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.
Those two broad facets of me intersect in a particular way I want to highlight: I do not salute the flag or recite the pledge of allegiance. I pledge my allegiance to God alone, and find performative displays of patriotism creepy. I don’t make a scene about it; I rise respectfully alongside everybody else for the national anthem and all that, but I’m the one with his hands politely folded instead of over his heart.
That may seem like a lot (and if you find some of that contradictory you’re not the first). But it all matters because I’m going to be talking bluntly about history, and history is unavoidably biased by the viewer. I want to recognize my own experience and the inevitable biases that experience creates, because in doing so UBH became a richer multi-faceted experience for me. Not good, necessarily. But rich. At least rich.
When I tell people about me I don’t advertise that I don’t recite the pledge of allegiance. Most people don’t even notice (since most people aren’t looking around during such things anyway). Realizing I don’t do it can come as a shock to people. My wife had married me before she figured it out, and she had to actually think about it and get over it (and she still teases me about it). I mention it here because it provides a nice entry into discussion, as the concept of allegiance underlies a spot where UBH lays a poisonous thread into its narrative tapestry. I have not read Krakauer’s book, so I cannot comment on how closely the show follows Krakauer’s narrative. But I have a hard time believing it tracks it super close, because the show’s end credits include this:
That disclaimer does not tell us the extent of this taking of dramatic license, but “inspired by” instead of “based on” is a major wiggle-word choice. That wiggling turns out to be dirty pool, because in fact the lead investigator in the show, Detective Jeb Pyre (pronounced pie-ree), is one of those invented characters. Swapping the principal detective for an invented substitute is a hard swerve for a story that purports to be pledging allegiance to the “true events” flag.
How you respond to a viewing of UBH changes dramatically if you either know or don’t know that Pyre isn’t real. Watching a true crime show shouldn’t require the suspension of disbelief (as dealing with fiction does). Realizing partway through that you’re going to need to tighten those disbelief suspenders is a serious problem. About halfway through the show’s seven episodes I looked up a detail because it didn’t seem to make sense, and discovered that the Pyre character was invented. It raised my hackles and threw me out of the story.
That hackle-raising matters, because the fulcrum of UBH’s plot is allegiance: who owes it to whom and why. Pyre is a devout 80s Mormon whose character arc is about him coming to question his faith. There’s a whole on-the-nose metaphor in the name’s spelling (a sacrificial pyre?), but whatever. Pyre’s “testimony of the gospel” is challenged by his interaction with Allen Lafferty, the youngest son of an old-line pioneer-stock Utah family (“the ‘Kennedys’ of Utah”). If Pyre is real, then the story of him fighting with the seeds of doubt planted by Lafferty is compelling. If Pyre is fictitious (along with his darling twin daughters, longsuffering wife, and early-onset dementia-patient live-in mom), then it’s all contrivance in service to a narrative. That’s hard to keep looking past.
Likewise, not knowing which parts are real and which are “invented for creative purposes” makes Allen Lafferty feel much more like a total sociopath than the pathetic weakling son of a once-proud family that has fallen apart. Allen’s older brothers have fallen into fringey anti-government paranoia (I get it, believe me, I get it) and that paranoia has gotten blended with cherry-picked bits of church-historical dogmatism that has shifted their collective allegiance away from the mainline church and toward fundamentalist alt-prophetic weirdness and murderous apocalypticism. That much seems to follow the real facts of the case. But the way the story unfolds onscreen, it is implausible for Allen to not know that his older brothers cut his wife’s throat and beheaded his infant daughter. It is impossible for him to not even suspect it. But as he is questioned by Pyre over the course of the investigation, he stays cagey about those details; he blames “men with beards, like old prophets” and never volunteers that there are dots that can be connected leading to his five brothers, who have all become wild-eyed bearded zealots feeding each others’ delusions of divine revelation. Instead, Allen takes every opportunity to point out to Pyre that “your church keeps lying to you,” challenging Pyre’s faith at every opportunity instead of helping Pyre find those who murdered a mother and child.
Trying to understand what Allen is hoping to accomplish with it all is … trying. Nothing about his response to seeing his family butchered makes sense. He has no burning desire for vengeance on the perpetrators. He does not point fingers at anyone or name anyone’s name. He presents himself as totally ignorant of any reason why this horrible thing might have happened, collapsing in a weeping heap whenever he is asked to produce any concrete details that could help in the investigation. But he’s got oddly specific and weirdly situation-relevant accusations of century-old holes in the accepted Mormon historical narrative, and that’s what he wants to talk about with the police. It makes questions of Allen’s allegiance impossible to answer. Without a sufficient guarantee that what we’re seeing here is a true (or even true-ish) recounting of how the interrogations went down, it starts to feel like contrivance piled atop contrivance, betraying a sad (and frankly tired) anti-Mormon animus among the creators of the show.
I say tired when referring to criticisms of the church here because these criticisms are well trodden paths that have been thoroughly discussed for decades. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does indeed have a murky past where some crucial details have either been lost or are in dispute. It’s easy to go down a rabbithole of who knew what and when they knew it regarding the practice of plural marriage, or the idea that Brigham Young was a lusty Machiavellian waiting to replace Joseph Smith rather than a loyal comrade in faith who had to pick up the pieces when Smith was assassinated. These and similar topics (oh, John Taylor, you poor patsy for every addled conspiracy theory, how I pity you) have been getting rolled around by academics both in and out of the church for a long time.
Before I talk about that, though, I want to potentially concede a point. If Krakauer’s book operates in two separate sections (coverage of the murders followed by discussion of church history), then it is reasonable to accept that the showrunners had to figure out a way to thread those details together. Putting the historical flashbacks largely (but not entirely) in the mouth of Allen Lafferty is a writing decision I can accept. I’m also prepared to accept that the showrunners are trying to be impartial, and probably think they’re being super-fair (the treatment of Joseph Smith in the flashbacks is something I find refreshingly even-handed). I think I get what they’re trying to do. But I absolutely fault the narrative choice that makes Allen look like either a crank who would prefer to re-litigate long-ago historical conflicts over aiding the investigation into the murder of his own family, or a nut willing to stonewall the cops to protect his brothers rather than defend his wife and daughter, or even worse a wish.com Hannibal Lecter trying to manipulate Pyre while totally ignoring the carnage that has gotten him arrested. Anyway, on with the rest.
Time and Place
UBH is set in 1984. The show runners take clear pains to establish this both visually and in dialogue. Thankfully, they do this in a way I find refreshingly respectful. Church members of my generation may spot a variety of bits and bobs included in the show to ground it in that year. Some are very minor, like the inclusion of a blue-spined hardback set of illustrated Book of Mormon children’s books on a shelf (my parents still have their set). Some are subtle but important, like the fact that the show uses at least one 80s-era church building (UBH was shot in Alberta, a Canadian province with its own old-line Mormon community). Some are pretty major, like the unprecedented re-creation of the rituals of the temple, including what looks like a mock-up of a room in the Salt Lake Temple (which I have actually been in), and temple clothing and trappings (and speaking of clothing, the temple garment is everywhere in the show). Whichever piece of visual minutiae UBH puts on screen, it’s grounded in 1984, and the historical accuracy of it is impressive, and worthy of salute.
The dialogue between church members is more of a problem, because it’s not grounded in 1984, or any time at all. Most obvious here is that the characters have a marked preference for using “Heavenly Father“ exclusively instead of “God” or “the Lord” or any of the other assorted names of divinity out there. While “Heavenly Father” is a term used by members of the church, it’s overused here and that isn’t culturally accurate. Likewise, Detective Taba, the Native American (Paiute) partner of Pyre on the police force, gets derided as a “Lamanite” to his face a couple of times, which I have never heard done and is a little offensive on several levels. However, the showrunners need to quickly and subtly convey that this story takes place within a community that has a tight and complex set of in-group identifiers (spoiler alert: that’s an ethnicity, and more on this in a moment), so while I find the dialogue lame I grasp the goal and won’t quibble about it.
What I find most compelling is the cultural vibe of the church in 1984. There are some fun bright spots here, notably a sequence where Pyre can’t be home for his girls’ birthday because he’s chasing a critical lead in the case, and his ward Relief Society (the womens’ auxiliary) springs into action to flood his family with celebratory food and supportive attention. The communitarian impulse of active Mormons in the show is pretty accurate. But I want to drill down on the broader culture depicted in UBH a little bit, because it taps a very specific tonal vein. It is important to understand what’s accurate about that, and what’s not, and why it matters more broadly to me.
I was in the church and actively observant during this period, coming up in primary (the church’s children’s program) and Young Men (the male half of the youth program) during the 80s. Since I was there at the time, I admit that Allen Lafferty’s accusations of “secret history” suppressed by the church was something I sensed as a kid. Listening to the conversations of the adults, and late night campfire discussions of deep stuff at scout campouts (if you were a boy scout, you know what I’m talking about), and even in asking questions of my family (all that old-line Utah bunch) I understood that there were things about the broadly discussed history of the church that may have had a “the rest of the story” side. If you grew up actively Mormon in the 80s and 90s, you too may have heard mumbled asides and whispers about a whole list of strange-sounding topics and shadowy names: the white salamander, Haun’s Mill, King Follett, Adam-ondi-Ahman, Mountain Meadows, Mark Hofmann, Porter Rockwell, and other such stuff. It felt sometimes like there was a whole other story going on under the surface, and while I was never encouraged to look for details, I was also never discouraged from such looking. I read Man of God, Son of Thunder when I was a teenager, and came away not with shaken faith, but understanding that a lot of wild stuff went down in those crazy early days of pentecost-level revelatory output, mob violence, and forced migration. The story of the restoration is a lot, and it requires faith to accept.
I also understand the vibe UBH tries to build around the church membership’s faith-and-fear reverence for the “general authorities.” In the show, everybody in a position of church leadership talks a big game about big ideas, but is totally unwilling to take a hard position at ground level. They also all respond to persistent questioning with heavily veiled threats of church excommunication and the social ostracizing that would surely come with it. In much the same way the wizard of Oz demanded that Dorothy ignore the man behind the curtain, the general authorities of UBH demand that Pyre (and everybody, really) ignore the facts behind the historical narrative. There’s a sense that the church leaders are obsessed with public perception, so much so that they would use their priesthood positions to “suggest” that unflattering history be shunned, and to order a wife to stay in a clearly dangerous family situation rather than have a “scandal.”
Again, there’s a kernel there that I can identify from my own youth. I definitely got the sense that “the brethren” were a humorless bunch who presented their positions as the Lord’s anointed with an air of uncompromising sternness. Spencer Kimball’s book, The Miracle of Forgiveness, was ironically deployed like an inadvertent scarlet letter among the youth of the period. Ezra Benson (a former US presidential cabinet member and John Birch-level ultraconservative) railed about communism from the pulpit at a churchwide conference. Boyd Packer wrote a super-embarrassing sermon about masturbation that got turned into a tract handed around to all the young men. For a teenage boy in the period, the examples being set at the highest levels were examples of stolid, stoic, flinty, distant authority that demanded total self-denying obedience. It was a little scary, and it did take faith to navigate. UBH is definitely overplaying its “the church is full of tyrannical faux-perfectionist hypocrites” hand, but it’s easy to see where an outside observer of the period could conclude that the Mormons were all brainwashed robots.
The Problem with Snapshots
Easy to see, that is, if all you’re working from is a 1980s snapshot of Mormon culture. I have a sneaking suspicion that nobody directly involved in the writing for UBH has been an active member of the church since the 80s or 90s, if at all. And this is where UBH really got me thinking.
Let’s get to this term I’ve teased a couple of times now: ethnic Mormonism. Ethnicity is about shared culture; while traits you’re born with might factor into some ethnic identities, all are ultimately voluntary. You can join an ethnicity if you’re willing to learn and accept the social and behavioral norms of the group, and you can be ejected if you violate those norms. Some groups have very loose norms and it doesn’t take much to fasten the identity to yourself; there are lots of different kinds of “Californians” or “New Yorkers,” even though naming those groups surely puts a mental picture in your head. Other groups, though, have much stricter rules, and internal enforcement is vigorous. This is where you find nationalists (The cultural trappings of the Pledge of Allegiance are totally ethnic markers), racists (arguments about what constitutes “Blackness” can get pretty heated), and fundamentalist religionists (the difference between Shiite and Sunni Muslims has been a source of conflict for centuries).
What does that have to do with Mormonism? That is most clearly illustrated to me by a pronouncement made by church President Russell Nelson in 2018. Standing at the pulpit of the church’s semi-annual general conference, he declared authoritatively that “Mormon” was no longer to be regarded as an acceptable short-form of the name of the church. He didn’t say “thus saith the Lord” in the classic prophet way, but it was there in the undertone. It was an electrifying announcement, and the church responded with a complete overhaul of internal and external communication, including press kits and trade dress. The church even rebranded the venerable Mormon Tabernacle Choir; it is now the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. Objectively, changing the name of a 175 year-old choir that has clocked over 4000 live broadcasts and performed for 10 US presidents seems a little extreme. It happened anyway.
Why do this? From my view as a regular member, I believe that President Nelson recognized (though full disclosure: I believe he’s a prophet in legitimate touch with God, so was told in no uncertain terms) that “Mormon” had broadly stopped being a name of a church. It had become the name of a set of ethnic markers, especially in Utah and the neighboring old-line pioneer stock communities. Mormonism was calcifying (and in some places had totally calcified) into a rigid culture that actively interfered with people’s capacity to be disciples of Christ. And if the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to bring people to Christ (which it most certainly is and should be) then allowing it to slide into the creation of unrelated ethnic identifiers is a major problem. Nelson saw it (or was shown it), named it outright, and acted to roll it back. Everything about it has been a good thing.
I can trace that rollback even further back, though. I can go back to the presidency of Howard Hunter in the 1990s. I credit Hunter with putting the first cracks in the plaster of ethnic Mormonism, and those cracks had been spreading for years, until Nelson really swung a hammer at them and declared the goal openly.
Even as that arc was happening (and continues to happen), advances in technology like digital archiving and indexing brought all the “secret history” into the open. Now all those journals and records and letters that people like Allen Lafferty were so outraged about are out there for all to see. To be fair, this stuff was always out there. It’s just so easy to find and read now that it’s easier than ever to put the pieces together. Nothing makes a conspiracy theory evaporate faster than assembling all the sources into contextual relationships with one another. That assembling has been accelerating since the 1990s brought the world the internet. Increased connectivity and connectedness has allowed the church to build one of the most robust web presences of any religious group in the world, hosting the most robust reference library of any religious group in the world. The whole thing no longer looks like an American church that is carrying its message to the globe; it’s a global church that happens to be headquartered in America. That’s a subtle difference, but it’s very important, and it’s inextricably tied to the church leadership taking active action to trim away ethnic minutiae in favor of universal truth.
The point I’m making here is that while I see where UBH is coming from regarding its “the church is lying to you” throughline, and it may have had a sort-of point if it had been made in 1991, it’s not aiming at what it thinks it’s aiming at. For me, what the characters in UBH are having such a faith-shaking struggle with isn’t the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What they’re struggling with is Utah Mormonism. Those two things are different. I get why they would struggle, but their struggle does not move me. The show is engaging with a snapshot of a culture in a specific time and place; the culture of the church today doesn’t match the culture of the church 30 years ago. For that matter, the culture of the church by 1999 wasn’t the same as the culture of the church in 1984. But nobody involved in UBH seems to know that, which is why it makes sense to me to conclude that nobody involved in making this show has been objectively observing the church in the 21st century.
So Is It Any Good?
Visually, the show is fun. 80s nostalgia is a hot ticket right now, and UBH works hard to create and maintain a 1980s look that hits the mark. Some of that is in the everyday stuff; I don’t know how productions keep finding period-correct soda cans or McDonald’s packaging, but I guess there are prop houses making these things. Some of it is more obscure and speaks to a decent attempt at presenting 80s Utah Mormonism in a period-correct way; single-piece temple garments haven’t been a thing for decades, but they were still around in the 80s, and several recreated specimens appear throughout the show.
As much as that period backdrop is well done, however, the action on the stage has real problems. The most disappointing thing about UBH is that it shouldn’t matter what relationship the showrunners have with the church, but they make it matter, to the detriment of the experience. Their lack of knowledge of (or opinion of) the current church wouldn’t matter if we could trust that the characters and conversations presented in the show were real. If Pyre and his interrogations of Lafferty were factual, then I could accept the snapshot of ethnic Mormonism presented in UBH as exactly that. I would probably even find it compelling, finding echoes of my own struggles in the lives of historical figures (if I use the phrase “likening it unto myself,” my peeps will know what I’m talking about). In choosing to deviate from the historical record for “dramatic purposes,” Under the Banner of Heaven fatally undermines its impact. We can’t trust that the show bears any substantive relationship to the “true crime events” upon which it is “based.” And because the show is fictionalized, we have to ask why each fictionalized choice was made. As the show proceeds the answers to those questions look less and less like the show wants to seriously grapple with hard philosophical concepts, and more and more like it wants to re-hash the beefs of some hypothetical person who left the church during the period and is stuck in a feedback loop re-litigating their departure.
So at the end of the day, I can’t call UBH either a compelling recounting of a set of historical events or a well-told story of people having crises of faith. Too much is blended. Too much license is taken. There are too many whispering zealots seized with Charismatic quivering, and there is too much pensive and tear-filled staring into the distance. There’s legit talent operating here: former Spider-Man Andrew Garfield, current it-girl Daisy Edgar-Jones, slightly misplaced hunk Sam Worthington, solid straight-man Gil Birmingham, heavyweight dramatic producers Ron Howard and Jason Bateman; they surely think they’re tackling a hard and complicated set of topics. But it all comes off hollow and contrived. It neither advances understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints nor successfully asks “tough questions” about the nature of faith. We end up with a story of dogged cops chasing a pack of villains who think government has done them wrong and they have a religious obligation to “do something about it,” but as it goes along we the viewers learn that the “something” is really just about self-gratification and self-justification. It’s an hour of Law and Order: Small-Town Utah spun into a seven-episode opus. And sadly that’s pretty much it.