There is an Atlantic article you need to go read: The Evangelical Church Is Breaking Apart. The text on my browser tab reads “Trump Is Tearing Apart the Evangelical Church,” which may be an earlier and more descriptive title for the piece. Evangelicals and Mormons are close cousins in many ways. In particular, they share an affinity for conservative politics, and lately both have given unwavering support, even devotion, to Donald Trump and his amoral approach to politics and everything else. So what Mormons ought to get from a reading of this article is *not* glee that a religious competitor is having a hard time hanging together as a faith community or even staying Christian in the face of Covid and Trump. No, what Mormons ought to get from reading the article is deep concern that the LDS Church and the large majority of its members are in the same boat. What’s wrong with the Evangelicals is pretty much what’s wrong with Mormons at the moment. Let’s review the article, then liken it unto ourselves. Our churches have caught the same disease, a virulent form of political theology. Is there a cure or is the disease fatal?
I’m just going to pull a few quotes from the article, followed by a paragraph of commentary. A lot of Evangelical ministers and pastors are quoted in the article. They are all unhappy.
“Nearly everyone tells me there is at the very least a small group in nearly every evangelical church complaining and agitating against teaching or policies that aren’t sufficiently conservative or anti-woke,” a pastor and prominent figure within the evangelical world told me. (Like others with whom I spoke about this topic, he requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.) “It’s everywhere.”
I suspect that in the Mormon Corridor there is a very *large* group in almost every LDS ward that thinks this way. It may be different elsewhere. LDS bishops are not set apart from the laity or trained for the ministry in the same way as Evangelical and Protestant pastors are, so plenty of LDS bishops, drawn from the members in the pews just a year or two or three ago, think the same way as their flock. But I know of two LDS bishops who are frustrated that more members don’t voluntarily wear masks as encouraged by LDS leadership and who are unhappy that direction from senior LDS leadership doesn’t just come out and say “masks required.” So at least two LDS bishops in my small circle share a degree of unhappiness with their Evangelical peers.
The aggressive, disruptive, and unforgiving mindset that characterizes so much of our politics has found a home in many American churches.
Aggressive and unforgiving. Sounds like the new wave of LDS apologists, or maybe online DezNats. To what extent has “aggressive, disruptive, and unforgiving” now become the norm in LDS wards? The suspension of in-person church makes it hard to judge, but maybe we’ll find out as in-person meetings resume and members start attending Sunday School and Priesthood/RS classes again. I’ll bet that, at the least, there will be more sharp exchanges than in years past.
But there’s more to the fractures than just COVID-19. After all, many of the forces that are splitting churches were in motion well before the pandemic hit. The pandemic exposed and exacerbated weaknesses and vulnerabilities, habits of mind and heart, that already existed. The root of the discord lies in the fact that many Christians have embraced the worst aspects of our culture and our politics. When the Christian faith is politicized, churches become repositories not of grace but of grievances, places where tribal identities are reinforced, where fears are nurtured, and where aggression and nastiness are sacralized.
I won’t try to summarize the roots of the Evangelical “weaknesses and vulnerabilities,” but for Mormons it goes back to Ezra Taft Benson. He championed conspiracy theories and fringe politics, which over time became part of mainstream Mormon thinking for a good chunk of the membership. That, I think, is the root of Mormon weakness and vulnerability. Others in LDS leadership were unhappy with Benson’s views and the degree to which he preached his political views in Conference and in other LDS venues. But they never repudiated those views directly, so they took root and are still with us. Grievances, tribal identities, fears being nurtured … sound familiar?
One more quotation, introducing what the article later terms “the idolatry of politics”:
The historian George Marsden told me that political loyalties can sometimes be so strong that they create a religiouslike faith that overrides or even transforms a more traditional religious faith. The United States has largely avoided the most virulent expressions of such political religions. None has succeeded for very long—at least, until now.
This is not a new observation. For many years, American religious identity tended to be primary and many Americans chose their politics and political views in light of their religious beliefs and commitments. But sociologists have noted that in recent decades this has flipped. Political beliefs have become primary, and Americans increasingly choose their churches to conform to their politics. For most Evangelicals, it’s not hard at all to switch denominations or churches. For Mormons, its different. Yes, you could move to a part of town, or to a different state, that is bluer or redder to match your politics. Institutionally, the problem is that frustrated progressive Mormons may, in fact, leave for another church or just go inactive, while uber-conservative Mormons are much more likely to stay. The median Mormon is more conservative not just because large chunks of the membership have become radicalized to the Right. It’s also because the progressives get pushed out of the Church or out of activity. To put it gently, in the Church, all are welcome, but some are more welcome than others.
Okay, one more quote.
Many Christians, though, are disinclined to heed calls for civility. They feel that everything they value is under assault, and that they need to fight to protect it.
It is equally true that “many Mormons, though, are disinclined to heed calls for civility.” LDS leaders certainly sense the problem and regularly issue pleas for more gentleness and meekness and less aggressive and unforgiving rhetoric. The problem is those pleas are too general and too unfocused. As other W&T contributors have noted in similar discussions, no one thinks they are a racist. Well, no one thinks they are being uncivil either, certainly not Mormons trained to think anger is bad (that’s when other people are upset) but righteous anger is good (that’s when I’m upset). Growing incivility isn’t the only problem and isn’t the biggest problem. But if LDS leadership can’t even get members to tone down the rhetoric, good luck with solving bigger challenges.
There is plenty more in the article to talk about, but this is just a blog post, so let’s wind this up. Yes, there are still lots of good Latter-day Saints doing nice things and saying nice things, supporting those in need of friendship and love, mourning with those who mourn. But between Covid and overheated, polarizing politics, the fellowship and good feelings that often defined LDS wards have been strained. Some wards are breaking apart, or at least losing a few families who chose to attend elsewhere or simply not attend. Your experience, dear reader, no doubt depends on where you live and the make-up of your particular ward. Tell me what you think.
- Are the problems and tensions and divisions described in the article just an Evangelical problem or is it a Mormon problem as well?
- Has your LDS ward (or your Christian congregation) experienced any recent conflict and division? Is it politics or Covid that is the problem? Or both?
- Has social media exacerbated the problem?
- Do you think this is a short-term problem or is this a long-term shift? Once upon a time we thought vaccines would beat this thing and Covid would sort of go away. Nope, not gonna happen. Covid is here to stay, possibly for decades. And if you thought Trump would go away after losing by a landslide in the 2020 election … same thing. He might be around for decades.