Under the Banner of Heaven will be the third book I have read from author Jon Krakauer. The other two books include his moving non-fiction account of the harrowing 1996 summit of Mt. Everest, Into Thin Air, and the compelling research retrospective about the last two years of life for Christopher McCandless in Into The Wild. In Under The Banner Of Heaven Krakauer tells two stories: the formation and evolution of the the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a 1984 double murder committed by members of a separatist polygamist sect of Mormonism. Krakauer’s editors and publishers have provided this description of the book on its back cover:
Jon Krakauer’s literary reputation rests on insightful chronicles of lives conducted at the outer limits. He now shifts his focus from extremes of physical adventure to extremes of religious belief within our own borders, taking readers inside isolated American communities where some 40000 Mormon Fundamentalists still practice polygamy. Defying both civil authorities and the Mormon establishment in Salt Lake City, the renegade leaders of these Taliban-like theocracies are zealots who answer only to God.
At the core of Krakauer’s book are brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, who insist they received a commandment from God to kill a blameless woman and her baby girl. Beginning with a meticulously researched account of this appalling double murder, Krakauer constructs a multilayered, bone-chilling narrative of messianic delusion, polygamy, savage violence, and unyielding faith. Along the way he uncovers a shadowy offshoot of America’s fastest growing religion, and raises provocative question about the nature of religious belief.
Despite the incendiary language, the blurb worked. It got my attention. This text is not alone, however, in moving Mormonism and polygamy to the forefront of American cultural media. HBO’s series Big Love has garnered critical acclaim and two Golden Globe nominations with its attempt to make a fair portrayal of polygamy in America without being judgmental. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney helped to bring Mormonism to the national stage with his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Mainstream media covered Romney’s religious affiliations extensively in the 2008 campaign. Many political analysts considered Romney the top candidate until John McCain‘s Super Tuesday results proved otherwise. Most recently, stories surrounding the Yearning for Zion Ranch in West Texas and the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have been prominent in national news for the past month.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the primary church of Mormonism that rejected the practice of polygamy in 1890, criticized Under the Banner of Heaven even before the book’s publication, stating “This book is not history, and Krakauer is no historian. He is a storyteller who cuts corners to make the story sound good. His basic thesis appears to be that people who are religious are irrational, and that irrational people do strange things.”
My skepticism urges me to disagree with the LDS’ claim as to Krakauer’s basic thesis. My experience reading his two other books bolsters my opinion that Krakauer is a meticulous journalist with integrity and credibility. Krakauer has responded publicly to the church and I expect I will read the entirety of the church’s criticism, and Krakauer response after completing the book itself.