Public Square Magazine Primary White, Gold & Black Logo | PublicSquareMag | What is Public Square | Politics, Faith & Family | Home | Public Square Magazine

The Ordinary Saint’s Guide to Under the Banner of Heaven: Episode 4, “Church and State”

Summary — The episode begins with the detectives checking in on Bishop Low’s home, which they find ransacked and deserted. Pyre finds a letter written by Ron’s wife to the Prophet expressing concern about her husband’s refusal to pay taxes. The detective contacts the Church about the letter and is told the letter was handed down to one of the bishop’s counselors, LeConte Bascom, who works at the bank. Brother Bascom says he had to turn Ron down for a loan because his brother’s refusal to pay taxes made him a liability, though it’s heavily implied that the real reason is that his wife’s letter was seen as an embarrassment to the Church.

In flashbacks, we see Dan marching in a Pioneer Day parade, shouting about the government’s illegal taxes, as well as smoking and kissing a woman who isn’t his wife. Dan’s father says he’s ashamed of his immoral behavior and anti-tax nonsense and advises him to study the scriptures to set himself back on the right path. This unfortunately drives Dan into researching more obscure history of the Church, including information on polygamy.  He makes a business trip down to Colorado City to visit the breakaway polygamist sect there and manages to get the name of a pro-polygamy pamphlet called “The Peace Maker.” He reads this pamphlet and brings up the idea to his wife Matilda, telling her she’s limiting his spiritual power if she doesn’t let him marry a second wife. 

During this conversation, Dan is pulled over for speeding and refuses to cooperate with the officer, leading them on a police chase that ends with his arrest. At the jail, Dan’s brothers try to convince him to stop his resistance to the government. Ron feels it’s his responsibility to show Dan the error of his ways, but instead, Dan runs circles around him, leaving him speechless and admitting that he’s going to lose his business and home. Dan somehow turns this fact into evidence that his views are correct and ends up winning over Ron to his side.

In the present, Detective Pyre is being leaned on by the Laffertys’ stake president to release them into his custody but refuses. The detectives have identified the car the killers were probably using and plan to hold a press conference to ask for tips when the police chief returns from vacation and demands that all mentions of fundamentalism Mormonism be scrubbed from the press briefing. (It’s implied he’s being leaned on by the Church.) Pyre tries to toe the line at the conference but eventually caves to a persistent reporter and admits that he thinks that the murders may have something to do with fundamentalist beliefs. The next day at church, the ward is shunning the Pyres, and a specific couple is assigned to keep an eye on their faith. Meanwhile, a police officer has located Bishop Low fly fishing in the mountains and safe.

Church History — During Dan’s explanation of polygamy, we get flashbacks to the infamous scene where Emma finds out about the doctrine of polygamy for the first time and throws the revelation in the fire. Though church members will be familiar with this story, the tone is portrayed very differently than we are used to. Emma is shown as being absolutely skeptical of Joseph’s translation of the Book of Mormon and other prophetic acts, even though she firmly testified of the truth of these things even after her break with the Church after Joseph was murdered. Joseph is portrayed as proclaiming the doctrine of polygamy only for his own physical gratification, which is a common anti-Mormon trope with little evidence behind it. While it is true that one of Joseph’s wives was only 14, the facts behind the situation are more complex than portrayed in the show. The pamphlet “The Peace Maker” is portrayed by Dan Lafferty as an “essential LDS tract” written by Joseph Smith, and no one in the show ever corrects this perception. In fact, the tract was not written by Joseph Smith, and he repudiated it during his lifetime. This episode presents a slanted view of church history, giving only one side of the conversation and showing the modern church as trying to hush it up rather than having its own interpretation of events.

Shibboleths — Pyre claims that writing a letter to the prophet is like writing to “Heavenly Father himself,” which is absolutely wrong. While members of the Church do revere the prophet and listen to his teachings, he is not God, and this equivalency is not one Saints would make (though outsiders think we do). The idea that doing business with fundamentalists is like “doing business with the mafia” is totally alien to me. They are regarded as somewhat of an oddity in Utah, but not dangerous like organized crime. One unusual phrase occurs when the stake president claims that the Laffertys need to be released into his custody for “healing prayer.” I honestly have no idea what this phrase refers to and have never heard it in an LDS context. And the formal type of shunning portrayed happening to the Pyres is not something we do. Though obviously, wards vary in their culture, there is no formal instruction not to talk to those who have questions. Rather, we are encouraged to keep being friends with those who are struggling with faith and support them however we can.

Changing History — It is interesting to note that in the actual chain of events, it was Sister Low, not Bishop Low, who was on the Lafferty hit list. Sister Low was a Relief Society President who supported Dan’s wife as she sought a divorce. Why does the show change this? Perhaps the idea that the Church has female leaders doesn’t fit well with the show’s depiction of the oppression of women in the LDS church. Brenda Lafferty’s sister has also expressed her disappointment with the way the show is misconstruing her sister’s murder in pursuit of an agenda.

Interview with a Bishop — This episode portrays church leadership in a way that’s very different from what I’ve experienced. In the show, local church leaders often receive direct instructions from the prophet and focus on maintaining the reputation of the Church, rather than the salvation and well-being of their individual flock. In reality, there are several levels of leadership between the prophet and a stake president, and local issues are more likely to be handled locally, with a focus on the spiritual health of the individual. It’s important to remember that LDS leadership on the local level is entirely volunteer-based; they all have day jobs and are ordinary members of the neighborhood again after five or ten years of service. I don’t buy that a stake president would pressure the police to release the Laffertys into his care, especially given that the brothers had actually been excommunicated some years earlier. Are there bishops who abuse their power and care about reputation above all? No doubt, though I have never met one. However, Banner gives the impression that this attitude is pervasive and intentional.

Framing Doctrine as Offensive — In the early part of the episode, we see Detective Pyre’s aging mother who suffers from dementia rambling about the doctrine of baptism for the dead. She specifically says, “The Jews need baptism or they’ll end up in the Telestial kingdom with Hitler.” This is a most uncharitable, straw-man framing of the LDS doctrine of baptism for the dead. We believe all people need baptism, not just the Jews, and that it’s not our place to speculate about which kingdom any particular person will end up in. It’s a cheap shot using an unreliable character to paint the Church as bigoted without offering any opportunity for the other characters to correct this perception. (See this FAIR page for more information on the controversies surrounding posthumous baptisms for Jewish people.)

Rings True — Dan Lafferty’s path down into obscure church history that eventually leads him off the rails is a story that is far too familiar to many Latter-day Saints who have watched family and ward members go down strange rabbit holes, although most instances are not this extreme. It’s why we have an emphasis on listening to a living prophet who interprets doctrine for today, rather than digging up obscure statements of older prophets. The police chief is also somewhat sympathetic in his desire to not have the national media confuse the mainstream church with the fundamentalist church, though ultimately wrong-headed in his approach. Most Saints outside of Utah occasionally have someone ask how many wives they have or how many moms they have, which can be hurtful and is indicative of general ignorance about the Church, which this show is certainly not helping.

 

About the author

Liz Busby

Liz Busby is a writer of speculative fiction and creative nonfiction. She also writes book reviews and other literary criticism.
On Key

You Might Also Like

Easter is Reality

Many now believe that the more advanced your faith becomes, the less likely you are to embrace the literal realities of scripture. Jesus taught something far more exciting than that.

European Refugee Crisis

As mentioned in this weekend’s General Conference, the Church is focusing on helping with the refugee crisis in Europe. The Church Newsroom has a great

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter

Stay up to date on the intersection of faith in the public square.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This