I know what you’re expecting, but that’s not what this post is about. Here’s what it’s about, an article from The Hill: “GOP becoming a cult of know-nothings.” So the way to end the phrase in my post title is: You might be in a cult if you are a Republican. The author of the article is William Schneider, an emeritus prof of public policy at GMU and a long-time political commentator, so he’s not just spouting off; he actually knows what he’s talking about. So let’s talk about what he’s talking about. I’ll probably throw in a Mo app paragraph or two at the end, but I’m sure most readers can connect the dots for themselves, either to the square titled “yup, maybe I’m in a hundred-billion-dollar cult that meets on Sunday and does worldwide broadcasts twice a year” or to the square titled “nope, it’s just a church with an overactive youth and missionary program.”
Let’s look at the article, a five-minute read. First paragraph:
The Republican Party is becoming a cult. Its leaders are in thrall to Donald Trump, a defeated former president who refuses to acknowledge defeat. Its ideology is MAGA, Trump’s deeply divisive take on what Republicans assume to be unifying American values.
I think the key word here is ideology. One thing about cults is there is a loosely tied group of ideas or themes or key words that guides adherents. The ideology doesn’t have to be logically defensible, or factually correct, or coherent, or stable over time. To outsiders, the cult ideology looks and sounds rather loony, subject to the standard complaint “how could anyone believe that?” even as thousands or millions quite obviously do believe that.
The party is now in the process of carrying out purges of heretics who do not worship Trump or accept all the tenets of MAGA. Conformity is enforced by social media, a relatively new institution with the power to marshal populist energy against critics and opponents.
The key word here is heretics. Every cult needs enemies. They help to distract adherents from the incoherent and shifting ideology, for one thing. They also serve to animate and unify the faithful. The really distinguishing feature, as suggested by the term “heretics,” is that the enemies are often some of the adherents themselves, not outsiders or actual opponents of the cult. Outsiders and opponents may not take the cult seriously enough to publicly oppose it or even to notice it. Cults go after their own.
Here’s a paragraph from halfway down the article:
The roots of the current right-wing extremism lie in the late 1960s and 1970s, when Americans began to be polarized over values (race, ethnicity, sex, military intervention). Conflicts of interest (such as business versus labor) can be negotiated and compromised. Conflicts of values cannot.
I guess the key terms here are extremism and values. A cult is a brand of extremism that takes institutional form or that somehow infects and takes over an existing institution. It could be a religion or a congregation. It could be a political party or movement. I suppose it could be a business or a military unit or a team. And values are tied to the ideology. The ideology revolves not around policies or programs — these are too detailed, too rational, and may be at some point be seen as ineffective or failing. Values are malleable and useful. They can even be tied to actions or beliefs that are, on closer examination, antithetical to the claimed value. But few adherents subject the cult values to closer examination or puzzle over the often poor match between professed cult values and actual beliefs and actions of the institution. Loyalty. Patriotism. Strength. Prosperity. Purity. The family.
Here’s a paragraph that brings in the religious angle:
Oddly, religion has become a major force driving the current wave of right-wing extremism. Not religious affiliation (Protestant versus Catholic) but religiosity (regular churchgoers versus non-churchgoers). That’s not because of Trump’s religious appeal (he has none) but because of the Democratic Party’s embrace of secularism and the resulting estrangement of fundamentalist Protestants, observant Catholics and even orthodox Jews.
Key term: fundamentalist. Which helps us understand why Mormons are disproportionately fans of Trump (adherents of the Trump/Republican cult): because the Church practices a lot of religious fundamentalist black/white, good/evil, us/them non-thinking, which carries over oh-so-easily to political cult non-thinking. This also explains why some Mormons energetically resist the Trump/Republican cult: because not all of us are fundamentalists. Note I’m using “fundamentalist” in the general sense, not the narrower LDS polygamy sense.
Here’s the final paragraph, which winds things up nicely and shows why the discussion is not just theoretical but is very relevant:
The 2024 election could be a rematch between Trump and Biden. Or a race between Trump and a black woman. Or between Trump and a gay man with a husband and children. Lee Drutman, a political scientist at the New America think tank, recently told The New York Times, “I have a hard time seeing how we have a peaceful 2024 election after everything that’s happened now. I don’t see the rhetoric turning down. I don’t see the conflicts going away. … It’s hard to see how it gets better before it gets worse.”
Key idea: cults don’t end well, often going up in a literal pile of flames. Think David Koresh. Think Jim Jones. Think Hitler in his bunker at the end. Which is a strong hint the LDS Church isn’t a cult, as it is continuing, not ending, and it is continuing very well. People still join. The Church owns half of Florida (slight exaggeration). Hundred-billion-dollar fund. There is simply no scenario where the LDS Church goes up in flames. The scariest thing about the emergence and rise of the Trump/Republican cult is just this ugly fact: Cults don’t end well. Trump’s first term ended up with the January 6 attempted coup, supported (but not successfully executed) by a lot of chaotic and frankly hare-brained scheming by Trump and some of his close associates. His second term would probably end in something like a civil war. If Trump’s a candidate in 2024, I’m buying guns and ammo, spending time at the shooting range with some of my gun friends, and seriously looking into which Canadian province is a good refuge. I’m thinking northern BC would work. Or maybe Vancouver Island.
That Other Alleged Cult
There are religious cults, of course. I read the book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (Knopf, 2013) a few years back. Now that’s a cult. I suppose you could say that’s an extreme cult, and try to argue that the LDS Church is a mild cult or a church that’s a little bit cultish, but that seems like just a way to put the “cult” label on an outfit that just isn’t a cult. Contrast the stories of the extreme measures an involved Scientologist has to take to get out of the organization (read the book for examples) with what a Mormon has to do to leave the Church: you can do it informally by just not attending anymore and saying “No” about three dozen times to phone calls and emails. Or you can send a verified letter. It’s not that tough.
There’s a counter-argument, of course. Using terms from the above discussion, you can argue that the Church has an ideology (various doctrines, policies, and values); it identifies heretics and enemies; and it employs fundamentalist thinking. To that extent, maybe it’s a mild cult. But real cults don’t last two hundred years and don’t get bigger and wealthier every decade for two hundred years.
A more relevant argument here is the extent to which the Trump/Republican cult has damaged the Church. And let’s be honest: The emergence of a Trump/Republican cult has damaged the Church. You can see it in the nutty statements you hear from some of your fellow ward members. You can see it in the long delay in 2020 before LDS leaders issued their standard statement of congratulation to the newly elected US President. You can see it in the carefully hedged statements made by LDS leaders about masking and vaccines over the last year. You can see it in the reaction of most conservative LDS who, after decades of complaining that liberal-leaning members use a cafeteria approach to LDS doctrine and policy, suddenly find themselves doing the same thing.
And so the next round of discussion, after acknowledging that the Trump/Republican cult has damaged the Church, is: Can the Church recover? That’s a serious question. It’s obvious now that society will never get back to the “old normal,” and it is not clear what the “new normal” is going to be. Getting there is an ugly and messy process. What is the Church’s “new normal” going to be? I think that masks and social distancing in sacrament meeting aren’t the real story here. Those practices may come and go at various stakes, depending on local circumstances and local leadership (and there are lots of Trumpers in LDS local leadership; in some places it’s almost a requirement). I’m talking about the unseen but real changes in the culture and the thinking and the discourse, imported into LDS culture from the Trump/Republican cult. I’m sure some readers have felt the change and are no longer excited or interested or even comfortable attending LDS church services these days. Because the Church is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost.