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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Best-selling author John Krakauer told an overflowing crowd Friday that his latest book, examining the violent fringe of the Mormon religion, wasn't a bid for social reform.
But Krakauer, on a book tour for "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith," said The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should accept that its history played a role in creating an unwavering brand of fundamentalism.
Every church bears some responsibility for the deeds of its most fervent believers, said Krakauer, quoting from the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith's writings that "one mighty and strong" would restore the true Christian church.
"Humans are a very irrational species," Krakauer told a standing-room-only crowd at an 800-seat theater. "When religious beliefs supplant rational judgment, strange things do happen."
Krakauer called Smith a powerful religious figure, and acknowledged he was far from the first to write about the church's persecuted and sometimes bloody history.
"Under the Banner," which went on sale Tuesday, examines the dangers of religious extremism and the motives of a pair of fundamentalist brothers who in 1984 murdered their sister-in-law and her baby daughter.
Krakauer has made a career as a journalist writing about extreme outdoor adventures. He is best known for "Into Thin Air," his firsthand account of a doomed Mount Everest expedition. That book, along with his earlier "Into the Wild," were national best sellers. But Krakauer says "Under The Banner" was his most complex and intricate narrative.
The book has drawn outraged responses from church officials, who issued a strong denunciation from their public affairs office. Church historian Richard Turley wrote a hurried, critical pre-emptive review before the book was released.
Krakauer said the critique was sent to newspapers across the country, guaranteeing strong sales for his book. Publishing house Doubleday has printed 350,000 copies so far.
Krakauer's cutting response came a week later. The Salt Lake Tribune published all three missives in its opinion section last weekend.
"I've made a very clear distinction in this book, I hope, between Mormons and Mormon fundamentalists," he said Friday.
Krakauer read passages from his book and took some forceful but no hostile questions for an hour and signed books.
Betsy Burton, co-owner of The King's English Bookshop, arranged to have the reading at a movie theater "in a town where many doors were closed to us." Salt Lake City is the headquarters of the Mormon church.
The book examines religious extremism through those who claim to follow the original teachings of Joseph Smith. These self-described "fundamentalists" still practice polygamy even though The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned the practice in 1890 and banishes violators.
In "Under the Banner of Heaven," Krakauer recounts the cold-blooded murders of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, in American Fork, Utah, and connects the deaths to the perceptions the church has worked to dispel for more than a century.
It examines the secretive communities of polygamists, those who have left the practice, and the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case.
Church spokesman Michael Otterson called the writer's attempt to link religious zealots with Mormon history and doctrine "a full-frontal assault on the veracity of the modern church."
Historian Turley said Krakauer has taken a sensational approach to the faith's history.
Krakauer argues that the 140-year-old faith's attempts to bury embarrassing history only worsens its image.
Friday's appearance was part of a cross-country tour that promises fresh attention to the church's past.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)