My inspiration for this week’s post is an article at The Atlantic, “I Remember Conservatism.” Well, that’s the title the piece was given in the print magazine. In the online version, the one you get if you click on the link, it is titled “What Happened to American Conservatism?” So I suppose I could have titled my post “What Happened to American Mormonism?” But I’m going with “I Remember Mormonism.” I’ll defend my overt linking of politics and religion in this post by noting the extent to which, over the last generation or two, a lot of religion has leaked into American politics, and a lot of politics has leaked into American religion. I don’t think the result has improved either politics or religion. It has certainly changed and arguably harmed the LDS Church.
The author of the piece in The Atlantic is David Brooks. He is a dedicated if moderate conservative, and these days something of a lukewarm Republican (read the piece). I suspect a parallel description might apply to some Latter-day Saints of late. “I’m a dedicated if moderate Christian, and something of a lukewarm Latter-day Saint.” My thesis is something like this: The recent evolution of the LDS Church resembles in disturbing ways the evolution of American Conservatism and the Republican Party that so troubles Brooks. Do you remember Mormonism? What has changed?
The Devolution of a Party
After a walk down memory lane, citing classical conservative thinkers of the last few centuries, Brooks offers this lament:
Today, what passes for the worldview of “the right” is a set of resentful animosities, a partisan attachment to Donald Trump or Tucker Carlson, a sort of mental brutalism. The rich philosophical perspective that dazzled me then has been reduced to Fox News and voter suppression.
He continues, “to be a conservative today, you have to oppose much of what the Republican Party has come to stand for.” Later, he emphasizes what is unique about American Conservatism as opposed to European conservatism: the American Revolution; a heritage of pioneers and immigrants; an wholehearted embrace of capitalism. He winds up with several paragraphs reflecting on how American Conservatism of late has devolved into Trumpism. Here is a portion of one of those paragraphs:
Trumpian Republicanism plunders, degrades, and erodes institutions for the sake of personal aggrandizement. The Trumpian cause is held together by hatred of the Other. Because Trumpians live in a state of perpetual war, they need to continually invent existential foes—critical race theory, nongendered bathrooms, out-of-control immigration. They need to treat half the country, metropolitan America, as a moral cancer, and view the cultural and demographic changes of the past 50 years as an alien invasion. Yet pluralism is one of America’s oldest traditions; to conserve America, you have to love pluralism.
The Devolution of a Church?
One aspect of what I earlier referred to as leakage of politics into religion is that many American Christians now align their primary values with conservative political values rather than Christian values. Even without realizing it, they are Republicans first (this is primarily a conservative and Republican development) and Christians second. This holds for Mormonism as well. There are plenty of Latter-day Saints who, without realizing it, are Republicans first and Latter-day Saints second.
That has been going on for some time now (think decades), in part because LDS leaders have been hypersensitive to ideological threats from the left and largely unconcerned with ideological threats from the right. A dozen Mormon women walk up to the Tabernacle and ask to be admitted to an LDS General Priesthood meeting (how Mormon is that, to ask to attend a meeting?) and the leader gets exed. A dozen Mormon thugs occupy a federal building, damage property, threaten federal agents, preach guns and liberty … and that’s apparently okay.
Now it is true the LDS leadership does put out statements, generally around election time, reiterating the claim that the LDS Church is politically neutral and encouraging members to vote for the candidate of their choice. (They used to encourage members to vote for candidates who exhibit good moral character or something similar, but that suggestion has been dropped.) I think that is a sincere attempt. But it hasn’t worked.
The real fly in the nonpolitical Mormon soup is Ezra Taft Benson. Deeply conservative (in the wacky sense) and deeply Mormon, he was an apostle who became a politician by serving in the Eisenhower administration for eight years as Secretary of Agriculture. He was a Bircher, embracing the wacky conspiracy theories of the day and incorporating them into his worldview and his religious view. And preaching all of that in Conference talks and other official speeches. Other LDS leaders didn’t really know how to combat this development, and an old and failing President McKay was either not able or not willing to make it a fight and rein him in.
You probably know President Benson as a champion of the Book of Mormon. He did tone down his rhetoric once he became President of the Church. My view is that he championed the Book of Mormon not because reading it would make you a better Christian but because reading it you would come to identify the book’s secret combinations with the shadowy enemies of his conspiracy theories (Communists, socialists, the UN, and so forth). If you buy into one conspiracy theory, you become vulnerable to any other conspiracy theory that comes along. And it came to pass that Mormon Bensonites joined with the Mormon Trumpites, and spread throughout the kingdom. And, once again, LDS leaders don’t really seem to know how to combat this development.
So I miss Mormonism the way Brooks misses conservatism, by looking at the affiliated real-world institution (for him, the Republican Party; for me, the LDS Church) and saying: “What happened? What changed? What went wrong?” I think a lot of LDS members at the moment think of Ezra Taft Benson as the true leader of the Church, not President Nelson, because Benson embodies the crude conservative political values (not the gentle ones Brooks identifies) and conspiracy-theory political thinking they have adopted. If I need an alternative leader, I’d opt for President Hinckley, who did a reasonably good job of steering Good Ship Zion away from troubled waters during his many years in the First Presidency. In a strange sort of way, President NelsonOaks seems to oppose the drift of both the large group of Church members who view Pres. Benson as the final authority on values and beliefs, but also the drift of the smaller group of LDS who view Pres. Hinckley as the model for Mormon leadership. When NelsonOaks endorses vaccinations and masks, the Bensonite/Trumpite Mormons rebel. When NelsonOaks shifts from “I’m a Mormon” to “We don’t use that word anymore,” the Hinckleyites object.
But the current leadership has not energetically pursued its initiatives that, in some sense, reject both the Benson and the Hinckley approaches. Like earlier LDS leaders who didn’t quite know how to counter Ezra Taft Benson’s political preaching, current LDS leaders don’t quite know how to counter the Trumpite insurgency within the Church. And thus we see how Trumpism has come to define the LDS Church almost as thoroughly as it has come to define the Republican Party. Or, to put it a different way, Trumpism is now the primary set of values for many Latter-day Saints (displacing traditional Mormon values) in the same way Trumpism has become the primary set of values for many Republicans (displacing traditional conservative values). In the battle for the hearts and minds of mainstream Mormons, Trump won out over NelsonOaks, even as NelsonOaks directs most of its efforts at erasing Hinckley initiatives.
I don’t view that as a positive development for the Church. Is it permanent? Could be. Once Mormons get pointed in a certain direction, they can stick with it for generations, through thick and thin. Think polygamy. Think racial thinking and the priesthood/temple ban. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the primary legacy of the NelsonOaks presidency is the Trumpified Church? I’m not suggesting NelsonOaks necessarily intended the Trumpification of the Church. But they haven’t done much to stop it. Perhaps the Church is facing a leadership crisis as well as an ideological crisis.
Maybe you agree with the primary point of my discussion (Trumpism has hijacked two institutions, the Republican Party and the LDS Church) and maybe you don’t. I rolled out my claims without a bunch of “in my view” and “as I see it” and “it can be argued that” qualifiers. But these are opinions and views, not firmly established conclusions. You may see things differently. Here are a few questions that might sharpen your agreeing or disagreeing comments to follow:
- For you, what is the golden era of modern Mormonism? Is it the current Church, the Church of Pres. Hinckley, the Church of Pres. Benson, or the Church of David O. McKay? Or maybe a vote for the Church of Heber J. Grant?
- What do you think explains the reemergence of Ezra Taft Benson’s views and thinking? Personally, I think the existence of videos of his speeches, readily sharable through social media, is part of the explanation.
- Does the collective leadership of the Church actually have any influence over the beliefs and values of the membership? Maybe they are sitting at the front of the bus thinking they are driving but, in fact, they aren’t really steering at all. Maybe culture, politics, and current events influence the LDS membership a lot more than anything LDS leadership says in Conference or asks of the members via First Presidency letters or Newsroom posts.
- Is this development permanent? Can LDS culture and ideology be revamped or rebuilt? (See suggestive image at top of post, rebuilding the Salt Lake Temple.)