When certainty reigns, reason goes into thin air
Jon Krakauer looks for the nature of faith in the violent murders committed by aberrant Mormons
"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.... Polygamy is a divine institution.... The United States cannot abolish it."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Those are the provocative words of John Taylor, who in the late 19th century followed Brigham Young as "president, prophet, seer, and revelator" of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A decade later, however, the Mormon church reversed itself so that Utah could become a state.
Today, the church excommunicates those who practice polygamy, or "plural marriage." Yet communities of polygamists exist in Utah and elsewhere, and apparently continue to draw recruits from the mainstream. They see current leaders as having abandoned the true faith practiced by church founder Joseph Smith and successor Brigham Young, and believe God will raise up from among them a leader who will set all back in order.
It is into this zealous and startling world that Jon Krakauer takes readers of his latest book, "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith." The best-selling author of "Into Thin Air" and "Into the Wild" - portrayals of people who explore physical extremes - turns here to an exploration of religious extremism.
In 1984, Ron and Dan Lafferty, devout Mormon fundamentalists, brutally murdered their young sister-in-law and her 15-month-old daughter because she had urged wives to resist their plan to become polygamists. Dan, now serving a life sentence, and Ron, on death row, firmly believe that God told them to commit the murders and have shown no remorse.
In unraveling the origins of these horrific murders the author expressly links the violent acts not only to religious fanaticism but also to the history and teachings of America's fastest-growing religion.
Indeed, he aims to understand such fundamentalists "for what [they] may tell us about the roots of brutality, perhaps, but even more for what might be learned about the nature of faith."
A professed agnostic, Krakauer early on expresses his view of religion - "those murky sectors of the heart and head that prompt most of us to believe in God - and compel an impassioned few, predictably, to carry that irrational belief to its logical end.
"Faith is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness a crucial component of spiritual devotion," he adds.
It may not be surprising, then, that while this compelling book raises important issues - some pertinent to today's news - it also delivers a skewed and misleading picture of a faith now practiced by 11 million people worldwide.
Krakauer interweaves the story of the Laffertys, intimate views of polygamist life in several communities, and the history of Mormonism. He zeroes in on elements of church history particularly pertinent to his theme: violent clashes with non-Mormons in Missouri and Illinois (including Joseph Smith's murder by a mob); Smith's polygamy, which at first was surreptitious and later enunciated as a divine commandment; and church leaders' involvement in the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre of a wagon train heading to California.