Criticism of Mormonism/Books/Under the Banner of Heaven/The Justin Wise Dialogues

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"The Justin Wise Dialogues" by Ron Hellings

Summary: FairMormon member Ron Hellings provides an imagined dialogue which highlights some of the many problems with this anti-Mormon work.

The following dialogue is from The Justin Wise Dialogues, an unpublished manuscript by Ron Hellings. The imaginary dialogue in the chapter from which this segment is taken involves three men:

  • Justin Wise, a Mormon
  • Bob Simplicio, an ex-Mormon who left the church for intellectual reasons but just can't leave it alone
  • Mario Sagredo, an Italian investigator

The subject of the discussion in this excerpt is Jon Krakauer's 2003 book, "Under the Banner of Heaven". [1]


Simplicio: You may have a nice logical ethical philosophy in theory, but in practice it is a complete failure. In practice, Mormon doctrine does not lead to moral behavior.

Justin: What are you talking about?

Simplicio: I am referring to the main point of the recent best-seller, “Under the Banner of Heaven”.[1] This is a book in which the author, Jon Krakauer, makes it very clear that religion in general, and the Mormon faith in particular, are powerful forces in motivating people to violent behavior.

Justin: Come on, Bob. I thought you were smarter than that. Did you read the book?

Simplicio: Yes. And it seems to me that…

Brief summary of the volume

Sagredo (interrupting): What is this book about?

Simplicio: I’m sorry. Let me explain. In 2003, Jon Krakauer, an investigative reporter, wrote a book about a sensational murder in Utah in 1984, when two Mormon brothers...

Justin (interrupting): Bob...

Simplicio: All right. Two excommunicated Mormon brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, murdered their younger brother Allen’s wife and baby daughter.

Sagredo: Why?

Religion promotes violence?

Simplicio: That’s just the point. Ron and Dan Lafferty said that God had told them to do it. And that is the premise of Krakauer’s whole book – that it was their Mormon upbringing that allowed them, pushed them, to this horrendous deed.

Sagredo: Are Mormons particularly violent?

Justin: Of course not. Krakauer just says this because he wants it to be the explanation. He has no facts to back it up. No studies of violence among Mormons as opposed to other religions. Nothing. In fact, it isn’t just Mormons he picks on. The premise of his book is that all religion leads to violence. He begins his book with a prologue in which he says, “As a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane – as a means of inciting evil, to borrow the vocabulary of the devout – there may be no more potent force than religion.”[1]:xxi What do you think, Mario? Is this a true statement?

Sagredo: Well, there have been plenty of acts of violence in the name of religion.

Justin: Of course there have. You can find anecdotes to support almost any proposition. In fact, I am thinking of writing a book advancing the idea that, as a means of motivating people to acts of violence, there may be no more potent force than World Cup Soccer.

Mario laughed.

Sagredo: I know of many stories that support that premise.

Justin: Right. But you can’t prove a premise by citing a few anecdotes. You need careful comparative studies. So where are the sociological studies that support Krakauer’s outlandish statement? There are none. None! In fact, the only way he can get away with positing such a ridiculous idea is to ignore overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Simplicio: What evidence to the contrary? Are you claiming that religious violence never happened?

Justin: Of course not. I’m just saying that religious violence is the work of amateurs. Add up all the religious violence you can think of – the crusades, the inquisition, 400 years of Catholic-Protestant wars in Ireland, Islamic terrorism. Amateurs. If you want really professional cruelty and violence, you need to find yourself a good atheist. These are the guys who know how to do get it done. The reign of terror in revolutionary France was the work of atheists. They called it “The Age of Reason.” Slobodan Milošević was an atheist. So was Pol Pot. So were Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung. Adolf Hitler wasn’t waging a religious campaign against the Jews, he was waging a campaign of scientific racism. And he had hard empirical science on his side. Intelligent Nazi scientists felt that they had evidence that Jews and other races were genetically inferior to Aryans, and that the only rational, ethical way to better the world was through eugenics and systematic genocide.

Sagredo: That’s true. No uncomfortable religious faith got in Hitler’s way.

Justin: And so Krakauer gets it exactly wrong. In the prologue of his book, he says,

Faith is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness a crucial component of spiritual devotion. And when religious fanaticism supplants ratiocination [a little-used word meaning 'logic,' reminding us of William Safire's famous advice, "Never use a big word when a diminutive one will do."], all bets are suddenly off. Anything can happen. Absolutely anything. Common sense is no match for the voice of God – as the actions of Dan Lafferty vividly attest.[1]:xxiii

Actually, we see that the opposite is true. The actions of Adolph Hitler attest that common sense is no match for the relentless ratiocination of a man with no religious faith to anchor him against the use of atheistic science and heartless reason for his own cruel and violent purposes.

Bob Simplicio took a deep breath.

Mormon theology leads to murder?

Simplicio: Justin, you’re taking us off on a tangent. I don’t care if Jon Krakauer’s general statement about religion and violence is supported by careful sociological studies or not. The point is that Mormon theology contributed to a vicious murder, and Krakauer’s book provides the insight and the evidence that this is the case.

Justin: Nonsense. Jon Krakauer’s book is really quite worthless on this score. It provides no insight into the reasons for the murders and it provides no insight into LDS practices or doctrines. The man is simply out of his depth. He has no training in criminology, none in psychology, none in history, none in religion. He is just not the man for the job.

Simplicio: He doesn’t claim to be an expert in these things. He is not a scholar; he is an investigative journalist. He interviews the experts and then synthesizes their insights into a coherent picture that he then communicates to his readers.

Justin: But there is no coherent picture. He rehashes the well-known contributing factors to the brothers’ action – Ron and Dan Lafferty’s father was abusive; their mother was submissive; both boys grew into abusive fathers and husbands themselves; Allen’s wife did not show the proper deference to her brothers-in-law, so she became a target. The defense tried to prove that the two were insane; the prosecution produced witnesses saying the opposite. But where is the coherent picture? What motivated these two men to this horrible crime? Jon Krakauer only answers this in one place. Do you remember it?

Simplicio: I don’t know what you’re referring to.

Justin: Jon is at the point in his book where Ron Lafferty is claiming revelations, one of which supposedly tells him to kill his sister-in-law. Krakauer points out that Lafferty had been examined by a psychiatrist who concluded that his revelations were delusions, “spawned by depression and his deeply entrenched narcissism, with no basis whatever in reality.” But Krakauer will have none of it. “Ron knows that the commandments he’d received were no mere figment of his imagination,” says Krakauer. “The Lord spoke to him.”[1]:162 That is Krakauer’s explanation, the only one he ever gives. What do you think, Mario? Did God really speak to Ron Lafferty and tell him to kill his sister-in-law?

Simplicio: Don’t be ridiculous. Jon Krakauer doesn’t believe in God.

Justin: So what is he trying to say? Look, there are only three possibilities here. Either Lafferty is insane and his revelations are all delusions, or he is sane and knows that he did not really receive revelations, which means he is lying, or he actually received the word of God telling him to murder his sister-in-law.

Simplicio: Jon’s point is that thinking that you can speak with God is a kind of insanity.

Belief in revelation equals insanity

Justin: Aha! Now you have it. That is Krakauer’s agenda. He is an fanatical atheist and that is the thing he wants to prove. That was his preconceived notion, and – surprise! – that is his conclusion. But it’s nonsense. There is not a Mormon bishop in the church who hasn’t received revelation to guide him in his calling, and Mormon bishops are among the sanest people I know. They do not kill people. But the Lafferty brothers did, and Jon Krakauer simply has no clue as to why.

Sagredo: So that’s why you think the book is useless.

Justin: Yes. That and the fact that he also spends half of his book writing about the history of the LDS church.

Sagredo: What is wrong with that?

Justin: He just doesn’t know very much. His only sources seem to be slanted anti-Mormon books – books that he clearly chooses because they support his prejudices. And so he makes one error after another, silly errors that any active member of the church can spot in a minute.

Simplicio: Like what?

Basic errors of fact and history

Justin: Like in his chapter about the Hill Cumorah Pageant, where he says, “The Hill Cumorah is one of the holiest sites in all of Mormondom, and sooner or later most Latter-day Saints make a pilgrimage there.”[1]:63 He simply has no idea that Mormons do not speak of “holy sites” in that way, that there are no Mormon “pilgrimages,” and that it is simply not true that most Mormons will ever visit the Hill Cumorah. It is not one of our religious duties. It’s just that this is the kind of silly devout behavior he expects of Mormons, so, for him, that makes it a fact. He refers to the Apostle Mark E. Peterson as the President of the Church.[1]:75 Any Mormon could have fixed that mistake for him, but he obviously sought no Mormon fact-checking help for his book. He speaks of the Book of Mormon’s Laban as a “filthy-rich sheep magnate”[1]:165 because he has not read the Book of Mormon closely enough to notice that the Laban in the Book of Mormon is not the same as the Laban in the Old Testament. After all, why should he waste time actually reading the book when he already knows what his opinion of it is going to be?

Simplicio: But he corrected those errors in the second edition.

Justin: Some of them. He still hung onto his Cumorah error. But I especially enjoy what he said in his appendix in the second edition. After the first edition came out, Richard Turley, a Mormon historian, pointed out several of these errors. So, in the second edition, Krakauer concedes five mistakes and then proceeds to debate the rest. It is interesting to note how he justifies his position. Speaking of Turley’s review of his book, Krakauer says, “Some of the ‘errors’ he [Turley] alleges are no more than honest differences of opinion.”[1]:357

Simplicio: So?

Justin: So do you know what they call it when an author knows that there are other “honest” points of view, but he only presents one of them? They don’t call it scholarship. They don’t even call it investigative journalism. They call it propaganda. That is what Jon Krakauer has written. There is no balance in the book, no acknowledgement of any view but his own. In referring to one historical incident, he states, “I find the version of the tragedy offered by John D. Lee, Juanita Brooks, and Will Bagley ... to be much more credible than the versions offered by Turley and other spokesmen for the LDS Church.” That’s it! No explanation of what the other versions say or why he dislikes them, no reasons given that would allow a reader to judge anything for himself. Jon thinks that it is enough for us to know that he - our intellectually-detached, rational judge of all things historical - doesn’t find them “credible.” Well, of course we know what he finds wrong with the other versions – they don’t agree with his agenda. And if he were to allow himself to discuss any of these other views, he might have to give the LDS Church one tiny break in his otherwise unremitting, condescending ridicule of a faith he doesn’t understand.

Simpicio: That’s a little harsh.

Justin : Is it? Do you remember what he said about the Cumorah Pageant he attended?

The pageant has the energy of a Phish concert, but without the drunkenness, outlandish hairdos (Brother Richards’ comb-over notwithstanding), or clouds of marijuana smoke.... Order, needless to say, prevails. This is a culture that considers obedience to be among the highest virtues.[1]:67

Besides the mean-spirited ridicule of Brother Richards’ appearance, what about the rest? I’ve been to concerts at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where order, needless to say, prevailed. But I always chalked that up to the decency and good manners of the concert-goers. Of course, that can’t be the explanation for the behavior of the Mormons at the Cumorah Pageant. After all, Mormons only behave in an orderly way because they are mindless, obsequious little automatons.

Sagredo: You seem to have strong feelings about this book.

Justin smiled.

Krakauer's Abuse of Elizabeth Smart

Justin: I must admit that the book makes me a little angry. But we haven’t yet gotten to the part that offends me most of all. That is Krakauer’s treatment of Elizabeth Smart.

Simplicio: Yes. That was a bit over the top.

Sagredo: What is this?

Justin: In 2002, while Jon Krakauer was still writing his book, a pretty, innocent fourteen-year-old girl named Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her home in Salt Lake City by an itinerant street preacher, Brian Mitchell, and his wife, Wanda Barzee. Mitchell cut through the window screen of Elizabeth’s home at night, while the family was asleep. He woke Elizabeth up with a knife at her throat and told her that he would kill her and her family if she did not go with him. She was taken to a campsite in the woods nearby, held captive by chaining her to a tree, and raped repeatedly at knifepoint over a period of nine months.

Sagredo: How horrible. But why did that matter to Krakauer? Was Mitchell a Mormon?

Justin: Both Mitchell and his wife had been raised in the church and excommunicated for apostasy in the mid 1990s. Mitchell claimed that God had told him to take Elizabeth as his polygamous wife.

Sagredo: Ah. I see the connection.

Justin: Yes. But the point here is not what Jon has to say about Mitchell and Barzee; it’s what he has to say about Elizabeth Smart.

Sagredo: What about Elizabeth?

Justin: You see, toward the end of her captivity, she was occasionally left alone, but she did not try to escape. When she was finally recognized on the street, she did not admit who she was, until pressed. And, after the kidnappers were arrested, Elizabeth expressed some concern for their welfare.

Sagredo: But this is typical behavior for someone who is abducted, threatened, and then shown a little kindness. It’s called the Stockholm syndrome.

Justin: Yes. And Krakauer knows it. He mentions the syndrome in connection with another case in his book,[2] but there is no mention of it in reference to Elizabeth Smart. Instead, Jon prefers the time-honored tradition of blaming the victim, and, in this case, the victim’s family. Elizabeth’s problem, according to Jon Krakauer, is that she was “raised to obey figures of Mormon authority unquestioningly, and to believe that LDS doctrine is the law of God.”[1]:45 Of course, he has no idea what they actually taught her; but he is quite sure that all Mormons are taught blind obedience, so that must have been it. He also suggests that “the white robes Mitchell and Barzee wore, and forced Elizabeth to wear, resembled the sacred robes she had donned with her family when they entered the Mormon temple.” Now you can’t really blame Krakauer for a stupid mistake like this, because he is not a Mormon and should not be expected to know that Elizabeth, having been born ‘under the covenant,’ would not need to be sealed to her parents in the temple, and so she would probably never have even seen the robes that her parents wore when they attended the temple. Of course, he could have done a little research here by actually talking to a faithful Mormon, but Jon doesn’t like to use faithful Mormons as sources.

Sagredo: But why wouldn’t he bring up the Stockholm syndrome? Can’t he see that Elizabeth’s case is a classic example?

Justin: Because he has an axe to grind. He doesn’t consult psychologists or other experts on abductions to ask them to comment on Elizabeth’s case. Instead, he goes searching for someone to tell him what he wants to hear. He finds Debbie Palmer, a refugee from a non-LDS polygamous offshoot from the church, who is now an anti-polygamy crusader. It is Debbie’s opinion that “Mitchell would never have been able to have such power over a non-Mormon girl.” Debbie is not a psychologist and was never a Mormon, but she was once a member of a polygamous sect. That’s good enough for Jon. Actually a member of a polygamous sect – what more expertise could you want?

Sagredo: I guess neither of them ever heard of Patricia Hearst. As I remember, she was brainwashed by her captors and ended up strongly sympathetic to them. But no one ever blamed her parents for it.

Justin: No. But Jon Krakauer blames Ed and Lois Smart for Elizabeth’s problems. It’s their fault for teaching Elizabeth to follow her LDS faith. It’s Lois’ fault that Mitchell came to work at their house and meet Elizabeth in the first place, because Lois has “a soft spot for the destitute.” There’s that condescending, ridiculing sense of humor again. Jon has no sympathy for their nine months of anguish, not knowing if their daughter was dead or alive, picturing what may have happened or might still be happening, knowing that whatever it was had to have been a horror for their little girl. And he has no sympathy for Elizabeth Smart. I read his chapter in vain, looking for any vestige of understanding of what Elizabeth and her family suffered. There was nothing. Nothing! I’m sorry, Bob; Jon Krakauer is just a mean man.

Simplicio: So you think Elizabeth Smart’s Mormon upbringing was not a factor in her failing to escape when she could?

Justin: Absolutely not. When non-Mormons are abducted, their responses are commonly identical to Elizabeth’s. But I’ll tell you what effect her religion did have on her. It helped her to recover. She forgave her abductors and got on with her life. And her parents were amazing. They asked her no questions about her ordeal. When she finally testified in court, six years later, most of the details they heard were details they were hearing for the first time. In 2007, she co-wrote a Department of Justice pamphlet for victims of abduction in which she said, “I made a conscious decision that my abductors had already taken away 9 months of my life, and I certainly was not going to give them any more than that.”[3]:29 That’s the kind of strength and independence that the gospel of Jesus Christ truly fosters in LDS women. She also describes how she once took several members of her family back into the woods to where she had been held, and told them, “This is where I was held hostage, and now I'm showing you. They can't have this anymore.”[3]:31 In 2009, she left to serve an LDS mission in France. She has since returned and was recently married.

Simplicio: There is no question, Justin. Elizabeth Smart is a remarkable woman.

Justin: Actually, the LDS Church is filled with remarkable women.


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (Anchor, 2004), {{{pages}}}.
  2. On p. 21, it is used to explain the attitude of a polygamous wife in Colorado City.
  3. 3.0 3.1 You’re Not Alone: The Journey from Abduction to Empowerment, U.S. Department of Justice