“Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith“ is the title of Krakauers hot-off-the-presses tome, and the author seems to be everywhere these days, both promoting and defending his new non-fiction work, which is as creepy as it is absorbing and provocative.
The book centers around a brutal double murder committed in 1984 by two Mormon Fundamentalist brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who say they received a mandate from God to kill their innocent and blameless victims, Brenda, the wife of their younger brother Allen, and their 15-month-old daughter. Apparently, the pair were killed because Brenda was beginning to speak out against the level of wifely submission being required by the faith practiced by the Laffertys, which was a renegade faction of Mormonism not practiced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The heinous crime, though, wasnt Krakauers original focus in writing his book. A non-religious person himself who was raised in the west, he has long been fascinated with the strength of others convictions about faith, and wanted to explore the general nature of religious belief in some significant way. A few years ago, he discovered the town of Colorado City, AZ, which is a polygamous community with citizens who are Mormon Fundamentalists. Fascinated, he sought to understand more about them, and then learned about the Lafferty murders. Their true crime story became a means of exploring why and how people can do the unthinkable in the name of God.
Early in the book, Krakauer sets the stage for his “multilayered, bone-chilling narrative of messianic delusion, savage violence, polygamy, and unyielding faith“ by describing the structure of life in Colorado City:
“Extreme and bizarre religious ideas are so commonplace in American history that it is difficult to speak of them as fringe at all. To speak of a fringe implies a mainstream, but in terms of numbers, perhaps the largest component of the religious spectrum in contemporary America remains what it has been since colonial times: a fundamentalist evangelicalism with powerful millenarian strands... Snaking diagonally across the top of Arizona, the Grand Canyon is a stupendous, 277-mile rent in the planet‘s hide that functions as a formidable natural barrier, effectively cutting off the northwestern corner from the rest of the state... There is, however, one relatively large municipality here. Colorado City, home to some nine thousand souls, is more than five times as populous as any other town in the district... All but a handful of the town‘s residents are Mormon Fundamentalists. They live in this patch of desert in the hope of being left alone to follow the sacred principle of plural marriage without interference from government authorities or the LDS Church.
Straddling the Utah-Arizona border, Colorado City is home to at least three Mormon Fundamentalist sects, including the world‘s largest: the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. More commonly known as the United Effort Plan, or UEP, it requires its members live in strict accordance with the commandments of a frail, ninety-two-year-old tax accountant-turned-prophet named Rulon T. Jeffs...
“A lot of people here are convinced Uncle Rulon is going to live forever,“ says DeLoy Bateman, a forty-eight-year-old science teacher at Colorado City High School...Members of the religion, he explains, are forbidden to watch television or read magazines or newspapers. The temptations of the outside world loom large, however, and some members of the faith inevitably succumb. “As soon as you ban something,“ DeLoy observes, “you make it incredibly attractive. People will sneak into St. George or Cedar City and buy themselves a dish, put it up where it can‘t easily be seen, and secretly watch TV during every free moment. Then one Sunday Uncle Rulon will give one of his sermons about the evils of television. He‘ll announce that he knows exactly who has one, and warn that everyone who does is putting their eternal souls in serious jeopardy...As the TV prohibition suggests, life in Colorado City under Rulon Jeffs bears more than a passing resemblance to life in Kabul under the Taliban. Uncle Rulon‘s word carries the weight of law. The mayor and every other city employee answers to him, as do the entire police force and the superintendent of public schools. Even animals are subject to his whim. Two years ago a Rottweiler killed a child in town. An edict went out that dogs would no longer be allowed within the city limits. A posse of young men was dispatched to round up all the canines, after which the unsuspecting pets were taken into a dry wash and shot.“
Krakauers references to the Taliban, a theme that rumbles underneath the surface of the story, are significant here. In a time where many Americans have great difficulty comprehending what drives fundamentalist Islams to kill in the name of their faith, Krakauer is strongly suggesting that we look in our own back yard. To do just that, he takes readers inside isolated communities in the American West, Canada, and Mexico, where more than 40,000 Mormon Fundamentalists have broken away from the mainstream Mormon Church and actively practice polygamy. They also defy civil authority and believe they need only be accountable to God, something that led to the murders committed by the Lafferty brothers.
That chilling and tragic story of the brothers and their like-minded fanatical brethren reveals an underbelly of American religious extremism that is quite disturbing. Carefully researched , historically based and quite open-minded in tone, Krakauer is not grinding an axe with the Mormon faith or church as most know it (the fastest-growing faith in the Western Hemisphere), but has focused on the patriarchal, cult_like offshoots that not only exist, but continue to thrive in certain parts of our country and elsewhere. In them, there are belief systems that are amazingly similar to those of fundamentalist Islams, and seeing that reflection in this literary mirror will not be an easy one for some readers. Still, much like any other form of belief, faith can be taken to extremes in the name of God, and its results can be devastating, as is shown here. Atheist, agnostic or believer, its a sobering concept indeed.