Friday, December 13, 2013

Heavens

I've been reading Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (2004).  It's about the history of the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), better known to most of us as the Mormons.

Okay, a few things.  First, thank god Mitt Romney didn't get elected president.  Seriously. 

Secondly, well... wow.  I'm a bit speechless.  I try really hard to keep an open mind about people's faith and their expressions of religious belief, but I gotta tell you, this one... Let's just say, I hear the hinges of my mind creaking shut.

Krakauer focuses on a particularly heinous crime committed in 1984 by Ron and Dan Lafferty, two Mormon Fundamentalists.  The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints--"FLDS"--is separate from the LDS, although they both trace their origins to the same founder, Joseph Smith.

One morning in late July, the Lafferty brothers arrived at the home of their brother, Allen.  They proceeded to assault and brutally murder his wife, Brenda, and Allen and Brenda's 15-month-old daughter, Erica. 

Brenda had been outspoken in her opposition to the Lafferty brothers' growing influence on her husband.  In particular, she refused to subscribe to the increasingly oppressive rules and limitations the brothers tried to impose upon their wives and children.  She had advised Ron's wife, Dianna, to obtain a divorce and leave him, taking her children with her. 

Ron and Dan claimed that they had received a revelation from God that required them to murder their sister-in-law and their niece, as well as two other individuals who had been instrumental in Dianna's decision to leave her husband (one potential victim wasn't home, the other was, but the killers missed the turn and never reached the house). 

To this day, Dan, who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, is unremorseful.  He insists that he did nothing wrong.  Ron Lafferty was convicted of the murders and sentenced to die in 1985.  The sentence was overturned in 1991, and Ron Lafferty was retried.  In 1996, he was once again convicted of the murders and given a death sentence.  He remains on death row, awaiting execution.

Obviously, the Lafferty brothers and their deeds were in no way sanctioned by or typical of the LDS or the Mormon faith in general.  And yet, as Krakauer points out, a significant current of Fundamentalist violence and oppression has always been threaded through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  In particular, Krakauer looks at the history of violence directed against the Mormons, first in Missouri and later in Illinois, in the early decades of the 19th century.

The founder of the Mormon faith, Joseph Smith, was brutally murdered by an angry mob in 1844.  Smith was a highly charismatic leader who also had a history of arrest for various and sundry frauds and cons.  He got his start in life as a diviner or "crystal gazer"--someone who claimed to be able to find buried treasure using a "peep stone."

And then he got religion.

I think this is why I have a hard time with this manifestation of faith.  I can look at many religious traditions and while I don't subscribe to their beliefs or values, I can see why they may have arisen in the way that they did, given the cultures and time periods in which they developed.

And to some extent, I can see that in Mormonism as well.  It arose in the early 19th century, when Spiritualism was exerting a particularly strong influence on American culture--an influence we've never really lost, quite frankly.  People were--and are--looking for signs of life, indications that death is not the ultimate end.

Enter Joseph Smith.  He claimed to have discovered golden tablets that had been buried for over 1400 years (somewhere outside of Palmyra, NY, of all places), courtesy of the assistance of an angel named Moroni.  (Yes, that was his name.)  Smith was given a set of interpreters--that is, a pair of "magic glasses" (no, I'm not kidding)-- by Moroni, so that he could read these tablets, which he proceeded to dictate to his neighbor.

After a couple of months, the guys decided to take a break, the neighbor wanted to show the pages they'd written to his wife, Smith said okay and... the pages went missing.

But never fear!  Smith prayed and prayed and so Moroni gave him back the plates.  Smith's wife Emma took over the transcription process.  Smith no longer had the magic glasses, though, so he had to use one of his peep stones.
"Day after day, utilizing the technique he had learned... Joseph would place the magic rock in an upturned hat, bury his face in it with the stack of gold plates sitting nearby, and dictate the lines of scripture that appeared to him out of the blackness."
(Really, I can't imagine why I'm skeptical of all this.)

My favorite moment of Smith's history comes when he decides that his penchant for sleeping with numerous women other than his wife is actually a divinely-sanctioned duty.  As many people know, the early Mormons were notorious for their advocacy of polygamy--a practice that not all early Mormons condoned, actually.

One such naysayer was Emma, Joseph Smith's wife.  Smith and his brother Hyrum tried to convince her by means of a divine revelation.  In the revelation, God actually mentions Emma by name.

It seems that, as Emma got increasingly tired of her husband's "celestial marriages," she told him if he didn't knock it off, she might go and get herself a few "husbands" of her own and see how he liked it.  But according to a subsequent divine revelation, God apparently did not condone this for Emma--or for any of the other wives, for that matter.  Verse 54 of Section 132, transcribed by Smith and his brother states,
"And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else.  But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law."
Hyrum felt this was all pretty clear, so he gave the document to Emma as proof of the divine revelation of plural marriages (for men only, of course).  According to Hyrum, "he had never received a more severe talking to in his life" than he did on the day he presented this divine revelation to Emma Smith.

They didn't stop sleeping with other women and advocating "celestial marriages," but they did stop trying to convince Emma.

In the end, I think this is why this faith fills me with profound skepticism: it reeks of a nineteenth-century con artist's scam.  It encompasses all that is racist and sexist in the history of American culture, and presents it all as if it's somehow divinely sanctioned.  As Krakauer points out, because the Mormon faith is so grounded in an us-versus-them mentality (something that is by no means uncommon in other religious faiths as well, of course), it often operates outside the law, and insists that it has the right to do so: divine law trumps secular legislation.

Fundamentalist Mormon groups in the West still practice polygamy--men in their 30's and 40's marry 13- and 14-year-old girls and have multiple wives--and they have an astronomical birth rate (according to Krakauer, it's currently higher than that of Bangladesh).  How are these children all supported?  Through the states' various welfare systems: because these state agencies are ungodly manifestations of Satan, Mormon Fundamentalists feel that it is their holy duty to "bleed the beast."
Investigators from the Utah attorney general's office have documented that between 1989 and 1999, Tom Green and his dependents received more than $647,000 in state and federal assistance, including $203,000 in food stamps and nearly $300,000 in medical and dental expenses.  These same investigators estimate that had they been granted complete access to pertinent government files as far back as 1985, when Green began his polygamous lifestyle, they would have been able to show that Green received well over $1 million in welfare.
Ironically, Utah is one of the most predominantly Republican states in the United States.  So maybe this is why Republicans have voted to cut funding for Food Stamps.  We can always hope.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."