In a recent L.A. Times feature piece, costume designer Joseph La Corte from Under the Banner of Heaven spoke with pride about “period-accurate” dress and settings that were “as detailed and accurate as humanly possible.” One of the historical consultants (a former member) wrote that her mandate was to present “the most accurate portrayal” of the Church “in all its forms.” And the producer Dustin Lance Black, likewise vaunting the accuracy of the depiction, described himself as “one of the most diligent about trying to stay most close to the truth” out of a desire to be “authentic.” All this was thanks to “years” of research to “make sure” that what was represented in the original book was “truthful enough to be included in the show”—up to and including details such as “turn-of-the-century chandeliers and sourced theater chairs in Kentucky.” Feeding the many other media portrayals of the series as “adamant about telling the most honest and authentic story possible,” Black has earnestly affirmed to reporters, “if we were going to do it, we wanted to do it right.”
These self-congratulations are stunning and darkly humorous considering the enormity of larger misrepresentations in the narrative advanced by this creative team about not just two murderers—but indeed, about an entire faith community and its history. One Wall Street Journal piece cited a Latter-day Saint historian invited to the premiere, as saying, “none of the 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.”
This writer continued, “I have yet to meet a fellow member of the church, or even a friend, who sees the show’s portrayal of us as believable. The show seemingly leans into every misguided stereotype and trope the filmmakers could find.”
The sister of Brenda Lafferty, whose murder is depicted in the series, has likewise stated she didn’t expect just how far the show would stray from reality. She expressed sadness at the damage done to her sister’s memory: “This series, it’s absolute fiction … I’m frustrated with how it leads people. It doesn’t lead people to the truth or the reality of what happened.”
Perhaps none of this is that surprising, given that the series is based on a book one Slate commentator accurately described as a “highly divisive” text by a well-known “fierce critic of all religions” that elicited “legions of critics” due to one “foundational flaw: its myopic portrait” of all Latter-day Saints.
Yet the producer himself, Dustin Lance Black, insisted that he set out wanting to correct this well-known textual bias. He did so, in part, by hiring two historical consultants who are among the most well-known ex-Latter-day Saint critics of the Church: Troy Williams, the head of Equality Utah, and Lindsay Hansen Park, the executive director of the Sunstone Education Foundation. “I have yet to meet a fellow member of the church, or even a friend, who sees the show’s portrayal of us as believable.”
“I have yet to meet a fellow member of the church, or even a friend, who sees the show’s portrayal of us as believable.”
It’s also true, as Elder David Bednar pointed out at the National Press Club yesterday, that Latter-day Saints have been mischaracterized since the beginning. And while we try to not dwell on them, they do still sting—and sometimes leave an enduring mark. That’s partly why, in a letter months into an unjust imprisonment, Joseph Smith wrote of an “imperative duty” to “gather up a knowledge of all the facts, and sufferings and abuses put upon” the early Saints—including to “gather up the libelous publications that are afloat; and all that are in the magazines, and in the encyclopedias, and all the libelous histories that are published” and “present the whole concatenation … to all the world.”
At that time, of course, the injustices were especially serious, including rape, murder, and violent expulsion of innocent families—including some of our own direct ancestors. All of that horror, however, was tied in some way to the libelous publications that circulated widely and effectively dehumanized the Saints for not only the attackers but many others who could have stopped the violence.
With a similar interest in correcting the record and holding accountable slanderous public depictions, we’ve aggregated and itemized in what follows a comprehensive list of the most substantive misrepresentations being promulgated in this series—with appreciation and credit to other careful reviews conducted by many others, especially a team of fact-checkers at FAIR, journalist Katie McKellar at the Deseret News, literary critic Liz Busby, Max Perry Mueller at Slate, and Jana Riess and Peggy Fletcher Stack at the Salt Lake Tribune. (Yes, if you’ve got Jana Riess, Peggy Fletcher Stack, and Hal Boyd seeing eye to eye on anything, you know you’re onto something!)
While there are good episode-based reviews in many places which have highlighted problems, in no place have they all been brought together in one place. By content analyzing and sorting out the themes in some detail, we present this as a definitive guide to the sadly pervasive misrepresentation and yes, even overt defamation happening throughout this production by our once superhero Andrew Garfield and company.
Spiderman Slanders the Saints. Ten Substantial Misrepresentations:
1. Normalizing the Laffertys: Portraying a uniquely pathological and apostate family as somehow representative of the faith community as a whole.
No misrepresentation is arguably more consequential than the pervasive attempts to portray the disturbed Lafferty brothers as somehow characteristic of church members as a whole. Achieving this was difficult enough that the creators of the show had to work hard to ensure that the distortion flowed in two different directions: At the same time the creative team portrayed this deranged family as more normative than they actually were, they simultaneously made Latter-day Saints as a whole out to be far less normative than they actually were—yes, even in the weird ’80s.
The clear historical fact is that these brothers were excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints one and two years before the violence took place—breaking off from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to found a polygamous sect and even participating in a local militia. After Brenda’s words contributed to their forced departure (excommunication) from the Church, as well as Ron’s wife leaving him, the brothers wanted revenge. As her mother, LaRae Wright, said: “Brenda stood up to those Lafferty boys.”
The brothers were clearly apostates from the faith—with Brenda deserving praise for her role in spotlighting their apostate thinking and behavior. As a result, they showed both their criminal delusions and aberrant willingness to use violence to get their vengeance—insisting God had told them Brenda had “become obstacles in My path” and must be “removed in rapid succession that an example be made” of her. The brothers rationalized their violence to be acting as the “arm of God” and under the “Lord’s command.”
It goes without saying, that every particle of this is repugnant to members of our faith community—as it is to any other human being with a conscience intact. There is not a single faithful Latter-day Saint then and now who would not be horrified by what took place.
Despite this, the production team works hard to portray the Laffertys not as a sharp departure from the faith tradition, but as representative of the same—with the brutal acts themselves somehow a distillation of some of its core teachings.
Once again, simultaneously with portraying the Laffertys as more or less “usual” and somehow embodying the faith, other church members themselves are characterized as especially strange and unusual. In addition to mundane things like not being able to eat French fries (despite Utah being famously ”crazy” about fry sauce), in early episodes, Church members incessantly call each other “brother” and “sister”—and never refer to God as anything other than “Heavenly Father.” While “brother and sister” are commonly used among us, Liz Busby points out “these terms are used way too frequently here, with what feels like every sentence ending with “Isn’t that right, brother?” Sharon Walker Wright said of her sister Brenda, “she didn’t talk like that. When you watch the show, they say ‘Heavenly Father’ like 30 times in the first 10 minutes.” (While “Heavenly Father” is often used, especially in prayer, the term is not used exclusively— not even in the 1980s, which a search of 1980s church talks confirms).
One viewer agrees “No one talks that way, even sheltered members” (Nate P). Brenda’s sister added her frustration with Brenda’s depiction as a religious fanatic when in reality she said she had a rather normal relationship with her faith and wasn’t particularly “churchy.” Both sisters were raised in the faith by “pragmatic” parents in Idaho who didn’t take their religion to extremes, “I do not recognize her at all in any of the show,” Week said. “That’s not Brenda.”
Nor is it Brenda’s surviving husband either, who remains an active member of the Church today—in steep contrast with the portrayal in this series as leveling cynical and bitter accusations against the Church for doing great harm. For the show’s purposes, the Laffertys must be seen as relatively normal … just as the Saints must be seen as especially strange.
For the show’s purposes, the Laffertys must be seen as relatively normal … just as the Saints must be seen as especially strange.
I actually felt an unexpected sense of relief from seeing the absurd extremes to which the show’s creators had gone in order to malign the church and its members. “Surely,” I naively surmised, “no one in their right mind can believe that any of this is real!” The writing was so indulgently stereotypical that even Andrew Garfield’s supposedly staid, down-to-earth character looks like a laughable caricature of a Latter-day Saint. … Everything about him is a bizarre distortion. No Latter-day Saint alive on this planet would ever recognize his or herself in Pyre or any other church character in this show (Joe K).
Several times in Episode 4, there are references to “at least 10” or “dozens” of kids as though this is the typical size of a Latter-day Saint family. In 1980, only 12% of Utahns had a family of 6 people or more—and only a fraction of that 12% would have 10+ children (even less today).
Continuing the narrative of strangeness, officer Pyre’s Latter-day Saint girls are wearing the much-discussed pioneer dresses in episode one, without any clear explanation of context that would help you recognize this as unusual. (Brenda Wright Lafferty was killed on 24 July 1984. The 24th of July is celebrated as Pioneer Day in Utah and among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, because Brigham Young and the Mormons arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on 24 July 1847. Sometimes little children will dress up in pioneer-style clothing—but only for parades). The absence of more explicit context is misleading, as one fact-checker notes, “giving the false impression that members of the Church of Jesus Christ regularly dress that way.” Liz Busby adds that “dialogue explaining it is so faint I had to turn on the subtitles to catch it.”
Later in episode 3 when the Pyre twins are interviewed by their bishop, once again the girls are dressed in pioneer-style dresses instead of the typical dresses of 80s childhood for girls (crushed velvet or big flower print).
Liz Busby points out that seeing normal members dressed like this inevitably makes “the Lafferty’s odd clothing and behavior seem more normal” among the community. Max Perry Mueller at Slate writes “to some faithful Mormons, the use of such sartorial iconography, which many Americans associate with the infamously abusive FLDS, formerly run by the convicted child rapist Warren Jeffs, is to collapse the distance between the church in Salt Lake in its black sheep fundamentalist ‘sister’ churches.”
Aside from an occasional sympathetic Latter-day Saint character (Brenda’s parents, some helpful relief society members), there just aren’t many normal Latter-day Saints that get portrayed—at least not until the Brady family in Episode 5. As Patrick Mason remarks about other attempts to portray normal members, “there are always dark clouds on the horizon. Even simple things—like a father talking to his daughter about baptism and giving her a CTR (Choose the Right) ring—have an ominous tone.” “I’ve been a member of this church for 43 years and have never met anybody like the church members represented in the show.”
“I’ve been a member of this church for 43 years and have never met anybody like the church members represented in the show.”
But, of course, for the show’s purposes, the Laffertys must be seen as relatively normal … just as the Saints must be seen as especially strange.
2. Deforming actual gender roles. Pretending to a wide and unfeeling oppression among women of the Church.
The gender messages throughout this series are fast and furious. In one example in a later episode, Brenda says “Heavenly Father wants me to have babies and grow Zion”—something that her real-life sister insists she “never would have said.” In that same episode, the Bishop’s wife is seen feeding a line to Ron’s wife Diana about how her only duty is “creating a home and environment to sustain and support our Priesthood holder.”
This same narrative is pushed throughout—all the way back to Episode 1, where women serve lemonade, and the men do the work. In that same episode, Allen states that Latter-day Saint “women are taught to be obedient. To serve their husband, to obey. And okay, Brenda wasn’t that. Did that make her deserving of this?”
When the detective says emphatically “no,” Allen responds, “Then you might not be as good of Mormon as you think.”
“Does this dialogue represent the doctrine of the Church and the actual attitude of Mormon men?” asks one fact-checker:
Not at all. That is not the doctrine of the church, nor is it a prevailing attitude among church members. With over sixteen million members, there may be some with that attitude, but they would be in the significant minority and such attitudes toward the women of the church would be frowned upon and rejected by the majority of members, both female and male.
In a subsequent episode, women are portrayed as covenanting to obey all men for the rest of their lives. This has never been asked of women in the Church—and anyone who suggests as much is simply lying. What is true is that in a sacred ceremony, women were placed under covenant in the past to follow their husband (not ‘all men’), and only as long as the husband was being righteous. Part of being righteous, of course, is not acting like the men in this series are acting towards women.
As for the “men doing the work,” this reviewer points out the stereotype is “ridiculous”
That’s not what I knew growing up in California in the 1970s. We had as a church project a large vineyard near Fresno. The grapes were grown to turn into raisins and when it came time to pick the grapes and spread them on trays to dry in the sun, men, women, boys, and girls would go together to work in the vineyard. Everyone pitched in.
This same picture of piercing oppression is elaborated in Episode 2, “Mothers in Zion.” While it’s true there has been frequent encouragement throughout prior decades for women to prioritize opportunities to raise children, Liz Busby notes, “the Latter-day Saint conversation around that choice sounded different than what was portrayed on the show.” She continues:
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.
Liz goes on to cite President Ezra Taft Benson’s classic 1987 talk, “To the Mothers in Zion,” which includes the following quote: “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” (see also: “Women in the Church”; “This Is a Woman’s Church” and “Being a Wife,” a 1984 article by Ann. S. Reese about being a wife in the faith).
When it comes to gender roles, the difference between the fringe Lafferty family and everyone else, once again, is obscured and difficult to discern. Liz continues, “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.’” While clearly there would be some agreeing with these views in the mainstream, the wide diversity of views on the topic is simply not apparent.
Episode 3 also hints that it is typical for a Latter-day Saint husband to be angry at his wife for speaking up and giving her opinion on family, church, and community issues. When detective Jeb Pyre finds out a letter Ron Lafferty’s wife Diana wrote to church leaders, he responds with shock, “it’s hard to imagine an LDS wife doing this to her own family. It’s extreme.” That’s silly, as many have noted—with one fact-checker noting that most Latter-day Saint husbands “would have no problem with their wives speaking up and expressing their opinions” on important issues. “In fact,” this person continues, “they would have a problem with their wives feeling they could not give opinions. To suggest otherwise is not only inaccurate but offensive.”
And when certain elements of the actual facts might have offered a counter-narrative to this oppression? Big and small, they are often simply changed. For instance, Liz notes it was Sister Low, not her husband the Bishop, who was on the hit list since she had actively supported one of the brother’s wives in seeking a divorce. In speculating why this historical detail was reversed, she says, “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 Church.”
Of far more consequence, Max Perry Mueller wrote at Slate about the show “failing to center the life of Brenda Lafferty, the most faithful Latter-day Saint and the true hero of the story” and “to tell the story from her point of view (which Black, who had access to her journals, not only could have done but, in fact, promised Brenda’s family he would).” By doing so, Mueller argues, “the series silences her, once again”—which he argues is the series’ “greatest weakness.”
3. Insisting upon violent socialization within the faith. Taking for granted that men are being encouraged towards aggression in the faith, as a critical backdrop for the murders themselves.
In Episode 1, Allen says to Pyre, “They’ve hidden our truth with their secret combinations. If you still think your God is love, then you don’t know who you are, brother. This faith … our faith, breeds dangerous men.”
One Latter-day Saint points out what would be obvious to anyone worshiping with us:
Men and women in the church are taught to obey the laws of their nation and, even more importantly, to live the gospel of Jesus Christ—which is to love the Lord their God with all of the might, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves. There is no room for hate and intolerance.
But what’s the larger truth? Religiosity is consistently linked to less violence and less aggression among both youth and adults, and that’s true of Latter-day Saints as well. And there is no available data or clear argument to suggest otherwise.
Yet the show’s producers are insistent on a very different story being told. Although Detective Pyre is consistently affectionate with his family and coworkers, for instance, when his wife Rebecca objects to the date of their girls’ baptism changing, he aggressively asserts his priesthood authority in a way that feels obviously parallel to the Lafferty brothers.
And how do women feel at church-owned Brigham Young University? Commenting on a scene where a BYU broadcast professor locks Brenda’s character in the studio and makes a suggestive pass at her, Brenda’s sister Sharon Wright Weeks said, “that’s total fiction … a BYU professor never crossed the line with Brenda … that did not happen to her”—adding, “She loved all of her colleagues. She loved her experience at BYU.”
The show portrays the early church concept of blood atonement as more potent an influence than it ever has been—including among the Laffertys. [The pretense otherwise has continued post-production, with the producer getting media attention from his angst about anticipating (not actually receiving, mind you) “death threats” by Latter-day Saints from his brave challenging of the “status quo.”]
What Black is really doing is asserting his own narrative, even if it defies reality. While national headlines labeled the Lafferty murders as “religious killings,” those following the actual court cases—especially the 1996 retrial—would hear the evidence for Ron Lafferty using his religious views as a cover for what was really a “crime of passion” in revenge for Brenda’s encouragement to his ex-wife to leave him, with the “revelation” an excuse for the heinous act.
The other murderer, Dan, was also abusive to his own kids, according to his own daughter. While the prosecutor in the case acknowledged Dan may have been driven by his religious fanaticism, he underscored that his brother Ron simply had a vendetta against the women who defied him. Brenda’s sister, Sharon Wright Weeks, called it a classic case of domestic violence, wrapped up in religious rhetoric.
Weeks puts it bluntly “Religion had nothing to do with the reason Brenda and Erica were murdered. I guess you have to go through the court process and listen to the prosecutor tell the story about why it wasn’t a religious killing. Why Ron Lafferty was not incompetent. And how the crimes were determined to be a crime of passion, murders of revenge, and it had nothing to do with religion.”
Yet, “Under the Banner of Heaven” has “spun it,” Weeks continued, to suggest the church “creates violent people.” To draw a singular line from Brenda’s and Erica’s murder to some violent chapters of the Church’s past makes for great storytelling, Weeks said. But it ignores who Brenda was and what really happened.
Max Perry Mueller at Slate characterizes the entire series as a polished recycling of Krakauer’s thesis, that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “is a faith that ‘breeds dangerous men,’ and that the level of these men’s devotion to their faith can be measured by the level of abuse and violence that they are willing to commit in the name of Heavenly Father.”
Mueller goes on to state that the series producer, like Krakauer before him, has “put forth an anti-religion polemic that itself verges on fundamentalism” itself.
4. Scary temples. Portraying sacred experiences as frightening and somehow encouraging members to carry out violence against others.
Brenda’s sister Sharon Wright Weeks said one of the biggest issues she has with the series was the decision in Episode 3 to use Brenda’s most sacred, intimate, and private moments—her temple wedding—and depict it in a “creepy” light, even though in reality Brenda “loved every bit of it.” As she recollected, “It was a personal, beautiful experience that she absolutely cherished. … She didn’t think it was weird. She didn’t think it was creepy.”
Moreover, Weeks said her mother raised her and her sister to be fully prepared for the ceremony, so they knew exactly what to expect. Although she’s not now active in the Church, she knows how “sacred” the temple ceremony is and wants to protect her sister’s memory from being “exploited”—especially in that setting. “I feel like they betrayed Brenda, and that I wasn’t able to prevent that from happening,” Weeks said. “I had no idea they would show her in that setting.”
The three-minute-long temple scene is indeed remarkably disrespectful and disappointing— from loud whispers among the women about the awkwardness of the old form of the initiatory and active questioning among the participants about the nature of the covenants being made.
It’s true that some of the details of the ordinances have changed over time and that members are asked to keep these sacred and not speak of them publicly. One of these sacred signs is dramatized—alongside a penalty that used to be included in a previous form of the ordinances (Those who first attended the temple after 1990 may be unfamiliar with these changes.)
The most important thing to note is that no instruction is given ever—not now, or in the ceremony’s past—that would encourage violence towards others. Hinting otherwise is equal parts sacrilege and slander.
5. Painting Church history as uniquely violent. Portraying the murders as somehow a natural outgrowth of the faith’s prior history.
Meredith Blake wrote in the L.A. Times that this series got Church history “right” even “down to the ‘bullet holes’”—calling it a “period piece tracing the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the journey of its founding prophet, Joseph Smith.” Continuing her effusive praise characteristic of many elite reviewers, she notes “The production design team, to the last detail, made sure that what was on that set was actually in that jailer’s room, and that what they’re wearing was accurate, that the order in which bullets were fired was accurate.” As the costume designer underscored, “All the giant, historical moments in the religion … we cover them all”—while going on to crow about the 110 hours that went into “handmade” costumes.
How can naive observers not be wowed by all of this? What more would anyone need to come away feeling convinced that what they were seeing was credible history?
How about getting the basic historical facts right as well?
Even the casual reader of American history knows the Latter-day Saints were mercilessly driven from the United States in a display of religious bigotry after their leader was murdered. Yet in the thread line of the show, it was Joseph Smith’s own purported turn towards aggression “that gave birth to our very first destroying angel” and moved them down the path to expulsion. As Allen continues, “Isn’t that how the Missouri governor got filled up with lead?” Yet as one fact-checker notes:
Lilburn Boggs was no longer governor when an unknown assailant shot him in 1842. While Boggs was seriously wounded in that attack, he was not killed and did recover. Furthermore, there is no evidence that early Latter-day Saint Porter Rockwell (known by some as the “Destroying Angel”) was the one who shot Boggs.
The character Allen claims Brigham Young had encouraged Joseph Smith to fight persecution— and cites Young as prompting violence by his influence on Joseph, which Emma Smith was against this all (“neatly parallel[ing] the Lafferty situation,” while enormously simplifying “complex web of influences and responses to constant violence against the early Saints” in early history”).
Throughout the final episodes, Jana Riess aggregates a “series of historically dubious theses as fact,” including “that Brigham Young had a hand in Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, that Smith’s companion Willard Richards was the one who shot him and that Young directly ordered the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre.” Liz Busby calls the depiction of Joseph’s death in Episode 5 “the most fabricated piece of church history in the show,” beginning with depicting John Taylor as manipulating a letter sent to Joseph Smith by Emma to put Brigham Young at the head of the Church for his own selfish benefit. In the same episode, viewers see Brigham Young conspiring to have Joseph Smith killed so he could take over the Church.
In reality, it’s well-known that Brigham dearly loved Joseph. He was in Boston or on his way there during this time. And it was opponents of the Church that wanted him dead. That same episode quotes John Taylor in 1879 saying, “The almighty will lay his hands upon this nation. There will be more bloodshed, more ruin, more devastation than they’ve ever seen.” Although an accurate quote, one fact-checker notes the series cuts away all its context in a way that portrays this as a violent threat against the U.S., rather than a prophecy about a lamentable war Taylor says he would stop if he could.
These frequently spliced moments of historical violence are presented as somehow offering “clues” for the murders, Max Perry Mueller at Slate notes, with the implication being that “it was inevitable that in a faith born out of blood in the mid-19th century … the truly faithful would remain willing to spill the blood of those who get in the way of the building of Heavenly Father’s kingdom.” Summarizing the take-away, Mueller adds, “There is a straight line between the patriarchal system Joseph Smith Jr. built in the 1830s and 1840s and the abuse Mormon men inflict in the present.”
Speaking of these flashbacks in Latter-day Saint history, Barbara Jones Brown, former executive director of the Mormon History Association, said, “My concern is, I think a lot of people will see (“Under the Banner of Heaven”) and see it as actual history when it has the contours of history, but there’s a lot of departures from actual history.”
And that’s precisely what’s happening publicly. Take as one example, Alison Stine’s comments in Salon where she describes the “history lessons” in the series for “what may be an unfamiliar audience” as based on a book she takes for granted as “a history of Mormonism.” A history that another reviewer summarizes as the “vicious underpinnings” of the faith.
In all these ways, the series paints a picture of a faith history that is uniquely violent. But what does the actual historical record say? As noted historian Patrick Mason summarizes, “It would be convenient in a way to say that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is uniquely violent. Unfortunately, it is not.” Without denying real violence that did place at certain places in its history, Mason summarizes:
To characterize this particular faith tradition as inherently and uniquely violent is simply a misrepresentation. For some two centuries, most Latter-day Saints have lived in peace with one another and with their neighbors. The Church provided the spiritual and structural framework for an orderly frontier society in Utah.
As Jana Riess argues, “Details matter in the telling of history. Accuracy matters.” After noting many of the historical claims of Latter-day Saint violence being fabrications or almost-comical exaggerations, Mason highlights a comprehensive review by Scott Thomas to back up the following conclusion:
The historical record shows that Utah was not more violent than other western territories. The remarkable fact that historians can name virtually every instance of violence by Latter-day Saints against their opponents in the religion’s early decades suggests the relative infrequency of such episodes. By contrast, scholars who study the genocide of Native Americans or the lynching of African Americans admit that their estimates of how much violence actually occurred will always be imprecise given the overwhelming number of deaths and relative lack of documentation.
6. What Emma believed. Portraying the wife of the Prophet Joseph as someone other than she was.
One fact-checker writes of Episode 4’s suggestion that Emma disbelieved in both Joseph’s prophetic calling and the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. In that episode, Emma Smith says to Joseph, “I was at your side when you discovered the plates [voice drips with sarcasm with the word ‘discovered’]. I was the scribe when you dictated their every word. And I publicly supported their divine [again, dripping with sarcasm] authenticity. So, are you certain in asking me now to believe that the Lord in heaven commands you to take more wives?”
The scene clearly suggests Emma did not believe Joseph Smith to be a true prophet while doubting The Book of Mormon to be an authentic record of an ancient people. In Episode 5, Emma is similarly portrayed as aligning herself with the Nauvoo Expositor and publicly challenging Joseph Smith and polygamy.
The reality, however, is that “Emma had nothing to do with the Nauvoo Expositor. Although polygamy was challenging for her, she expressed her misgivings privately and always publicly supported her husband.” And even with these wonderings, Emma Smith remained a true believer in both the prophetic mission of Joseph Smith and in the truthfulness of The Book of Mormon. Shortly before her death in 1879, Emma Smith bore testimony of The Book of Mormon:
“My belief is that the Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity. I have not the slightest doubt of it. … Though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, and was present during the translation of the plates … and had cognizance of things as they transpired, it is marvelous to me, ‘a marvel and a wonder,’ as much as to anyone else.”
On a smaller point, one episode depicts her courtship with Joseph as happening not in their twenties when they first met, but in adolescence. Another scene hints that Emma was the scribe for “every word” Joseph dictated from the Book of Mormon—but she was one of at least 7 scribes that have been identified so far, with Oliver Cowdery doing most of the transcribing.
Describing her own experience at the time, Emma once said: “The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen tablecloth which I had given him [Joseph] to fold them in. I once felt the plates as they lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.”
She also testified, “I know Mormonism to be the truth; and believe the church to have been established by divine direction.” [To read a more full account of her testimony, see Testimony of Emma Smith].
7. Sexualizing polygamy. Painting a faith-stretching, agonizing trial of faith for many families, as boiling down to one thing alone.
In a society where everything is sexualized, it’s unsurprising to see something as unusual and hard to understand as plural marriage through the same charged lens.
In Episode 4, Dan Lafferty’s desire for polygamy is fueled by his own extramarital playing around. Viewers thereafter see Joseph Smith proclaiming the doctrine of polygamy clearly only for his own physical gratification (which has been a common anti-Mormon accusation without legitimate evidence for a long time). While it’s true that at least one (perhaps two) of Joseph Smith’s plural wives were fourteen at the time they married him, the facts behind the situation are more complex than portrayed in the show. Although these details are strange and even offensive to twenty-first-century sensibilities, marrying at such a young age was not uncommon at that time, particularly in frontier settings—and 1840s Nauvoo was on the edge of the frontier. (see Craig L. Foster, “Assessing the Criticisms of Early-Age Latter-Day Saint Marriages,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 31 (2019): 191-232).
The series’ portrayal and discussion of plural marriage are predictably reductionist and superficial—defying so much that is known in more careful and nuanced looks at this doctrine and history. In one of the more extreme departures from reality, Detective Pyre’s companion says in Episode 5, “Let me get this straight: if a wife objects to other wives, it’s a-okay to blood atone her?”
Umm … nope? Not anywhere. Anytime. In history or even in fundamentalist communities today.
In one episode, Dan Lafferty presents a pamphlet called “The Peace Maker” as an “essential LDS tract” that he claims was written by Joseph Smith and which gives instructions on polygamy (with the modern church portrayed as trying to hush the truth up). No one in the show ever corrects this perception. Yet one fact-checker clarifies that the pamphlet was written by Udney H. Jacob who lived in Nauvoo, Illinois, but was not even a church member at the time. Joseph Smith denounced the text as soon as he found out about it as a “rigmarole of nonsense, folly, and trash.” Needless to say, the text does not reflect the beliefs of the Church and was certainly never distributed by the Church (see also “The Peacemaker” and “Jacob, Udney Hay – Biography”).
In Episode 5, viewers see Joseph Smith order “the destruction of the newspaper for printing words that dare question a revelation about collecting wives.” As one fact-checker notes, this is misleading by stripping away any context that is not sexual:
While the one and only issue of the Nauvoo Expositor did address plural marriage, other articles encouraged the repeal of the Nauvoo city charter and opposed what they called, “all political revelations and unconstitutional ordinances” without fully defining what they deemed political and unconstitutional. The paper also supported the accusations and activities of the “anti-Mormons” including “the rights of the old citizens” to control elections and “rallied the county” to oppose Hyrum Smith’s candidacy for the state legislature. The editor of the Warsaw Signal promised the Expositor would lead to the “Decline and Fall of Mormonism.” Nauvoo city leaders feared the newspaper would lead to an attack on Nauvoo by anti-Mormon mobs.
It’s true that Joseph Smith, as mayor of Nauvoo, justified the destruction of the press as a public nuisance by citing instances in which “police in New York, Boston, and Ohio had destroyed scurrilous publications.” (For more, see: The Nauvoo Expositor and Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo.)
Yet once again, who these early Saints were—and what really happened to them—is profoundly deformed.
8. A cult-like obsession with appearance and reputation more than truth and community health. Distorting counsel given by church leaders about historical study and how we represent ourselves to the world.
Throughout a number of episodes, viewers see the Church operating in a way indistinguishable from a cut-throat corporation or even worse. In particular, we see over and over again a cult-like obsession with appearance and reputation. For instance, in Episode 4 alone:
- It is heavily implied that Ron gets turned down for a loan because his wife’s letter to prophets was seen as an embarrassment to the Church.
- Detective Pyre is leaned upon by the Laffertys’ stake president to release them into his custody, but he bravely refuses.
- The detectives identify 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 fundamentalist Mormonism be scrubbed from the press briefing. (It’s again implied he’s being leaned on by the Church.)
After cataloging this, Liz Busby adds this summary observation of the series, “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.”
Liz goes on to ask, do certain bishops sometimes abuse power and overly focus on reputation? “No doubt. But I have never met one.” Yet “Banner gives the impression that this attitude is pervasive and intentional.”
It would be easy for viewers to forget that leadership in the Church of Jesus Christ at the local level is entirely unpaid and volunteer-based, with people who are called also having day jobs and remaining ordinary members again after five or ten years of service. A far cry from decades of socialization in a system they are personally financially incentivized to protect, the structure of church service fosters a vast network of higher motivations—all of which makes the foregoing scenes so highly unlikely. For instance, Liz quips, “I don’t buy that a stake president would pressure the police to release the Lafferty’s into his care, especially given that the brothers had actually been excommunicated some years earlier.”
In Episode 5 the bishop refuses to call CPS—even while knowing that Ron is abusing his wife— something that has surely happened in all faiths sometime in the past. Yet the bishop claims to be doing what was normal and expected in church procedure (which is not true—even back then). At Ron’s disciplinary council, the stake president likewise expresses more concern about Ron talking back to his bishop than about the “other matter of violence in your home.” Liz notes again that this episode “persists in portraying local church leadership as being more concerned about the Church’s reputation and maintaining control than the spiritual health of their congregation.”
The obsession with appearance extends into perceptions of the past. In Episode 3, Detective Pyre asks his bishop about potentially difficult and uncomfortable teachings and events in the past. The bishop says, “Brother Pyre, I’m not an academic or a historian, so I never concern myself with such deep dives. You understand what I’m saying?”
Pyre says no. The bishop has a serious look on his face and says, “I don’t go digging in the past. And neither should you. You place your trust in today’s prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, and you leave the things you do not understand on a shelf. Then you trust that the prophet will never lead us astray.”
It’s true that members of the Church are encouraged to not lose faith in the current prophetic mantle—and cautions have rightly been given in the past about the enormous amount of anti-Mormon material that circulates. Yet as others have noted, members of the Church are not generally discouraged from studying church history and doctrine. On the contrary, they are frequently encouraged to do so thoughtfully and prayerfully—while yes, taking into account the kinds of material they are trusting.
Cautions about sensitive topics, once again, have largely centered around the deception they attract. But even those cautions have become less prominent in the last 20 years as the Church has been engaging these complex historical issues more directly. However, even before this most recent period, it’s simply deceitful to suggest the full history has been purposely buried (see “It’s Time to Stop Calling Your Grandpa a Liar” and “Have You Heard the Biggest Church Lie?”).
But that’s precisely what the series does. In Episode 4, Allen mentions to Dan that he “grew frustrated with the fact that so much of our history seemed to have been purposefully removed from every library in Utah including BYU’s.” As one fact-checker summarizes, “that comment is so far from reality that the series’ creators should be embarrassed”:
The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University has probably the second-best collection of anti-Mormon literature in the world. Secondly only to the Historical Library at Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints headquarters. The Lee Library also has an excellent collection of fundamentalist Mormon literature that has been collected from the various groups who claim ties to the Church. Furthermore, serious scholars of any religious background are allowed to view these publications and historical records. Finally, not only do the church library and BYU’s library have excellent collections of material alluded to in the series, the Marriott Library at University of Utah and what was known as the Merrill Library, now Merrill-Cazier Library, at Utah State University also have had excellent collections for years. Both of these two latter libraries are at state-owned institutions and, therefore, would not have any vested interest in hiding or destroying Latter-day Saint-related print and manuscript material.
9. A cult-like lack of boundaries and excessive zeal to control. Pretending to an intrusive and domineering lack of privacy, as part of an evident hunger for power and control.
As Liz Busby notes about Episode 1, “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?’”
She continues, “Any such things are very private among members, and 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.”
Continuing this same theme, in Episode 3 you see a fight in the Pyre family over the timing of their daughter’s baptism. Sister Pyre worries that delaying the baptism will shame her in front of their “congregation”—alongside strange preoccupation with these young children “failing” their interview (both of which feel extremely unusual to any active member).
The boundary-less hunger for control extends to how presiding leaders are portrayed. In one episode Detective Pyre questions another Lafferty member about whether “the brethren” know about his business’s financial trouble—another private matter that would almost never come to the attention of anyone outside of the family, including leadership. As Liz Busby notes, the phrase “the brethren” is used exclusively to refer to the general authorities at church headquarters, who wouldn’t deal with something this small.
Even more explicit references to prophet leaders reflect a kind of scary absence of distinctions between the glory of God and human beings trying their best to serve. In Episode 4, when Detective Pyre finds out Dianna Lafferty had written a letter to the president of the Church of Jesus Christ, he responds by suggesting this is “kind of like writing a letter to Heavenly Father Himself.” Is that how we see and relate to the prophet? No. As one reviewer summarizes well:
It is unimaginable that any Latter-day Saint would equate the president of the church, which faithful members believe to be a prophet of God, to “Heavenly Father himself.” While members of the church honor and respect the prophet as a man of God, they realize he is a man and not God. Furthermore, members are taught and encouraged to pray daily and to strive to have a personal relationship with God where they can prayerfully commune with Him.
The “historical” portrayals of prophets described earlier—consumed with their own cravings and control—certainly feed this same narrative.
10. Fake community love. Painting a picture of superficial and self-serving relationships in the faith—marked by a distinct absence of any real compassion when clearly called for.
As a final theme of Banner, we see abundant hints and reminders that whatever love might be felt or observed within Latter-day Saints, it’s not to be trusted. In Episode 4, Pyre tries to toe the line and be agreeable to all the pressure church leaders are placing on him, but eventually caves to a persistent reporter and admits that he thinks that the murders may have something to do with fundamentalist beliefs. As he heroically stands up to police superiors and church officials who want to leave the Laffertys’ religious convictions out of the investigation, he pays a price for it: He and his family get the cold shoulder at church and feel shunned by the ward congregation. They are even warned that this growing “confusion” about the Laffertys’ motives might place his soul in eternal jeopardy.
Yet there is no such shunning procedure that takes place in the Church—not formally, and only informally when members disregard the clear and explicit teaching from leadership to continue showing love and maintain good relationships. It’s far more common for loved ones who step away from the Church to create distance themselves—sadly estranging themselves from warm relationships they used to have.
In addition to leadership, then, this particular episode radically misrepresents the closeness of a Latter-day Saint ward. In addition to the shunning, a specific couple is assigned to keep an eye on the Pyre family’s faith. In a subsequent episode, Pyre’s own bishop invites the detective’s family over for the evening and they end up spending the night there (which is virtually unheard of behavior).
In that same episode, Detective Pyre himself threatens one of the Lafferty brothers with excommunication, saying it is “worse than prison bars” and will bring “alienation from family, friends, clients.” Yet once again, excommunicated people—although being released from covenants and church membership, are still allowed to attend public meetings. Rather than encouraging alienation by family, friends, or clients, church leaders have consistently and earnestly asked members to show an “increase of love” in a way that bears witness of God’s feeling for them and His desire for their return through repentance and baptism.
Accompanying this cult-like portrayal of a boundary-less community is a striking lack of compassion for not only anyone that goes against the Church’s agenda, but even members’ real needs. In Episode 3, Detective Pyre’s bishop is not only unaware of his mother’s concerns but doesn’t offer any direct help, instead sermonizing around doctrinal issues. This is contrary to everything members know about their bishops, who are charged with “watching over” their flock of members as Christ Himself would.
Continuing the theme of dissembling, and transactional love, another detective distracts the police chief and stake president in Episode 5 by showing them pictures of his children. After noting that it is heavily implied that the stake president was only interested in these people as potential converts to the Church, Liz Busby states, “This kind of mercenary attitude towards people isn’t common among the church members we know. Sure, there are misguided missionaries looking to make themselves look good with high baptism numbers (they usually get humbled pretty quickly).” She continues:
Occasionally, inconsiderate members drop friends when they don’t express interest in conversion (something church leaders have counseled us against). We aren’t uniformly perfect at these principles as a people. But when most Latter-day Saints share the gospel, it’s because we genuinely think that the truth we are sharing blesses our lives and want to help others have those same blessings.
Banner’s bottom line. Put all this together, and what do you get? Why, the Krakauer/Black narrative of the Church of Jesus Christ, that’s what. You hear and see (and read) a story that they really want you to believe about the faith.
Summarizing the thrust of the series, Max Perry Mueller at Slate writes that Black, like Krakauer before him, “put(s) forth an anti-religion polemic that itself verges on fundamentalism: All faiths corrupt. Absolutist faiths … corrupt absolutely.”
In making this case, seemingly every possible skewed view of the Church of Jesus Christ is encapsulated in one series—quite an accomplishment. Few have written so critically about the resulting product than Jana Riess, who most recently said that the series, despite its artistic merits, was “riddled with historical inaccuracies and a heavy-handed thesis” portraying the faith as a breeding ground for violence. After pushing back on that thesis and noting that no “reliable statistical evidence” exists to back it up or the idea that the Lafferty murders were anything “more than aberrations,” Riess elaborates:
Details matter in the telling of history. Accuracy matters. And for “Banner” to be convincing in its broadest strokes, it should also be convincing in its details, and it isn’t. It is a mostly unrecognizable retelling of Latter-day Saint origins, emphasizing only violence, the patriarchal suppression of women, and flat-out greed as motivations for early leaders’ and members’ religious identification with the movement.
Me, biased?! Black claims he created the new show without personal prejudice. But that can only be read as marketing spin given what he created or what he’s said. As journalist Daryl Austin writes in the Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Black’s disdain for this particular faith runs deep,” which is especially problematic when combined with a writing style that is, by his own admission, defined “by how far they can bend history before it snaps.”
As one viewer said, “It’s apparent the writer of this adaptation has a bone to pick with the Church and is using the murders to do it” (Eric L). Austin continues, “Since spending some of his early years as a member of this church, the filmmaker rarely misses an opportunity to make a dig against Latter-day Saints—whether in a news interview or his 2009 Oscar acceptance speech. It’s ironic considering how fervently he defends the LGBT+ community from stereotypical portrayals.”
Far from historical objectivity and dispassionate accuracy, the bias of both Black and Krakauer seethes through their public interviews and comments about the show. On this point, Brenda’s sister Sharon Wright Weeks expressed concern at how the show sweeps Brenda up into that larger “agenda” against the Church, even though she said Brenda “absolutely loved” her faith. “It’s disappointing that she’s being used,” Weeks said. “It’s not hard to see that (writer Dustin Lance Black) does not look kindly on the religion.” “Black “put(s) forth an anti-religion polemic that itself verges on fundamentalism.”
“Black “put(s) forth an anti-religion polemic that itself verges on fundamentalism.”
But speaking of bias alone is not enough.
Calling the kettle Black. In our hyperpolarized world, the word “lie” has been tossed around promiscuously like many other serious descriptors—launched against anyone saying something that someone doesn’t like. As a result, the purpose of the word “lying” is diluted to the point that it no longer functions as it should—and in times when it is applicable.
Like now. Based objectively on the work of his hands and the dictionary definition of the word, Dustin Lance Black—like Jon Krakauer before him—is lying. He’s created something that is simply and undeniably dishonest. As demonstrated above, the creative team involved has misrepresented and dissembled extensively not only about Brenda and the deranged men who killed her—but about the Church of Jesus Christ as a whole.
What we’re actually seeing in this series is not The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—or even a dramatization of the same. But instead, we overdose on the determinedly dark and suspicious-laden Black-Krakauer narrative of an entire people of faith.
Had this been directed at Jews, the Anti-Defamation League would be campaigning against the series running at all. Had it been directed at Muslims, there would have likewise been some indignant uproar. But no, Dustin—you won’t see anything more than a few laments and critiques from us.
To the degree honesty and integrity still matter, we hope these words will matter to you—both personally and professionally.
A curious discrepancy. Of course, not everyone sees this production’s narrative as unfair or untrue. As scholar Ed Gantt has noted, there is a curious pattern also evident—how ex-members with a range of resentments towards the Church of Jesus Christ “keep touting the authenticity” of this new show, while “active (and even inactive) members keep decrying its inaccuracy.”
Why is that? On one level, many former members undoubtedly resonate with the attempt to capture the emotional wrestle of faith crisis, in what one reviewer describes as a distinctive focus on “Pyre’s headspace, and his tormented questioning of his own faith.”
That really is a prominent feature of the whole show—with Alison Stine noting in Salon that “all the stories here—take a backseat to the invented one: Jeb questioning his own faith.” Let that fact sink in: in this telling of Brenda Lafferty’s story, even misrepresented as it is, it only amounts to a secondary plotline to the real focus of the show, the contrived psychodrama of an imaginary male character. Black’s approach to screenwriting seems to have been to read Krakauer’s book, then ask how can I turn this into a story about me?
It’s hard to overstate the self-centeredness here—in using the story of innocent murder victims as a vehicle to paint a picture of one’s own personal psychodrama.
But there’s more. Imagine creating a visual representation of someone based on the strongest convictions of their bitter former spouse. Would it surprise anyone if the resulting image resonated with no one except those who shared the animosities of the ex-spouse?
No, it wouldn’t. Why is that? Because we know what resentments do to the human mind. They distort. And skew—even to dangerous levels. (Like we see with the actions and delusions of the Lafferty brothers). Yet with the show’s fixation on portraying a religion as dangerous, this other message is being missed, as Weeks laments: Namely, the real story about how “dangerous” human emotions of “jealousy and revenge” can be.
Unfortunately, that appears to be applicable to the producers of the show as well. As one viewer says, “generalizing and stereotyping a whole world-wide religion based off of … people who have bitterly left that particular religion are never going to be an accurate depiction of what that religion is” (Coleman).
In that sense, the show’s response becomes something of a litmus test of people’s own perceptions of the Church of Jesus Christ. If you love the show, may we suggest that you examine your own preconceptions and sympathies? The show seems to suggest that most faithful members of the Church are ever on the cusp of being won over to rationale like that of the Laffertys. That with just a little push we, too, might accept a madman’s claim that God commanded those horrific murders.
Of course, He didn’t. And of course, that rationale itself is pure evil. And of course, the Saints everywhere recognize that too—seeing in these acts a vicious rejection of everything we believe.
Can you see how baffling it is, then, to pretend that we don’t—and hint that, instead, the Lafferty murders are somehow a distillation and crystallization of our deepest convictions? That’s essentially what Black, et al. have done. The same basic arguments the Laffertys made in their criminal defense—pretending like they had religious reasons for their murders—the producers and those vaunting the series are now making to all of America.
To be frank, and writing from a place of vulnerability as lifelong members ourselves: these accusations hurt and strike us as deeply unfair and inaccurate. We as church members have our faults, but living ever on the cusp of horrific murder is generally not one of them. Indeed, for those not of our faith, it is very likely that the thing that will most strike you about church members you meet is simply this: we are generally nice people, trying to do our best to make the world a better place–a desire that is often fired, quite precisely, by our religious convictions and even the promises we’ve made to each other and to God.
To represent any of this, however, would be to betray their core thesis about religion and violence—a thesis that was not going to budge, no matter how much research took place. The lead actor, Andrew Garfield (who so many of us love in his many roles—not just Spiderman!), likewise spoke of the “heavy” and “really deep” research and preparations he did—including conversations with “ex-Mormons, gay Mormons, detective Mormons.” How wonderful it would be if Andrew went even deeper and really came to know our people (by the way, we really don’t identify as “Mormon” anymore).
The most lasting consequences. Anticipating some of these critiques, Black and his team have cast any such concerns as simply reflecting hyper-sensitivity. As Lindsay Hansen Park derided, “some Mormons will dismiss the series entirely if they see a word or hair out of place.”
Yet this goes well beyond mere oversensitivity. As Brenda’s sister concluded, “I wished it wouldn’t have come to fruition. Because it’s painful, not just for me but for members of our family.” She expressed that it hurts to see people “capitalize” and make money off of dramatizing this murder.
It really does. We previously wrote as well about the wounding experience of having our sacred temple experiences—which are a source of great light and joy to us—depicted in dark ways to all the world.
In the eyes of the law, of course, it’s largely when libel or slander leads to serious material loss of property, health, or lives that they count as illegal “defamation.” If not ever recognized in a court of law, we would argue that the losses in question here are even greater than financial loss. “The worth of souls is great in the eyes of God” and His followers. And this series—especially left unexamined as it surely will be by most casual consumers—will leave its mark on the most priceless thing of all: precious brothers and sisters and their future trajectory.
That’s why we write—and work to publish more extensive essays like this one.
Not only for us. For you.