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When certainty reigns, reason goes into thin air

Jon Krakauer looks for the nature of faith in the violent murders committed by aberrant Mormons

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It's a provocative mix, which draws legitimately on the work of some Mormon historians who published church history with all its warts, history which leaders would have preferred to keep secret. But it is not tempered by discussion with church leaders or ordinary Latter-day Saints, whose lives evince a very different ethos.

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A brief analysis of the recent case of Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped by a Mormon fundamentalist keen to make her one of his seven wives, breaks no ground beyond news accounts.

The book's value (apart from as a riveting read) lies in its illuminating depiction of theocratic, polygamist communities, and family life as told by participants. It reveals marriages of teenagers and others "by commandment," sexual abuse - and how thousands are able to live freely and often take in millions in welfare checks while defying the law. It also includes voices of men and women who view the practice positively, such as a Mormon mother and daughter whose family is now for the first time considering polygamy.

After the church banned plural marriage in 1890, some leaders continued to condone and even practice it for a time; most Saints eventually turned against it. Yet, says Krakauer, Section 132 of the church's "Doctrine and Covenants" - Smith's revelation on the subject - remains part of scripture.

The recent Supreme Court decision on the private relations of homosexuals has already led some Americans to warn that it paves the way for a religious-freedom case for polygamy. Indeed, fundamentalists have pressed that case in the past.

Not surprisingly, the book has stirred strong reaction from the church. The implication that the Laffertys' crime followed in a line of violent past actions resulting from church teachings could lead readers to conclude "that every Latter-day Saint, including your friendly Mormon neighbor, has a tendency to violence," said Mike Otterson, church spokesman, in a statement. "Krakauer unwittingly puts himself in the same camp as those who believe every German is a Nazi ... and every Arab a terrorist."

The author's propensity to see religion as the natural source of violence is simplistic. Those who have studied religion's involvement in conflict see a much more complex picture - faith intertwining with nationalist/cultural elements on the political scene and with psychological/social factors in individual experience.

Krakauer himself mentions, for instance, that the Laffertys' strict father regularly hit them and their mother, and beat a family dog to death with a baseball bat in front of them. Just before the murders, Ron Lafferty's wife had left him and taken the children to Florida, and he was also in dire economic straits.

This is a gripping tale likely to capture a wide audience and draw attention to the Mormon church and little-known aspects of its history and teachings. It offers no clue, however, to what has spurred the faith's astonishing growth in recent decades. Nor does Krakauer offer, in the end, fresh insights on his stated aim of learning more about "the nature of faith."

Jane Lampman writes about religion and ethics for the Monitor.