Review: Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

The book offers some truly profound insights into the workings of religion in general and of extreme sects in particular and how it exploits the natural and I guess universal yearning for meaning and security. It also exposes the horrifying underbelly of extremist sects (in *gruesome* detail which I’d say requires a warning on the cover) as well as how such sects manage to sustain and replicate themselves – basically by cutting young people off from education and the world in general (one of the people interviewed, a former FLDS member, said he had no problem believing Black people were not human because his community was so completely segregated from them and absolutely isolated from any competing views on the matter). 

It seem fundamentalist religions need exploitation to exist, and it’s, predictably, exploitation of vulnerable groups, particularly women and children. It’s fairly easy to make swathes of women do whatever you want them to if you bring them up away from the world and any information or experience that might contradict your doctrine, instil fear of God into them (facilitated by the ignorance they’re kept in), and then threaten them with eternal damnation if they refuse to marry their uncle at 14 or agree to three additional wives. It’s basically foolproof, as they extremely low rate of women and girls who’ve tried to escape demonstrates.

Another strong point of the book is the way it consciously underscores the very American fibre of this type of feverish, primal kind of faith, that at the same time surprisingly pragmatic. It seems rooted in the original pilgrim spirit, open to anything and believing everything, and also in a kind of very specifically American entitlement that makes it easy to believe you’re exceptional, a chosen one, owed special treatment. In addition, the LDS and FLDS both have prosperity as an express value in their world-views – another unmistakably American trait. The very origins of Mormonism are characterised both by hustlery (Joseph Smith started as a fortune-teller and all-around conman) and shameless rewriting of the holy texts to recenter the mythology around Americans (Mormon scripture moves the Promised Land to North America and takes for itself the title of the Chosen People). Such self-aggrandising reframings of Christianity can’t fail to capture the American imagination of any generation, I think.

The overarching point of the book, as I understood it at least, is how religion – especially of the type of absolute and all-dominating faith typical for fundamentalist sects – can completely upend deeply rooted value systems, moral principles and even the very fibre of reality, and as a consequence make anything conceivable, justified and even moral – including murdering a year-old child in her bed. Once you believe – and the whole setting in which you exist confirms it – that the only true moral guidance comes from a direct line to God, you can justify anything. It’s all part of God’s plan. you’re just the instrument. It’s the perfect conscience- and responsibility-obliterating mechanism. You don’t have to justify anything, you don’t have to take responsibility for your actions, because it all came from an absolute, indisputable source. I imagine it’s a huge relief from the stress and terror of human existence.

All of this is important and insightful, but it’s presented in a very onerous way – at least for me. These clear-eyed observations and methodical exposure of the violent essence of fundamental Mormonism and its people are buried in a rather purplish-prose style that was insufferable for me in more than a few places and a barrage of names, details and detailed descriptions that I could never hold in my memory for more than a few pages and ultimately didn’t even care about. I felt like the author was trying to add a dash of literary flavour to his documentary examination and it just doesn’t work. The descriptions of the scenery don’t jive and felt grating to me; the accounts of Mormon violence from the religion’s conception to the late 20th century are unnecessarily meticulous and bogged down by irrelevant detail. It was all too much and made reading the book a drag. It also effectively drowned the salient points of the whole book in pointless, and flowery, noise. The book would have benefitted from a more uncompromising editor in my opinion.

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