Damon Linker always writes interesting stuff. His latest: “The Republican lies about election fraud are a ticking time bomb.” I’m going to spend a paragraph or two reviewing his observations about the consequences of “the lies of Donald Trump and the self-serving gullibility of millions of Republican voters,” then ask whether there is a Mormon equivalent of a ticking time bomb lurking in our doctrine or history or culture. Or maybe it’s the same (metaphorical) time bomb.
The Republican Time Bomb
Linker argues that the sudden Republican embrace of lying as a political strategy is “hands down the most dangerous political development in recent American history — a civic time bomb placed smack dab at the center of American democracy.” In particular, the problem is “spreading the lie that elections in the United States are systematically untrustworthy and rigged ….” That’s sort of a high risk strategy to employ for politicians who each hold office because they won an election. In terms of legitimacy, they are sawing off the branch they’re sitting on. They think they are throwing rocks at their opponents but they’re throwing boomerangs. Either they are too stupid to realize they are hurting themselves and the political culture of the country as a whole, or else they do realize it but that doesn’t matter as much to them as securing some short-term political advantage from throwing shade on the American electoral system as an institution.
Apart from undermining confidence in the US electoral system, there is a chance that the Republican base might eventually figure out they are being played. Linker observes that “indulging and amplifying grassroots fury can backfire.” Or that base might decide that if the system is rigged, there’s no point in voting, not the response Republican politicians are hoping for. One would think that, sooner or later, this whole approach will fail. That at the end of this road there is a brick wall, not a finish line. Sooner or later, we’ll reach the point where the jig is up.
Is There a Mormon Time Bomb?
At some level, I think every reader will accept Linker’s argument: the current Republican strategy is not sustainable. It’s possible there will be a mild retreat and a different emphasis by Republican politicians after the 2022 election, but it’s possible it will just blow up. Small bomb or big bomb, something’s gonna blow.
Here’s the question: Is the LDS Church following a similar arc? Is the Church facing an institutional challenge that will force some sort of significant change in business as usual (small bomb) or that might result in serious reverses for the institution (big bomb)? I’ll bet I’m not the only one that has the sense that the Church has moved into an institutional time of troubles, quite different from the relatively quiet period from 1978, when the priesthood and temple policy change removed a significant PR problem, to roughly the first decade of the 21st century, when the Internet emerged to make information about LDS history so accessible. Shortly thereafter, social media emerged to make everyone upset about something, whether real or fictitious. LDS leadership is still struggling with how to respond to these developments.
Instead of inviting readers to trot out the usual set of gripes, let me sketch three broad responses to the question. See which one resonates with you.
There really isn’t a big problem. The Church will muddle through. It’s possible that in a year or two, the Covid problem will subside and all church units will go back to meetings as normal. The Trump problem will subside and the political divisions that seem to suddenly be so visible in the Mormon community will recede. Mormon life will go back to its normal weekly cycle of church, Sunday School, and seminary, and General Conference will go back to having a live and reverent audience. The membership will soldier on. The Church will muddle through.
Same bomb: Covid and Trump have degraded the Church. Maybe you think that it’s the disruptions caused by Covid and the inflamed political climate in the wake of Donald Trump that is troubling the Church. Certainly Covid has been a disruption, with in-person meetings on hold for many months in most places and thousands of LDS missionaries called home in 2020. Maybe not everyone comes back to church post-Covid. Certainly the Trump approach to political discourse, combined with the habit of coarse and nasty rhetoric in some online discussions, has changed how Mormons talk to each other and especially about those they disagree with, whether inside or outside the Church. Maybe that’s a permanent change and it makes a certain percentage of Mormons suddenly uninterested in attending church on Sunday. Maybe most Mormons, often seen as the proverbial nice guys, just aren’t very nice anymore. When Mitt Romney gets booed at a Utah GOP convention, you know something has changed.
Different bomb: The Internet and social media have degraded the Church. Here’s where the usual suspects get trotted out. Because of the Internet, more Mormons now know there are problems with the Book of Abraham or Book of Mormon translation. Because of the Internet, everyone knows the Church has hundreds of billions of dollars hidden away in its investment portfolio. Because of social media, more Mormons are aware that the Church sometimes protects sexual predators and pedophiles, and that BYU is often tougher on victims sexual assault than on perpetrators. And so forth. Either collectively or as one single item that is a make-or-break issue for some people, this rising tide of troubling issues, the details of which are now more accessible than ever, will slowly sink the Mormon ship.
Which category describes your response? I think there’s a chance the Church will just muddle through. But it sure seems like the combination of the Covid affair (and it’s not over yet) and the Trump phenomenon (not over yet, either) has spilled over into the Church and the Mormon community in a very negative way. So, personally, I lean toward the second category. I think blog writers and readers overestimate the impact of the third category of responses. Most Mormons don’t read books, much less books on Mormon history or doctrine. What you or I think of as a serious issue is probably just more noise to 99% of Latter-day Saints. If the Book of Abraham problematic “translation” or Book of Mormon historicity problems haven’t sunk the Church yet, they likely won’t do so in the future.