Violence From Heaven?

November 16, 2004

On a friend’s recommendation, I recently read John Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith”. I had seen Richard Turley’s review of the book, so I was especially interested to see Krakauer’s arguments and supporting material first hand. I was not disappointed. Even those skeptical of Krakauer’s motives will find the book an entertaining read on LDS and Utah history.

Krakauer tells the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty, brothers from the Payson, Utah area, who were commanded by revelation from God to “remove” their sister-in-law and her infant daughter from the earth. They succeeded in the removal, carrying out one of the most brutal double murders in Utah history on July 24, 1984. But were ultimately apprehended and convicted of capital murder in separate trials (a jury spared Dan the death penalty).

Krakauer attempts to connect the Laffertys’ crime to other violent events in Mormon history: early conflicts between Joseph Smith and the Saints in Missouri and Illinois, Porter Rockwell’s zealous activities, the Mountain Meadows massacre, Mark Hoffman bombings, and various activities of Mormon fundamentalists in Arizona, Utah, and Idaho. All the while Krakauer, admitedly a non-religious agnostic, points out that all actors in the violent events presented have in common a devout, even fanatical, belief in God, specifically the Mormon concept of God. Apparently, highly religious individuals, especially Mormons, are in a unique position to be motivated to commit acts of violence.

While Krakauer distinguishes between mainstream LDS and Mormon fundamentalist outsiders, he does suggest that something inherent in Mormon doctrine, and religion, generally, can encourage (illegal) violent activity. This suggestion raises two questions: First, does religious belief lead to violence more than non-religious values and worldviews? And second, does Mormon history or doctrine foster violent activity more than other religious doctrine?

I want to hear your answers, but my initial reaction is “no” to both questions. Deadly violence is equally fostered by religious and secular forces and, on the whole, is equally administered among religions. The simple reality is human beings are violent creatures. For every example of religious violence raised by Krakauer there are multiple examples of violence motivated by utterly non-religious factors. Think, for example, of the individuals in Florida who broke into a residence at night and killed a handful of people with baseball bats because the victims allegedly had a Nintendo system that belonged to one of the killers.

Turley’s review (published in the book’s afterward) highlights a number of weak points in Krakauer’s research and historical conclusions, but it doesn’t really address the larger philosophical arguments regarding religion’s role in the violent behavior of its adherents.