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A Centrist Church in a Polarized Age

On most cultural issues, the Church is situated somewhere between the center left and the center right.

If you find that idea irritating, try to look at the Church in our current moment with some detachment. While the energy and momentum in both major U.S. political parties is found at their far edges, among progressives on the left and populist ethno-nationalists or insurrectionists on the right, the Church is in tension with both extremes. This is obvious in many respects with the progressive left, but examples on the right aren’t hard to find. Immigration and support for vaccination are two recent examples. The Church may work most comfortably with the old Republican mainstream (or whatever is left of it), but it has cooperated on issues like racism with the NAACP and expressed openness to cooperation on issues of sexuality and gender. The Church has made its teachings clear on abortion, but has largely sat out the latest round in the culture war.

A comparison with other branches of American Christianity is instructive. While there are certainly LDS Trumpists, there is no equivalent of the full-throated institutional support for Trump as divinely-appointed leader that the former president has enjoyed in some Evangelical churches. We have not seen any equivalent of Catholic bishops barring politicians from receiving sacraments over their support for abortion rights. No shifts or stasis of doctrine are leading to a schism like the one Methodists are heading toward. You might welcome or deplore the path the Church has taken, but it generally remains within the broad cultural center.

A centrist path entails some risks, as do all paths in these times, and there is no guarantee that the Church won’t eventually run up against the perils of centrism and decide to change course. Perhaps Church leaders will decide that cultural power has shifted decisively toward progressive views of race, sexuality and gender. To have any hope of still reaching people in the modern world or even of maintaining its institutional viability, the Church may have to change as well. Through revelation, official decree or by policy change, the Church could disavow the presidency of Brigham Young and historical polygamy, ordain women and sanctify gay marriages.

But I don’t think this will happen. The Church will go where revelation directs it, but a substantial shift in this direction is highly unlikely. Progressive cultural power is far from settled. Pushing too far in this direction runs a very real risk of schism­ – an exit of members as an ordered body – and existential crisis.

It would actually be much easier for the Church to tack in the opposite direction, rejoin its erstwhile allies on the right. The next election may well cement an indefinite Republican hold on political power. Rather than risk an environment without friends in power, the Church could rejoin the culture war and hail Trump the mighty and strong as God’s instrument in these perilous times. And then the journalists who have been sharpening their stories on “Mormons’ Attraction to Authoritarians like Trump” since 2015 can finally publish them.

But I don’t think this will happen, either. The fallout internationally would be severe, not to mention in the Provo precincts that broke for Biden in 2020 and related demographics. The Church has worked too hard on modulating its message over the last several decades.

What we’re most likely to see is basically what we see today: everybody’s mad all the time. Political polarization teaches an instinctive mistrust of the center. While partisans avoid alienating allied extremes – because that’s where the energy is – they’re liable to see anyone closer to the center as effectively aligned with the enemy. For a centrist church, that means progressives are angrier than ever about gender and sexuality, there’s a new population of populists on the right who are angry about vaccination and immigration and Bishop Caussé’s environmentalism talk, and nearly everyone feels tension between their religious and political commitments. The Church has little room to maneuver without further upsetting the outraged on one side or the other. People come to see each new scandal or defection as confirmation that the Church is doomed unless it moves farther toward the speaker’s own direction. People will be especially mad at BYU for being oppressive and patriarchal/for going woke and destroying students’ testimonies, because BYU is always the easiest target for displaced anger.

As individuals, we need to adapt.

Get used to being uncomfortable about who you disagree with. Partisan solidarity will pull you away from Jesus, no matter what direction you drift. If you don’t feel some element of discomfort with who you vote for, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Get used to being uncomfortable about who you agree with. Terrible people want some reasonable things, and the instinct to reject what your political enemy promotes will lead you to reject truth and light. You cannot claim to love your enemy and pray for those who spitefully use you if you can’t find a way to read them charitably, represent their views accurately and find common humanity and shared values.

Resist the instinct to displace your political outrage onto the Church for what it fails to do or denounce. The Church’s mission is not to do your protesting and political organizing for you. It has to be able to minister to people like you, and the people you detest. In a polarized age, the most important political function of the Church – along with other churches and every other institution whose membership is imperfectly sorted for political outlook and partisan allegiance – is to force us to sit in one room together, discover each person’s individual value and humanity, and talk to each other like human beings.

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