I have a friend –I know her through the homeschooling community–with an interest in the Church. She told me that one of the books that she read about the church was Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. Now, she’s not stupid–she didn’t expect it to be unbiased–but she did want to know my reaction to it. So I read it and then sent her this email:
I read Under the Banner of Heaven this weekend, and I think my reaction to it is probably about what your reaction would be to a book that argued that homeschooling should be illegal on the basis of a few abusive families who hid their abuse by claiming to homeschool.
I was really amazed at how fast and loose Krakauer was with the evidence. I could give you literally dozens of examples, but I doubt you want to read all that, so let me just pick a few:
(1) His entire explanation for Joseph Smith’s polygamy is that it was about fulfilling his sexual lust with what Krakauer calls ‘nubile adolescents.’ This thesis becomes a little less convincing when you know the ages of some of the women that he married: 47, 50/51, 53/54, 58, and 56 (while Joseph Smith was in his 30s).
(2) His basic thesis is that religious belief in general–and LDS belief in particular–causes people to be violent because rationality goes out the window when people think they can talk to God. This is a fairly easy thesis to prove or disprove–about all it takes is a quick look at the statistics to see if areas with high LDS populations have a higher or lower violent crime rate than the national average. Utah County is often used for this type of thing since it has about a 90% LDS population: “An FBI report showed the Provo-Orem area to have the second-lowest rate of violent crime in the nation for the year 2000.” Of course, Krakauer doesn’t mention this but instead focuses on a few lurid and sensational cases–as if there were a single minority group (racial, religious, lifestyle, whatever) that couldn’t be painted as a hothouse for violence on the basis of a few of its members.
(3) He writes about a revelation John Taylor had in 1886 that stated that polygamy would never be ended and that some church members would be called to be ostracized by the church for practicing polygamy. What he doesn’t mention in the text is that his only source for these revelations is . . . a book printed by the FLDS Church! But in the text, he makes it sound as if the revelations are only disputed by a few angry LDS leaders when, in fact, no historian would uncritically accept these as a historical source given their attestation.
(4) He pins the blame for the Mountains Meadow Massacre cleanly on Brigham Young, despite the fact that one of his own main source for that chapter [Juanita Brooks] wrote, “The completeâ€”the absoluteâ€”truth of the affair can probably never be evaluated by any human being; attempts to understand the forces which culminated in it and those which were set into motion by it are all very inadequate at best” (Brooks, p. 223).
(4) He often seemed to confuse the doctrine and practice of the LDS and FLDS churches; whether this was deliberate, sloppy writing, or based on his own ignorance of the differences, I can’t say. There are many false statements in the book, such as that the LDS church strongly discourages marriage between black and white members which is completely false. (In fact, a respected couple in my own congregation is an interracial couple.) Another one is that members–particularly women–are encouraged to be mindless sheep. But his own example of Brenda Lafferty as a headstrong woman who wouldn’t tolerate any nonsense suggests otherwise.
I could go on with similar examples from virtually every page, but I think you’ve gotten the feel for my response to this book. I hope that if it raised any specific questions for you, you’ll ask me.
Note: Lest you think that it is only one quirky woman using this book as a primer on Mormonism, go do a search on Amazon using the keyword ‘Mormon.’ Most days, you’ll get this book as the bestselling hit. It also comes up as the second most likely title to be purchased by someone who does that search. Ugh. Those interested in a more thorough response than mine should read this.