The text for today’s blog sermon is “The Evangelical Church Is at War With Itself,” at The Atlantic. The author interviewed several pastors and many congregants of various moderately conservative and rabidly conservative churches in Detroit, trying to understand and document this sudden burst of Evangelical strife and figure out what is causing it. Mormons are not mentioned in the article. The LDS Church is not mentioned in the article. But there are a lot of similarities, as well as some differences. I’ll pull some quotes or sometimes summarize, then give a “same or different?” verdict. My general sense is the conflict is deeper and more extreme in Evangelical churches, but it’s not just an Evangelical problem. It’s a Mormon problem, too. Go read the article if you have ten minutes (it’s a longish article), then let’s talk about it.
A Political Identity
I’ve spent my life watching evangelicalism morph from a spiritual disposition into a political identity. It’s heartbreaking.
Different. Yes, Mormons vote Republican quite reliably and many Mormons have become Trumpists over the last six years. Yes, the Church is more politicized and more political than it has been for a century. But I think the “Mormon identity” for the average church-going Mormon is still rooted more in our unique historical claims (Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, Nephites in America, etc.) than in current political battles. Yes, many Mormons are leaning toward an extremist political identity, but most haven’t stepped across that line yet.
Quoting a moderate conservative pastor who opposes extremist conservative politics:
“The crisis for the Church is a crisis of discernment,” he said over lunch. “Discernment” — one’s basic ability to separate truth from untruth — “is a core biblical discipline. And many Christians are not practicing it.”
Same. I like that word and concept: discernment. I think discernment, the ability to separate truth from untruth, is maybe slipping away within Mormonism. I know there are critics that reject Mormon historical-religious claims who think a lack of discernment was baked into Mormonism from the start. Maybe you think that way and maybe you don’t. But it is certainly true that in the past only a small fraction of active LDS were ready to buy into conspiracy theories political and cultural. Now it’s a much larger fraction. The same pastor is quoted later in the article as saying, “Hands down, the biggest challenge facing the Church right now is the misinformation and disinformation coming in from the outside.” Maybe Evangelicals and Mormons are both losing their sense of discernment.
The Enemy Within
To many evangelicals today, the enemy is no longer secular America, but their fellow Christians, people who hold the same faith but different beliefs.
Same. Yes, LDS leaders still preach against “the world” or, in more colorful moments, rail against “Babylon” and the Devil. But increasingly, at both the general and local level, I get a sense that more leaders and more members see an enemy within as the real present danger to the Church, whether that enemy within is deemed to be liberals or dissenters or cafeteria Mormons or just (waving hands a bit) people who leave the Church. As a proselyting church, the LDS Church is organizationally attuned to growth. But in terms of church governance and regulation, the Church seems more focused on weeding out those who don’t measure up (to whatever arbitrary standard is applied) — that is, to shrinking the Church. These programs and approaches are not on the same page.
Flight to Another Church
Substantial numbers of evangelicals are fleeing their churches, and most of them are moving to ones further to the right.
Different. The only time Mormons switch congregations is when they move. But this rather rigid system of assigning people to particular congregations based on their physical address, with almost no exceptions, does have some advantages. Mormons rarely go shopping for a new congregation. The switching costs, as an economist would term it, are just too high. In any case, most LDS congregations are pretty much the same. You might have to search a long time to find an LDS congregation that is significantly more politically conservative than the one you’re in, and unlike most Evangelical congregations that might not be reflected to any degree in Sunday sermons. If anything, within the LDS Church it is not politically conservative members who are leaving. It is politically liberal members who are more likely to throw up their hands in dismay at the recent political drift of the Church (I’ll stop short of calling it “radicalization”) and just stop attending or even go find another denomination.
Covid and Closing Church
Again quoting the moderately conservative pastor:
When COVID arrived — bringing with it “a new flood of misinformation” — Brown and his leadership team wrote a letter to the congregation laying out their reasons for closing the church and specifying the sources they were relying on. Brown also launched a blog and a podcast, vying for his members’ attention at a moment when so many were suddenly stuck at home and swimming in hearsay and innuendo.
Same. Or maybe different. It sounds like Covid disruptions hit some Evangelical congregations very hard. Yes, shutting down LDS sacrament meetings for six or eight months had an effect. Some previously active people didn’t come back. But that might be because they still have health and exposure concerns, not because their testimonies died while not enjoying uplifting talks and informative lessons every week at in-person church. Plus it seems to me that many LDS congregations managed to maintain some continuity and activity even without in-person services on Sunday. Wow, after years of stubbornly rejecting the idea, the Church sure embraced Zooming church and meetings, didn’t it?
Losing the Youth?
The article describes the son of a high-school history teacher as “deeply conservative, a Trump voter, a consumer of right-wing media.” The son is on the verge of leaving the family’s moderately conservative congregation because … it’s not conservative enough. The kid is upset his pastor is criticizing those responsible for January 6 and that his pastor has endorsed Covid vaccines.
Different. All evidence suggests LDS youth and young adults are leaning into civil rights and LGBT issues, not against them, and are on the verge of leaving the LDS Church because it is too politically conservative, not because it isn’t politically conservative enough. This seems like a fairly significant distinction. I wonder if this difference will lead, in a decade or two, to different political trajectories for the LDS Church and Evangelical churches. That hasn’t been the case at all in the recent past.
So that’s enough quotations. What do you think? Same or different?
- Has the onslaught of Trump- and Covid-related misinformation and disinformation rocked the LDS Church to the same degree as it apparently has most Evangelical congregations? Or is the LDS Church different enough that this time of troubles will have no lasting effect on the LDS Church?
- Here’s another angle. The post I quoted was published in the print magazine under the title “How Politics Poisoned the Church.” Has politics poisoned the LDS Church? Or is politics just more noise that members are able to fairly successfully tune out, maintaining positive fellowship with other members and retaining confidence in their local and senior leaders.