The most paranoid fantasies your persecution complex can dream up will probably come true eventually, although not where you live, but somewhere else in the world. It’s an unavoidable risk of establishing local branches of the church in places that can go from welcoming to hostile within a few years or decades.
There have already been conflicts with local authorities in Russia and Turkey, and someday, somewhere, it will involve something worse than arresting and expelling American missionaries. One day we will have a new martyrology populated not just with prophets and pioneers, but with contemporaries. It can’t be avoided, so we ought to think about how to deal with it responsibly, to honor personal sacrifice without encouraging foolhardy risk.
Even if we set aside the most outlandish of the fever dreams, the challenges facing the church are substantial. It is not only authoritarians and nationalists who pose obstacles to international outreach: It was after all the Swiss who first started limiting the entrance of American missionaries into the country after more than 150 years of free access.
America’s own isolationism poses an especially severe threat and is one of the reasons the Trump administration is a disaster for the church. The long drawdown of America’s international influence does not lead, as its proponents argue, to the nations of the world engaging with each other as equals, but instead only creates opportunities for other powers to step into the gap left by American isolationism, and none of them have anything to gain from easing access for church leaders or missionaries. It is much easier for the church to emerge from obscurity in a world that is moving toward liberal democracy, strengthening international norms and institutions, and reaching consensus on the exercise of human rights, than in a world flirting with totalitarianism, tribalism, and hard borders. An isolationist America means other countries have little reason to avoid angering a handful of American senators from small western states, or to seek their favor through favorable terms for missionary visas.
What will be the best response when missionaries of any type or designation are no longer welcome? Technology can work miracles, but telecommunication is subject to virtual walls. How should the church respond when no amount of good-faith cooperation with an authoritarian government will allow existing church branches to meet openly? And how much and what kind of cooperation is appropriate in any case? History and the experience of expatriate branches in Asia and the Middle East may offer useful lessons. Will we need a home-based liturgy to match a home-centered curriculum in such places? The blessings of the temple have been brought closer to church members all over the world in the last few decades; eventually, one of those temples will be confiscated. Is there a graceful way to respond to expropriation? One day, a small local congregation of Latter-day Saints will wind up in the cross hairs of a radical and bloodthirsty form of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, secularism, or Christianity. What is the correct response when the penalty for not renouncing church membership is legal censure, expulsion, or worse?
To be clear, there is no good answer to most of these questions, just as there was no good response to the dictators of the twentieth century, only a palette of bad and worse options. There will be criticism no matter what the church chooses. Remaining true to its mission seems like the least bad option to me.
We shouldn’t forget the status quo. If the weather is sunny today, the most likely outcome is that it will be sunny tomorrow as well. It’s unwise to bet on fair weather indefinitely, however. If we try to sketch out what the future might look like if the international order of liberal democracy doesn’t make a comeback (while keeping the fever dreams on a tight leash), we can imagine a range of possibilities.
The Gathering 2.0. In a future where the United States population is declining and aging, immigrants may be more welcome than today, as they were in the mid-19th century. When Latter-day Saints in other parts of the world face unbearable persecution, the church will ask members in the U.S. to sponsor their immigration and ensure their integration. Perhaps the Perpetual Emigration Fund will truly be worthy of the name. Members who choose to remain in their native lands despite the risk of persecution will be largely lost to the church, much as the American saints who remained outside Utah were in the 19th century.
The Gathering 2.1. Under similar circumstances, the places of gathering may not be central but regional, with emigration to various places of stability: out of Oceania to New Zealand or Samoa, for example, or from the former Soviet states to Poland. An unfriendly geography might see the church all but disappear from large sections of the globe, while true regional centers would emerge.
The Splintering. Another possibility is that the church would continue in various places but without communication or direction from the central leadership. A government hostile to outsiders might permit the church to continue under local direction or with government-approved leaders, with local programs and doctrinal innovation eventually distancing the local members from the direction of Salt Lake City. Unable to overcome the barriers of an isolationist age, the international church would become a global church at last.
Bowing to nationalism. Partisan polarization finally seizes hold in the church in the U.S. Progressives make a performative exit, and conservatives surrender to the nativist and nationalist politics that have long since taken over the Republican party. They find in various interpretations of modern and ancient scripture and in church history material from which to fashion a nationalist and nativist theology. As the country turns inward, the church turns toward the past, decouples from its global commitments, and the stone rolls back uphill.