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August 3, 2003, Sunday
BOOK REVIEW DESK, Thou Shalt Kill, By Robert Wright
UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN, A Story of Violent Faith, By Jon Krakauer, 372 pp. New York: Doubleday. $26.
SINCE Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have talked a lot about the dark side of religion, but for the most part it isn't religion in America they've had in mind. Jon Krakauer wants to broaden their perspective. In ''Under the Banner of Heaven,'' he enters the obscure world of Mormon fundamentalism to tell a story of, as he puts it, ''faith-based violence.''
In July 1984, in a Utah town called American Fork, Dan Lafferty entered the home of his brother Allen, who was at work, and killed Allen's wife and 15-month-old daughter. Dan, now serving a life sentence, has no remorse about the murders and no trouble explaining them. His older brother, Ron, who assisted in the crime and is now on death row, had received a revelation from God mandating that Brenda and Erica Lafferty be ''removed'' so that, as God put it, ''my work might go forward.'' Brenda Lafferty, a spunky 24-year-old, had been bad-mouthing polygamy and in other ways impeding the fundamentalist mission that had seized Ron and Dan.
Parallels between the Lafferty brothers and Islamic terrorists aren't obvious, and Krakauer doesn't explore them very explicitly. The author of ''Into Thin Air,'' the best-selling account of death on Mount Everest, he is essentially a narrative writer. He mentions Osama bin Laden near the beginning and end of the book and leaves it for readers to draw their own conclusions, with some help from the book jacket's reference to ''Taliban-like theocracies in the American heartland.''
Still, by setting Mormon fundamentalism in its historical and scriptural context, and by powerfully illuminating Dan Lafferty's mind, Krakauer provides enough raw material for a seminar on post-9/11 questions. What drives people toward fundamentalism, and then toward violence? Where is the line between religious fanaticism and insanity? How heavy is the influence of religious history, in particular scripture, as opposed to the material conditions of modern life?
Mormon fundamentalists aren't Mormons in the common sense of the word. They don't belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which abandoned the doctrine of ''plural marriage'' in 1890. Many live in small towns (the ''Taliban-like theocracies'') where men evade anti-bigamy laws by having one lawful wife and additional ''spiritual'' wives. Others -- especially ''independents,'' who belong to no particular fundamentalist sect -- just blend into the landscape. The street preacher who allegedly kidnapped 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart last year and forced her to ''marry'' him was an independent.
Dan and Ron Lafferty weren't born into this world. They were raised as severely pious but mainstream Mormons, and both were married before they flirted with fundamentalism.
Dan went first. It might seem that a man's attraction to a polygamous sub-culture needs little explaining, especially if he comes from a religion that discourages nonmarital sex with inordinate vigor. But Dan's conversion was about more than wanderlust. After his mom-and-pop sandwich business was shut down for lack of a license, leaving his family in a financial bind, he grew ardently averse to government regulation and found backing for this sentiment in the Book of Mormon. It was in this libertarian spirit that he came to reject the Mormon Church's jettisoning of polygamy; church leaders had caved in to an invasive federal government.
Ron, like Dan, turned toward fundamentalism while under economic pressure. The bank was about to foreclose on his home -- he would sometimes break into tears over his family's plight -when Dan convinced him that God wanted him to forsake material goals and become a fundamentalist missionary. Dan also drew his four other brothers into the fold, but there was one problem: Brenda, the wife of his brother Allen. As the Lafferty boys started espousing polygamy and other strange things, Brenda urged the other wives to resist. And Ron's wife took Brenda's advice in spades. She divorced Ron and took the children to Florida. So when Ron's divine revelation about Brenda's ''removal'' arrived, he was in a receptive frame of mind.
Though organized around the Lafferty brothers' crime, ''Under the Banner of Heaven'' recounts the always interesting history of Mormonism, starting with the day in 1823 when the New York visionary and suspected charlatan Joseph Smith met an angel named Moroni. Krakauer wants to show how the Lafferty murder is rooted in the Mormon past. He emphasizes, for example, the doctrine of ''blood atonement,'' stressed by Smith but later dropped by the church.
It's true that Dan Lafferty, while delving into church history, encountered this idea. But it's also true that by then he already harbored volatile grievances and that he had come from a violent background; his father killed the family dog with a baseball bat as family members looked on. Most religions, and certainly the monotheistic ones, have odes to violence in their scriptural past. (See, for example, Deuteronomy.) The question is what makes some people more inclined than others to latch onto these passages.
However valid Krakauer's linkage of past and present, it steepens an already formidable storytelling challenge. The contemporary parts of the book -skipping from the Lafferty case to sketches of two fundamentalist towns to a late-breaking chapter on Elizabeth Smart -- can themselves disorient the reader with disparate detail. (From a strictly literary standpoint, polygamy's main downside is its creation of lots of characters with the same last name.) With long historical sections mixed in, the momentum dissipates further. Almost every section of the book is fascinating in its own right, and together the chapters make a rich picture, but there is little narrative synergy among them.
The book ends near the desert town of Colorado City, Ariz., a bastion of fundamentalism, with DeLoy Bateman, a resident, reflecting on his conversion to atheism. He grants that believers are happy but says happiness isn't as important as being free to think for yourself. He's referring partly to the totalitarian undercurrent of Mormon fundamentalism. (The town's leading prophet tells his flock to avoid television, magazines and newspapers -- and sometimes tells teenage girls whom they should marry.) Still, this, the book's closing note, will be taken by some as a verdict on religion writ large -- especially since, at the moment Bateman notes religion's conduciveness to happiness, he happens to look out over ''a quivering sheen of mirage.''
Certainly the picture of religion presented in the book is unflattering. Linking the Laffertys to Mormon history means stressing its violent and authoritarian aspects. And of course neither of these is an invention of Krakauer's. (Polygamous societies in general tend toward authoritarianism, as the anthropologist Laura Betzig has shown. She attributes this to the need of powerful men to control not just women but the understandably unsettled lower-status males who, through the grim mathematics of polygamy, go mateless.) Still, it would have been nice to see some of religion's upside. Something must explain the vibrancy of mainstream Mormonism, and I doubt it's just the dark energy of residual authoritarianism. Religion, like patriotism, can nurture virtue within the group even while directing hostility beyond it.
Courtroom arguments over Ron Lafferty's sanity impinge on the question of religion from another angle, by questioning the line between religious fervor and pathological delusion. Though believers may find this question offensive, in a way it acquits religion of some charges against it. If there isn't much difference between the talking dog that gave David Berkowitz his marching orders and the ''God'' that visited Ron Lafferty, then for all we know Lafferty, had he not been religious, would have gotten his guidance from another voice.
THE human mind is great at justifying its goals, and it does so by whatever medium is handy, including -- if neither god nor dog seems plausible -- simple moralizing. Dan Lafferty, asked to distinguish himself from Osama bin Laden, says, ''I believe I'm a good person.'' An unfortunately common sentiment. Krakauer writes that ''as a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane . . . there may be no more potent force than religion.'' But sheer instinctive self-righteousness may ultimately be a bigger part of the problem. It is a common denominator of crimes committed in the name of religion, nationalism, racism -- even, sometimes, nihilism.
And it isn't the only element of the Lafferty story with this kind of versatility. Dan and Ron Lafferty saw their quest for security and stature frustrated and then found someone to blame -- a description that, in one sense or another, applies to Mohamed Atta, Timothy McVeigh and the Columbine killers. ''Under the Banner of Heaven'' is an arresting portrait of depravity that may have broader relevance than the author intended.
Robert Wright, a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of ''The Moral Animal'' and ''Nonzero.''
Published: 08 - 03 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 7, Copyright 2003, The New York Times