Krakauer’s creepy, gripping book uses a brutal double murder committed by Mormon fundamentalists as a vehicle for exploring the convoluted history of Mormonism, with a special emphasis on the Mormon church’s ambivalent relationship over time with polygamy and with direct personal revelation. (I never knew, for instance, that although Joseph Smith practiced polygamy himself, he was initially hesitant to formally incorporate his revelation of the “Principle” into the nascent faith.) Krakauer also devotes considerable attention — as did the trials of the Lafferty brothers, the defendants in the murder case — to the uneasy boundaries between faith that is considered sane and faith that is not considered sane.
I learned many things, not least of which is that HBO’s polygamous-Mormon-centered soap Big Love, the third season of which we lately finished watching, isn’t nearly as far-fetched as I might have thought. As a proponent of gay marriage, before reading this book I had thought a good place to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable partnerships might be to allow any combination of adult consenting humans, so a marriage of, say, three women and four men might be fine. But after reading Under the Banner of Heaven I’m forced to conclude that raising children in a polygamous culture — particularly one that prioritizes procreation, devalues external education, and requires unquestioning obedience — creates a situation in which “consent” may be a practical impossibility.