Reviewed by Rebekah Benoit
Religious zealots are big news these days. People consumed by faith, to the point where they leave all rational thought behind and blindly follow the path their view of religion takes them on, have always fascinated, but since 9-11, the mainstream has developed a much keener curiosity.
It’s comfortable for us to think of religious zealots as “those other people,” people separated by geography and a vast cultural gulf, those whose religious views are as different from mainstream Canadians as night and day.
But Jon Krakauer’s story of religious fanaticism is compelling and original because it strikes much closer to home. With the same characteristic keen insight and razor-sharp wit Krakauer has employed in his previous books, he explores religious zealotry within the Fundamental Mormon church, a group which has made headlines in recent years for their practice of polygamy and charges of child marriages, sexual abuse and violence within the walls of their compounds. These zealots, who refer to everyone who isn’t part of their own religious group as Gentiles and believe that every man who doesn’t have at least two wives is bound for hell, aren’t far away in some distant country — they’re right here in our own backyard – based mostly out of Utah, but with important outposts right here in Canada, in British Columbia and even southern Alberta.
Krakauer’s account of the darker side of religious faith begins with a blood-chilling story. In the midst of a hot summer day in 1984, two men knocked on the door of a nondescript house in the small town of American Fork, Utah and waited for the young woman who lived there, Brenda Lafferty, to answer the door. The men were hardly strangers — Dan and Ron Lafferty were Brenda’s brothers-in-law, and there was a long history of bad blood between them. When the men left the home a short time later, Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month old baby Erica were dead, their throats slashed with a 10-inch boning knife. A week later, the two men were apprehended by police as they stood in line for the buffet in Reno, Nevada.
There was far more to this hideous crime than just family politics gone wrong. Ron and Dan Lafferty were both formerly devout Mormons who had recently become Fundamentalists and ardent supporters of not only polygamy, but the idea of blood atonement and violence. While Ron and Dan Lafferty’s claims — that the gruesome murder of Brenda and her baby were ordered by revelations from God — might seem like the ramblings of lunatics, their case would call into question the very nature of religious faith itself.
Krakauer not only explores the face of Mormon Fundamentalism today, which some reports have said hides behind its compound walls a multitude of sins from tax fraud to child abuse and sexual assault, he also takes an in-depth look at the history of the Mormon church itself. His warts-and-all approach, which begins with the revelation of Joseph Smith of the book of Mormon in 1823, explores how deeply interwoven the practice of polygamy is within the earliest roots of the Mormon church, as well as how a culture of violence, a culture that the mainstream Mormon church has worked hard to eradicate, gave birth to the Fundamentalist religion itself.
One of the reasons this book works so well is because Krakauer is very familiar with the world of extremists. Krakauer is perhaps best known for his Everest memoir Into Thin Air, which chronicles his journey to the top of Everest in one of the most lethal seasons ever seen on the mountain, which saw many of his fellow climbers die on the windswept peaks of the world’s tallest mountain. Krakauer is comfortable with the idea of extremism — in his own words, “In any human endeavour, some fraction of its participants will be motivated to pursue that activity with such concentrated focus and unalloyed passion that it will consume them utterly,” he says, adding with wry humour, “…one has to look no further than individuals who feel compelled to devote their lives to becoming concert pianists, say, or climbing Mount Everest.”
Krakauer is no stranger to controversy. Into Thin Air drew intense criticism from some of his fellow climbers who questioned the veracity of his story and tried to deflect blame off themselves for the many deaths that occurred that season. Thanks to Krakauer’s exacting research, which digs into the more unsavoury aspects of the Mormon church’s history, the church itself fired back with gusto, claiming Krakauer’s account was one-sided and based on questionable historic sources. As so often happens, the church’s protests only make the book seem more provocative and intriguing.
Under the Banner of Heaven is a skillfully-crafted combination of riveting true crime, meticulously-researched history and philosophical reflection on the nature of faith itself and where that shadowy line exists between devotion and zealotry.