Three years ago, I wrote an article about religious intolerance. My premise was that America had actually never been that religiously tolerant, that today religion, Christianity in particular, was the one area where intolerance was still acceptable, and that those who often cried for the most tolerance could be the most intolerant. I used the fact that The Book of Mormon won a Tony Award as evidence, as well as how Hollywood continues to criticize Christians while attacking any who dares say anything negative about Muslims or Jews, let alone anyone of a different race or sexual orientation. Upon seeing a preview of FX’s latest crime thriller “Under the Banner of Heaven,” I though it’s time to maybe reexamine religion in America amongst this new culture of political correctness. What I found is that history has not changed and that Hollywood has once again used a similar scapegoat to attack those who believe in a God.
Let me start by saying I am a fan of Jon Krakauer. Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, the two books he wrote before Under the Banner, are both amazing reads. It’s his fourth book where he turns from his themes of exploring and often losing to nature towards religion and violence that seems unfamiliar. The premise of Under the Banner of Heaven is that religious people are irrational and, as irrational and fanatical people, they commit irrational violent acts. As with the musical The Book of Mormon, FX is targeting an easy sect of Christianity, one that even other Christians are Ok seeing attacked. While this particular story deals with a polygamous splinter group of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Krakauer’s premise is for all believers of God, as he wrote in Chapter Six of Under the Banner of Heaven, “All religious belief is a function of nonrational faith. And faith, by its very definition, tends to be impervious to intellectual argument or academic criticism.”
The TV adaption has not been released and so I do not know how closely it stays true to the book, but the book looks at the 1984 murders committed by two brothers belonging to the FLDS. Krakauer believes it was their fanatical devotion to God that allowed them to justify their cruel actions. As part of his evidence, he examines the history of the Mormon Church, which he links with violence and extremism. As a historian, I am clearly not going to argue that religion has not played a part in violence. Examples would take all the space in this article and then some, so instead I want to focus on one quote Krakauer used to title his work, “Under the Banner of Heaven.”
This quote was taken from a speech given by the third president or prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ, John Taylor, given in 1880 in which he said, “God is greater than the United States, and when the Government conflicts with heaven, we will be ranged under the banner of heaven against the Government. The United States says we cannot marry more than one wife. God says different.” While polygamy is appalling to the vast majority of Americans, historically speaking, the concept of standing up to authority for a higher cause has been common and even celebrated. In 1846 when America declared war on our neighbors to the south, not all Americans agreed with the invasion. One such man was the author Henry David Thoreau. He so disagreed with America’s actions that he was imprisoned for his refusal to pay taxes to support what he believed was an unjust war. The year after the war he published his thoughts in an essay called “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau wrote, “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also. All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.” He even went as far as to say about his own imprisonment, “In an unjust society the only place for a just man is prison.”
Starting in the 1920s, another man took up the cry for civil disobedience as he struggled for freedom against the British Empire. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state becomes lawless or corrupt.” He believed people needed to resist the civil government when that government hurt the people. Unlike Thoreau, Gandhi actually pushed out his oppressors in the name of justice.
Finally, a few years after Gandhi, another man made a similar statement about resisting the government for higher laws. In 1963 while in prison in Birmingham, Ala., Dr. Martin Luther King gave his justifications for breaking the law that landed him in jail. King wrote, “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Also, like Thoreau, King spoke to those in prison when he said, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”
I am not saying that John Taylor standing up for polygamy is the same as these men, but they were all standing up for something they believed in. They also had another thing in common: all their protests were nonviolent. As militant as Taylor’s speech may seem, there was nothing violent associated with him during his almost seven years as leader of the Church or any other church leader after him. If Taylor’s words condemn his as violent, then Thoreau, Gandhi and King must also be condemned as violent. If Krakauer’s thesis is correct and Mormon splinter groups, Latter Day Saints, and all religious people are inherently violent, then so must be all civil rights workers, Indians, and, I guess, students of American literature. If only some of those first groups are inherently violent, then his logic must agree that all Muslims are terrorists because some are.
While I am not calling for any sort of cancellation, Hollywood has the right to air any kinds of program they want. Yet it reminds me of the saying that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Also, that, historically speaking, America has had an interesting relationship with religion. While we still praise our concept of freedom of religion, we also have reserved religion as the one concept which is still politically correct to attack.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.