Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"Under the Banner of Heaven" Review

While on the way to Missouri, "The Show Me State," formerly Eden, and soon to be front row center to Jesus Part II, we listened to "Under the Banner of Heaven," by Jon Krakauer. If you have Mormon friends or coworkers, don't read this book. It has the effect of turning the image of Mormon missionaries into the most ardent Islamic fascists. Well, maybe not that bad, but the tone of the drum beat is steady and deep.

"Under the Banner of Heaven," examines Mormonism, scratch that, should have examined Mormonism. Rather then mainline Mormonism, Krackauer weaves a story of a 1984 murder of a woman and her baby by two members of an FLDS group with a pretty good history of Mormonism. This history that is presented is told in such a way as to be sympathetic of the polygamist groups who fall under a general banner of FLDS, or Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints. Picking on FLDS members, and tying them with the LDS church is a much of a straw man as making Creationists in Christianity representative of the majority. However, this book made me feel sympathy for the FLDS members and their plight. They feel that it is their duty to marry at least three women and have as many children as possible. Part if this comes from D&C 132. President Woodruff issues a Manifesto stating that the Church and it's members must follow the law of the land. The FLDS members believe this is a great apostasy, that the LDS church sold out to the government of the United States. They believe it is in their right to practice their religion under the Constitution, which they believe is divinely inspired. Anyway, what you have in the end, after 100 or so years of the abolition of the practice of plural marriage, are isolated communities of practicing polygamists, including plenty of sexual abuse, brainwashing, and abuse of the social welfare system. I don't need to describe what Colorado City is like, just picture as bad as it could be, and that's how Krackauer paints it. Although, at the end, when interviewing a former FLDS member, he did acknowledge that the people in the city, despite all of the hardship, are probably happier then people outside.

I think the key, and what should have been examined further, are the people who feel so strongly that God is talking to them, telling them to do things. This was brought up in the court case regarding the murder, because an insanity claim was made, because one of the men received a revelation from God that a list of people should be killed. He wasn't deemed insane, because plenty of people believe they talk to God, and many of people believe they get answers to prayer. Are they all insane too?

In Kohlberg's moral ladder, the highest level of morality involved acting rightly, even though you will be punished for it. Here is where one can find sympathy with those in the FLDS, and even those who commit horrible crimes because they are justified through their faith. However, by what basis do we judge an action as moral or not? If one follows secular law, and disobeys God's law, is that moral?

Now, I'm an atheist, I don't follow any God's law, and have only my own morals and secular law to live by. But, how can I judge someone who, say, prays and believes they should protest a war through nonviolent means, despite getting punished, or someone who keeps their 17 children isolated an illiterate, and happens to abuse a daughter sexually because God tells him she's to be a special daughter, and must submit. Now, that story is from Alaska, and I don't think that guy was Mormon. I judge the protester is moral, but the guy from Alaska is immoral, even though both use the same reasoning for their actions. Both are acting rightly, according to their beliefs. Is it because I would be sympathetic to the cause of the protester? Would I feel differently, if the protester were violent? What if the protester were shooting politicians in order to end further violence, at least in his or her mind? Are the actions moral? So, the answer to prayer, or revelation from God is not a good basis for determining morality. So, what use is it to pray for guidance for morality? I don't mean to say that the faithful toss a coin between violence and peace when praying, it's just difficult to judge morality based on that alone.

Here's another example, of acting on the top level of morality. Jeannette and I were in the hotel on Sunday morning, and watched EWTN, a Catholic TV network. One show, the Knights of St. Michael, contrasted the Killing of the Innocents of King Herod, with abortion. The show had a Roman politician urging people to act to prevent further killing, with a modern US politician proclaiming that since the last 100 years, over 925 million babies have been aborted murdered. About half of this show was about abortion, featuring another segment with the Devil and a kid. Fetuses and tissue should be used, rather then babies, according to the Devil, and murder is a choice. Also, a reenactment of Mother Theresa's speech accepting her Nobel Peace Prize was shown, including her statement that the "greatest destroyer of peace is abortion." There was also this appeal to follow God's law, that abortion should be made illegal, because this is God's law. That argument is very persuasive. I can imagine how people so strongly act when it comes to God's law, because it is something most noble, higher then one's self. And, it's something a large group can get behind, so one is acting in unison with fellow followers. Now, most will not turn violent because of some kids show on Sunday morning TV, and the show was not promoting violence, but I can see the point of view of someone who believes they are justified, who encourage punishment for their actions because their actions now are placed on that highest rung of morality. I have no answers to these questions.


Divided By Zer0 said...

This is interesting, it seems this is turning out to be the morality week as many atheist bloggers have started discussing this. It is especially interesting how your questions invariably fall back to the difference between subjective and objective morality.

To answer your question: "by what basis do we judge an action as moral or not?".
We only have our own judgement on this. We judge something as moral or not but our own morality which is heavily affected by the society around us. When the society and groupthink promote this kind of behaviour (abusing children, illiteracy etc) then it is no wonder that they consider it moral. Especially if, in their mind, this is objective and beyond criticism as it is the "Law of God"

JKC said...

I don't know, Bjorn, I didn't think Krakauer's book really made the Mormon church look bad. I really liked the book. I thought it was well-written, decently researched, and explored interesting questions.

When it came out a few years ago, some church spokesman released a "response" that I thought was overblown and overly-defensive. HE said something to the effect that Krakauer was trying to play guilt by association and insinuate that Mormons are just as loony and violent as the fundies. I didn't read it that way at all. I thought the book was written simply to explore the nature of religious faith. In the end, Krakauer doesn't reach any conclusions, but he suggests that faith can be dangerous. The implicit question, for any believer is this: how do you have faith without giving up your moral agency?

My (tentative) answer is that you can't. Faith requires responsibility. It's no better to say "God told me to do it" than to say "the devil made me do it." Ultimately, Krakauer's book becomes (for me, anyway) a critique of the kind of faith that abdicates moral agency to God and the church. To my mind, that view is wrong, irresponsible (and, tangentially, very un-Mormon, but that's another discussion, I suppose).

Many people cannot make the distinction between the FLDS groups and the mainstream LDS church. Maybe because it's easy for me to make that distinction, I didn't think the book reflected negatively on the church. And to the extent that it critiques Mormonism, that critique is equally applicable to all faiths, so I don't feel singled out. Besides, if your faith can't withstand a little scrutiny, what good is it?

JKC said...

Oh, by the way, a very historically thorough and insightful account of the church's transition from polygamy is given in Kathleen Flake's book, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.

Bjorn said...

Well, this was an audio book, perhaps while driving, the perception is different. If I read it, it may be reviewed in a different light.

Bjorn said...

I'll pick up the book. I'm lacking for more obscure history which no one will care about.