Under the Banner of Heaven - A Story of Violent Faith

Jon Krakauer

Created on Sunday, December 18, 2011.
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An examination of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the role of its leaders and its dogma in the murder of a woman and her infant child by her husband’s brothers, who say they were compelled to do it by God.


In October 1985, upon concluding that investigators were about to discover that several old Mormon documents he’d sold were fakes, he detonated a series of pipe bombs to divert detectives from his trail, killing two guiltless fellow Saints in the process. Many of Hofmann’s forgeries were intended to discredit Joseph Smith and the sacred history of Mormonism; more than four hundred of these fraudulent artifacts were purchased by the LDS Church (which believed they were authentic), then squirreled away in a vault to keep them from the public eye.

The zealot may be outwardly motivated by the anticipation of a great reward at the other end — wealth, fame, eternal salvation — but the real recompense is probably the obsession itself. This is no less true for the religious fanatic than for the fanatical pianist or fanatical mountain climber. As a result of his (or her) infatuation, existence overflows with purpose. Ambiguity vanishes from the fanatic’s worldview; a narcissistic sense of self-assurance displaces all doubt. A delicious rage quickens his pulse, fueled by the sins and shortcomings of lesser mortals, who are soiling the world wherever he looks. His perspective narrows until the last remnants of proportion are shed from his life. Through immoderation, he experiences something akin to rapture.

“Now there’s an interesting sight,” DeLoy declares, sizing up the wreckage of a television satellite dish behind some sagebrush off the side of the road. “Looks like somebody had to get rid of their television. Hauled it out of town and dumped it.” Members of the religion, he explains, are forbidden to watch television or read magazines or newspapers. The temptations of the outside world loom large, however, and some members of the faith inevitably succumb. “As soon as you ban something,” DeLoy observes, “you make it incredibly attractive. People will sneak into St. George or Cedar City and buy themselves a dish, put it up where it can’t easily be seen, and secretly watch TV during every free moment. Then one Sunday Uncle Rulon will give one of his sermons about the evils of television. He’ll announce that he knows exactly who has one, and warn that everyone who does is putting their eternal souls in serious jeopardy. “Every time he does that, a bunch of satellite dishes immediately get dumped in the desert, like this one here. For two or three years afterward there won’t be any televisions in town, but then, gradually, the dishes start secretly going up again, until the next crackdown. People try to do the right thing, but they’re only human.”

“Uncle Rulon justifies all that assistance from the wicked government by explaining that really the money is coming from the Lord,” says DeLoy Bateman. “We’re taught that it’s the Lord’s way of manipulating the system to take care of his chosen people.” Fundamentalists call defrauding the government “bleeding the beast” and regard it as a virtuous act.

Joseph venerated the U.S. Constitution as a divinely inspired document. For years he had complained that political leaders were disregarding their sworn duty to safeguard the Mormons’ constitutionally guaranteed freedom to worship without being subjected to harassment, and worse, at the hands of the religious majority. Yet in both word and deed, Joseph repeatedly demonstrated that he himself had little respect for the religious views of non-Mormons, and was unlikely to respect the constitutional rights of other faiths if he somehow won the presidency and were running the show.

In Dr. Groesbeck’s learned opinion, this revelation was a delusional artifact, as were all Ron’s revelations, spawned by depression and his deeply entrenched narcissism, with no basis whatsoever in reality. Which is, of course, what nonbelievers typically say about people who have religious visions and revelations: that they’re crazy. The devout individuals on the receiving end of such visions, however, generally beg to differ, and Ron is one of them. Ron knows that the commandments he’d received were no mere figment of his imagination. The Lord spoke to him. And he wasn’t about to believe the words of some faithless, pencil-neck shrink over the voice of the Almighty. That, after all, would really be crazy.

Both revelation and delusion are attempts at the solution of problems. Artists and scientists realize that no solution is ever final, but that each new creative step points the way to the next artistic or scientific problem. In contrast, those who embrace religious revelations and delusional systems tend to see them as unshakeable and permanent… Religious faith is an answer to the problem of life… The majority of mankind want or need some all-embracing belief system which purports to provide an answer to life’s mysteries, and are not necessarily dismayed by the discovery that their belief system, which they proclaim as “the truth,” is incompatible with the beliefs of other people. One man’s faith is another man’s delusion… Whether a belief is considered to be a delusion or not depends partly upon the intensity with which it is defended, and partly upon the numbers of people subscribing to it. - Anthony Storr, ‘Feet of Clay’

The oldest of the brothers, Benjamin, was fond of roaring at the top of his lungs in public to prove that he was “the Lion of Israel.” In one legendary incident that occurred in the early 1950s, he lay facedown in the middle of a busy Salt Lake City intersection, bringing traffic to a halt, and did two hundred push-ups. When the police finally persuaded him to get up off the pavement he proudly insisted, “Nobody else can do that many. That proves I’m the One Mighty and Strong.” Not long thereafter, Ben was committed to the Utah State Mental Hospital.

In August 1981, Ervil LeBaron was discovered dead in his cell at the age of fifty-six, felled by an apparent heart attack. Before succumbing, however, he had written a rambling four-hundred-page screed, oozing venom from every line, titled The Book of the New Covenants. The text was primarily a list of all those individuals who, in Ervil’s view, had ever been disloyal to him and thus deserved to die. This catalog of hatred was accompanied by scathing, semicoherent descriptions of the precise nature of each betrayal. Essentially, the book was an overwrought hit list. Some twenty copies were published, most of which wound up in the possession of Ervil’s most devoted followers. These fervent Lambs of God, as they called themselves, were largely drawn from among Ervil’s fifty-four children — progeny who remained fanatically devoted to their father long after his death. Led by a son named Aaron LeBaron who was just thirteen when Ervil died, this gang of boys, girls, and young adults — most of whom had been physically and/or sexually abused by older members of the sect and then abandoned — resolved to avenge Ervil’s death by systematically spilling the blood of the persons listed in The Book of the New Covenants. A prosecutor assigned to the case referred to this pack of parentless kids as the LeBaron clan’s “Lord of the Flies generation.”

“It’s amazing how gullible people are,” DeLoy continues. “But you have to remember what a huge comfort the religion is. It provides all the answers. It makes life simple. Nothing makes you feel better than doing what the prophet commands you to do. If you have some controversial issue that you’re dealing with — let’s say you owe a lot of money to somebody, and you don’t have the means to pay them — you go in and talk to the prophet, and he might tell you, “You don’t have to pay the money back. The Lord says it’s Okay.” And if you just do what the prophet says, all the responsibility for your actions is now totally in his hands. You can refuse to pay the guy, or even kill somebody, or whatever, and feel completely good about it. And that’s a real big part of what holds this religion together: it’s not having to make those critical decisions that many of us have to make, and be responsible for your decisions.”

“If you want to know the truth,” he says, squinting against the glare, “I think people within the religion — people who live here in Colorado City — are probably happier, on the whole, than people on the outside.” He looks down at the red sand, scowls, and nudges a rock with the toe of one shoe. “But some things in life are more important than being happy. Like being free to think for yourself.”

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
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