The Mormon critique of ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ endures, even as prestige TV
The portrayal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Mormon fundamentalism in Jon Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” has been a sticking point for church members and Uthans for nearly two decades now.
Now, the book has been turned into an FX on Hulu miniseries of the same name. Both tell the story of the real-life murder of Brenda Lafferty, a devout member of the church, and her 15-month-old daughter Erica.
“There’s a redemption and hope in [Brenda’s] Mormonism. Her Mormonism is depicted so beautifully, so powerfully, and I think it’s worth defending,” said Lindsay Hansen Park, a historical and cultural consultant for the series.
“I never felt growing up in the church like I was any less than anyone else, and Brenda sort of feels that,” she said. “And it's only when she expresses that and tries to live the things that she was taught that she runs into trouble.”
Brenda’s self-assurance didn’t go over well with her brothers-in-law Ron and Dan Lafferty. The Lafferty brothers turned to Mormon fundamentalism and decided Brenda and her daughter needed to be “removed.” The book faced fierce criticism for depicting the religion as one based in violence, and now the show is getting similar critiques.
“Brenda’s experience of being a sort of liberal, more progressive Latter-day Saint marrying into an extreme family is hard for people to watch,” said Hansen Park. “Because some people, some Mormons will go their whole life and never interact with a family like the Laffertys.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Disclosure: The show is a financial sponsor of KUER.
Caroline Ballard: What are the risks in doing a “lightly fictionalized” version of a true story?
Lindsay Hansen Park: I'm one of those folks that when I watch a period piece or historical drama, I like to research what is true, what is false. But working now in this role on the show, I realize the difficulties in translating that sort of accuracy. One of our challenges was truncating this very broad timeline of Mormon history and this very complicated sort of true crime case into seven episodes. It was challenging for me to be able to make those artistic concessions.
CB: Critics say the show paints with too broad a brush when it draws a direct line between violence in the founding of the religion and violence that happened more than a century later. Why bring that early history of the church into the show at all?
LHP: People that are making that critique do not understand Mormon fundamentalism. Mormon fundamentalists are often looking back at original texts and trying to recreate the Joseph Smith story. We see this over and over again. For the FLDS, for example, that's the most famous one in Utah, Warren Jeffs’ group. I mean, when he took over from his father, Rulon Jeffs, he recreated the succession crisis with Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. He talks about being in prison and being fed, you know, poison and flesh, just like Joseph Smith claimed he did when he was in prison. This is a huge part of the Mormon fundamentalist story. And if you don't understand that, then you're not going to understand how deeply the history plays into the story.
CB: Who is this show for? I think you need some familiarity with the church and the culture to kind of get what's going on. But I'm not sure many church members are going to want to watch it.
LHP: I think that that was a question that a lot of people had, but I've actually had a different experience. I think a lot of people are curious. Mormons are deeply curious about how they're depicted. You know, we have a whole narrative about how outsiders are in this struggle with us, and it's sort of this tug of war. My hope is that our Mormon community, this is our chance to show the world who we are and sort of drop the rope in this tug of war.
It's kind of embarrassing and humiliating to realize that our defensiveness of this kind of show is playing into the exact critique of the show, the exact critique that people have of Mormonism. People don't trust Mormons because we're often not the first to address these things. It's outsiders that are doing it. I have a lot of Mormon fundamentalists that helped on my research on this show, and they are having these brave, hard conversations in their community, and I hope that can happen in the mainstream church.
I really would like our own community to get away from the sort of faith politics of ‘does the show prove the church is good or bad or true or false?’ This is a Mormon world that the show creators created. So from a Mormon lens, it's really cool to see the fundamentalist perspective, the ex-Mormon perspective, the doubters perspective, the faithful perspective, the sisterhood that's expressed, all of these things interacting. And yet I've now watched the series with non-Mormons and they're seeing for the first time the complexities and what they thought was just this sort of monolithic, kind of strange, crazy community. And it's disrupting that for them. I think that that's a real gift, and I hope that our community will be able to see that.