Jacob Newman: Some in LDS Church should see themselves in ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’

Members of the church need to reckon with a history of violence and violent images.

(Michelle Faye | FX) Andrew Garfield as Jeb Pyre in "Under the Banner of Heaven."

In 2007, I read the first book in Chad Daybell’s apocalyptic fiction series about the last days. When I read the blurb on the back, I wanted to see for myself how the author would portray the final days leading up to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ from a Latter-day Saint perspective.

What I discovered, however, concerned me. Daybell started the book with an earthquake on the Wasatch Front and then quickly started to outline far-right talking points bemoaning the evils of the world and government overreach.

In later publications from his publishing company, it quickly became clear that Daybell had an interest in fringe Latter-day Saint teachings. He published extreme voices who have dabbled in aspects of Mormon fundamentalism such as near-death experiences, visions of the future and practical last-day preparations for what he publicly described as the imminent Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Daybell even began to talk openly about his own near-death experience on podcasts and in conferences for those with similar millennialist leanings. Yet, Chad remained a faithful Latter-day Saint with no known church discipline.

Now he and his second wife await trial for the murders of her two children and Daybell’s first wife.

This week, we will see the release of the Hulu series “Under the Banner of Heaven,” a dramatized and partially fictionalized account of the horrific 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter.

Many Latter-day Saints are quick to point out that the Lafferty brothers, who claimed to receive a revelation from God to murder Brenda and her daughter, were excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in early 1984. Additionally, I have heard many Latter-day Saints mention that they will not watch the series because it was made by a former Latter-day Saint trying to paint Mormonism as inherently violent.

Is Mormonism inherently violent? I do not believe so, but I believe that Mormons have yet to reckon with their past, present and future history of violence. I see many Latter-day Saints, even prominent scholars, deny and deflect that LDS culture and teachings play a role, even though we have produced not just Chad Daybell and the Lafferty Brothers, but also Brian David Mitchell, Tom Green and many more who have dabbled in dangerous fundamentalism.

Beyond the famous fundamentalists who make the news, though, I’ve seen something far more pervasive in Mormon culture: rhetorical violence. From Elder Jeffrey Holland’s call for musket fire from Brigham Young University to defend the traditional family to Elder Dale Renlund’s assertion that people who demand revelation about Heavenly Mother are “arrogant”, we see that Latter-day Saint leaders are very comfortable with emotional and spiritual violence against the LGBTQ community and women.

How many women could say that they have been abused at the hands of seemingly “good” LDS men who call on their priesthood authority? How many LGBTQ Latter-day Saints have endured talks that allude to violence against us? Behind closed doors, many more can attest to dangerous Mormon men engaging in more than just emotional violence.

Some scholars, on the heels of the release of the limited series, boldly announce that all faiths and social groups have violent actors. These scholars, however, have never been on the receiving end of physical, emotional and spiritual violence from Latter-day Saint men in leadership or even men who have turned to fundamentalism. They deny the unique role that Mormon culture may play in the formation of dangerous men. Yet many of these same scholars just two weeks ago were bemoaning Elder Dallin Oaks’s talk that wounded LGBTQ Latter-day Saints. We have a problem in our culture that we need to address.

All faiths almost certainly do have bad actors, but I see no interest from Latter-day Saints to interrogate what about Latter-day Saint culture leads to these poisonous fruits. In 2022, it’s time for Latter-day Saints to see themselves in the narrative of “Under the Banner of Heaven.”

And those Latter-day Saints who refuse to see themselves in the narrative? I don’t want to see your Pride overlays on your Facebook profile in June when you chose to defend a culture of violence in the LDS Church in April.

Jacob Newman

Jacob Newman is a seventh generation Mormon with an avid interest in Mormon history, particularly the history of Mormon fundamentalism. He and his husband of nearly six years live in Millcreek.