I just finished the Under the Banner series last night, and well, it was a long strange trip. I’m listening to some interviews about it on Sunstone podcast. Basically, it just feels like Mormon[1] culture is varied and weird, and if you add fundamentalist and polygamist sects into the mix, it’s even more varied and weird. Then on top of that, if you add in psychopaths like the homocidal self-justifying Lafferty boys, then yeah, you are looking through church doctrines and history through a funhouse mirror. And then if you look at all of that through disaffected (for good reason) eyes, well, you’re also going to get additional slant.

So I get it that Church members (including me) feel that this (gestures wildly) isn’t my experience and often not even recognizable, but there’s also this knee-jerk response ingrained in us to consider ourselves full time press secretaries for the Church (every member a missionary!) and to come out swinging in defense of both the Church, and in the case of progressive members like most of us, in defense of a principle I’ll call #notallmormons which basically = “I think any Mormon who is different, especially more orthodox, from me is pretty much a weirdo,” well, the struggle is real.

Contrast that with how those more orthodox Mormons view the rest of us: “Any Mormon who is less orthodox than me (or who doesn’t vote the way I do) is lazy, lax and looking to sin.” I suspect there’s a version of this in most denominations, but I am really seeing it as a result of the series. In an unexpected upside, it seems that even the Church is (FINALLY) embarrassed about the exposure of its right flank in its critiques of the show, although not quite enough for my taste (a given since a lot of post-Trump era church members and probably 99% of leadership are too far to the right for my taste).


A lot of the series explores the fictional main character’s faith crisis as he continues to learn more about the fundamentalist sects of the Church, history that he’s only ever heard from a white-washed perspective if at all, exposure to an outside perspective from his agnostic Native American partner who is as close to a moral compass as we see onscreen, his beloved mother’s mental and physical decline, his wife’s threats of divorce and unwillingness to listen to his doubts, and probably most importantly, the heavy-handed pressure of local (and implied higher level) church authorities designed to interfere with a murder investigation in the interest of preserving the Church’s reputation.

The Guardian issued this criticism, which partly sums up how I feel about the elements of the show that related to the Church’s involvement:

I don’t know if you can say it’s something inherently rotten about the LDS church, as the show sometimes seems to argue; what’s clear is that the church – an institution that secretly amassed a $100bn war chest – is more protective of its reputation than its people, like many other large institutions. Such institutions promise clarity, but people are messy. As a series, Under the Banner of Heaven struggles to maintain focus, but it never loses faith in that fact.


The Church(TM) didn’t actually intervene in these conspiratorial ways, and the Lafferty brothers who committed the murders were excommunicated years prior, which is why this element of the show crosses a line, IMO, in the “true crime” genre. The fictional overt conspiracy of local Church leaders is laugh-out-loud over-the-top, including a local leader “reminding” the “Lamanite” detective that his people (the Paiutes) helped the Church out at Mormon Meadows (which is an incident that was not widely known by average Church members, and which for sure nobody was aware of and proud of within any level of the Church as this implies–he’s practically high fiving the guy for helping his ancestors slaughter “gentiles”), and when the detectives send this lunatic packing, he actually shakes the dust from his feet in the police station which they both find amusing. Seriously, W. T. F. [2]

But I also agree with the Guardian’s comment. The Church does care, as demonstrated repeatedly, more about its reputation than victims of abuse (as do all large organizations and churches), particularly those who are victims of domestic abuse, and in the 80s this was even more of an issue.[3] I am just doubtful that the Church would side with excommunicated fundamentalists guilty of murder under any circumstance, or really would side with excommunicants or murderers in general. That’s why they were exed. The Church was literally breathing a sigh of relief that they had already exed these guys, and they were so against what fundamentalists like the Lafferties were all about (that would be “The Principle,” aka the practice of polygamy) that a question was added to the temple recommend question to weed them out as a result, and study groups like theirs were deemed verboten. The Church doesn’t conspire with murderers to protect them from the law (the implication being that Mountain Meadows Massacre is basically the forerunner, and nothing’s changed since–we’re a bloodthirsty lot). Additional case in point, Ted Bundy was also a Mormon convert (in name if nothing else as he was already mid-career in his killings), and nobody from Church leadership was showing up for him.

A different element of conspiracy that comes out in Episode 7 is unfortunately all too believable, that the Utah County detective had his own history of unprofessional sharing of investigative information with his contacts within the Church, something that was proven to be an issue in the BYU rape scandal that resulted in a two-year attempt to decertificy the BYU police due to this exact type of misconduct. (A judge ruled against decertification the same day Trump supporters stormed the capital). Obviously that type of “friendly collaboration” / malfeasance would have only been worse and more prevalent in the 80s.

The final episode also addresses something that was a problem in earlier episodes, not being sufficiently centered around the female victims of these patriarchal Lafferty men who abused wives and children with threats and actual terror and violence toward them and their children. In one scene, Diana who is being actively hunted by murderers, crosses the country to rescue resourceless, abandoned Matilda who is basically under house arrest by her complicit mother-in-law. At a gas station, one of the less violent Lafferty brothers attempts to re-capture Matilda, and while Diana screams at several bystander men to help them, all of whom ignore what they are witnessing, Diana finally convinces Matilda to stand up for herself. It’s a powerful scene for women and for victims. I imagine it’s apocryphal and intended to be symbolic. It still felt exhiliarating.

There was a Twitter thread predicting (before it aired) that in Episode 7, Detective Pyre would get up in Fast & Testimony meeting (his wife who is pissed at his faith crisis has been pressuring him to get up and bear testimony “for his daughters”) and bear his un-testimony. Thankfully, that was not the resolution of his faith crisis in the episode. Honestly, what happened was really satisfying, IMO, and far more positive than anything that preceded it in terms of commentary on the Church. Aside from a few glimpses of his lovely mother’s faith [4], most of the “faithful” in the show are amoral, racist, misogynistic robots from somewhere between Stepford and Waco. I mean, Mormons in rural Utah (at the time anyway) during the mid-80s probably would look like that to many of us in 2022 [5]. They might still, although American Fork no longer qualifies as rural.

But that’s not what happened. At some point, Det. Pyre, who has mostly lost his faith at this point, particularly due to the absolutely ham-fisted interventions of local leaders who are literally the worst humans on the planet, twirling their mustaches while tying Miss Kitty to the railroad tracks, is completely unable to determine what to do. After all he and we have seen in the preceding six episodes, he finally hits a breaking point and shouts out, unapologetically, “What the f*#$!” I mean, at this point, his outburst was basically every viewer, well, except those who took at face value that the Mormon Church(TM) is the proud slaughterer of innocents, and that the belief system is so ludicrous and untenable that a few conversations about history with someone who could have prevented his wife and daughter’s murder with a simple phone call are sufficient to leave it in tatters. He asks his partner how he operates without a moral compass, which is fricken ironic. His partner takes him out to nature and helps him get in touch with his own gut, something that will ring true for many whose faith in “obedience to leaders” eroded and who had to convert that to making choices rather than just doing as they were told.

Coincidentally, his agnostic partner is also the one who leads him back (after a fashion) into the Church. He sings a Paiute song from his childhood that is meaningful and beautiful to him, despite his own lack of faith in the Paiute religion. Det. Pyre ultimately reconnects in a joyful reunion with his wife and children. He has found a way to honor the beauty of his former faith and culture, to embrace the good, while also finding and following his own moral compass rather than being cajoled and coerced by church leaders who expect blind obedience to them and the Church. In bloggernacle terms, I interpreted this as him becoming PIMO (physically in, mentally out) as a way to keep peace with his wife and to honor his mother. But he has already seen glimpses of harm being done to his daughters’ self-perception and the Church expectations of them, and he will counteract those messages, at least within his own family.

My final conclusion after watching the series is that any critiques of the show, aside from factual inaccuracies (and even those are subjective based on one’s view of contradictory historical accounts), are going to be idiosyncratic. Mine certainly are.[6] The series was definitely uneven, complex, confusing (!), and unfamiliar to what I imagine is a mainstream Mormon experience (my own, natch), but it also had some beautiful moments and acting. I particularly appreciated the feminist, yet faithful, portrayal of Brenda, the murder victim, and Diana[7] who risked her life to rescue her sister-in-law. The contrast between the empathy and courage of the women and the cowardice and self-justification of their abusers was a valuable glimpse into domestic violence, a topic that deserves more attention in the Church.

  • Do you find Church members too defensive whenever the Church is portrayed in media? Does it make you feel defensive?
  • Do you find it ridiculous (as I do) that church leaders would try to hinder a murder investigation? If not, why not? If so, do you think it’s out of bounds for the “based on real events” true crime genre as I do?
  • If you haven’t watched the series, does this make you more or less interested in it?
  • Do you think it’s wrong to use a true crime series to explore a fictional faith crisis, or is it a good vehicle for that? Do you think this portrayal of faith crisis was well done (if you watched it)?


[1] Yes, I am going to use the term Mormon freely in this article. GET OVER IT.

[2] Which doesn’t stand for “Why the Feet?”

[3] There are countless, countless examples of this, of church leaders who would never advise a woman to leave her abusive marriage.

[4] Played by one of Andrew Garfield’s acting coaches no less!

[5] Although I have also had plenty of quibbles with just how nutty they seem to me, and I was at BYU from 1986.

[6] As I previously mentioned, I found the temple scene to be quite moving and beautiful (one article defending the Church found it intentionally “creepy”) and I also found the garment scene to be flattering and attractive, a thing which I had never supposed to be possible!

[7] Who wins “Most Mormon hair” of the series.