Impasse

Some time ago, I wrote about the experience of belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints during the era of Donald Trump. Even months ago, the circumstances were dire—a fascist political movement born of combat, infiltration, and destabilization, protected and nutured within the Church by a combination of pre-existing fringe sympathies, performative Mormon conflict-avoidance, and the Church’s internal mythologizing of white male infallibility. Church members are well-accustomed to following the orders of white men, and 2020 has conclusively demonstrated that the identity of the white man and the nature of his orders are wholly incidental.

For months, the evidence rolled in. Utah has long been a citadel of anti-mask hysteria, going so far as to adopt the legal left’s personal autonomy jurisprudence supporting the legalization of abortion and gay marriage. This even as Trump supporters insisted that they needed his Supreme Court picks to roll back the existing personal autonomy jurisprudence that legalizes abortion and gay marriage on a federal basis. Huh? Then there was the strident defense of the assault-weapon toting—you guessed it—white male terrorizing the streets of Logan, Utah during LDS General Conference. And, of course, the white male intimidation and death threats.1Welcome to the club, Georgia election officials. Zion, indeed.

Of course, if ideological consistency (or even coherency) was a political prerequisite, American politics could never walk out the front door with its keys in the morning. But the Republican Party has not only left the house without its keys, it’s naked and thinks it’s a Doberman. COVID’s explosion has brought ever fiercer denunciations of any effort to halt its spread, while Republicans nurture Trump’s paranoid and delusional fantasies that somehow the election was stolen. As those fantasies go unchecked, Republicans construct millions of timebombs around the country—cult followers who will believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Donald Trump won an election he so clearly lost. Indeed, leading conservatives have started self-congratulating themselves for refraining from violence to avenge an election that wasn’t stolen. Now that’s courage, though perhaps not of the kind they imagine.

What does all of this have to do with the LDS Church? The problem is those timebombs are omnipresent. According to polls, up to 70% of LDS Church members are Trump supporters—meaning that LDS Church members are approximately 50% more likely to be Trump supporters than the general population, even as the Republican Party ramps up its program of psychological terrorism. The rate is even higher for white men, the pool from which the LDS Church draws most of its leadership.

The LDS Church probably should have dealt with the inherent vulnerabilities of one-party politics decades ago, but in its defense this was more a question of style when George W. Bush (or even Mitt Romney) was the Republican Party’s standard bearer. But now Trump’s internal flag-bearers invite endless blasphemies. If Trump really were Captain Moroni, as dull-witted senator Mike Lee claimed days before the election—what right-thinking LDS adherent wouldn’t do anything—anything at all—for Captain Moroni’s cause? The arrogance of the comparison is breathtaking, as is the brazen disregard for basic propriety. Not to mention that the children are paying attention, and rightfully concluding that if Captain Moroni’s 21st-Century equivalent is Donald Trump, perhaps our ancient Mormon heroes are not the stuff of mythology after all.

Meanwhile, LDS Trump supporters regularly insisted—and still insist—that Democrats do Satan’s work. So for them there are two churches: The Church of the Holy Trump and the Church of the Eternal Sinner. To suggest this is mere inhospitality is to significantly understate the nature of the psychological warfare. Quite literally, these members leverage my family’s eternal salvation based on their votes. If this sounds like something Donald Trump would do then, hey, you’ve been paying attention. Ho, ho, are you interested in a visit from the missionaries yet?

These manipulations would be objectionable to any person of free will, though perhaps manageable at non-lethal exposures. But in 2020, the Trump experiment has begotten madness. Prohibitive majorities of Republican voters believe the 2020 election did not happen. Prominent Republicans are encouraging fictitious lawsuits. Half the country will no longer believe that America can conduct an election—and for no reason at all.

And so, any reasonable person of goodwill has to ask—if the average Trump supporter will lie so eagerly, exhaustively, and irresponsibly about something as straightforward as their candidate losing an election, what else will they lie about? What else have they lied about? How do they intend to leverage me? My sealed family? My eternal marriage? Where does this end, when the median Mormon leader is a white male Trump supporter provably disposed to Trumpian tactics of gaslighting, manipulation, and abuse? But beyond that, which of them believes in Q? Or the Kraken? Who watches OAN? Which believes, like recently pardoned fringe kook Michael Flynn, that Trump should exercise martial law to throw out election results? Where does “their” reality stop and actual reality begin? Can they navigate the line between religious faith and fascist delusion, or are those just two sides of the same coin now?

We know the answers to none of these questions, though they now desperately matter. The only answer we get from more well-meaning corners of the Church—well-meaning as they may be—is that nothing can be done. On top of that, Trump supporters have first speaker advantage, so countering them is “contention,” and—as Trump supporters have so strategically memorized—contention is “of the devil.” Subtle. Trump supporters can lie, manipulate, aggress, abuse, intimidate…it is only in defending from those tactics that the line is crossed. To paraphrase Dana Carvey’s Church Lady, isn’t that convenient?

Nor will the LDS Church, which held weekly in-church meetings to organize opposition to California’s gay marriage initiative, say a single word about the fundamentally important—and truly non-partisan—interest that Americans have in protecting their electoral process. If the LDS Church wants to engage in the civic discussion, it should at least engage the fundamental battles. As it is, the Church’s hands-on approach to gay marriage contrasts poorly to its hands-off approach to, you know, self-government, leaving at least the impression that its temporal interests are far more parochial than it otherwise lets on. If the LDS Church can’t protect my vote, no matter how I cast it, it is unclear why I should adopt the burden of protecting its conscience.

The Church’s infiltration also leaves dissenters from the Trump monolith without any practical, real-life defense from pressing dangers. The irony is that I concede to have no idea whether the dangers involved here are of a spiritual nature or not. Do fascists go to heaven?

Whether or not they do, that question ultimately gives way under the weight of more immediate and tangible considerations. A church whose membership voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump poses a physical, emotional, and mental danger to me, my family, and my loved ones and, by extension, poses an existential threat to my country. I cannot let them be exposed—under Church auspices, no less—to COVID denial, to civic insurrection, and ultimately to the goal that Trump supporters self-evidently seek—the fundamental erosion of the most basic standards any member of a modern pluralistic society should stand for. Including the right of black people to vote, for God’s sake.

What is worse, all the LDS Church has to offer at this seminal moment in American history is more cloistering. Pray, read your scriptures, and…stare out the window and hope Ted Cruz comes to his senses? Good luck with that strategy. At best, this is mere passive-aggressive both-sidesism. But there is currently only one heavily-armed party engaged in various lunatic, gaslighting conspiracy fantasies. Trump supporters don’t need prayers—they need therapy and cult deprogramming.

But even worse still is the likely result if the LDS Church actually does intend to sit out Trump’s challenge to American tranquility and, what, wait for the Rapture to come? This means not only the perpetuation of harm within the LDS Church, but that on the issues that really matter—not the red herring of one-world communism, for instance, but simply of bargain-basement self-government—the Church will have nothing to say. That isn’t political neutrality. It’s societal nihilism. And when one adds to this pseudo-reality the corrosive premise that assertions of truth definitionally equate to sin—a Trumpian premise blatantly at odds with any conception of Christian doctrine—one hardly knows where to start. That’s not humility. That’s abdication. LDS Church members fulminated for decades about moral relativism; now they embrace it. That can’t possibly be a coincidence.

Nor is it looking like a coincidence that my personal experiences with Mormons in power outside the Church (indeed, Christians in general) have been uniformly toxic. Lying, gaslighting, manipulation, and leverage in those circumstances long pre-dated Trump, just more evidence that Trump is less cause and more effect. Perhaps the worst realization of all is that prosperity-gospel obsessed “Christians” may actually recognize themselves in Trump. Jesus wept.

As I have written in this space before, my family has watched dozens of others disappear from the LDS Church without a trace. Very rarely did we know what they were thinking or feeling—indeed, most often they were never seen of or heard from again. And now, because of what we have seen, heard, and experienced in 2020, here we are on the other side of that equation. I do not know whether we will be able to return, though I think we would like to. But it will not be before the LDS Church has been made safe with the same assurance that we already know Trump and his followers are dangerous. Admittedly, that is a high bar, but these are perilous times. And if in fact there is a judgment bar, I will be happy to stand before it and recite this entire piece as proof of my solemn commitment to uphold every pledge I have ever made to protect my family, love my country, and act with conscience.

2 thoughts on “Impasse

  1. Steve, thank you very much for these insights. I couldn’t agree with you more. I live in PA, but my extended family living in Utah can not reconcile the Trump support surrounding them everywhere and what they thought were the tenants of the LDS church. I am one of those friends that has disappeared because of my own issues pre-Trump, but for my family still in the camp, this has been very difficult. You’ve captured their feelings spot-on.

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