By Jon Krakauer


Reviewed by John Ed Robertson


In this somewhat disturbing book, Jon Krakauer tells the story of the brutal murder of a woman and her infant daughter by two Mormon fundamentalists.  From this, he draws some troubling general conclusions about religious faith itself.  For example, in the Prologue, he writes:


There is a dark side to religious devotion that is too often ignored or denied.  As a means of motivating people to be evil or inhumane – as a means of inciting evil, to borrow the vocabulary of the devout – there may be no more potent force that religion.”


Krakauer is not the first to observe that religious devotion can have a very dark side.  Even Pascal, who was a committed follower of Jesus Christ, said something to the effect that men never do evil with as much enthusiasm and determination as when they do it our of a religious motivation.  The wars of religion in Europe in the 16th century have left most Europeans extremely mistrustful of religious fundamentalism, or what the French call “l’intégrisme”.


Krakauer weaves in the history of Mormonism, and specifically the history of Mormon fundamentalism, as he tells the story of the brutal murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty by Brenda’s two brothers-in-law, Ron and Dan Lafferty.  The specific reason for their murders was a “removal revelation” that Ron Lafferty had “received from God”, ordering him to remove Brenda because of her opposition to his Mormon fundamentalist doctrines (i.e. polygamy).


The public image of Mormons is that they are “chaste, optimistic, outgoing and dutiful”, but this contrasts with much of their history, and specifically the doctrine of plural marriage.  Krakauer observes that the Mormon Church is “exceedingly prickly about its short, uncommonly rich history – and no aspect of that history makes the church more defensive than ‘plural marriage’.”  Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants (part of the Mormon scriptures) describes plural marriage as “the most holy and important doctrine ever revealed to man on earth”, and teaches that man needs at least three wives to attain the “fullness of exaltation” in the afterlife.  It seems obvious that applying this doctrine would leave two men out of three with no wives (assuming a 50/50 birthrate), but Section 132 doesn’t address this unfortunate consequence, to my knowledge.


The Mormons were significantly persecuted in their early history, primarily because of their practice of polygamy.  Joseph Smith himself took 40 wives between 1840 and 1844, which coincided with many of his “revelations”, including Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants.  Even so, he was also known to frequent prostitutes.  It would therefore appear that Section 132 was a very convenient “revelation” for someone with such a prodigious sexual appetite.  In addition, many of his “wives” were pubescent girls who were threatened with eternal damnation if they didn’t consent to his advances.


Brigham Young was also a polygamist, and once Utah was granted statehood, he boasted of it openly in 1852.  This proved to be a pubic relations disaster, however, and in 1887 Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which dis-incorporated the LDS church and forfeited to the federal government all church property worth more than $50,000.  The church was therefore forced to publicly renounce polygamy in 1890, but “they quietly dispatched bands of Mormons to establish polygamous colonies in Mexico and Canada, and some of the highest-ranking LDS (Latter Day Saints) authorities secretly continued to take multiple wives and perform plural marriages well into the twentieth century.”


Nevertheless, throughout the twentieth century the Mormons gained respectability by jettisoning polygamy, and they are no longer considered a “crackpot sect”.  Mormon fundamentalists, however, consider that this is a grievous error, and there are colonies in remote areas of Utah, as well as Mexico and Canada who continue to practice “The Principle” as they refer to polygamy.


Under the Banner of Heaven is a troubling but thought-provoking account of a heinous crime committed in the context of extreme and misguided religious fundamentalism.  At the end of the book, the author “comes clean” about his own religious views, which helps explain his cynicism about religious conviction in general.  He writes:


“I don’t know what God is, or what God had in mind when the universe was set in motion.  In fact, I don’t know if God even exists, although I confess that I sometimes find myself praying in times of great fear, or despair, or astonishment at a display of unexpected beauty…I’ve come to terms with the fact that uncertainty is an inescapable corollary of life.  An abundance of mystery is simply part of the bargain – which doesn’t strike me as something to lament.  Accepting the essential inscrutability of existence, in any case, is surely preferable to its opposite: capitulating to the tyranny of intransigent belief….And if I remain in the dark about our purpose here, and the meaning of eternity, I have nevertheless arrived at an understanding of a few more modest truths.  Most of us fear death.  Most of us yearn to comprehend how we got here and why – which is to say, most of us, ache to know the love of our creator.  And we will no doubt feel that ache, most of us, for as long as we happen to be alive.”    


Nevertheless, Krakauer has great respect for thinking believers.  He undertook this project out of a desire “to grasp the nature of religious belief.”  He writes:


“I intended to explore the inner trials of spiritual thinkers who ‘walk in the shadows of faith’ as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described it.  How does a critical mind reconcile scientific and historical truth with religious doctrine?  How does one sustain belief when confronted with facts that appear to refute it?  I was fascinated by the paradoxes that reside at the intersection of doubt and faith, and I had a high regard for congenital skeptics, like Teilhard, who somehow emerged from the fray with their belief intact.”


The thing that seems to trouble him the most is blind, uncritical faith, faith that seems to believe in spite of the facts.  Writing of the Second Great Awakening during which Joseph Smith came of age, he writes: “The line separating religion from superstition can be indistinct.”  Krakauer focuses especially on the faith of those who believe that God has spoken to them directly, like Ron Lafferty, who believed that God had told him to “remove” Brenda and Erica Lafferty (as well as some others that he didn’t get around to).


This has ominous implications for those of us who believe that God hears and answers our prayers and even gives us divine guidance in many of the major decisions of our lives.  What is the difference between God leading a couple to get married or to serve God overseas and Him “leading” Ron and Dan Lafferty to kill their sister-in-law and niece?  To observers like Krakauer, the difference in process is not obvious, even if the difference in outcome is. 


In fact, the whole idea of the validity of the belief that human beings can interact directly with God was at the heart of an insanity defense mounted by Ron Lafferty’s retrial granted several years after he was convicted in the original trial.  The crux of their argument was that Lafferty was obviously insane if he believed that God “told” him to kill someone.  The prosecution argued that almost every religious belief system is made up 90% of things that are articles of faith and cannot be reduced to fact.  So by the defense’s reasoning, every religion in the world would be delusional.  Whether Ron’s beliefs were true or false, he explained, was irrelevant in determining whether he was mentally competent.  One had to consider other criteria.


Commenting on the insanity defense, Peggy Fletcher Stark, a highly respected journalist for The Salt Lake Tribune wrote:


 “Saying that anyone who talks to God is crazy has enormous implications for the whole world of religion.  It imposes a secular view of sanity and means that all religions are insane.”   


As it turned out, Ron, though not psychotic, did exhibit the symptoms of a psychological affliction known as narcissistic personality disorder, which is distinguished by:


”a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration and lack of empathy…, indicated by five (or more of the following:


1.      An exaggerated sense of self-importance

2.      Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love.

3.      Believes that he or she is “special” and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people.

4.      Requires excessive admiration

5.      Has a sense of entitlement

6.      Selfishly takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.

7.      Lacks empathy

8.      Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.

9.      Shows arrogant, haughty, patronizing, or contemptuous behaviors or attitudes.


Although Krakauer does not overtly acknowledge it in the book, this suggests a very significant difference between sincere followers of Jesus Christ and the Lafferty brothers.  Narcissism is the very antithesis of the Bible’s teaching on humility, best exemplified by the kenosis (self-emptying) of Jesus Christ, as summarized in Philippians 2:3-8.  The author quotes Anthony Stone, author of Feet of Clay:


“What distinguishes gurus from more orthodox teachers is not their manic-depressive mood swings, not their thought disorders, not their delusional beliefs, not their hallucinatory visions, not their mystical states of ecstasy; it is their narcissism.” 


Krakauer concludes: “But if all self-proclaimed prophets are narcissists, few narcissists believe that they are prophets of God.”  In other words, there are many narcissists who do not believe that they are prophets of God (see People magazine), but self-proclaimed prophets are almost always narcissists.  As a result: “Ambiguity vanishes from the fanatic’s worldview; a narcissistic sense of self-assurance displaces all doubt.”


This is a fascinating book, but it was not easy to read, because it called into question the idea of divine guidance in specific decisions, such as marriage, vocation, etc.  Of course, we have all the guidance we need for many decisions in the normative teaching of the Bible, but we also believe that God will give us specific guidance in decisions where the Bible leaves us a choice (whom we should marry, where we should work, etc.).  This book is nevertheless very helpful in helping us see how some of our “God-talk” sounds to unbelievers.  Statements like “God led me to…”, though true and legitimate, may nevertheless sound bizarre to our unbelieving friends.  Perhaps it would be better to say, “I prayed a lot about this, and this is what I concluded, etc.”


Another way in which this book is helpful is in stressing the need to accept a certain amount of ambiguity.  As Krakauer writes, “I’ve come to terms with the fact that uncertainty is an inescapable corollary of life.  An abundance of mystery is simply part of the bargain – which doesn’t strike me as something to lament.  Accepting the essential inscrutability of existence, in any case, is surely preferable to its opposite: capitulating to the tyranny of intransigent belief.”  Every believer, if he or she is honest, has a pile of unanswered questions.  Faith is not the absence of ambiguity; it is living by what we believe in the midst of ambiguity.  I have often said that, as I get older, I become more and more sure of fewer and fewer things.  In other words, the list of things I am sure about is getting shorter and shorter, but I am more and more convinced of the things on the list.


                                                                                                John Ed Robertson

                                                                                                November 24, 2003