While much of the media’s preoccupation with Mormon Fundamentalism centers on the FLDS, Under The Banner Of Heaven (adapted from the Jon Krakauer book of the same name) focuses on a small group of budding fundamentalists. Created by Dustin Lance Black, it tells the story of the 1984 murders of Brenda Wright Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, by Dan and Ron Lafferty, Brenda’s brothers-in-law. The brothers had broken away from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and began practicing a version of Mormon Fundamentalism. They believed the murders were commanded by God in the form of divine revelation they received, also making it a story about what happens when zealotry and strict adherence to violent principles of faith trump all else.
“Under The Banner Of Heaven is not just an examination of Mormonism but an examination of faith in general,” says series creator Dustin Lance Black. He spent a decade working to adapt the book into a film, then TV, then film, then back to TV before we got the FX streaming hit that first aired in April 2022. “It’s not an easy needle to thread—a crime show that also examines faith in America,” explains Black. “Who would want to watch that?”
“The show centers on Mormonism because that is my lived experience,” says Black, who parted ways with the LDS Church when he was a teenager. “There was passion there to keep the project alive until it could get made. I’m a believer in writing what you know as a fruitful exercise.”
While the Laffertys’ journey from (albeit strict) mainstream Mormons to fundamentalists with violent and tragic results is a true story, Black says the story is not unique. Rather, it is only unique in its specificity. “The core themes of this true story include examining the wisdom of strict interpretations of doctrine,” says Black. “It questions, where is the value in that? Or is it a dangerous path to take?” Whether it is the strict, originalist interpretation of a document that’s only 100 or 200 years old—like the works of Joseph Smith or the writers of the constitution—“this is a cautionary tale about what happens if you do that,” he says.
Black likens the story of the Laffertys to those who wish for a return to the past and its values and strictures. “Under The Banner Of Heaven is a journey back in time to what some folks hope is a better way, but there is no pot of gold at the end of that journey—only ruin.” He hopes the show will shine light into the dark corners of the past to help generate ideas of how institutions and people could now be better than they were. He adds, “I say this more than anything else about the show—when we know better, we can do better.”
That said, he does not believe the LDS Church or any faith should escape accountability for its past. Even he, in some way, feels accountable. “I did not help write the Book of Mormon or settle Utah. I did not make the decisions that made Mormonism one of the most patriarchal faiths in the western world. I didn’t cause the misogyny or racism within the faith. I didn’t do those things…but my ancestors did.”
The show draws a direct line from the history of the Mormon Church to the actions of the Laffertys, who feel inspired by Brigham Young and Joseph Smith to embrace practices like polygamy and blood atonement. It’s a comparison that has made some members of the LDS Church uncomfortable and earned Under The Banner Of Heaven—both the show and the book it’s based on—vocal critics.
Some criticisms of the show have focused on the trivial, like the Mormon characters’ supposed overuse of “Heavenly Father” in place of “God.” (Most Latter-day Saints are careful to avoid saying God’s name “in vain.”) According to Black, it’s not a mistake or something he got wrong about Mormons. The usage is a direct lift from the writings of Brenda and the Laffertys.
In a 2003 statement, a spokesperson for the LDS Church called Krakauer’s book “a full-frontal assault on the veracity of the modern Church” and religious faith in general, rather than Krakauer’s stated intention to examine how religious extremism can lead to violence. Likewise, Black, as a former Mormon and out gay man, has been criticized as having an axe to grind against the church. For his part, Black says Under The Banner Of Heaven is not a hit piece against the LDS Church. “Some people out there hope for the extinguishment of the faith. That’s not my aim,” he says. “But a lot of people are having a tough time right now, and they’re wondering why their church doesn’t stand up for them.”
“I do hope it puts pressure on the church to change,” says Black. The kind of change the LDS Church made in 1978 when it gave the priesthood to black men and allowed all of its black members to participate in LDS temple ordinances, but “there will be no revelation to make life easier for all Mormons—of all races, genders, sexuality—without shining a light on the past.”
The One(s) Mighty And Strong
In Under The Banner Of Heaven, we see how Ron Lafferty is propelled deeper into fundamentalism by a persistent notion that appears within a number of fundamentalist sects but originated in the early (mainstream) church. Lafferty begins to believe he is the subject of a prophecy by Joseph Smith.
In 1832, Smith wrote, “[T]he Lord God, will send one mighty and strong, holding the scepter of power in his hand, clothed with light for a covering, whose mouth shall utter words, eternal words; while his bowels shall be a fountain of truth, to set in order the house of God[.]” The words were later canonized with their inclusion in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Doctrine And Covenants section 85.
Ron Lafferty was not the first nor last to claim to be the “one mighty and strong” that will “set in order the house of God.” The claimants number in the dozens, a number of fundamentalist leaders among them.
“If it’s canonized it’s as close to God saying it as anything. So, every single Mormon group has an interpretation of it,” says Lindsay Hansen Park. Park, the Mormon Fundamentalism consultant on Under The Banner Of Heaven, created the podcast Year Of Polygamy and is the executive director of the Sunstone Education Foundation, which focuses on discussions around Mormonism.
In Park’s experience within mainstream Mormonism, “you’re the one mighty and strong” was used more colloquially as a compliment, usually directed toward young men. Some believe that the prophecy refers to Joseph Smith himself, who already restored what the faithful call “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.”
“But for people who find themselves in disagreement with the church but not their faith,” says Park, “that scripture often justifies their beliefs because it says there’s a problem in the church and someone needs to fix it. For a lot of men, they’ve interpreted that as ‘I guess it has to be me.’”
“I’ve met a lot of ‘ones mighty and strong’ in my work with fundamentalism,” says Park.
The prophecy is both canonized within Mormon scripture and remains open to interpretation about what or who it’s alluding to, “and that’s why we see so many break-off sects,” says Park.
Among those who have claimed to be the “one mighty and strong” (or others claimed them to be) are some men who have been excommunicated from the mainstream church and fundamentalists like Jeffs, Joseph Musser, Joel LeBaron, Ervil LeBaron, the Laffertys and Brian David Mitchell. Like the Laffertys, Ervil LeBaron used his claims to justify murders, including that of Rulon Allred, the leader of another fundamentalist sect.