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The Ordinary Saint’s Guide to Under the Banner of Heaven

In an age that claims to value “own voices” media, it is sad that Under the Banner of Heaven is probably going to be the biggest story that the public sees about members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints this year or this decade. While the tale it tells is based on an actual occurrence and about some actual problems within the broader movement of people hearkening back to Joseph Smith, one thing that can’t be said for either the book or the show was that they were written by a member of our community. The producer may have “grown up” as a Latter-day Saint, but he left the faith before he was an adult. If you’ve never had the experience of holding a calling, making temple covenants, or negotiating the relationships that make up a ward (Latter-day Saint congregation), are you really the best person to interpret our community?

So I’m stepping in to offer my perspective. I am not a historian or theologian. So, though I try to be informed about the difficult parts of our religion’s past, I can only give you the perspective of what an average member would know or believe about these situations. I undoubtedly will get some of the nuances wrong. This will not be the best place if you’re looking for information about the historical accuracy of the show. (Consider checking FAIR’s guide or Book of Mormon Central.)

However, I am an active participant in the larger Latter-day Saint literary community. I’ve written essays about my own life as a woman in the Church and fictional stories about others. I studied Latter-day Saint literature in college and continue reading contemporary Latter-day Saint literature. I am on the board of the Association for Mormon Letters, an organization that promotes literature written by, for, or about those who tie back to the prophet Joseph (including members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but not exclusive to our denomination). So you might say I have some experience with portrayals of the Latter-day Saints and separate fundamentalist communities.

The purpose of this series of recaps is two-fold. First, I want to summarize the series for ordinary Latter-day Saints who don’t intend to watch it so they won’t be surprised around the metaphorical watercooler this week. Second, I will catalog the series as it compares to Latter-day Saint literature more broadly. As a writer, reader, and advocate of Latter-day Saint literature, this is my home turf. I am interested to see where the show gets things right and wrong. Granted, my experience isn’t the experience of every member; like any community, Latter-day Saints are not a monolith. But I will compare the show to my personal knowledge of our community and talk about what sticks out. Without further ado, here are my impressions of the first two episodes of Under the Banner of Heaven.

Episode 1, “When God Was Love” 

Summary—The episode opens with Detective Pyre being called away from his family’s Pioneer Day celebrations to visit a crime scene. At an ordinary suburban house, he finds a scene of chaos with a mother (Brenda Lafferty) and her 15-month-old daughter (Erica) murdered in a gruesome way. (Luckily, we are only shown large quantities of blood on the floor and walls; the show shies away from showing the bodies, though we will get hints through dialogue about the exact method of killing.) Soon the husband (Allen Lafferty) is taken into custody, his clothes soaked in his wife’s blood. The killer claims that his wife was murdered by men with beards like “Mormon prophets” and continually ties his wife’s murder back to early church history stories, particularly Joseph and Emma marrying against her father’s will.

We then get a flashback to a young Brenda. She is an energetic and ambitious young woman who transfers to BYU after being tired of “holding girl’s hair back while they puked” at her party school in Idaho. Allen introduces Brenda to his family at a large family dinner. His brothers seem both strangely attracted to her and judgmental of her for her ambition and less strict faith (caffeinated soda is mentioned). The Lafferty family band together to clear a neighbor’s land to prevent it from being seized by the federal government to build a highway. In the present, Detective Pyre’s partner Bill visits Allen’s brother Robin’s home and finds the house abandoned and papers burning. They arrest Robin after a chase through a motel.

This episode depicts the First Vision. It shows Joseph going to the woods to pray and a light shining down on him. The script draws parallels between Joseph’s prayer and Robin’s prayer in the woods before he is caught by the police, which doesn’t really make much sense except that they are both kneeling in a natural setting. We also get a scene of Joseph and Emma discussing whether to marry against her father’s wishes. The show tries to make a big deal of them choosing between “God’s will” and her father’s authority, implying that the problem is that they can justify almost anything as God’s will. I found this assertion pretty strange, given that Joseph and Emma were hardly the first couple to marry against a parent’s wishes. It seems a thin justification on which to hang a condemnation of trusting God.

Shibboleths—It’s apparent that the showrunners have made an effort to try to include jargon of Latter-day Saints in the dialogue. Sometimes this works: the Pyre family prayer scene feels exactly like the ones that take place in my family. Others make it apparent that the writers are not members of the community. While we do refer to God as Heavenly Father, particularly in prayer, we don’t use this term exclusively like the characters in the show. I regularly hear members refer to him as “God” or “the Lord,” and a brief search of the church’s 1980’s general conference talks shows that this isn’t a new innovation. While there is a hesitancy to throw around His name all the time, this doesn’t mean we constantly replace it with Heavenly Father. Latter-day Saints in Utah also tend to be pretty good at code-switching and tend to not use our personal religious jargon around non-members as Detective Pyre does with his non-member partner. By my elementary school years in the 90s, I definitely knew that Heavenly Father was a term for church and family settings, and not always for public locations.

The Pioneer Dress Gambit—The show makes a strange choice to place Detective Pyre’s twin daughters in pioneer dresses at the beginning of the episode. This is justified later as part of Pioneer Day celebrations, though the dialogue explaining it is so faint I had to turn on the subtitles to catch it. As other commenters have noted, this feels like a bait-and-switch, trying to portray mainstream Saints as strange while having plausible deniability that they aren’t.

Worthiness is Private—One of the strangest scenes in this episode is when Detective Pyre gets a hint that Allen Lafferty might not be an active member of the Church and goes full-on Goblet of Fire Dumbledore, bombarding him with questions like, “Did you break your covenants? Do you still have a temple recommend?” The matter of whether someone has a temple recommend is very private among members, not something you would ask a stranger, even in an interrogation. Unless you are in ward leadership, most members have no idea who in their ward has a recommend and who doesn’t. If a member wanted to find this out, they would do this more circumspectly, by observing if the other person was wearing clothing that wouldn’t cover the temple garment. (Which it was easy to observe Allen was not when he changed from his blood-soaked clothing, so perhaps that’s an intentional detail.) Or you might even ask about the specific behaviors prohibited by temple covenants instead.

Differentiating the Norm from the Peculiar—The show has added in the character of Detective Pyre (who isn’t in the book) in part to better differentiate between the typical Latter-day Saint and the fundamentalist Lafferty clan. It’s a choice I applaud, but I’m not sure it quite comes across in the episode. Part of this is the pioneer dress gambit, which makes the Lafferty’s odd clothing and behavior seem more normal. Part of it is that we don’t see enough of the mainstream Pyres or Brenda’s family to really establish what the difference is. As a lifelong member, I can tell that the Laffertys are odd, but I’m not sure that someone without experience could. Maybe this is intentional, to give the viewer the same growing sense of wrongness as Brenda must have felt.

Rings True—Let me end by giving props to the show for the things it did get right. The awkward interactions of characters caught looking around during the prayer feel spot on to humorous moments in Latter-day Saint culture. And the idea that Detective Pyre would call his wife to get a suspect’s address out of an old church directory fits as well. The church directory is pervasive in Latter-day Saint culture, though now in app form. The church handbook specifically reminds members not to use these directories for business or political purposes, but culturally speaking, it does happen. 

Episode 2, “Rightful Place” 

Summary—Detective Pyre finds out from a neighbor that indeed bearded men did visit the Lafferty house at the time of the murder. The detectives continue to interrogate the brothers. Allen continues to tie his family’s behavior to Latter-day Saint history, including the early church’s conflicts with its neighbors in Ohio. We also find out that the brothers are involved with a group called Patriots for Freedom, dedicated to opposing all federal taxes. Detective Bill goes to investigate some strange gunshots in a national forest with the help of a ranger and ends up falling into a pit trap and hurting his ankle. Robin warns Pyre that Bill is likely in danger, and the episode ends with Bill discovering a cabin in the forest and ending up on the wrong end of a rifle barrel.

In flashbacks, the father and mother of the Lafferty clan leave on a mission and formally bestow the leadership of the family on Dan Lafferty, skipping over Robin because of his more worldly views. Dan takes control of the family chiropractor business, but his wife Matilda is overwhelmed by her new secretarial and bookkeeping responsibilities. Brenda tries to help Matilda, urging her to listen to the spirit and have confidence in herself, but the business isn’t doing well. With bills piling up, they choose to not pay the overdue tax notices that keep coming. Brenda confronts her BYU journalism professor about why women aren’t allowed to anchor the campus news and threatens to reveal his inappropriate conduct toward her if he doesn’t let her try. Dan returns home one day to find a federal agent claiming their equipment to pay off the taxes. They get into a physical altercation, but the agent gets away by pepper-spraying Dan, who afterward confirms with Matilda and his brother that they have done the right thing by refusing to pay unjust taxes and that this is a test from God. In this episode, we get a picture of the early persecution of the Saints in Kirtland, Ohio, as well as the portrayal of Joseph Smith being dragged from his home to be tarred and feathered.

Shibboleths—This is the episode where the show writers discovered “Brother” and “Sister.” While Latter-day Saints do refer to each other with these terms, these terms are used way too frequently here, with what feels like every sentence ending with a plaintiff, “Isn’t that right, brother?” “Brother” Pyre also mentions that he got up early in the morning to attend seminary, though if he lived in Utah, most likely he would have had release time seminary during the school day at a church building next to the public school. So, very few kids in Utah attend early morning seminary, which is often a cultural touchstone for non-Utah Saints. Pyre also questions Robin about whether “the brethren” know about his business’s financial trouble. I’m assuming Pyre means whether the local bishop knows about the situation, but the phrase “the brethren” is used exclusively to refer to the general authorities at church headquarters, who wouldn’t deal with something this small. Also, BYU is mentioned as being in Salt Lake County, when it’s actually in Utah County. This would be like someone from New York City mixing up Manhattan and Long Island.

Mothers in Zion—While it is undoubtedly true that the Church put some pressure on women to stay home in the 1980s (much more than it does now), the Latter-day Saint conversation around that choice sounded different than what was portrayed on the show. While the Laffertys focus on how women shouldn’t have ambition or interfere in men’s work and how a wife should be obedient to her husband, the conversation in my ward tended to focus on the benefit that women staying home had for children and the world. The obligation to be mothers in Zion was portrayed as a high and holy calling, worth giving up a career for. For example. President Ezra Taft Benson’s classic talk “To the Mothers in Zion” was given in 1987, which quotes a church manual as saying, “She who can paint a masterpiece or write a book that will influence millions deserves the admiration and the plaudits of mankind; but she who rears successfully a family of healthy, beautiful sons and daughters, whose influence will be felt through generations to come … deserves the highest honor that man can give and the choicest blessings of God.” The difference here again may be intentional—the Laffertys are fringe Latter-day Saints at best—but the show barely makes this difference clear. Pyre doesn’t react with confusion or correction when Allen and Robin spout their misogynistic doctrine, and the only indication we have that some Saints think otherwise is when Brenda’s father comments that he wants her to “use her education” and “have a life too.” Undoubtedly some mainstream Saints agreed with the Lafferty’s perspective, but the range of opinions on this topic is not well represented in the show.

Mormon Kennedys—In a flashback, Brenda justifies marrying into the Lafferty family by describing them to her father as “Mormon Kennedys,” a description that Detective Pyre also used in the first episode. Her stated reasoning behind this appellation is that “all of them served missions” and “their ancestors go back to the pioneers.” These reasons just don’t make sense for someone familiar with the culture. The expectation is that all young men will serve missions; it’s not a rare achievement except during times of economic hardship or military draft. And due to polygamy and the general desire to stay in Utah, many (if not most) people have connections to pioneer ancestors. Make no mistake: our community has “Kennedys” (I’d argue the Marriotts, the Huntsmans, famous BYU athletes, and the family of apostles achieve this status) but a family that runs a construction business and sends their kids on missions ain’t it. 

Rings True—Pyre’s wife sewing white dresses for her daughter’s baptism hit spot on. I had a dress almost exactly like it when I was baptized in 1995, along with the green CTR ring that Pyre explains to his daughter. His doctrine about baptism is a bit off, but in a way that’s very common in our culture. Unfortunately also believable is the forest ranger referring the Detective Bill as a Lamanite because of his Paiute heritage. Although the percentage of Latter-day Saints who would do so now is much smaller, there is still an attitude in the Church of treating all native Americans and Pacific Islanders as a group descended from the Book of Mormon Lamanites, despite official church policy being otherwise.

What’s Missing—Detective Pyre does call in some help from the “church Relief Society” (another phrase no member would use) when he’s unable to attend his daughter’s birthday party. Other than that, we have little indication of the massive presence of the ward in Latter-day Saint life. I also wonder if the Lafferty’s are attending church and how they are treated, but we have no indication of that. I suspect Brenda would find it very strange if they didn’t attend church; this would have been a major warning sign for her. Few stories in Latter-day Saint literature revolve just around a family or an individual; the ward is such a large presence in our cultural lives. The lack of a strong ward presence in this story feels very strange to me. 

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.
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