Under the Hammer of Heaven

A recent television series brings a grisly Mormon murder case to life, though questionable renditions of history overshadow its more thoughtful aspects.

William Shunn

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A young woman clad in the white robes and veil of the Mormon temple sits in sharp focus near the camera, while around her other similarly dressed women sit out of focus in other rows of seating.
Daisy Edgar-Jones as Brenda Wright Lafferty, in FX’s Under the Banner of Heaven (Disney+ UK/Getty Images)

In 1998 I was amusingly reminded that Latter-day Saints are, as they like to put it, a “peculiar people.” At the Brooklyn bar I frequented, another regular — a cigarette-smoking, whiskey-pounding, foul-mouthed Orthodox Jew — had just learned that I was a Mormon.

His verdict? “That’s weird.”

There are about 7.5 million Jews in the United States, and nearly 6.8 million Latter-day Saints — around 2.4% and 2.0% of the country’s population, respectively. The numbers are similar, yet the cultural visibility of the two groups is so vastly different that a representative of one can, with some justification, call a representative of the other “weird.” How weird is that?

Mormons have typically been depicted in popular entertainment either as monsters, deviants or buffoons. The first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, propagated an image of the Saints as murderous kidnappers and slavers, as did the 1922 silent film Trapped by the Mormons (still sometimes shown as a midnight movie). In westerns, they were mostly backgrounded either as weird polygamists or meek types in need of protecting from outlaws and savages.

The first cinematic acknowledgment of Mormonism I specifically recall from my own moviegoing came in the form of a throwaway joke in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Having traveled back in time to 1986, Kirk explains Spock’s odd behavior by invoking the ’60s, saying, “I think he did a little too much LDS.” I for one was so hungry for the existence of my people to be recognized — what today we call “representation” — that the line burned itself into my memory. (It’s a line I still use myself on occasion.)

But be careful what you wish for. Twelve years later I sat down in a Manhattan movie theater to watch Trey Parker’s Orgazmo, the…

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William Shunn

Writer, poet and puzzle maker. Hugo and Nebula Award finalist. Author of The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary. He/him/Bill.