Christian Nationalism is a political movement, aligned with the Republican party in the US. While this movement is mostly associated with Evangelicals, it also includes other conservative religions: Catholics, Mormons, and some conservative Jewish groups (many Jewish sects are traditionally liberal). The Orange Wave, a podcast about the recent historical rise of the Evangelical political movement, implies that from the get-go Mormons were an integral part of this movement, that it wasn’t just driven by the Evangelicals; as an insider who was growing up during the 70s and 80s, it looks to me as though this movement and its ideas and values have infiltrated Mormonism rather than been created by us, particularly as a result of John Birch Society-loving Pres. Benson, and that the podcasters aren’t clear (or honestly very interested in) how Mormon values differ from Christian National values. Then again, neither are a whole lot of Mormons, including some top level Church leaders.
If you’ve ever been to the Southern US, you’ve seen kudzu. Kudzu is a leafy vine that looks like ivy, and it’s everywhere in the south, looping over electric wires, hanging from poles, blanketing the already green countryside with another layer of greenery. Originally introduced as an ornamental plant, it is native to southeast Asia, and it is an invasive species, swallowing up the Southeast at a rate of 50,000 baseball fields per annum (like that’s a measurement we use). It harms the native ecosystem by blanketing the natural flora, blocking sunlight and nutrients for any plants it covers. What used to be there can no longer thrive once the kudzu starts growing.
Kudzu is extremely bad for the ecosystems that it invades because it smothers other plants and trees under a blanket of leaves, hogging all the sunlight and keeping other species in its shade.
White Christian Nationalism has become kudzu to the Church. It has one underlying tenet, not generally spoken aloud, and this underlying assumption colors everything that goes with it: that government should be in the hands of white, land-owning Christian patriarchal males. The narrative is that the US was founded by them, based on the vision of a Christian nation (but specifically white patriarchal Protestantism), and has since been wrested away by secular liberals, the one true enemy to their vision and goals. This group seeks to return that perceived lost power to that group of people so that they can recapture that vision. Make American (White Evangelical) Christian Again.
The group’s aims include:
- anti-civil rights
- anti-women’s equality
- expansion of “religious freedom”
The movement emerged in the early 1980s with the Moral Majority, then morphed into the Tea Party and is currently the MAGA movement. Prior to that, there was far more mixing of viewpoints within the Democrat and Republican parties. There were pro and anti-abortion people in both groups. There were pro-equal rights people in both groups. There were progressives in both groups, and more fragmentation in the Republican party specifically, with fiscal, social or defense conservatives finding enough in common to band together (similar to how the Democrat party has many fragmented “causes” within it: environmentalism, civil rights, feminism, gay rights, labor, etc.). That has largely ceased to be the case as moderates have been pushed out of the Republican party by the patriarchal Christian views that have taken over. Now is the great day of their power and glory.
As you can tell from looking at the bulleted list of causes (or enemy causes in most cases), these are all things that white patriarchal Christian males may see as a threat to their “right to rule.” Let’s take a quick stab at each of these, what they represent, and how they fit (or don’t) with Mormon values:
- Anti-pluralism. Because Christian Nationalists believe that the nation should be a Christian nation, incursions by other religions, particularly non-Christian faiths, are undesirable. It’s a little like allowing mudbloods into Hogwarts. This is one that’s not a great fit with Mormonism. Most Mormon leaders would like to include non-Christian faiths in our interfaith work and causes, and have respect for various other faiths like Islam and Hinduism. Within the religious right, Evangelicals have dealt dirty with Mormons for decades, taking financial and volunteer contributions with one hand while backhanding us with anti-Mormon rhetoric with the other hand. But we are a very tiny minority in the religious right (particularly when you count only our active members), with an outsize checkbook and seemingly voracious appetite for the shared causes of the religious right.
- Anti-immigration. This one is a terrible fit with the Church which generally departs from the religious right whenever they start locking babies in cages and calling ICE on neighbors (although certainly many Church members haven’t read the tea leaves on this one). The Church has a long history of encouraging immigration among converts to increase intra-faith marriage prospects and to build up the kingdom. We have a high percentage of converts in Mexico and South America, and we’re pretty cool with them coming to the US, although we may encourage them to bloom where planted. Another possible benefit is that missionaries seem to have disproportionate success among immigrants (my source on this is my gut and my own mission experience). The Church generally errs on the side of compassion in this area, or at least “live and let live” in its official statements.
- Anti-civil rights. The Church has a long and terrible history with anti-black racism, including opposition to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. With few black Church members, this is something that hasn’t changed in fundamentals, although our rhetoric is better. There have been cosmetic attempts to improve the racism in the Church, but always done in such a way that nobody could accuse us of forgetting that white interests can’t be lost in the process, and we can’t offend our racist members who don’t acknowledge they are racist. The Church’s grounds for opposing civil rights were originally justified by racist doctrines (pre-mortal lack of valiance), and are currently justified by a dislike for protests which feel anarchic and scary. I’ve talked a lot about this in my last few posts, and frankly I can’t bring myself to do it again, so let’s just move along.
- Anti-LGBT. Gay rights were late to the table to be acknowledged and accepted as a societal norm. Even in the 1980s, marriage equality wasn’t even a thought; many gay people were still in the closet because there was no equality or protection under the law. This is one issue that the Church cares a whole lot about and is willing to burn it all down to protect their anti-LGBT views. They are mostly aligned with Evangelicals on this topic and have spent a lot of money and goodwill to pursue an anti-gay agenda. They have recently started to discover that there are in fact gay kids being born to Mormon families, but there is as yet no place for them in our theology and limited space for them in our pews. The recent Honor Code Office kerfuffle could indicate a sea change that is much broader than I would have expected.
- Anti-women’s equality. The Church has a huge stake in this one, declaring as recently as December of last year that the Church’s stance on ERA has not changed in four decades! Evangelicals are far more patriarchal, despite both religions claiming the term, but Mormon sexism certainly isn’t wearing well. Pres. Nelson made changes to the temple ceremony to remove some of the more overt sexism but simultaneously added new sexist language to the sealing ceremony.
- Anti-abortion. This is one where Evangelicals and other religious conservatives have pulled us to the right, but not all the way. Most members are probably unaware that our position on abortion is more moderate than it is conservative or liberal, carving out exceptions for rape, incest, health of the mother, health of the baby, and in the most recent policy language making it clear that it is the mother’s difficult decision (not the decision of her bishop, husband and doctor). Most of the Church’s political bedfellows do not agree to these exceptions, and many also oppose birth control which is not prohibited for Church members.
- Expansion of “religious freedom.” The First Amendment guarantees the right of citizens to choose their own religion without compulsion by the state. That’s what we used to mean by religious freedom. In the late 1970s / early 1980s, one of the tricks party backers used to instill fear in conservative religious groups was the threat that they would lose their tax exempt status. That’s the hook used to seduce us into the Moral Majority, and we’ve been wriggling there ever since; this fear was instilled in all the faiths that joined this newly emerging coalition. At that time and for two and a half decades, religious freedom meant protecting religion from government forcing them to do things they didn’t want to do (e.g. hiring women, avoiding discrimination against gays, or losing tax exempt status for political involvement). In recent years, this concept of “religious freedom” has grown like the proverbial Blob, including extending those protections to businesses whose owners claim religious belief (e.g. Hobby Lobby), to individual employees and business owners who claim religious exemption from job requirements based on belief (Masterpiece Cakeshop, , and to small business owners who wish to claim their businesses are “ministries” because they hang scripture quotes on the wall, so they should have a religious exemption to remain open during the pandemic. In E. Bednar’s recent zoom meeting, he furthered this idea that religions>governments, likening governmental health code requirements preventing Churches from meeting to living under martial law. The tension between church and state has existed pretty much forever, but it’s got a specific libertarian bent within the current religious right, trying to apply the protections previously afforded to organized religions to any individual adherent willing to claim their actions are based on a religious belief.
From what I see, our Church’s political alliances are doing more to change us than we are to change them, and their pull is invariably to the right. But that’s my perspective. Obviously, the majority of Church members I know are totally fine with that, support these same causes (or oppose them, rather), and are thrilled that their views are finally getting some political teeth. Personally, I think it’s making us dumber, more craven, less compassionate, more prosperity-gospel focused, more literal and fundamentalist, more willing to do harm to others, less theologically minded and spiritual, and more secular (involved in political battles). What do you think?
- Do you see the Mormon Church as influenced by the religious right or as influencing it?
- Do you see the Church becoming more differentiated or less differentiated over time?
- Is the Church being taken advantage of by larger groups in this coalition, like when the popular kids make the social wannabe pay for their lunch if they want a seat at the table?
- Do you align with the Church’s views on religious freedom? Why or why not?
 O, that we could take an actual stab at them!
 Give this podcast a listen to hear more.
 You could literally justify anything on that basis, particularly since individual religious adherents interpret their own religions so differently. If you were a dentist, you could say you don’t have to hire women because you believe working women are seductresses of Satan. Where does it end?