On Friday, the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Russell M. Nelson, offered a video message of “healing and hope” to LDS church members. In doing so, Nelson made the following statement:
As a man of science, I appreciate the critical need to prevent the spread of infection. I also honor the devoted service of healthcare professionals and grieve for the many whose lives have been upended by COVID-19.
Nelson said nothing about state action or religious freedom—indeed, the LDS Church cancelled its in-person meetings before official government lockdowns were announced in March. Nor did Nelson suggest any legal or religious basis for opposing efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. And he did not deny the terrible effect COVID-19 has had on the hundreds of thousands of families that have lost loved ones, or on those healthcare professionals that have had to confront family members—on Zoom, no less—with the news that their loved ones are gone. Nelson was perfectly clear. COVID is a force to be reckoned with.
The problem, of course, is that a sizable number of Nelson’s followers believe no such thing, as I was again reminded on Sunday in the midst of yet another church meeting featuring a rant about the supposed loss of alleged “freedoms and liberties” resulting from unspecified “leaders” reacting to the pandemic. The ironies of this presentation were astounding. Not only did it come on the same day that Utah hospitals reported informally rationing healthcare to COVID patients for whom space does not exist, it came at the same time as Trump was engaged in a desperate and illegal attempt to steal an election from the voters that ousted him. And indeed, for decades American democracy is likely to be poisoned by these delusions. Hospital beds and votes are actual things. So are the government’s police powers in a pandemic. The supposed “freedoms and liberties” being lost are the shadows, manifestations, and penumbras of the purely selfish.
Which is why COVID denial is just another of the handful of malignant cancers afflicting conservatism, and now, as a result, the LDS Church, given their longstanding double-helix relationship. Nelson even named the “many ills that plague our world, including hate, civil unrest, racism, violence, dishonesty and lack of civility.” That this is a robust summary of Republican neo-Confederatism is hardly a coincidence. All promote self over the other, which then inexorably ties them to Trump.
And yet, despite Trump receiving Utah’s lowest percentage popular vote for a Republican candidate since Barry Goldwater—and LDS defections helping make the difference in Arizona—polls suggest that 70% of Mormons still dutifully pulled the lever for Trump. The actions of a “missionary” church, these are not. They are the actions of a self-obsessed, socio-political cult—a Republican Party auxiliary. Tell your friends.
While Nelson appears to have correctly diagnosed current LDS physical and spiritual ailments, it isn’t clear whether his recommended course of treatment will be adequate. Nelson emphasized gratitude, crediting the ability to count one’s blessings as healing in troubled times. As he put it,
Does gratitude spare us from sorrow, sadness, grief and pain? No, but it does soothe our feelings. It provides us with a greater perspective on the very purpose and joy of life.
This is hard to argue with. But then he recommended that LDS members take to social media and keep a “gratitude journal” for seven days. Posts would be accompanied by the #givethanks hashtag and, well, soothe LDS feelings I suppose.
But will they really? And, more importantly, should they? 70% of LDS adherents openly (or perhaps worse from a safety perspective, secretly) embrace hate, civil unrest, racism, violence, dishonesty and lack of civility. And while LDS members post thanks for their privileges, they largely ignore that they have spent the larger part of the past six decades openly and aggressively denying those same privileges to others. That the dissonance is grating can hardly be a surprise.
Even perhaps of greater concern is that as the capstone of perhaps the most selfish, self-centered, and socially dysfunctional presidential campaign in the history of the republic—a campaign that itself capped the most selfish, self-centered, and socially dysfunctional presidential administration in history—the LDS Church chose to direct individuals even further inward. Rather than urge LDS members outside their narrow, socio-political bubble, the church’s first instinct was again for individuals to embrace the religion of the self. Is there any wonder why two days later, the COVID deniers were bleating again?
In the Book of Mormon—the LDS Church’s unique book of scripture evangelical Christians [thankfully] hate Mormons for using—the story is told of a missionary that comes across a people who have built a massive tower upon which they ascend to declare a rote prayer praising God for making them his chosen people. As part of that prayer, the people would proclaim:
O God, we thank thee; and we also thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God. And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen.
I am not grateful that members of the LDS Church are a chosen and a holy people. I will be grateful when members of the LDS Church finally recognize that they are not. And until we start from that latter premise, I fear that it is premature to expect that our feelings will be soothed. Indeed, I can’t but suggest that it is not time for our feelings to be soothed, because perhaps unrest is the only thing that will finally inspire Latter Day Saints to break the cycle of pride and self-gratification that permeates the 21st-Century church. A world-renowned surgeon before taking up his ministry, Nelson must know the danger in healing over an infected wound. Cleansing, then healing.