Author examines dangers of religious extremism

Book causing headaches for Mormon church

By C.G. Wallace

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY -- Best-selling author Jon Krakauer has built a reputation on gripping portrayals of those who push their physical limits. Now the writer has set his sights on spiritual extremes, and his upcoming book is already creating headaches for the image-conscious Mormon church.

"Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith" looks at the dangers of religious extremism through those who claim to follow the original teachings of the Mormon church, a tenet of which was polygamy.


These Mormon breakaways, who often call themselves fundamentalists, still practice polygamy -- even though The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially abandoned the practice in 1890 and works to this day to distance itself from the subject.

Krakauer, who declined to be interviewed, is best known for "Into Thin Air," his firsthand account of a doomed expedition on Mount Everest. That book, along with his earlier "Into the Wild," were national best sellers.

In "Under the Banner of Heaven," Krakauer turns his attention to the 1984 murders of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, in rural Utah at the hands of Brenda's fundamentalist brothers-in-law.

The author uses those deaths as the basis for an argument that, because of Mormon inconsistencies and silences about the dark corners of the faith's past, the LDS church has been unable to break free from embarrassing and sometimes tragic episodes.

The church, meanwhile, has been forceful in rebuking Krakauer's book. Spokesman Michael Otterson called the writer's attempt to link religious zealots with Mormon history and doctrine "a full-frontal assault on the veracity of the modern church."

The slayings that form the basic story line were committed by Dan and Ron Lafferty, who slit their victims' throats with a 10-inch boning knife and later claimed God had ordered the slayings. The men were tried separately; Dan Lafferty is serving a life sentence, and Ron Lafferty -- who claimed to have the revelation to kill -- is on death row.

With Dan Lafferty as a main source, Krakauer writes that the brothers decided to practice polygamy and committed the killings because Brenda opposed them.

Weaving details of the deaths throughout the book, "Under the Banner of Heaven" tries to add a larger context to the killings and their alleged connection to Mormon fundamentalism.


It examines the secretive communities of polygamists, those who have given up the practice, and the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case. The girl's alleged abductor, Brian David Mitchell, claims God told him to take Elizabeth as a "sister wife."

The book also devotes long sections to Mormon founder Joseph Smith and his revelation that believers in the faith should practice polygamy.

Though Smith is regarded by the Latter-day Saints as a prophet directly and uniquely guided by God, Krakauer characterizes him as a grifter and philanderer. He also explores the violent chapters of history, including the religion's role in the massacre of California-bound pioneers in 1857.

Krakauer's "basic thesis appears to be that people who are religious are irrational, and that irrational people do strange things," Otterson said. "He does a huge disservice to his readers by promulgating old stereotypes."

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