This is a guest post by Lattertarian.
Under the Banner of Heaven is the title of a 2003 true-crime book by Jon Krakauer, who is not a stranger to bestselling non-fiction writing. He’s a big name. In this book, he tackles two topics that are tangentially related to one another: a 1984 Utah double murder perpetrated by fundamentalist maniacs, and the broad early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints culminating in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which over 100 migrants in a wagon train were murdered by … fundamentalist maniacs.
The book came and went, but it also got picked up by Very Serious dramatists who were Very Serious about bringing this story to a video audience, so here we are. This reflection is about the “FX on Hulu” miniseries based on the book. It’s easy to see what you want to see in UBH (which is what I’ll call the show hereafter for convenience), and the showrunners make several very important and very misguided decisions that make the thing a mess, but the central questions are compelling and merit some thought. Bottom line: it’s all more complicated than it needs to be, and not in a good way.
First, a few paragraphs about me. I was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Branches of my family, including my entire mother’s side and the family line of my fraternal grandmother, are old-line multigenerational Mormon in the classic sense, what people inside the church call “pioneer stock”. I’ve been surrounded by “Mormon culture” my whole life, including semi-annual trips to Salt Lake City to visit all that extended family on summers and Christmases. I was baptized at age eight in the famous Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. I’m an Eagle Scout, and I served a two-year mission (in Idaho, no less). I have a “testimony,” and remain an active member of the church serving in positions of responsibility in my local congregation. I have been “married in the temple,” and am getting ready to watch my son and his bride do the same. I am fully fluent in the jargon and behavior signals of ethnic Mormonism (more on this in a bit), and have been for almost 50 years now.
Lest that lead you, dear reader, to believe that I’m going to slavishly bash UBH because I’m a partisan stooge for my faith, this is a good place for me to state that I am also a Gen-X Libertarian who grew up in Southern California, not Utah. While I am fully fluent in Mormon, I grew up exposed to much more than a single cultural throughline. I graduated high school with the class of 1989. I remember the before-times when people didn’t have cable TV, personal computers, or internet access, let alone smartphones. I am the chairman of a county Libertarian party affiliate, and have no recollection of voting for either an R or a D (I’m not saying it never happened, but if it did I either don’t remember or just don’t care). I believe that every individual has absolute rights over his or her self, stuff, and speech, and believe the world would be a better place if every individual accepted and respected that in every other individual. I have a deep-seated skepticism of authority, particularly government authority (and if there’s any ethnic group within the United States that has every reason to distrust government authority, the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are in the top five), and my loyalty is not easily won. I seek to see things as they are, not how I wish them to be.