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.

11 comments for “A Centrist Church in a Polarized Age

  1. A beautiful well-rounded post that has led me to reflect on where I am with all of this and I think reflects on what spiritual reason tells me.

  2. Nice post, Jonathan. All I can say is–thank goodness for living prophets. I don’t know I’d navigate the current sociopolitical morass without them.

  3. I heartily agree with the thrust of this article, but I have to quibble about calling the Church “centrist.” It’s hard to pin down exactly where the Church lies on the spectrum on a particular issue because its positions typically aren’t fleshed out into full-blown policies, but at least rhetorically it takes some positions that fit comfortably in the mainstream of the right (same sex marriage, abortion, transgender issues), and some that fit comfortably in the mainstream of the left (refugees, taking COVID-19 seriously, race, and now the environment?). It’s consistent with what handbook says: “Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties.” I’d describe it as independent rather than centrist.

    One issue I think a lot of us here will be watching closely is higher education. The Church has long both encouraged its members to seek higher education and provided it. But that’s now a left-wing position. Fivethirtyeight is doing a series called “Invisible Divides” on cultural differences between the parties today, and the article on higher education is grim reading for anyone who cares about it. They found 71% of Democrats agreed with the statement “A COLLEGE EDUCATION IS THE BEST WAY TO GET AHEAD IN THE U.S.” but only 37% of Republicans. 83% of Republicans agreed with “MOST COLLEGE PROFESSORS TEACH LIBERAL PROPAGANDA.” (I presume that includes professors teaching calculus, chemistry, etc.)

    Jonathan is right that BYU will bear the brunt of it, and that’s underway. Unlike most Church institutions, BYU solicits donations and has to keep donors happy–it sounds like donor concerns about professors teaching “liberal propaganda” have played a big role in recent developments. Of course BYU is hardly the only university struggling with how much influence wealthy right-wing donors should have.

    More broadly, I suspect one of the biggest challenges of the coming years will be to make sure our identity as disciples of Christ takes priority over our identify as part of a political tribe. Members on the left are used to having to making that distinction, but I suspect many members on the right are learning they must now do the same.

  4. Fantastic commentary.
    When Elder Holland said “the middle ground is disappearing,” he wasn’t referring to the partisan political middle ground. He was talking about the middle ground of indecision in our commitments to the gospel when other ideological commitments are trying to pull us away.

  5. I think the church has wanted polygamy and our connection with it to go away for decades now. Your suggestion to blame BY could be done as we know that BY had a different version of polygamy than JS. We also know BY didn’t even consider himself a “prophet” for like the first 7 to 8 years of his leadership. This gives the church some ammo but, I agree, not going to happen.

    The members deciding what was revelation and what was a suggestion regarding vaccination was interesting to read about. I think there will be more of this now that members had basically our first experience (in my lifetime) of picking a side. The younger members are starting to decide what a full tithe really is to them and donating accordingly, and I dont mean net/gross. Dress codes, WOW, temple garments etc are all being looked at differently with some of our younger members. “it is between me and God” is the new thing starting and taking hold. I think it is healthy that we all live the church in a way that we think is best for us but the culture is going to have to change and be ok with these fast changing views and choices. No longer can we all fit in the same Peter Priesthood/Molly Mormon templates. Will be fun to watch!

  6. The church should be doing all it can to make both extremes angry. Seems like they’re doing a good job.

    It shouldn’t define itself by American politics.

    I suspect a President Oaks would be deciedly middle ground when he becomes the top guy. Remember how BYU professors hated him for being “too radical” in their minds? I think we might be surprised about how open-minded he is on certain issues.

  7. Thanks, Jonathan. You convey the huge political schism many members have struggled with for decades. I recall when I was the Institute of Religion director in the Ann Arbor Ward, we created a separate Sunday School Class for conservatives who felt threatened by me and the other bishopric members (whom they refused to sustain:) The Brethren in SLC are constantly advised by Church lawyers who seek to keep leaders’ comments legally “acceptable” in order to preserve the church’s IRS tax status. Over the decades, I’ve seen many folks across the USA leave Mormonism because its leaders were “way too liberal.” Currently, the trend is in the opposite direction and I observe it in Utah, as well as in my consulting and lectures globally. For me it never gets easy, especially losing close folks who can’t “stand it” anymore. For example, I’ve seen the gradual erosion of faith, testimonies, and finally any attendance at all of wonderful, faithful friends in a large family of nine. They’ve dropped out one by one after serving seven missions and years of church leadership service in my Provo ward, ID and CA. They explain their core reasons to be the dangers of the LDS Anti-Vaxxers, racists, and Right Wing extremists they suffered from since 2016 in a dozen congregations. I felt powerless to explain and support them as constantly they faced abuse by Mormon MAGA, QAnon, and election deniers. Of course, the divisions are also impacting the faith of Brazilian LDS between Lula and the “Trump of the Tropics,” Bolsonaro, and dozens of other nations around the world. My guess is there will be further painful schisms globally in the next few years.

  8. Queuno: I was at a 4th of July Freedom Festival devotional in Provo many years ago when the youth speaker, who had won that year’s speechwriting contest, gave a talk based on that old notion that “the United States is a republic, not a democracy”. Elder Oaks, already an apostle at the time, began his address by correcting the young man’s thesis and pointing out that our country is based on democratic principles within the structure of a representative republic. Not exactly a left-wing notion, but the fact that he took the time to explain this, risking possible embarrassment to the youth speaker, was telling. On another note: when Dallin Oaks came in as president of BYU, he was seen as a breath of fresh air and openness after arch-conservative Ernest Wilkinson.

  9. I think the problem is that your looking at the church through US eyes and probably ones that are more Utah focused. I feel the biggest issue the church is facing is the speed at which decentralization is occurring. Although it says it’s a worldwide church, look at where the membership numbers are and the regions where there is significant growth – it’s not in the US.
    Dominated by english speaking upper leadership, centralized financial systems and general conferences that promote American idealism (eg Elder Oaks’ talk on the “sacred” constitution) ignores political and social realities in the rest of the world.
    This has been an ongoing irritation of mine and many of those I know. I believe the sooner the church moves away politically and socially from what I would refer to as “American idealism” the more relevant it will be and the more worldwide is scope it will become.

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