Saturday, April 01, 2006

Under the Banner of Heaven

Which comes first? The chicken or the egg? More to the point in Jon Krakeauer's "Under the Banner of Heaven," does harsh, fundamentalist religion create sociopathic killers or conditions in which they may arise, or do sociopaths merely use bits and pieces of doctrine and scripture to justify their criminal behaviors? Krakauer's book appears to move in the first direction, then seemingly makes a turn in the other direction just at the very end.

Krakauer tells the sordid tale of Ron and Dan Lafferty of Utah Valley, who murdered their sister-in-law and infant niece because Ron had received a revelation telling to commit the murders. The Laffertys were self-styled "funadamenatlist Mormons" (FunMos, thanks Todd!) who believed in polygamy and that the main LDS Church marched into damnation when it discontinued the practice of "the Principle." The Laffertys also fancied themselves--or at least Ron--as prophets ("The One Mighty and Strong" foretold in the "Doctrine and Covenants," a holy book of all Mormon-oriented groups).

They also became obsessive about the doctrine of Blood Atonement, which was preached by Brigham Young. Brigham's record regarding that doctrine was tainted by the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, an incident for which the LDS Church disclaims responsibility, but about which the critics of the Church will not shut up. Recent publications make Brigham appear quite complicit, though most of the evidence is circumstantial. The massacre is recounted in great detail, and blame is placed squarely on Brigham. The MMM is a sort of smoking gun for Krakauer's thesis that extreme faith may lead people to extreme acts of violence. It could be, however, that the massacre is more in line with the notion that people are smart but groups of people are mean and stupid, or however that goes, especially when they are led by individual zealots. By the way, the LDS Church recently officially renounced Blood Atonement as a doctrine in order for the Utah Legislature to abolish the firing squad.

Krakauer's narrative consists of alternating chapters about the Laffertys and about the history of Mormon and FunMo polygamy. Some FunMo groups still talk about Blood Atonement, and all adherents of the religions that call themselves Mormon believe in prophets--though, obviously, the institutional churches can have only one active prophet at a time, or they would disintegrate into tiny groups, each following its own guru. Ron Lafferty, who evidently was not a member of ANY of the generally recognized Mormon churches (though he had been excommunicated from the LDS Church) received a hit list in the form of a revelation. Coincidentally, the people named on the divine hit list just happened to be the people Ron blamed for the collapse of his marriage and for his excommunication. That little coincidence suggests to me that Lafferty was simply a sociopathic nut who would have latched onto some oddball interpretation of the doctrines of, say, the Southern Baptist Convention, were he raised in a Southern Baptist environment, in order to justify his murders.

Krakauer's argument gets a little wobbly here, and, to his credit, he also discusses Ron's retrial, at which the defense argued that Ron's religious beliefs rendered him insane. Various mental health professionals--some Mormon, some not--testified convincingly that intelligent, rational people can hold beliefs that are non-rational, or even extreme, without being clinically insane.

Krakauer closes the paperback edition of his book with the entirety of the official LDS Church response to his book (guess what? They didn't like it.) He replies to the response, which mostly critique nitpicky little details and Krakauer's interpretive spin on facts that aren't really disputed. Krakauer, who is not LDS, closes with a plea for a more open examination of LDS history.

Bet he watches "Big Love."

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Phoebe said...

I'll refrain from commenting on that ... that .... church (turns head to spit), but I would like to ask you to sometime write up what you thought of the book, "Collapse." I saw the cover of it in a bookstore in the George F'en Bush airport in Houston two days ago. Loved "Guns, Germs and Steel," and hope he explains the fallen civilization thing without cutting and pasting from his other book too much.

Randy said...

Not too much cutting and pasting in Collapse. It's taken me way too long to get through it.

Mike D. said...

i enjoyed krakauer's book a lot. i agree that lds inc's response to it was largely nitpicking at small factual errors that didn't really have much to do w/ krakauer's thesis. this book was the start of my journey out of mo'ism--it introduced me to a lot of history that i didn't know, and led me to look for other books on mormon history. and we all know how dangerous that can be.