Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven; A Story of Violent Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 2003, 2004), 399pp.
This NY Times best seller recounts the grisly 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter Erica by Ron and Dan Lafferty (Brenda's brothers-in-law). The crime was horrific enough in itself, but what drives this narrative is that the Lafferty brothers were part of a Mormon cult immersed in polygamy and believed that they had received direct revelations from God to commit the murders. Switching back and forth from the murder plot to Mormon history (with particular attention to the role of polygamy), this book is hard to put down. Krakauer is a fine writer (I enjoyed his book Into Thin Air), but I had several problems with the book.
Mormonism is one of the fastest growing religions in the world; there are more Mormons in America than Presbyterians or Episcopalians, and more Mormons worldwide than Jews. Whether deliberately or unwittingly, though, Krakauer's book insinuates that this despicable crime somehow typifies the larger Mormon movement, and that is utterly false. If you read carefully, you realize that the Laffertys were part of a tiny splinter group that itself is part of an offshoot called the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, who believe mainstream Mormonism has betrayed the faith. In fact, Krakauer admits that there are over 200 (!) such schismatic, unaffiliated Mormon sects (p. 79). However weird and interesting, these splinter groups make up less than 1% of mainstream Mormonism, and are roundly rejected by the latter. Mainstream LDS, for example, reputed polygamy long ago. These tiny splinter groups, you can easily imagine, embody all the worst excesses and abuses of religion run amuck. Further, the mainstream Mormon history that Krakauer recounts is interesting enough, but is nothing new and is better accessed in more scientific and thorough accounts. Third, in numerous places Krakauer advances the ridiculous notion that religious faith is antithetical to rational thought (pp. xxiii, 70, 191, 259). Fourth, it is sad but true that religion has been a source, even a cause, of evil in our world. But Krakauer says nothing new by reminding us of that. The Lafferty murders are one example. But there are far better books and ways to consider this important topic than to sensationalize a lurid murder and insinuate that it somehow characterizes broader Mormonism or even religion in general. See, for example, Charles Kimball's fine book When Religion Becomes Evil. Finally, and most revealing, toward the very end of the book Krakauer writes that "the genesis for this book was a desire to grasp the nature of religious belief" (p. 335). That is a wonderful and worthy quest, but it's ridiculous to pursue that quest by studying a horrific crime committed by mentally deranged people who are part of an obscure, schismatic sect.