That’s from D&C 38:27, not from a recent Conference talk. Maybe it should have been a Conference talk, as the battle between unity and division, between common causes and rank partisanship, so prominent in society and politics, has seeped deeply into the Church. Most of us have a sense that things which were once foundational are falling apart. Things that were once solid and whole are coming unglued. For some insightful commentary on this whole mess, go read Jonathan Haidt’s new essay at The Atlantic. It’s not just “a sense” that things are falling apart — they really are falling apart. It’s easy to blame social media or politics or this or that divisive figure, but it’s really a much larger change and it seems to be happening at every scale, from the global stage to the family in the house next door. It feels like the Sixties.
I could go on and on about this or take some quotes from the essay and parse them, but the essay stands quite nicely on its own. Instead, I want to take a look at Conference from a different perspective, from a “unity versus division” view. Modern (the last twenty years or so) LDS General Conference is remarkable in that it brings millions of listening Mormons together simultaneously to listen to the talks for a couple of days. It’s not just the content of the talks, it’s the whole experience: the choir and organ, the great and spacious Conference Center, the sweeping outside views of Temple Square backed by the surrounding mountains. It strikes me that this is an institutional practice, a ritual if you will, that works toward unity or togetherness at a time when the balance of social and political forces is moving us toward division.
Now I don’t want to overstate that thesis. General Conference is potentially or ideally a means of achieving or maintaining some unity within the Church by a twice yearly shared experience. But there will be mixed messages: some talks seem to stoke the passions of division even as others preach brotherly love and doing good in the usual Christian ways. Often what’s going on in the world or what’s going on in the Church cries out for some direct commentary and counsel from Conference speakers but gets almost no mention. We get the same old format and the same old topics rehashed when it could be more effective (at putting out a specific message or directed counsel; at keeping listeners engaged, etc.) if some changes where made. But still, on balance, the whole production works to bring us Mormons together rather than move us apart. Is it enough to hold the Church together? Who knows. LDS leaders seem as confused as other cultural, political, and business elites in steering institutions through our troubled Twenties.
I’ll just add a couple of observations, then turn it over to the comments. First: seventeen new temples. In a strange way, the temple has come to displace the chapel as the center of LDS practice and institutional life. Covid has maybe moved this along a bit, as weekly services in chapels were suspended for several months. The phrase “home centered, Church supported” was bandied about quite a bit at one of last year’s Conferences, another oddly revealing theme. I can imagine a future where chapels and Sunday services are almost irrelevant. Instead you regularly connect with a fireside or a class or a local talk via the Internet, with General Conference twice a year via the Internet, and you go to a temple once or twice or thrice a year in person. I can imagine LDS leaders, in one of their many meetings, coming around to thinking, “Hey, as long as they keep writing checks and we keep building temples, this could work.” Maybe, maybe not. At the local level, you are a member in good standing in the eyes of your bishop if you keep writing checks and hold a temple recommend. Whether you physically make it to church on Sunday is suddenly less important, even unimportant. So at the local level, we’re already there.
Second: the missionary model is failing. That is evident from the many remarks in the recent Conference talks specifically encouraging young men to serve and from statistics showing the number of young LDS volunteering for proselyting missions is going down. I’m tempted to say “even teenagers can figure out the missionary program isn’t working” but that’s unfair. It’s easy, as a seasoned adult, to forget how excited young LDS are to serve missions. There’s an element of adventure, mingled with the thrill of leaving home. It’s sort of the LDS equivalent of going off to college. But some of that thrill is gone, as fewer LDS do foreign missions and learn a language; as more time is spent sitting in some crappy missionary apartment because of lockdowns; as fewer and fewer people want to hear about the LDS message in whatever form it is packaged. In the unity versus division theme, consider that serving an LDS mission is a formative and shared LDS experience. As that changes — fewer missionaries serving, particularly as a percentage of young LDS, and a degraded experience compared to years past — then that’s one more shared institutional practice supporting unity and togetherness that is being lost.
So it’s plain that politics and the messy events of the Twenties (Covid, Trump, now Putin, who knows what’s next) are trying to move us apart, to break the unity of the Saints. What’s holding us together? General Conference is one of those things, a familiar shared experience that happens every six months. Even if you disagree with a lot of what is said, it can be a positive experience, the way that a team’s football fans can call in to the radio show with nothing but complaints about the coach, this or that player, the officiating, and so forth, but still be passionate fans of their team.
What do you think? Does Conference bring us together? If it doesn’t, what does anymore? If nothing does, where does that leave us?