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Under the Banner of Heaven is the new book from Jon Krakauer, who appears to want to shed the outdoors adventure label. With this book, he does a pretty good job.

One thread of the book is the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty, fundamentalist Mormons who killed their sister-in-law and niece. It’s an exploration of how two relatively typical men became — pardon the freighted language, but it’s accurate — insane religious fanatics. The brothers believed that God ordered them to carry out the killings.

Krakauer intertwines this with the history of Mormon fundamentalism, which is not simply conservative Mormonism; rather, it’s a blanket term for Mormon splinter sects which reject the teachings of the current Prophet. He does a good job exploring the somewhat xenophobic history of Mormonism, shining light on what was once a near-civil war between Utah and the federal government. He also draws a connection between the Mormon tradition of direct revelation and the beliefs of the Lafferty brothers.

Along the way, he talks about the polygamist settlements still thriving in the United States and Canada. (For example, Colorado City, Arizona.) It’s interesting stuff, shedding light on a subculture that produces people like the Laffertys and Brian David Mitchell.

However, I think Krakauer fell short. He considered the phenomenon of fundamentalist Mormonism in isolation, which gives the impression that there’s something uniquely Mormon about the anti-government rhetoric of the Laffertys. He fails to make the link between the Laffertys and the similar views found in the Christian Identity movement. It doesn’t make Under the Banner a bad book, but I think he missed a good opportunity to be more informative.

Lee Benson writes, in the Mormon newspaper Deseret News, “Throughout history, perfectly respectable religions have been used as the jumping-off spot for hundreds and thousands of people aiming for an orbit outside what’s right.” He’s right: the factors which drove the Laffertys into isolation and madness echo David Neiwart’s material with chilling precision.

The same economic downturn drives the Laffertys and the Montana Freeman; the problems of Idaho and Montana are not very far removed from the problems of Utah. That should be no surprise — while Utah is separated from other Northwestern states culturally, the economic forces which act upon it are the same. The Laffertys would fit perfectly into the world Neiwart describes in In God’s Country.

On the other hand, the Church of the Latter Day Saints is in theory a moderating factor in hard economic times. That’s a pretty important difference; those who fall into the Patriot movement are often those who can’t find help or comfort anywhere else. In theory, Mormons help their own. Did the Laffertys just slip through the cracks? Or does the streak of Mormon xenophobia, to whatever degree it really exists, act as an isolating factor and thus balance out the aid available from the Church?

Always more questions. Still, it’s a really interesting book — definitely recommended.

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