‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ Is a Failure of Representation

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Give this to Under the Banner of Heaven, the buzzy true-crime miniseries that recently concluded its run on FX and Hulu: It wastes little time in getting to the point. Minutes into the first episode, Detective Jeb Pyre is interviewing Allen Lafferty in a Utah jail cell. Allen’s wife and daughter have just been brutally murdered by fundamentalist Mormon zealots, and in his grief and anger he unloads on the well-meaning Latter-day Saint detective.

“If you really still believe your God is love then you don’t know who you are, brother,” he tells Pyre. “This faith, our faith, breeds dangerous men.”

This idea, that Mormonism is at heart an oppressive and violent religion whose mainstream adherents are ever perched on the brink of radicalization, runs through the series—and the show commits to its thesis. Grisly murder scenes are interwoven with flashbacks to early Mormon history. Modern Church leaders are Scooby-Doo villains who monologue about “the communists at the NAACP” and make menacing threats to police detectives. Even the most benign images of Mormon life—a little girl praying; a family reunion—are scored with ethereal synths and ominous woodwinds to make sure that viewers know these, too, are sinister. Under the Banner of Heaven is one of the most openly hostile treatments of a minority religious group to appear in popular American entertainment this century. It is also an unqualified hit.

Based on Jon Krakauer’s 2003 book of the same name, the show follows the fictional Detective Pyre (Andrew Garfield) as he investigates the real-life double murder of Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her 15-month-old daughter. As the investigation uncovers a circle of dangerous fundamentalists who use Mormon scripture to justify their crimes, Pyre is forced to confront the darker chapters in his Church’s history and gradually loses his faith. The show has received rave reviews, with critics hailing it as a “thoughtful” exploration of faith. FX is already preparing an Emmy campaign.

When I first heard last year that this show was being developed, I decided I would ignore it. Like many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I was acutely familiar with Krakauer’s book. I was in high school when it came out, busy waging a delicate campaign to convince my suburban Massachusetts classmates that Mormons could be, if not cool, then at least normal. I laughed along at their polygamy jokes and pretended to think the South Park spoofs of my Church were funny, all in hopes of showing them that modern Mormons weren’t like that. Krakauer’s book, with its stubborn insistence on conflating mainstream Mormons like me with the desert-dwelling polygamists in pioneer clothes who belonged to offshoot sects, did not help my cause. Twenty years later, I was more confident in myself and my religious identity. But I still had little interest in seeing Under the Banner of Heaven adapted for the prestige-murder-show genre.

I had successfully managed to avoid the series and the surrounding discourse for a few weeks when I got a text from my boss at The Atlantic. “Under the Banner of Heaven. Yeesh,” he wrote. “Imagine making a series about any other religion like this.” This was, I realized, as much an assignment as an expression of allyship. So I dutifully began watching.

The show labors to capture the specificity of Utah County in the early 1980s, and gets many of the details right. There are CTR rings, reminding their wearers to “choose the right,” and Family Home Evenings, and a plaque on the wall of a Mormon home that reads FAMILIES ARE FOREVER. Garfield, with his natural theater-kid earnestness, is as plausible a Mormon as you are likely to find among A-list actors. But most of the time, watching the show felt like seeing my religious life in a fun-house mirror, each detail—from the sacred to the mundane—twisted and stretched and distorted to appear frightening and strange.

The characters speak as though their dialogue was written in another language and then run through a creepy-Mormon version of Google Translate. This is especially noticeable with the show’s liberal use of Heavenly Father, a term that Latter-day Saints use to address God in prayer and in other religious contexts. The show’s Mormon characters use it constantly in conversation: “You can’t flip an upside-down cake to save your life, Heavenly Father knows”; “Heavenly Father wants me to have babies and grow Zion”; “Heavenly Father answered my prayer for a Skyhawk”; “Capitalism is part of Heavenly Father’s plan”; “If you extract this down to a juice, it is like drinking Heavenly Father’s love.”

I tried for a while to write down every example of this tic, wondering the whole time how they could have gotten something like this so wrong. But I gave up after a few episodes, once I realized what was going on. To say that I have never met a Mormon in my life who talks like this would be to miss the point. These lines were not intended as shibboleths for Mormon viewers—they are there to serve a stereotype, to exoticize a people and flatten their faith tradition.

In tone and substance, the show’s frequent historical flashbacks reminded me of the anti-Mormon videos distributed by Evangelical ministries that I encountered as a missionary in the Bible Belt. On the show, Mormon leaders gather in dimly lit rooms and say things like, “We must deceive the gentiles.” Joseph Smith is a charlatan and a pervert; Brigham Young is a power-mad tyrant. All of the ugliest real-life chapters of Mormon history are shown, and a handful of additional sins are invented. In one particularly strange fabrication, the show asserts that Young secretly conspired to have Smith murdered so that he could take over the Church—an idea so far-fetched that many historians who watched the show didn’t even know where it came from.

The purpose of all the quasi-history is to draw a direct line from the founding of Mormonism to the murders at the center of the show. The real-life radicalization of the men who killed Brenda Lafferty involved a far-right anti-government group, festering misogyny, family dysfunction, and severe mental illness. (Both men had already been excommunicated from the Church for their extreme views by the time they killed Brenda.) The show pins the blame entirely on their religion. Early Mormon history is replete with stories of divinely sanctioned violence, the argument goes, so any Latter-day Saint who truly buys into the doctrine of “personal revelation”—that is, that God can speak to them through spiritual impressions and promptings—must be uniquely vulnerable to the lure of extremism.

In the final episode, the show takes its thesis one step further. As the police race to find the murderers before they get to their next victim, Pyre’s partner—a non-Mormon detective who has served up to this point as the wise and likable audience avatar—delivers a righteous tirade against the religion that allegedly enabled the killers. “According to your God, who dies next?” he asks Pyre, later adding, “Our job is to get the monsters off her back, the ones you’ve helped feed with all your good Mormon testimony-bearing.”

In the show’s worldview, every rank-and-file Latter-day Saint bears some responsibility for the evil that’s done in the name of their faith. As several historians have noted, there is a long tradition—including in the pages of this magazine—of casting Mormonism as a threat to the American project. In this sense, Under the Banner of Heaven has more in common with 19th-century anti-Mormon propaganda than it does with the sneering silliness of The Book of Mormon musical.

The series was adapted by Dustin Lance Black, a celebrated screenwriter who grew up Mormon before leaving the Church as a young man in part because of the homophobia he encountered. He has spoken in interviews about his painful history with the faith—“I have real issues with the Mormon Church,” he told IndieWire earlier this year—and the show’s depiction of Mormonism is no doubt shaped by those experiences. To expect otherwise would be naive and probably unfair.

But what stood out most to me as I watched the finale was not its aggressively negative portrayal of Mormonism. It was the fact that no one involved in the show felt compelled to check the customary boxes Hollywood creators have been trained to check in this era of inclusiveness and representation. Black did not hire any practicing Mormons to write or consult on the show. Executives at FX did not put out a statement affirming that Mormons are a peaceful people. When Brenda Lafferty’s sister suggested in an interview that the show’s creators had exploited her story, there was no flood of outrage on social media or rush by the network to control the damage.

In fact, the prospect that the show would offend Mormons was played up in the promotional press tour. “If ‘Under the Banner of Heaven Made Mormons’ Angry, the FX Series Will Make Them Apoplectic,” read one headline. “Dustin Lance Black Is Ready for Backlash, ‘Death Threats’ From the Mormon Church Thanks to Under the Banner of Heaven,” read another.

As promised, the show has managed to offend or at least alienate most of the Latter-day Saints who have given it a chance, including the most sophisticated viewers. After attending the premier in Salt Lake City, Patrick Mason, a historian of Mormonism at Utah State University, tweeted, “It’s a problem for the show that none of the Mormon scholars I was sitting with—all of whom know full well how to apply an open, critical gaze to our own culture and tradition—recognized ourselves or our people in the show.”

The show’s creators don’t seem concerned. At the same premier, Black responded to criticism of the show from the Church-owned Deseret News by accusing any Mormons who took offense of secretly sympathizing with the murderous extremists at the center of the show. “They need to look into their own heart.”

All of which brings us back to the hypothetical that my editor raised in his text—“imagine making a series about any other religion like this.” It doesn’t require an overactive imagination. Plenty of faith groups, including Catholics, the Amish, and Orthodox Jews, have come in for scornful Hollywood treatment. And in the years after 9/11, a raft of films and TV shows centered Islamic terrorists as one-dimensional bad guys, making little effort to show the wider, richer world of Muslim life. Many of these shows aired at a time when it was common, even in liberal circles, to demand that “good Muslims” condemn the violence of their coreligionists. Hollywood has, thankfully, evolved from these attitudes in recent years. But that enlightenment does not appear to have extended to Mormonism.

Under the Banner of Heaven comes amid a wave of Mormon-themed true-crime streaming content. In 2019, Netflix hit with the docuseries Abducted in Plain Sight (soon to be adapted as a drama series). In 2021, Netflix had Murder Among the Mormons. And last month, a pair of producers announced plans to make Sinner v. Saint, a “riotous” film full of “zany twists” and “outrageous antics” based on the true story of a Mormon missionary who was allegedly kidnapped and raped by a stalker. (The stalker, it appears, will be the film’s protagonist.) If you learn about Mormonism from watching TV, you might think that we spend all of our time kidnapping and murdering or getting kidnapped and murdered.

Last month, Elder David A. Bednar, an apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, appeared at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where he was asked what he thought of shows like Under the Banner of Heaven. He essentially shrugged it off. “We don’t like it, but we don’t spend all of our time responding to it,” he said. “We have a mission to fulfill.”

I was in the room when he said this, and my initial response was relief. Back in 2003, when the book was released, the Church issued a series of uncharacteristically strong statements pushing back on Krakaeur’s thesis and his loose handle on Mormon history. The resulting controversy only helped fuel sales, and two decades later, Banner remains one of the best-selling books on Mormonism of all time. Church leaders have apparently gotten savvier since then, and they seem determined not to give the same oxygen to the TV show. I tweeted that my fellow Mormons on Twitter, many of whom had been wringing their hands over the series, could learn something from Bednar’s “chill” response.

But almost immediately, I doubted myself. Wasn’t I just taking the same path of least resistance—above-the-fray politeness, studious nonconfrontation—that Latter-day Saints always seem to take when faced with stuff like this?

When The Book of Mormon musical became a phenomenon in 2011, the Church took out playful ads in the playbill: “You’ve seen the play. Now read the book.” As I wrote last year, I was initially thrilled by this response—until a theater critic explained to me the real reason Mormons had to be good sports about such things: “Your people have absolutely no cultural cachet.”

One thing the success of Banner makes quite clear is that American Mormons have made virtually no progress on that front in the past decade. If anything, it feels like we might be moving backward.

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