Sorry, I tried to come up with a catchier title to the post. I don’t read many books on politics, but hey, it’s an election year. And it’s 2020. I recently read Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (Doubleday, 2020). The author is Anne Applebaum, who was a columnist at the Washington Post for 20 years, presently writes for The Atlantic, and has won the Pulitzer Prize for an earlier book. She spends a lot of time in Europe, so the book isn’t just whining about the state of politics in America, it’s looking at a worldwide trend. After kicking around an idea or two from the book, I’ll try to think about religious extremism (a trickier concept to nail down) and then ask the big question: Are Mormons religious extremists? Does the Church foster religious extremism?
The best way to approach political extremism is to contrast it with political centrism. Political centrists support free and fair elections, a free press, and restrained civil discourse. Centrists tolerate opposing political parties, and in fact often work with them rather than against them, making various compromises to pass desired legislation. In the political centrist approach, when the party in power loses an election or loses is parliamentary majority, it rethinks its policies and issues, looks for new leadership, and makes plans to win the next election. Peaceful transfer of power. Democracy. Rule of law. It all hangs together.
Most Americans have a hard time recognizing or identifying political extremism because there has been so little of it here. Unlike parliamentary systems with proportional representation, single member voting districts mean even a third party with the support of ten or fifteen percent of electorate might not elect a single representative to Congress. The Democratic Party and the Republican Party, which might look like two ends of the political spectrum to an American, are in fact both centrist parties. The political spectrum in other countries is generally broader. The “two ends of the spectrum” view obscures the real contrast between political centrists and extremists. When gangs of Communists and gangs of Fascists fought in the streets in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany and other Central European countries, they looked like political rivals. Well, they were in a sense, but what is relevant is that they were both political extremists in the sense that they rejected the values of political centrism. Other parties were not simply political opponents, they were political enemies, to be delegitimized (not just defeated at the polls) and, if power was obtained, outlawed and otherwise eliminated. The real contest was between political centrism with its representative political institutions and rule of law, and political extremists (of any stripe) who wanted to tear down democratic centrist institutions.
The extremist view of politics rejects the values of centrism. Hence “politics as usual” is denigrated as unproductive squabbling. If put in power, extremists undermine rule of law because the last thing they want is to be held accountable for their actions. Elections are likewise either eliminated or gutted. Loyalty rather than competence is the requirement for appointment or advancement. When angling for power, the mantra is generally Elect a Strongman Who Will Fix All of Our Problems. But the result (if the Strongman gets power) is generally to eliminate political opposition, protect the extremist party’s power, and ignore the real problems the country faces. They don’t fix anything! Political enemies are identified (or simply imagined), magnified, and milked for their value in uniting citizens against a common enemy, while the extremists in power pursue their own private or party agendas.
I’m going to make a fairly uncontroversial claim: Aspects of political extremism have increasingly infiltrated the American political system. In the book I referenced above, there is plenty of discussion of European examples and some application to the present state of affairs in America. I won’t recount that whole story, but just list a few recent developments on the American scene: Calling election results into question before an election is even held. Routinely appointing unqualified but loyal officeholders. Treating political opponents as enemies rather than simply opponents or even colleagues with different views. Adopting harsh political rhetoric, even name calling (which used be limited to grade school). Threatening to jail political opponents. I’m not just talking about Pres. Trump here, although he is plainly leading the charge. Democratic talk about packing the Supreme Court (one of the few institutions that retains a good deal of credibility for most people these days) is another example. The recent slew of press articles about the likelihood of Pres. Trump facing lawsuits and criminal charges after leaving office is just a more elevated version of “Lock him up!”
LDS Religious Extremism
This being a blog that is generally about Mormonism, not politics, let’s take the recent emergence of political extremism (in its as-yet milder American form) as a given and ask: Has it bled over into religion? Has political extremism influenced religion in America, and in particular Mormonism and the LDS Church? What does religious extremism even look like? Let me throw out some ideas and then invite a wild and crazy discussion in the comments.
First, the polarizing approach of political extremism can lead to religious believers viewing fellow believers with different views as religious opponents and even as religious enemies. The religious equivalent of “Lock her up!” is “Excommunicate her!” Excommunication is sort of a relic in many denominations but in Mormonism it is a primary tool of church discipline. In prior years it was mostly a concern of local leaders (bishops and stake presidents, with GAs sometimes putting a thumb on the scales). Lately it has become fashionable for motivated members with no leadership calling to call out those they disagree with on political or religious grounds as deserving excommunication. Formal LDS apologists are somewhat more restrained, simply calling into question the faith of those who disagree with them, not explicitly calling for excommunication. It’s all a sign of growing LDS religious extremism. And the leadership does very little to tamp down this emerging form of “find the tares and throw them out!” LDS religious zealotry.
Second, a more traditional example, the LDS doctrine of One True Church. The corollary, of course, is that all the others are False Churches, no matter how biblical their doctrines and how Christian their comportment. This is the religious equivalent of delegitimizing (not simply opposing or, perish the thought, even cooperating from time to time with) opposing political parties. Political tolerance and religious tolerance go hand in hand. Likewise with intolerance and extremism. The persistence of the One True Church view is an example of LDS religious extremism.
Let me throw out a third example: rejection of experts and expertise. Political centrism gives more than lip service to expertise in formulating polities, initiatives, and programs to meet challenges and promote the general welfare. Experts are often consulted, although there is generally a range of opinion even among experts on a topic. Extremists, on the other hand, pursue their own half-baked schemes, and aren’t particularly interested in any experts telling them those schemes won’t work and why. LDS leadership does rely on experts in certain areas (law, accounting and finance, building codes) but expertise is largely unwelcome in the fields of theology, history, pastoral counseling best practices, sexuality, mental health, and so forth. LDS religious ideology in these fields sometimes veers off into sheer fantasy. Rejection of expertise is another example of LDS religious extremism.
I can’t really end this section without a brief reference to Ezra Taft Benson. He certainly embraced a form of political extremism which he brought into the Church and regularly pushed in LDS speaking engagements, sometimes explicitly and sometimes in more muted terms. Embracing conspiracy theories is another feature of political extremism, and Benson certainly rings that bell. Within the Church, Benson is the patron saint of any Mormon who embraces conservative political extremism (left-leaning political extremism has never had much of a following within the Church, although I did have a TA at BYU once who claimed to be a Communist). What’s the religious equivalent of a conspiracy theory?
On the Other Hand
There are counterarguments to the proposal that the LDS Church embodies a version of religious extremism (which I’ve thrown out here but haven’t developed very well — hey, it’s a blog post, not a book). Senior leadership has toned down its rhetoric quite a bit over the last generation or two. They engage in some interfaith initiatives, more than before. They have removed some offensive sectarian stereotyping from the temple presentation. The cautionary response would be that words are cheap and that extremists often employ friendly rhetoric while pursuing harsh or violent actions. Rank and file Mormons still embrace the One True Church idea — has any senior leader ever explicitly rejected it? BYU can sponsor a conference featuring scholars from other denominations, but non-LDS baptism is still seen as a nullity. One can acknowledge kinder and gentler rhetoric while still wishing in was put into practice more frequently.
So here are some points for discussion: Has the recent spread of political extremism in American politics infiltrated the Church? To what effect? And in a strictly religious mode, what does religious extremism mean to you? Do you share my sense that the LDS Church embraces a form of (or attributes of) religious extremism? If you don’t, what would you point to in LDS practice and governance that suggests the contrary? What is the religious equivalent of a conspiracy theory, and can you think of any LDS examples?