Under the Banner of Heaven
by John Krakauer
2013 • 372 pages • Doubleday
To celebrate the Fourth of July this year, my local Alamo Drafthouse Cinema screened two films—Top Gun, which we’ve already been over, and a Quote-Along for Team America: World Police. Specifically, a Quote-Along for Team America: World Police’s tenth anniversary. I’ve never seen that movie, but watching the brief advertisement for the upcoming Quote-Along, I was instantly taken back to the political climate of the United States in the early aughts.
While the nostalgia wheel has turned to the nineties (which explains the amount of Sailor Moon and Xena: Warrior Princess I’ve been consuming) per its traditional twenty year delay, the aughts are finally far enough behind us to take a certain narrative shape. There’s even a new VH1 series, I Love the 2000s, to prove it. This is nothing new for history and nostalgia, but it is something new for me.
As a little kid in the nineties, I only remember vague bits and pieces of pop culture from that decade—whatever managed to slip through the nearly impenetrable pop culture-proof bubble Madame McBride inadvertently created for me. But as a preteen and teenager in the aughts, there was no escaping the Bush administration. I remember watching the election results with my father in fifth grade, tearing my way through every red Tootsie Pop in a bag, and then discussing the following debacle on the bus with other kids. I remember visiting family in Washington D.C. and fidgeting uncomfortably alongside my French mother and French-American father when faced with Freedom Fries and Freedom Vanilla. I remember starting to watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report religiously and starting my political education.
It feels odd to remember how threatened I felt then, especially because my government just decided that my employer gets to participate in my decisions regarding my reproductive health and I’ve since learned that marriage equality is not the most important thing when it comes to queer rights. But the us versus them narrative was more explicit in those days, with a heavy, occasionally murderous dose of anti-Muslim sentiment.
Which is exactly what Under the Banner of Heaven was trying to combat when it was published in 2003. While the text itself doesn’t date itself beyond occasionally indicating what year Krakauer is writing in, it’s inherently a product of its time. In investigating the hideous murder of a woman and her infant by a pair of fundamentalist extremist Mormons and the origins of the Mormon Church, Krakauer is delivering a corrective to the contemporary narratives about Islam circulating in the American news cycle and culture at the time. If, Krakauer argues, there’s nothing more American than hardworking, upstanding white folk, then what it does it say about our attitudes towards religion when we’re happy to condemn an entire faith for its extremists but excuse another?
He alternates between the motivations of the Lafferty brothers, who killed their sister-in-law and their infant niece apparently at the behest of God, and the history of the Mormon Church. In the afterword, Krakauer admits to being fascinated by the fact that the church is so young, allowing for a paper trail to be followed from its inception to its current practice. He lays it all out at a comfortable but undeniably gripping pace, all the more impressive for the fact that we know who the murderers are in the first few pages. The real mystery to be solved here is not even why they did—it’s why fundamentalism exists in any faith tradition.
That’s a massive question. And it’s one Krakauer doesn’t answer, mostly because it’s a question that cannot be answered. But he can question the role of faith in America’s supposedly secular society. The focus on the Lafferty murders is less due to the nature of the murder—although murdering the one wife in a family that stood up to sexist abuse is certainly thematically rich—and more due to the legal implications of the trials that followed. If Ron Lafferty is deemed mentally ill for the murderous and hateful pitch of his religion, doesn’t that imply that the faithful and spiritual are mentally ill for their beliefs in the first place? How far, exactly, can we presume to protect one’s religious freedom?
My answer, sitting here in 2014, safe from George W. Bush’s administration’s ministrations, is as far as our fingertips reach. But my government protects the religious freedom of others all over my body—and the body of anyone with a uterus.
Things change; things stay the same. I wonder if I’ll look back in ten years and be more or less frightened.
I rented this book from the public library.