A Show for the Shelf

The main focus of Hulu’s Under the Banner of Heaven is the story of the zealotry of a fundamentalist Mormon family, the murder of a faithful mainstream Mormon woman and her infant, and the subsequent investigation by a Mormon detective, Jeb Pyre (played by Andrew Garfield), who slowly loses his faith as a result of the case. Along the way, the series depicts various ancillary characters who either aid the main antagonists, Dan and Ron Lafferty, in their descent into violence, or actively resist them. One of the characters, Bernard Brady (played by Nicholas Carella), is an active, mainstream Mormon who connects with the Laffertys through a scripture study book club of sorts. Brady has a front-row seat to the radicalizing of Dan and Ron, and he later serves as an important — if not reluctant — informant for Pyre. Brady fills the role of the dedicated Mormon — hard-working, tithe-paying, commandment-following — whose academic sympathies with the Lafferty brothers put him in the wrong place at the wrong time. Brady is depicted as somewhat of a coward, terrified of what his wife, community, and church will think of him if his connection to the Laffertys comes out. In nearly every scene, Carella plays him as a pleading, self-serving character who can’t possibly understand how things could have gone so wrong so quickly. In their first meeting, Brady presents Pyre with a notarized letter addressed to himself, attempting to absolve himself of any knowledge or connection with the Laffertys. Later, he tells Pyre, speaking of the time he spent with the Laffertys, “Look, it must be tough to picture now, with your officers up their yanking floorboards, but I’m telling ya, whenever the school came here, I was met with a positive spirit.” Brady just can’t understand how a religion he believed in could lead to the cruel radicalization at the heart of the case. Reading McKay Coppins’ recent review of the series, I couldn’t help but feel that I was reading the words of a Bernard Brady come to life.

Coppins and I share a similar background. We were both raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka the Mormons). We grew up during the 90s and came of age in the 2000s, during a time of unprecedented growth in the Mormon church and favorable publicity. We both attended Mormon universities. We both served Mormon missions in the “Bible Belt” and faced the hatred of closed-minded so-called Christians, who were convinced we were peddling Satan’s lies. We both have lived in large, diverse, and progressive metropolitan areas while trying to defend our faith and be an example to our neighbors of how good Mormons can be.

But Coppins and I are different in two respects. First, while he grew up in Massachusetts, about as far away as one can get from the Mormon corridor and still be in the United States, I grew up on the Utah/Idaho border in the heart of Mormondom and in a small town that was literally built by my Mormon pioneer ancestors (on Native land, by the way). Having spent much of my adult life living in progressive parts of the country and congregating with Mormons who live in those communities, I can hazard a guess that Coppins’ childhood experience in the church was markedly different from my own. My family ties to Mormonism go back at least four generations on every side (Shadrach Roundy, one of Joseph Smith’s bodyguards, is one of them on my mother’s side). My father’s family left Switzerland and Denmark in the 1870s with the express purpose of coming to America “to build Zion” in the Rocky Mountains. Nearly every person I knew growing up was Mormon. Every teacher and adult mentor was Mormon. Every woman I dated was Mormon. I married my wife, Emily, in the Salt Lake City Temple, where we were “sealed” together for eternity. I attended church, served in teaching and leadership roles, paid tithing, followed dietary restrictions, rose through the levels of priesthood, participated in and officiated temple ceremonies, and had every intention of raising a Mormon family. Whatever can be said of me now, there is simply no denying: I gave everything to Mormonism. While Coppins might have benefited from living in a community of diverse ideas and multicultural values, I did not.

Second, while Coppins still identifies as a temple-recommend carrying Mormon, I do not. Starting in 2015, the scaffolding that had been my worldview slowly and painfully came crashing down around me. As I learned more about what my religion really was, everything I had thought was true flipped upside down. After multiple brutal years of soul searching and research, I can thankfully say that I am on the back end of that faith crisis. I assume, from reading Coppins’ various articles, including his recent review, that he has no framework for that kind of experience.

Both of these facts likely explain the position Coppins takes in his review. The average non-Mormon probably will read his piece, take it as a statement by a believing Mormon who just didn’t like a show about his faith, and move on. But many believing Mormons read his piece as championing their own view; a quick visit to Mormon social media reveals how many have rallied around Coppins’ banner. Mormon history is replete with examples of misunderstandings and violence with neighboring communities, which has instilled in the average Mormon the notion that “They” are out to get “Us.” Coppins’ review, rife with a persecution complex, plays right into that narrative. But not so for those of us in the ExMormon community — an ever-enlarging community as the church’s growth rate continues to decline. For the average ExMo, this review was typical gaslighting. In a Bernard Brady way, Coppins’ review pleads, hands outstretched, “How could this possibly be? Why must they tell such lies about us?”

To be fair, Under the Banner of Heaven is rife with problems. Some of them are minor: Mormons don’t avoid French fries or chocolate. No Mormon woman has to petition the church leadership, colloquially “the Brethren,” for a divorce (though she would certainly have to if she wanted to have her sealing annulled). Mormons don’t use the phrase “Heavenly Father” ad nauseam. And after three decades of church membership, I can honestly say I never witnessed anyone being pressured to baptize their child at the exact moment they turned eight.

Other problems are major: The insinuation that individuals close to Joseph Smith aided and abetted his execution is ridiculous. The implication that it was not Smith but Brigham Young who pushed for polygamy is a tired and successfully debunked claim — one that tries to absolve Smith of the decades of female subjugation that followed his death. The role of his wife, Emma, in the subsequent leadership schism is a matter of debate. And the depiction of the temple rituals is outdated and incomplete; the gruesome, self-inflicted penalties are no longer a part of the ritual (though their disappearance coincides with the Lafferty debacle). Coppins is right to point out that the series has its problems — an artistic decision that unfortunately does nothing more than play into the persecution narrative. For me, these errors reinforce the strong belief in the ExMo community that Mormonism deserves a full-blown documentary depicting it in its truest light: the good, the bad, and the very ugly.

But in his effort to dismiss the series, Coppins ignores the many, many truths conveyed by it. Once again, some of these are minor. Mormonism has a strain of anti-government, “stay out of my business” mentality that helps explain the political beliefs of many of its western-States members (Mormons literally left the United States to practice their doctrine without US law getting in the way). Mormons — at least those not in places like Massachusetts — really are surrounded by other Mormons who are very much involved in their private lives. Doubting Mormons have, for generations, been told to put their questions “on the shelf” and focus on other things, just as Pyre is instructed by his church leaders. And Mormons do very much defer to their leaders on matters of family planning, personal and business relationships, and individual decision-making. The series is very accurate on these minor points.

But some of these truths are also major. For instance, take every Mormon’s desire to protect the church at all costs. I can bear witness — because I once participated in it — that Mormons will do what they can to prevent the church from looking bad, even going so far as a cover-up (see, e.g., the cover-up of sexual abuse of underage boys by Boy Scout leaders). Every Mormon community can tell a story of Mormon leaders quietly intervening in a crisis to avoid bad press when the culprits’ Mormon background comes to light. In fact, in a stroke of irony, Coppins’ review fulfills the prophecy of the series by prioritizing the defense of the church over the many victims of Mormonism.

Or take the Mormon church’s heavy-handed approach to dissent. The church has excommunicated or retaliated against dissenters repeatedly for no other reason than that they have criticized Mormonism: from the burning of the Nauvoo Expositor almost 200 years ago to the excommunication of six BYU professors (an effort personally overseen by then-Mormon leader Boyd Packer) to the recent excommunication of pro-LGBTQ and feminist critics. Mormon history is replete with many of these examples. When the series shows Mormon leaders threatening Pyre and others with ostracization or reminding them of their “covenants,” that is very, very real.

Even more so, the series very accurately depicts the belief among Mormons that their leaders are prophetic and infallible speakers on behalf of god. Starting with Joseph Smith and continuing to the present day, the president of the Mormon church is sustained by the membership as a “prophet, seer, and revelator” — meaning that the buck stops with the man (and it must be a man) who occupies that office. As a mundane example, the current president, Russell Nelson, has instructed members to stop using the term “Mormon” to refer to themselves, a tired hill that Nelson has died on since at least the 1990s. Mormons called themselves Mormon before Nelson assumed office and will do so again once he leaves office (read: dies) for the simple reason that things like language are dictated from the pulpit. For a much less mundane example, refer to the 2015 “revelation” that children of gay Mormons are not allowed to be blessed or baptized until they are 18 — and the 2019 subsequent “revelation” to reverse that policy. There are many such examples: polygamy is the law until it isn’t, Black people are cursed until they aren’t, and on and on. The Mormon god has a hard time making up his mind (and, yes, he is a man).

The series does an excellent job showing this and other realities: the second-class treatment of women, the isolation of being Mormon, the thin line between mainstream and fundamentalist Mormon, and the messy and, at times, bloody history of Mormonism. Look beyond the poor dialogue or the range of acting talent (and Sam Worthington’s really awful attempt at an American, Utah accent), and you will find plenty of truth about Mormonism.

But Coppins did what many members of the Mormon church do when the microscope is directed at Mormonism: to immediately think only of themselves. Coppins was focused on how this one series damaged him and his religion. How could this be about anything but him? But many of us in the ExMo community celebrated that there was finally a story about us. Rather than being about Mormons and their beliefs, Under the Banner of Heaven is the story of one Mormon man’s struggle to reconcile his morality with the realities of the church he has been a member of his entire life. It isn’t about the Laffertys or the Mormon leaders or the history of Mormonism. It’s not a documentary about an American religion. It is the story of a human at the edge of faith. The moment when Pyre sobs alone in his car in the middle of the night is a moment experienced by every person who has left the Mormon church. Watching Garfield depict that moment, I felt seen in a way that I do not feel when the public debates with Mormons. I recalled my own moment of crying alone in a hotel room, wondering where my god had gone. It doesn’t shock me that Coppins and his Mormon retweeters were too busy thinking about themselves to see that there were other people in the room.

Above all, though, Coppins claims that Mormonism has had a long history of being depicted as a threat to the American project and that the Hulu series reinforces that narrative. Coppins rejects that notion and laments, “Why can’t they see how far we’ve come?” As a political theorist and constitutional law professor, I can’t help but laugh at this reaction. Mormonism, like other dogmatic religions, has carved out for itself special exemptions from public law. Religions have fought tooth and nail to avoid the burdens of citizenship, from taxation to public accountability. Mormonism has been in the front row of that effort. Meanwhile, these same religions claim the right to pressure and manipulate the political process to impose their beliefs and morality on others. From the Mormon church’s influence in passing California’s Proposition 8 to the church’s amicus briefs before the Supreme Court in Obergefell and Bostock, the religion has been more than willing to use its outsized power to weigh in on matters of public opinion. In this, the Mormon church is certainly not unique (though, unlike many other faiths, it sits on hundreds of billions of untaxed dollars).

But claiming that Mormonism poses absolutely no threat to building a pluralistic, liberal egalitarian political system is demonstrably false. At its heart, Mormonism teaches that in matters of conflict between law and faith, faith always wins. Prophets trump presidents. And rather than give its adherents the resources to express their autonomy, learn about critiques of Mormonism, and leave without fanfare, the Mormon church claims the right to excommunicate, harass, and ostracize dissenters. That thinking — whether in Mormonism or Christianity or Islam or any other faith — is most definitely a threat to the American project, regardless of what Coppins may claim. The fact that Mormons uniquely believe that they have the “fullness” of the truth directly from someone in Salt Lake City who speaks to god should be all the more sobering.

Moreover, what Coppins fails to acknowledge in his review is that insofar as Mormonism has become more liberalized since its inception, it has done so despite its own doctrine. The average mainstream Mormon is not going to go on a murderous, delusional rampage; on that point, I will stand firmly beside Coppins. But that same Mormon doesn’t have to dig too deeply into Mormon doctrine to find grounds for doing so. Mormonism has grown less extreme over the last two centuries by rejecting its own foundations and importing morality and values from external sources. Faced with adhering to fundamentalist views versus accepting modern, rational values, Mormon leaders have slowly embraced the latter — sometimes under threat. In that sense, Jeb Pyre is a symbol of the Mormon church: abandoning extreme views when humanistic morality and justice demand it. In other words, Coppins’ Mormonism has become more benign by becoming less Mormon. Rather than acknowledge that fact, Coppins and similar Mormon mouthpieces would have the public believe that Mormons just had to figure out their own faith — gaslighting of the highest order.

Ultimately, Under the Banner of Heaven invites viewers to take sides on a fundamental problem. What is “true” and what is “just” is a matter of vantage point and a selection of values. The series wrestles with the perennial problem in political theory of private vs. public commitments. Whether it is a Lafferty claiming the right to blood atonement or a Pyre choosing to follow the law over his own private faith, the series depicts the tension between faith and rationality as sources of truth. This imperfect series should leave viewers asking what world they would like to live in and what values they hope society will elevate. If would-be viewers pass over this series because of Coppins’ myopic review, they will miss a great opportunity to ask, “Just how much should we permit in the name of faith?” And that is much more important than whether the Mormon church does or does not have a PR problem.

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