For my op-ed about Mormonism, I read a book by a mountain-climbing expert!

moroni.jpg Maureen Dowd wants you to know that she’s read Jon Krakauer’s book about Mormonism. She’s really proud of this tidbit, and she cites the book — a lot — in her Sunday column . By all appearances, this is the only book about Mormonism that she’s read so far. But hey, she gets her mileage out of it, quoting Krakauer extensively on topics like polygamy and underwear and Joseph Smith as a hypnotically charming salesman. That was ten dollars well spent at the airport bookstore.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Krakauer. Into Thin Air — Krakauer’s bestseller about the fatal Mount Everest climb — was a great read. And why wouldn’t it be? Krakauer has decades of experience as an outdoors writer, he’s got an undergraduate degree in environmental studies, and he’s written prior, well-received books about survival in the outdoors.

Also, he wrote one book about Mormonism, Under the Banner of Heaven — and as we now know, Maureen Dowd read that book.

Of course, a skeptic might suggest that Dowd should have considered interviewing other sources. A few of her colleagues even seem to have adopted that approach themselves. David Brooks, in his own article on the Romney speech, cites to established religious scholars like Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus, and (careful, he’s Mormon!) emeritus Columbia historian Richard Bushman. (Bushman is also a Bancroft prize winner, which cancels out at least 62% of his Mormonness). Meanwhile, over in the NYT Week in Review, writer Laurie Goodstein offers a nuanced and interesting article that quotes from theologian Richard Mouw, President of the (non-Mormon) Fuller Theological Seminary.

Dowd, though, sticks to her guns: She cites Krakauer, and then for confirmation, she interviews Krakauer.

Our skeptic could also argue that Dowd should have checked out a few books in addition to Krakauer’s magnum opus. For instance, the highly regarded Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, by Indiana University historian Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon who has written about Mormon history for forty years. Or perhaps one of the biographies or studies by Richard Bushman (warning: may contain Mormon content), the Bancroft-winner whose status as a Mormon history superstar was again confirmed with his recent appointment to chair a new Mormon Studies program at (non-Mormon) Claremont Graduate University. Or maybe the short bio by (non-Mormon) star Jacksonian-era historian Robert Remini of the University of Illinois. Or even some of the Oxford-published work by (careful, he’s Mormon!) University of Richmond prof Terryl Givens. The list goes on, and on; it’s not like there is a shortage of really well-researched, well-regarded studies of Mormon history.

But then, those kinds of books — dry and boring and well-researched — are probably less likely to contain one-liners like Krakauer’s (and now, Dowd’s) “[Joseph Smith] could sell a muzzle to a dog.”

Hmm. Perhaps that’s the point?

Image source: Wikicommons.

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14 Responses

  1. Mo MoDo says:

    Krakauer is a pretty well respected journalist. Does writing books about mountain climbing disqualify you from writing true crime non-fiction about splinter-sect Mormons? Just asking.

    I did quote this post in my blog today.

  2. Craig says:


    It’s amazing the number of bloggers and journalists that somehow think that this book gives an accurate portrayal of the LDS church.

  3. Jason says:

    It’s not clear whether you have any actual complaints about Krakauer’s book, or whether the complaint is just that Dowd shouldn’t write like an 8th grader doing a research paper (find one book in the library, check it out, write paper). If the latter, then duh; if the former, what are the complaints?

  4. Matt says:

    “Dowd writes stupid, poorly thought out column” is a bit like “dog bites man”, though I guess it can’t hurt to be pointed out a few more times. But, it would be nice to see any specific place where you think she (and Krakauer) were wrong.

  5. Alice Ristroph says:

    Before I moved to Utah, I asked some locals what to read about the history of the state. One person (not a LDS church member) said, “Whatever you do, don’t read Under the Banner of Heaven.” This pretty much guaranteed that I’d read Krakauer’s book. It was an easy, interesting, light read. But it’s certainly not an even-handed discussion of the Mormon/LDS church. It’s the kind of writing likely to seem very clever to those who already agree and likely to seem silly to those who don’t. Much like Maureen Dowd, actually.

  6. Chris Bell says:

    FWIW, Krakauer grew up in Utah, I believe in a Mormon community. Under the Banner of Heaven is also meant to portray the FLDS community (the fundamentalists), not the regular LDS community.

  7. Nate Oman says:

    Alice: For my money the best book written on Utah — as opposed to Mormon history — is Wallace Stegner’s _Mormon Country_. It is well over fifty-years old at this point, so in many ways Stegner describes a state that no longer exists, but it contains a number of wonderfully evocative historical sketches and Stegner is one of the better prose stylists that America has ever produced. Definitely worth the read.

  8. Kaimi says:

    MoDo Report,

    You’re right to note that Krakauer is a respected journalist. But then, he’s most respected in a particular niche. Peter Gammons is a respected journalist, too. Krakauer’s a good writer, and seems well-intentioned. I thought his gumshoe research on the Lafferty murders was pretty good. But he’s outside his area of expertise when he starts into history and theology, and at times it shows.

    Banner isn’t a terrible book. Krakauer clearly relies on established historians for much of his factual background a lot — he’s on most solid ground there, when he’s recapping facts. He then extrapolates a little, comes to a few of his own conclusions, and adds text for flair. He’s less reliable in those spots.

    “Joseph Smith had multiple wives” is established fact. No historian disputes this. (There are disputes are over the exact number of wives, because most of the marriages were poorly documented.)

    “Emma harangued Joseph so relentlessly about his philandering that the original intent of the revelation canonized as Section 132 seems to have been simply to persuade Emma to shut up and accept his plural wives — while at the same time compelling her to refrain from indulging in any extracurricular sex herself” — that’s a pretty blithe summation of some complex history. Some of the pieces are correct (Emma’s displeasure over polygamy; the gendered nature of the revelation). But there were several other factors that were probably involved in the polygamy / temple marriage revelation, which came at a time of political and theological trouble. Even Emma’s biographers, who are very critical of Joseph’s polygamy, don’t go so far as to claim that this was the main or original intent of section 132.


    I chuckled at both the comment to you, and at your reaction. Both sound quite reasonable. And thanks for, “it’s certainly not an even-handed discussion of the Mormon/LDS church. It’s the kind of writing likely to seem very clever to those who already agree and likely to seem silly to those who don’t. Much like Maureen Dowd, actually.”

    That’s a great description of both Krakauer and Dowd; and the connection between them hadn’t occurred to me.

    Chris Bell,

    Krakauer grew up in Corvallis, Oregon. According to his Random House bio for Banner — the forum in which he would be most motivated to show his Mormon credentials — his connection with Mormonism is this: “As a child in Oregon, many of the author’s playmates, teachers, and athletic coaches were Latter-day Saints.” (See ).

    So, he knew some Mormons while growing up.

    You’re right to note, though, that the main emphasis of Banner is on the Laffertys and the FLDS (breakaway fundamentalists) community. This makes it an even more curious choice for the only book Dowd cites while discussing a talk by Romney, who is certainly not FLDS himself.

    Krakauer does talk about the mainstream LDS church some in his book, but the more in depth discussions are really about the FLDS offshoots. And, despite the shared history, there are major differences between the two groups (including their views of the shared history).

    Picking up a book primarily about FLDS and using it to explain Joseph Smith while dissecting the a talk by (mainstream LDS) Mitt Romney. That’s a little like writing a column about JFK and Christianity, using the Lutheran Catechism as one’s only source on the life of Jesus.

    In theory, they’re shared history (life of Jesus). In practice, it’s probably a bad idea; and both groups tend to view the shared history differently. So why not look to a source that’s about the topic?

  9. Alma says:

    Professor Wenger is far more charitable than I in characterizing “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Krakauer has written about fanatics; but it isn’t fair to put the Laffertys in the same pot as Mormons. After all, Mormons expelled the Lafferty brothers for their fanaticism.

    I was particularly irritated to read one of Krakauer’s footnotes supposedly documenting an assertion about my uncle and my grandfather. That single footnote contained three factual errors. Krakauer’s perceptions are too easily distilled from ignorance and misinformation to be of any legitimate use. Dowd’s relliance on them reminds us how shallow the mainstream media is.

  10. Chuck says:

    I am Mormon, mission, temple, all that business, graduated from BYU and Columbia. I have read the books above, mentioned by both the professors, and can find little fault in Krakauer´s book. This is a clear example of bias in a review, in this case by Professor Wegner.

    I thought this blog was meant to be on law topics and not a venue for supporting unsupportable and silly religious dogma? Only curious.

  11. Al says:


    Since you seem to feel that personal credentials add an air of objective legitimacy to your subjective opinions, take note that I too am a Mormon, yadda, yadda, yadda. But I personally prefer my schools to yours (Utah and Texas A&M).

    But honestly, the bias is all yours. I too read Krakauer’s book and since it is PRIMARILY about the FLDS it is of little relevance to us. Wegner presents reasoned argument based on his analysis of the facts to explain his conclusions. In contrast all you present to justify your contention of “bias” and “unsupportable and silly religious dogma…” is your vita.

    If your post is any example to go on, critical thinking and articulated argument must not be a requirement to get a degree from Columbia. (Given my wife’s experience BYZoo gave her a good grounding in critical analysis and fact based argumentation, so maybe Columbia beat it out of you.)

    If you don’t like this type of argumentation, then don’t dish it out so flippantly.

  12. chuck says:

    Al, calm down.

    Mormonism is a cult. Anyone in it who tries to create some distance from it knows this.

  13. chuck says:

    Al, calm down.

    Mormonism is a cult. Anyone in it who tries to create some distance from it knows this.

  14. wayne says:

    I thoght banner were banners of war two chuch.

    and the outdoors is a place of god and of gods.