Jana Riess: “Under the Banner of Heaven” Begs the Question: Are Latter-day Saints Dangerous?

A few weeks ago in Latter-day Saint Sunday School we were discussing the passage in the Book of Numbers in which scouts from every tribe of Israel sneak into the Promised Land to see if it can be conquered.

Of the 12 scouts, 10 come back and say the land is full of terrible giants that cannot be overthrown. Only Joshua and Caleb are fueled by the prospect of conquest, arguing that of course they can take the land and overthrow the giants. “We’ve got this!” You insist in answering the ambiguities of the other 10 Boy Scouts.

The church’s Come, Follow Me curriculum, which takes a gentle nod to prosperity theology, spiritualizes these passages by making them “all about us,” spurring us on to personal success and well-being. “With Faith in the Lord I Can Have Hope for the Future,” reads the title of one section. The message of the lesson is that if only we have faith like Joshua and Caleb, we can overcome our own challenging situations and escape the trap of pessimism.

In class, people shared some of the reasons the other 10 Boy Scouts failed in their mission: they were weak, they didn’t trust God, they were easily overcome. What nobody talked about was that maybe the 10 naysayers were cautious, not because they were cowards, but because they weren’t. Because they looked into the Promised Land and realized that the Lord was asking them to murder every single person in it, including children. That they were commanded to attack people who had not waged war against them because they coveted those people’s property and felt that their own superior religion had entitled them to commit genocide in order to take that property.

I tried quite hard to address this point in class, but I don’t know if my question changed anyone’s mind about Joshua and Caleb being heroes.

The context for this Sunday School discussion in my own life was that I had just spent many hours watching, reading, writing, and interviewing about the new FX/Hulu series, Under the Banner of Heaven be, a much embellished and fictionalized It follows the murders of Brenda Lafferty and her baby in 1984. I’ve seen all seven episodes now and I stand by what I wrote in April: the series has elements of good drama, including excellent performances by the ensemble cast, but is riddled with historical inaccuracies and a persistent thesis that Mormonism “makes dangerous men.”

I did not agree that my church is a breeding ground for dangerous people, people who are more vulnerable to violence than others. I have never seen reliable statistical evidence that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are more likely than other people to commit acts of violence, or that the headline-grabbing violence of religiously inspired killers like the Lafferty brothers is more than wrong turns.

I’m open to changing my mind about this if the evidence is compelling; “Banner” is anything but. Its final episodes present as fact a number of historically dubious theories, such as that Brigham Young was involved in Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, that Smith’s companion Willard Richards was the one who shot him, and that Young directly ordered the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre . These issues add up to the flaws in the earlier episodes, beginning with the portrayal of a very young Joseph courting a very young Emma – other actors play their teenage selves as she is in adulthood – when the couple didn’t even meet until she was 21 years old he was almost 20.

When it comes to storytelling, details matter. Accuracy matters. And for “Banner” to be convincing in its broadest terms, it should be convincing in its details, and it isn’t. It is a largely unrecognizable retelling of the origins of Latter-day Saints, emphasizing only violence, the patriarchal oppression of women, and outright greed as motivations for the early leaders’ and members’ religious identification with the movement.

I’m not sure. But when “Banner” undermines its own credibility by presenting only the horrible side of the Mormon founding and claims we can draw a straight line from the 19th century monstrosities credibility by ignoring the dangers of religiously inspired violence.

This neglect is built into even our Sunday church experiences. We do not teach members to be critical of “heroes” like Joshua and Caleb who wiped out entire cultures in the name of their Lord. Instead, our curriculum asks, “How can we be more like Caleb and Joshua?”

We stick to songs like “Let Us All Press On” that my own congregation sang this week. What we all seem to like about it is that it has a kick-a-melody and is fun to sing. What we often don’t see is that it emphasizes the very kind of us-versus-them mentality that scientists have shown is the real culprit of the violence and not religion per se.

Mark Juergensmeyer argues in Terror in the Mind of God that religious absolutism and the raising of every conflict to a “cosmic war” are at the root of religious violence. When combat is viewed in strictly binary terms – all or nothing, black or white, good or evil – compromise becomes impossible and the literal demonization of enemies is assured.

It’s not hard for me to imagine what Jürgensmeyer would say about lyrics that exhort “in the fight for justice let us draw swords,” repeatedly declare “the Lord is on our side,” and assure us that we “will fight the enemy.” “ be defeated. and “the bad guys”.

“We will not withdraw, even if we are few

Compared to the opposite host in view

But an invisible pow’r will help me and you

In the glorious cause of truth.”


Mormonism is not alone in failing to challenge the morally questionable military victories of the Hebrew Bible. It is not unique to sing war anthems extolling our own greatness and the destruction of our enemies. It is not unique that they repeatedly fail to understand how the seeds of religious violence can be embedded in sacred texts and worship songs.

But if we believe our own press, we’re supposed to be better than that. So, despite the series’ historical flaws, let’s allow the central message of “Under the Banner of Heaven” to permeate our conversations and inspire some self-reflection.

To do do we breed dangerous people? And if so, how do we need to change?

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.) Jana Riess: “Under the Banner of Heaven” Begs the Question: Are Latter-day Saints Dangerous?

Joel McCord

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