Art critique

Mormon criticism of ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ lives on, even as prestige TV

Representation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Mormon fundamentalism in “Under the Sky Banner” by Jon Krakauer has been a sticking point for church members and Uthans for nearly two decades now.

Now the book has been turned into a FX on the Hulu miniseries of the same name. Both tell the story of the real-life murder of devout church member Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica.

“There is redemption and hope in [Brenda’s] Mormonism. His Mormonism is portrayed so beautifully, so powerfully, and I think it’s worth defending,” said Lindsay Hansen Park, historical and cultural consultant for the series.

“I never felt like growing up in the church like I was less than anybody else, and Brenda kind of feels that,” she said. “And it’s only when she expresses that and tries to live the things she’s been taught that she runs into trouble.”

Brenda’s assertiveness did not sit well with her brothers-in-law Ron and Dan Lafferty. The Lafferty brothers turned to Mormon fundamentalism and decided that Brenda and her daughter should be “abducted.” The book came under fierce criticism for depicting the religion as one based on violence, and now the series is receiving similar criticism.

“Brenda’s experience of being kind of a liberal, more progressive Latter-day Saint marrying into an extreme family is hard for people to watch,” Hansen Park said. “Because some people, some Mormons will go their whole lives 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 of doing a “lightly fictionalized” version of a true story?

Lindsay Hansen Park: I’m one of those people who, when I watch a period piece or a historical drama, I like to research what’s true, what’s not. But now working in this role on the show, I realize the difficulties in translating that kind of precision. One of our challenges was to truncate this very broad timeline of Mormon history and this very complicated kind of true crime case into seven episodes. It was difficult for me to be able to make these artistic concessions.

CB: Critics say the show paints with too broad a brush when it draws a direct line between the violence in the founding of religion and the violence that occurred more than a century later. Why introduce this ancient history of the church into the show?

HPL: People who make this criticism do not understand Mormon fundamentalism. Mormon fundamentalists often look to the original texts and try to recreate the story of Joseph Smith. We see this over and over again. For the FLDS, for example, it is Utah’s best known group, Warren Jeffs. I mean, when he succeeded 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 big part of the history of Mormon fundamentalism. And if you don’t understand that, then you’re not going to understand how much the story plays into the story.

CB: Who is this program for? I think you need some familiarity with the church and the culture to understand what’s going on. But I’m not sure many church members will want to watch it.

HPL: I think that was a question a lot of people had, but I actually had a different experience. I think a lot of people are curious. Mormons are deeply curious about how they are portrayed. You know, we have a whole story about how the aliens are in this fight with us, and it’s kind of a tussle. I hope our Mormon community is our chance to show the world who we are and let go of this tussle.

It’s kind of embarrassing and humiliating to realize that our defensive attitude towards this kind of show plays into the exact criticism of the show, the exact criticism that people have of Mormonism. People don’t trust Mormons because we are often not the first to address these issues. Foreigners do it. I have a lot of Mormon fundamentalists who have helped me with my research on this show, and they have these brave, tough conversations in their community, and I hope that can happen in the mainstream church.

I would really like our own community to move away from the kind of religious politics like ‘does the show prove the church is good or bad or right or wrong?’ It’s a Mormon world that the creators of the show have created. So from a Mormon perspective, it’s really cool to see the fundamentalist perspective, the ex-Mormon perspective, the skeptic perspective, the faithful perspective, the brotherhood coming out, all these things interacting. And yet, I’ve now watched the show with non-Mormons and they see for the first time the complexities and what they thought was just this sort of monolithic, weird, crazy community. And that disrupts that for them. I think it’s a real gift, and I hope our community can see it.