Thursday, January 11, 2007

Book Report: Under the Banner of Heaven

As the child of a weird sect, the Amish, I would be the last person to argue against the virtues of religious tolerance and diversity. Nevertheless there are certain varieties of religiosity that make me uncomfortable, particularly those varieties that believe that God talks specifically to them and directs their every day actions.

So, I will admit it upfront, I have a problem with Mormonism. It is one thing to believe that thousands of years ago, God inspired men to write scriptures which still have the power to inspire and direct, in a general way, how people live. It is something else to believe, as Mormons do, that as recently as 1830, God, through the angel, Moroni, spoke through a man, Joseph Smith, by means of some buried golden tablets, which Smith translated from Egyptian into Elizabethean English sounding suspiciously like the King James version of the Christian Bible. The golden tablets then miraculously disappeared again, leaving no objective proof of their existence. Amazingly, these scriptures, which only Joseph Smith could read, designated Joseph Smith as God's prophet and the church that Smith founded, the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints (Mormons) as the only church through which mankind could be saved.

Whatever plausibility this scenario might have for 21st century belief is undercut by the fact that Joseph Smith would not be considered a saint by any normal standards of morality. Prior to the prophet gig, Smith raised money in upstate New York by claiming to be able to find buried treasure through means of a "seer stone," and although guillible farmers paid him money, he never did find any treasure, a fact that got him prosecuted for fraud. After he founded his church, God supposedly commanded Smith to marry many women, 40 or more by some accounts, with a peculiar emphasis on young girls, 13 and 14 years old, and further, he commanded Smith to lie about his "marriages" denying that he or his followers were engaged in polygamy when, in fact, they were.

Modern-day Mormorns, of course, take umbrage at the criticism of Smith's teachings about polygamy, as well as other teachings about which God has supposedly changed his mind, such as not only the inferiority of blacks but the barring of them from the holiest of Mormon shrines, because more recent prophets have been told directly by God that those doctrines are no longer valid. It is apparently not only the Supreme Court that follows the election returns. God changed his commandment about polygamy only after Congress outlawed it and serious efforts at enforcing the laws in the western United States began causing problems for Mormons, and about blacks only after the Civil Rights laws of the 1960s changed the climate of racial intolerance in the United States.

Although I have tried to read the Book of Mormon, I have to admit that I didn't get very far before getting bogged down in its essential presposterousness. I have visited Salt Lake City, took the tour with an All-American Mormon guide, but felt like I was being given a con job. The attempt was to make Mormonism seem like just another variety of main-line Christianity, different only in minor details from Protestant denominations like Presbyterian, Methodist or Baptist.

The book, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer, does an excellent job of showing just how different Mormonism is from main-stream Christianity. Although Krakauer spends a lot of time describing fundamentalist Mormon sects, no longer formally affiliated with the main Mormon church, these extremists show what can happen when Mormon teaching and doctrine is taken to its logical conclusions. Main line Mormons still believe that God speaks directly to their prophets and that the prophets' commandments must be obeyed. Krakauer spends a lot of time on the Lafferty Brothers, several brothers in Colorado City, Utah, who killed their sister-in-law and her baby because of God's command,and I imagine that most Mormons would agree that these brothers were psychotics, not prophets. Nevertheless, they still are unwilling to believe that Joseph Smith was a con man, not a prophet, despite the many provable factual errors in the Book of Mormon.

I find it hard to believe that Mitt Romney, the Mormon ex-governor of Massachusetts, is considered a serious candidate for the Republican nomination for president of the United States. While Mormons are not the only religious group to take their marching orders from a leader with sometimes provable mendacity, I have more faith in the ability of Roman Catholics, for example, to disregard the teachings of the Pope than for Mormons to go against their prophet's instructions. I am not at all comforted by the malleability of Romney's views on abortion and gay marriage, depending on which way the wind is blowing at the time he is expressing the views. Krakauer wrote his book before Romney was prominent in national politics, and he states that Smith and his successor, Brigham Young, seriously entertained thoughts of becoming president of the United States. Romney has shown the capacity of raising lots of money, and I believe, without being able to prove it, that much of his backing is coming from fellow Mormons who dream of establishing a Mormon theocracy in the United States.

Krakauer is an excellent writer and although Mormons have criticized the book for emphasizing the negative, I have not seen any exposes of serious inaccuracies. I gave the book four stars.


Debra Hope said...

Well, hush my mouth. What's the big deal? We've already got a delusional president who claims to have ongoing, personal conversations with God. And, I've got a bunch of Mormon cousins. Last but not least, people confuse Mormons and Mennonites all the time. It's that "M" thing. So there.

gnightgirl said...

My ex brother in law and his family converted to Mormon-ism (is that a word)? My experiences in his home and their company left my head spinning every single time I encountered them. Knowing little about the Mormon faith itself, I was never sure what to chalk up to their religious beliefs, or if they really were just some of the most "out-there" people I'd ever met in my life.

"God changed his commandment about polygamy only after Congress outlawed it"...that made me chuckle.

The book sounds interesting, I'll check it out, though I suspect I may end up throwing it across the room before I finish it.

Anonymous said...

Dear ....,
This is your old friend Toni who moved from Champaign to Scotland and is now in South Bend, IN. I looked up your blog thinking that I might find an email for you. I had never read a blog before and enjoyed your blog so much that I kept reading.
Did you really like The Devil Wears Prada and a Prairie Home Companion as well as Little Miss Sunshine? We thought Little Miss Sunshine was a standout, but were not so impressed with the other two. Perhaps Little Miss Sunshine resonated more because we have two teenagers at the moment.
Is Aunt Tillie really you? If not, her writing voice is very like yours...perhaps it runs in the family?
Reading your description of your movie companion as a "chick" made me giggle...Does the "chick" read your blogs?
Could you please email us using our last name followed by I am being cryptic because I am not sure if this response will be posted. I am pretty much a luddite...well, I exagerate. I rarely smash things, but I don't avail myself of these new technologies very often. In order to send this I need my 15 year old's google name and help. If you can't think of our last name please check with the "chick"...I worked with her.
Thanks very much!

Amishlaw said...

Hi, Toni. I know your last name and will send you an email.
The disadvantage of the star system of rating books and movies, as my friend and Chief Critic, pg, never tires of reminding me is its imprecision. Yes, I would agree that Little Miss Sunshine is better than The Devil Wears Prada and Prairie Home Companion, but not enough better to get any extra stars. If I used a 10 point system, I could be more precise, but I would then have to take more time to figure out the more exact rating. The advantage of the present system is I just react instinctively at the end of the movie or book and record the reaction without much thought.
As to the identity of Aunt Tillie, you are not the only skeptic. I can only say, let me know if you come back here to visit and I will introduce you to Aunt Tillie.
Fortunately, the chick does not read my blog very often. I'm afraid if she did I would get censored occasionally, and I hate censorship.

smuggy said...

Sounds like an interesting book. I visited Nauvoo one day last summer, thinking it would be an interesting, historical place to see. There is history there, but it pales in comparison to the fact (unknown to me) that the place is a veritable Mecca for Mormons (or Latter Day Saints, as they prefer to be called). Apparently, Mormon families from all over the world make a pilgrimage there, and all the historic buildings are staffed by Mormon "site" missionaries. I learned more about their doctrine in that one day than I had in my whole life (more, perhaps, than I cared to know). One thing about Mormons: They usually aren't shy about telling you all about their faith. But, apart from the cute girls who were working there as site missionaries, I found the place pretty creepy (as if I was being watched).

Free Agency Rules said...

What I find likeable about Mormoms is they do not believe that "if You don't believe in Jesus, you will rot in hell" which is what most non-religious people hate about the "arrogance" of those who profess to be god-like.

How can a loving God sumarrily dismiss all those who lived before Jesus to hell. Just doesn't seem right to me.

You said: "God changed his commandment about polygamy only after Congress outlawed it"

What I have been told is the LDS church believes in obeying the law of the land and therefore they were inspired to "suspend" that same practice that was in effect in Abraham's day.

Hugh Hewitt siad, that judging others religion that is different than "yours" is plain religious bigitory!


Anonymous said...

Let me see if I understand you correctly.

Moses talked to God.

When Jesus Talked to God he was critized because he was contemporary.

When Joseph Smith talked to God he was critized because he was contemporary.

So, as long as the person talked to God over 2,000 years earlier, it is believeable, but if it is recent, it is automatically summarily dismissed without thought.

Amishlaw said...

Free Agency, I have never heard of any Christians who believe that all people who lived before Jesus will go to hell,although there may be some. The Christians with whom I am familiar, and I am familiar with some very conservative ones, don't even believe that people who lived after Jesus but never heard the Gospel will go to hell. With respect to Mormons believing that they must obey the law of the land, most Christians believe that, with the reservation that the law of the land can never supersede God's law. If God had really commanded polygamy, then most Christians would believe that to supersede the law of the land. So, what do Mormons believe is their duty when the law of the land is unjust or immoral? I don't know if there were Mormons in Germany during WWII, but if there were, did they assist Hitler in the extermination of Jews, Gypsies and others because it was the law of the land? I'm pretty open minded about religions. I don't think Mormonism should be outlawed. But I think I should be able to consider its tenets when I'm deciding for whom to vote for president, just as I should be able to consider any other deep-rooted beliefs the candidate has.

Anonymous, I don't think Joseph Smith ever claimed to have talked with God; he claimed to have talked with the Angel Moroni. But your point is valid; why do we think it okay for Moses to have talked with God but not for Smith. Different people have different answers for that question; many people would say that they don't believe either one talked with God. But setting aside the question whether either, both, or neither, Moses and Joseph Smith talked with God, the larger question is what do they report that God said to them. I don't have a problem with Moses reporting that God said to him, "Thou shalt not kill," or "Thou shalt not covet," but I do have a problem with commandments of God to keep handicapped people away from his Holy Temple, as reported in the Old Testament, or God telling Smith to marry 13 year old girls and then to lie about it.

I'm curious, FAR and Anonymous, are you Mormon?

Anonymous said...

"I have never heard of any Christians who believe that all people who lived before Jesus will go to hell,although there may be some."

As far as I know almost all Christains believe that a person is either going to heaven or to hell and that if you don't believe and are baptized then guess where you will wind up. So, wouldn't that apply to all born before Jesus?

God did not command Pologmy. Pologmy was only allowed under certian circumstances:
1. The first wife must approve.
2. The President of the Church must approve.

"So, what do Mormons believe is their duty when the law of the land is unjust or immoral?"

Jesus said: "Render unto Cezar's what is Cezar's"

We must all be law abiding citizens. If the law is Immoral then we must do all we can to change it.

I don't think that there would be a circumstance where it was the law of the land to "murder" (the Bible says thou shalt murder not thou shalt not kill - google it.)

War is killing, not murder.

During Nazi Germany, war is war, and the leaders will be held accountable. Must go will be back later.

Amishlaw said...

Anonymous, it's dangerous for anyone to say "what Christians believe" because there are so many different sects, each with their own version of the truth, so you may be able to find some group somewhere that says that all people who lived and died before Jesus's time are condemned to hell, but I don't know of any such group. Certainly, that is not the belief of main-line Protestantism or Catholicism.

With respect to polygamy, Joseph Smith's own first wife did not approve of his multiple "marriages," but complained bitterly about them, according to "Under the Banner of Heaven."

The idea that "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" means that we must follow even immoral laws, also goes against main line Christianity. Every explication of "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" that I have ever heard has emphasized the implication of the second part of that commandment, i.e. "what is Caesar's." Caesar doesn't have the right to command a citizen to commit an immoral act and in those instances a citizen has a duty to disobey.

Are you a Mormon?

Anonymous said...

"because there are so many different sects,..."

I agree. There is a need in coversations about most things when we need to describe to be able to generalize.

I'll say it again, for "most" christians, there is either heaven or hell, and the majority of christians say, "In order to go to heaven, you must be baptized..."

Where will they go if they are not baptized do you think?

I have read tons of anit-mormon books and have not found any statements that we not taken out of context or fit the old saying..."there is usually two sides to every story."

How do you think the Mormon church can be the fasted growing religion in the world and have such a blantant inconsistancy.

There have been many recent group meetings between famous Evangelical Ministers and well known Mormon scholars and after lengthy explanations, all questions of "what about this" are answered to their satisfaction as far as "well now I see why it can make sense to intelligent people, but I still hold my own view." That is all reasonable people can ask for is understanding that usually "neither side of an view is usually full of idiots or illogical people."

Amishlaw said...

Anonymous, I'm sorry to have to argue with you, but I don't agree that "most Christians" believe that you must be baptized in order to get to heaven, and particularly not that the people who lived before Jesus will go to hell. I don't know of any Christians that believe that. Do Mormons believe that?

I don't buy the implication that their fast growth in any way validates Mormon teaching. All that shows is that Mormons are diligent missionaries. Islam is also very fast growing; does that validate Muslim teaching?

With respect to whether there has been dialogue between evangelicals and Mormons, I imagine there has and have nothing against such dialogue. I know there is a real effort by Mormons to pass themselves off as just another Christian denomination. They're not; most people have no idea what a variance there is between Mormon teaching and main line Christian teaching and from my observation, Mormons try to minimize those differences publicly in order to gain acceptance.

Anonymous said...

You know, I have just today done research on the Net with the words "Baptism Essiential" and have found quite a few sites saying it is essiential and some saying it isn't.

While Mormons believe it is essiential to gain the maximum blessings, it is not essential to gaining a pretty nice place.

I have seen a lot of complaints from many churchs saying how it has changed to not requiring it, so my mistake, it is not as many as it once was.

Mormons are different Christians and do want to be seen as regular folks, but there is nothing wrong with wanting to not have religious bigotry as there still appears to be.

Amishlaw said...

Anonymous, I think you have pretty much identified yourself now as a Mormon, are you a missionary? Are you the same person as Free Agency Rules? I really don't mind having an honest dialogue with Mormons, but I am not going to allow my blog to be used as a tool for Mormon evangelism.

Your using Google to determine whether most Christians believe that persons not baptized, especially those who lived before the time of Christ, will go to hell, is not a very good way to gain understanding of the theology of Christians. There is no way of knowing who put up those sites or what their agenda is. I don't know of any Christians who believe that people who lived before the time of Christ will go to hell, and I don't think that belief has changed in recent times.

I agree with you that there is nothing wrong in not wanting to have religious bigotry. My ancestors know something about religious bigotry, having been persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants in 16th and 17th century Europe. But being tolerant of other religious beliefs doesn't mean that you have to accept the preposterous as truth. When I look at the history of Mormonism, the willingness of their leaders to mold their teachings to what will gain adherents, and the deception practiced to hide their teachings, then I have to admit that I'm very skeptical of their faith.

Anonymous said...

I believe all religions have some truth and they are all good. I don't like to see any of them picked on.

I'll leave it at that, cause I really didn't want to get into a discussion about a single religion either, just wanted to defend any religion that is being put down.

I was born a Methodist and Married a Cathloic, but studied lots of different Religions.

Amishlaw said...

Anonymous, you still haven't answered my question: Are you a Mormon? Are you a Mormon missionary?

I disagree that all religions have some truth or that all religions are good. Jim Jones and the mass suicides of his followers come to mind. Not to say that the Mormon religion is on a par with Jim Jones and his cult or that Mormonism doesn't have some truth or some good. Despite the leadership, I think most Mormons are moral people. I wouldn't want to elect one president of the United States though.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't want to elect one president of the United States though.

Wow, that seems very bigoted to me and i'm sure to many others.

Would you elect a "Jehova's Witness" President? How about a Jew?

What is important is how people behave not on wheather they believe in a giant turtle or whatever being their God.

Look at peoples actions if you want to see if a Religion brings forth good fruit or bad. If it brings for good people in general, (all have some bad apples), then if they align politically,that should do it.

Many "Christians" did not want to vote for JF Kennedy because he was Cathloic. They were religious Bigots.

Same with anyone who holds a persons beliefs hostage even if his beliefs are very different than "mainstream", even when as you said, "there appears to not be a mainstream view."

I guess I have said my peice and will leave now with a sadness in my heart knowing that there are Jew Haters and Mormon Haters out there because of many of the same reasons:

1. Jews believe the same as Mormons in as much as Elohim, (God), did not come down as Jesus. Who was Jesus praying to? Himself?

2. Both have been told to be a "seperate" people....Both had a kind of Exodus, the Mormons from the East Coast to their own "holy land."

3. Both are hated and persecuted for not believing in what is considered the "mainstream."

Joseph Smith was murdered because of his beliefs.

Anonymous said...


I will correct what I said before about "all" religions having some truth.

I should have said..."Almost all religions that bring forth good fruit, have some truth."

Free Agency Rules said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Free Agency Rules said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amishlaw said...

Anonymous, it is now obvious that you have been posting as Free Agency Rules as well and that you're a Mormon. Why not just come out and tell me that up front? There's no need to be secretive about it.

I visited your website and I see that you're counting the days and hours until Mitt Romney becomes president of the United States. He may make it although at this point he doesn't seem to be getting much traction because so many of his current stances are different than what he was saying just a few years ago.

I would not have a problem with a Seventh Day Adventist, Jew or Mormon being president just because of their religion; I would have to look at their positions and what kind of people they are. I don't think any Seventh Day Adventists will be running, since they don't vote. Joe Lieberman is a Jew that I couldn't vote for, although I would for a Jew like Jon Stewart. There is a possibility I could vote for a Mormon like Harry Reid, but I would never vote for a Mormon like Mitt Romney.

I disagree with you that Mormons are like Jews in being hated and persecuted for who they are. Mormon practices have drawn persecution. Many of those practices are considered abhorrent by mainstream society. What concerns me is the practice of trying to disguise their beliefs to make it appear that they are simply another variety of Christianity. In your own interactions with me on this blog, you spoke of Mormons in the third person, as if you were not one yourself and never did answer my repeated questions about who you are. Nothing about our interaction has led me to reconsider what I previously believed about Mormon duplicity.

Anonymous said...

My father is freeagencyrules. I live in his house.

Here's the real problem with putting people in a box.

How open minded are you being when you categorize someone because of his or her beliefs?

Would you take dieting advice from a 500-pound overweight man?

Many people would say no.

The truth of the matter is, what if that same 500 lbs guy was one of the guys on the news, who was 1000 lbs and managed to lose all that weight?

But most people who first see him are going to pigeon hole him and say, "what does he know about dieting and exercise.. I mean just look at him."

-so I am going to go ahead and judge a book by its cover, because im open minded and tolerant of other people.-

These are the same people who require tons of credentials for any point that is made.

Do I really need to point out that a guy from M.I.T said that 1+1=2?

Or can you just take the statement by its own merit and judge accordingly?

It appears that most people can’t do that.

That’s like saying, that historians have zero credibility because they have never actually been to the civil war.

-Well he’s never actually even fired a musket so what does he know?-

Or a doctor that is working on a brain tumor. You going to let someone who's never actually had problems with his brain working on yours?

And these ridiculous lawyers have no credibility either, after all most of them probably never murdered anyone.

Plus, if a lawyer says anything about law it’s automatically gospel since after all we all know lawyers always tell the truth.

If you want to be religious, and talk the religious point of view, then you could say that even the devil would tell the truth -most- of the time.

Because if the devil existed.. and I do mean if.. Simply for the sake of argument. Then that would mean that he would be the king of all lies, and as everyone knows the best lies are the ones that are comprised of mostly truth, because they would be more believable. The devil would be pretty stupid to tell you that tomorrow you’re going to wake up with a purple head the size of the planet.

So again, logic would say that even the devil could say some things, again... (SOME) some, some, some things- that are credible and true.

Is it being a fair and just person to judge someone based upon his or her beliefs?

Would you judge a gay man for his lifestyle and therefore not even speak to the man, because he was born in a particular way?

Or categorize an African American for writing a white paper on describing the views of the white man?
-What does he know, right? He’s not white.-

Or shun a poor man and look the other way when he simply asks you for directions?

What if there is a future President that can do what President Bush never did?

What if that President could bring our boys home, end the war, and bring peace to the east?

Are you going to dismiss even the possibility that there might be a President that can actually win the war in Iraq?

What if that President was going to come into power, but because that person was a devil worshipping man, that he was never voted into congress? -that’s not to say that he outwardly sacrificed people to the devil, and outwardly promoted believing in Satan- Because it’s not a good idea to combine church and state.

It’s not a good idea to pigeonhole people for their religious beliefs, lifestyles, gender, or color of their skin.

It’s fine to judge the statement, or the acts of the person, not the person themselves.

I’m far from perfect myself, it’s just that I see faults in things so easily since I have so many that they stare me straight in the face.


For people who do not understand sarcasm when they read it.. Guess what... I don’t care.

For people who reply to this with anything.. guess what.. I don’t care.. im not posting anymore.

Free Agency Rules said...

"you spoke of Mormons in the third person"

My son does not consider himself a Mormom and as you can see he doesn't want to say he is anything so as not to be put in a box.

I post under FreeAgencyRules because that is my bolg moniker.

I don't want to turn your blog into a Mormon discussion and I appologize for comming here and turning it into one, so I too will say farewell because he and I are alike in the respect that we both like to discuss things on their own merit and it shouldn't matter what my beliefs are.

You are correct in that the Mormon Religion believes that Jesus is the "Son of God" and is not "God", which does anger many other groups.

Why does it bring so much anger and hate?

Anyway, again, I too will say goodby because it is clear you had your mind made up before I got here and I am not here to change anyones mind only to point out Bigotry when I see it so others can reflect on their behavior towards their fellow man.

Good luck and Good Bye.