"God is greater than the United States, and when the government conflicts with heaven we will be ranged under the banner of heaven and against the Government."
From this line the author, Jon Krakauer, derives his title and we see the theme of the book articulated (on page 250). The quote is from a speech by John Taylor, successor to Brigham Young; he'd been an arm's length away from Joseph Smith when the prophet was shot dead in a Carthage, IL jail (and was gravely wounded himself).
Caution: The next paragraph describes a grisly murder.
Under the Banner of Heaven is the story of the Lafferty brothers, Ron and Dan, who claimed that the reason they killed their 24 year old sister in law (Brenda) and their 15 month old niece (Erica) was God had revealed to Ron that they should. Brenda was 'interfering in God's work on Earth' and had to be stopped. The baby they decided was 'for her own good.' Ron beat Brenda with his fists for 10 minutes until she was 'pretty dazed.' After a pause to consider options they used a vacuum cleaner cord to choke her out, then removed the cord and either Ron or Dan cut her throat from ear to ear. Deep, to the spine. Then Dan did the baby with the knife.
As the story unfolds we see that Ron had great motive to murder without 'God's command.' After 15 years of happy marriage Ron had converted to Mormon Fundamentalism with his brothers (he was the last of six brothers to convert, from the 'regular' LDS church) and his marriage had rather quickly disintegrated. His wife, a good Mormon wife, in the late 20th Century sense, didn't want to suddenly start sharing her husband, and the father of their six children, with 'plural wives.' She also didn't care to accept corporal punishment for not being subservient enough to her husband. After about six months she packed up the kids and went to Florida, where she had other, non- Mormon family. Ron blamed Brenda, who had accommodated her and the kids when they had temporarily fled a different time. She had 'put ideas into her head.' Brenda was the only college-educated wife among these six brothers and the other brothers didn't much care for her either.
The story is augmented with a history of Mormonism, whose roots are in upstate New York. Krakauer was criticized by the LDS church and various sects of their fundamentalists upon publication of the book for painting an 'unfair' picture of the religion. I thought he did a good job of providing context for it all; it's a violent history but, as he shows, they were often the victims rather than the perpetrators.
Eventually, after the lynching of Joseph Smith the whole lot of them migrate to Utah, only sparsely populated even by Indians. There, for a while, they are 'free' of neighbors who resent their proud 'otherness' and from a government who insists they obey the local laws. But guess what? Schisms start to develop. Mormonism is at once hierarchical and individually spiritual. There is a Pope-like figure, Brigham Young was the second, and a governing board, but it's also part of official doctrine that God may very well reveal something profound to anyone (male). So, as you might guess, he sometimes does. Usually to someone with the desire to be leader.
Most of these 'revelations' indicate that the church is straying dangerously far from the path and the new seer must try to bring it back into line. The Lafferty brothers, Mormons from birth, were strongly influenced by the Prophet Onias (very Old Testament, no?) and accepted his brand of Mormon Fundamentalism as absolutely God-inspired and the one true path to eternal glory.
Eventually God starts revealing things to Ron (that's the way Krakauer wrote, never using the scare quotes, or inserting words like 'allegedly') and when he gets the 'removal' revelation he shares it with the group. No one says 'well OK then, you know what you have to do.' But no one says 'OK now, wait a minute ... ' either. He and Dan 'pray on it' and they both decide that it 'feels like' God has confirmed to them that they should go forward. So they do.
The central question then, of course, is should we blame Mormonism for these murders? Or Fundamentalism? Or religion in general? And the only answer I can see is no, of course not (and I believe Krakauer feels the same). Mormonism does have a violent past but so does any other group we can think of. Most Mormons don't kill. They may even do so at a lower rate than the general population. Ditto 'religious people.' But there is no ambiguity in the brothers' claim. God revealed His will, to both of them. You'll have to read the book for yourself and try to get a feel for how sincere they are but Dan, especially, is 'all in,' if Krakauer is reporting faithfully.
So what do we, as a society, do with this? During the competency phase of Ron's trial the central issue was is it or is it not 'rational' to believe that 'God' is telling you to kill someone. And you don't have to rule on whether or not God would ever give such a command, or ever has, just whether or not it is rational for someone to believe that God is speaking to him. And, as the prosecution argued, to say no is to invalidate most people's religious beliefs.
So Ron's on death row, thirty years after these murders, as they exhaust every appeal.
The story also brought me face to face with my own feelings on the death penalty; it's hard not to root for an execution as the conclusion (Dan helped with the prosecution and received a life without parole sentence). But I don't. I want Ron to live with what he did until he dies a natural death. What I would really like is if he could have to listen to or read the 'rational' 'subjectivist' arguments against what he did and how he tries to justify it until finally, one day, he realizes what a horrible thing he did. I think that's probably the old Catholic in me, bubbling up. Coupled with the 'humanism' that I guess is my foundation now. Essentially, I guess, I think WE should pull HIM back onto the 'right path.' Which for him would be acknowledgement and contrition. And then 'God' can decide what to do with him, if He exists. And we would continue to incarcerate him until he dies his natural death.