ history, but it includes a host of other characters as well. In the process of unwrapping modern events, a fairly thorough history of Mormonism is unveiled. This history begins with Joseph Smith’s upbringing and leads all the way up until the modern day Later-Day Saints Church.
The history of Mormonism makes The Movie 300 seem a little less violent...
The title, Under the Banner of Heaven, relates to a quote by John Taylor "God is greater than the United States, and when the Government conflicts with heaven we will be ranged under the banner of heaven and against the Government. (loc 4130)" The idea behind this quote is that any action the Mormons took would be justified if the intentions were to help the Mormon Church. This idea was the impetus for a great deal of violence and controversial ideas that were prevalent in the early days of Mormonism. An important example of this revolves around Joseph Smith introducing the idea of polygamy into the Mormon Church. This idea led to the Prophet's assassination, which then led to even more violence climaxing at the Mountain Meadows Massacre. It was the extreme nature of this religion that led the United States Government to try to bankrupt the Church, and led the Church to give up the tenet of plural marriage.
Marry ALL the Women!
(and have ALL the babies!!!)
John Krakaeur describes how the Church's relinquishment of a key ritual for the sake of the government fueled a few Mormons to found the Fundamentalist Church. This fundamentalist church continued to follow a few of Mormonism's more extreme ideas including polygamy, and holding the belief that blacks were agents of Satan. This extreme environment drew in the Lafferty brothers because of their complete devotion to the Church, but unfortunately it also created an environment that fostered extremist ideas. The book describes how the Fundamentalist environment fostered the Lafferty brother's radicalism which, through a series of events, led to them to being convinced that Gold wanted them to kill a host of people in His Name.
Under the Banner of Heaven doesn't support any of these
This whole story sets the stage for the theme of the book, which is that religion is bad (mkay?). Krakaeur writes "All religious belief is a function of nonrational faith. And faith, by its very definition tends to be impervious to intellectual argument or academic criticism (loc 1301)." In other words, this irrationality allowed the Lafferty brothers to believe that what they were doing was justified. This idea is taken a step further to suggest that all religion, because of this blind faith, has the potential to breed violence and therefore can be a negative force in the world. Krakaeur, through ex-Mormon DeLoy, admits that its benefits include 'providing all the answers and making life simpler', but DeLoy goes on to say that "some things in life are more important than being happy. Like being free to think for yourself (loc 5470)."
Wait... But what about these peaceful Mormons?...
The one major pitfall of the book is that it is very one-sided, and tends to focus solely on the negative elements of religion. The book goes from one violent event to the next, and mostly ignores the positive contributions of Mormons and pious individuals. Despite the hard-working and good-hearted attitude of its practitioners, Krakaeur focuses solely on its bizarre beliefs and violent followers. There are many instances of people (including Fundamentalist Mormons) feeling shocked and appalled by the actions of the brothers, and almost every Mormon involved in this story tried to stop these horrendous acts from occurring. This book focuses on religion at its worst, and paints an unfair picture of its practitioners.
Despite its narrow perspective, Under the Banner of Heaven is a thrilling and fascinating read and should be read by anyone who is curious about Mormonism.
ALSO, despite doing my best to fact check everything Krakaeur wrote in the book, there is a possibility that I've misrepresented Mormonism in some way. Again, it is not my objective to portray religion in a negative light, rather this review is simply meant to convey the message of the book.
(PS the 'loc' citation is from my iPhone, as my iPhone didn't provide page numbers)