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What ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ gets wrong about Mormonism (and all religions)



David Ives - published on 07/01/22

The makers of the miniseries have an "ill-informed desire to paint all religion as intrinsically violent," which is "simply not true," writes David Ives.

One of the indelible memories from my childhood is the day we returned home from the laundromat to find Mormons in our trees, not a common occurrence in my part of the country.

It seems our local LDS missionaries had grown a bit peckish waiting on my family to arrive and had decided to help themselves to some plums. We didn’t mind, considering the treats a small consolation prize for their unsuccessful weeks-long campaign to convert my family to Mormonism, efforts that would never (ahem) bear fruit. A good thing we resisted too, because if there’s one thing to be learned from the Hulu miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven, it’s that the Mormon church is chock full of potential homicidal maniacs. 

Well, that’s the takeaway the series’ writers appear to have in mind anyway. Based in part on real-life events, Under the Banner of Heaven tells the story of a devout LDS detective who has the foundations of his faith shaken after he is called upon to investigate the murders of a young Mormon mother and her infant daughter. 

The detective is played by the ever-excellent Andrew Garfield, who lately seems to be drawn to roles exploring various branches of Christianity. In 2016 he portrayed a 17th-century Jesuit priest in Martin Scorsese’s Silence and a conscientious objector Seventh Day Adventist in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. He followed this in 2021 by taking on the role of infamous televangelist Jim Bakker in the biopic, The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Here Garfield is Detective Jeb Pyre (a fictional creation for the miniseries), a devout Mormon who resolutely adheres to the practices of his religion including no caffeine, no cussing, and most of all, no questioning what he was taught.

That all begins to change, however, after Jeb learns his suspects belong to a cult-like splinter group of uber-fundamentalist Mormons. Claiming to follow the original teachings of Joseph Smith, minus any of the changes instituted by later Mormon prophets, the killers considered it their sacred obligation to execute the woman for the sin of disobeying her husband. And much to his horror, as Jeb pursues the investigation, he begins to uncover disturbing revelations about the origins of Mormonism that lead him to believe the murderers are correct in their interpretation of Mormon doctrine. Shaken to his core, Jeb begins to falter in his faith. He doesn’t cave in and drink coffee, but he does sneak a few forbidden French fries, lets slip an expletive, and worst of all, begins to question his church’s teachings.

Needless to say, LDS leadership has condemned the depiction of Mormonism in the miniseries, and it’s easy to see why. Early in the very first episode, a suspect confides to Jeb, “If you really still believe your God is love, then you don’t know who you are, brother. This faith, our faith, breeds dangerous men.” The implication is that if you go back to the very core teachings, you’ll discover that Mormonism, and all religion in general, is inherently violent in nature. Every believer is a potential killer, a ticking time bomb just waiting for the right moment to go off.

Now, that theory makes sense if you accept the holy writings of secularist commentators who infallibly teach that more people have died in the name of religion than for any other cause. However, it doesn’t make sense if you spend fifteen minutes researching the truth. A quick perusal of Alan Axelrod PH.D. and Charles Phillips’ three-volume opus, The Encyclopedia of Wars, which chronicles the history and root causes of most of the major conflicts throughout human history, will set the facts straight. It turns out that of the 1,763 wars discussed in the book, only about 7% had religion as their primary motivating factor. The death toll from those religious-based conflicts accounts for less than 2% of all people who have died in wars. 

G. K. Chesterton once said something along the lines that to criticize religion because it leads people to kill each other is like criticizing love because it has the same effect. The facts indicate he was right (as usual), that it is not religion that is inherently violent, but mankind, who will seemingly murder each other for any number of reasons, be it for anger, profit, passion, or even in some extreme cases, just for the fun of it. It is, in fact, the duty of religions to overcome those impulses in the name of love, not to give in to them.

Sadly, the creators of Under the Banner of Heaven don’t get that, which is a shame because, in terms of execution, the series is extremely well done. The performances are involving, as are the facts behind the horrific true-life events the story details. Unfortunately, what is a fascinating look at what happens when religion is abused is undermined by the show’s ill-informed desire to paint all religion as intrinsically violent. It’s simply not true. From personal experience, I can assure you that the vast majority of Mormons are not out to kill you, they would just like to convert you. Failing that, they will accept plums.

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