The Collateral Damage of Cable News Talking Points at Sunday School

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AMIRITE? (Source)

Just before our gospel doctrine class concluded its consideration of Lesson 31 “Firm in the Faith of Christ,” the teacher distributed a two-sided handout. On the one side were quotations used in the lesson outlining a kind of Mormon just war doctrine. On the other was a statement by the teacher–a missionary who was probably inspired by the lesson’s suggestion “to create your own title of liberty“–on the state of the world.

The statement highlighted the self-serving lust for power of political candidates, a citizenry ill-informed about their choices and afflicted by “the disease of ‘entitlement mentality,'” and (thoroughly debunked) allegations of “rampant voter fraud” in Obama’s favor. Speaking of Obama, he was located in a pantheon of world leaders including Assad, Erdogan, Berlusconi and Putin who “push their own agendas and not the will of the people.” The statement did concede that Trump was a demagogue but not without duly labeling Clinton as a criminal. There were two more sections on terrorism and immigration. The statement concluded by asserting that “The Book of Mormon is a valuable handbook on how to cope with these problems” and proposed that we “see what we can learn from its lessons.”

That double-barreled dose of conservative American talking points mingled with scripture had such a familiar ring that I was immediately transported back to the church of my youth. A lifelong member, I grew up in a deeply conservative part of America–Kevin McCarthy‘s district, to be precise–where elders quorum discussions on the merits of shotguns vs. handguns in home defense scenarios or talks by stake presidents in which support for Prop 8 is characterized as a sign of temple worthiness didn’t raise any eyebrows. And why would they? We’re just a group of like-minded people talking about what’s important to us–religion and politics, right?

Except I don’t know how like-minded you can expect a congregation to be that came from all over the world to attend church in a country thousands of miles from the the United States, the goings-on of its presidential election spectacle and the fronts of its culture wars. I mean, there is a presidential election coming up next month–which went unaddressed in the statement–and citizens here are also concerned about terrorism, immigration, corruption, and effective political leadership. But the ideological gulf between my continental European home and American politics is as wide as the waters that separate us. Here, Obama would be an arch conservative, not a deranged communist bent on the destruction of freedom and private property. Here, campaign laws limit the spectacle of elections and parliamentary politics result in relatively broad representation rather than the division of the political landscape into winners and losers. Here, many issues over which culture wars are being fought in the US have been settled already–without the church ever having taken a position on them, much less sent its members door to door to campaign for the leadership’s choice.

Home to members from all over the world, my ward is possibly unique in that no nationality comprises a majority of its membership. Consequently, it would be a stretch to assume that we share views on the talking points du jour when we don’t know even the name of the president/prime minister/whatever of the country where the member sitting next to us is from, much less anything about the policy debates raging there.

Moreover, we hardly represent the status quo of our host country. Most of us are from somewhere else, Mormons are an insignificant group not aligned with any of the traditional power structures, and the church’s reputation among the local populace is preceded by the stigma of American imperialism on a good day or we’re considered to be members of a pre-modern cult on a bad one. At any rate, we are dismissed rather than courted by the powers that be. As a result, it’s sometimes tough to feel like you have a leg to stand on, much less a Rameumpton from which to trumpet unexamined assumptions about the rightness of your ways.

The upshot has been a diverse, open ward family refreshingly free of politics of just about any stripe. When visitors show up and gush about the church being the same everywhere, I understand but silently qualify what they mean. Sure, we have the same meeting bloc, hymnbooks and lessons that you’ll find all over the world, but the absence of a common political denominator means that the ties that bind on Sundays tend to be non-partisan. For the most part, anyway. Occasionally someone will pipe up and remind me that maybe the church really is the same wherever you go. That would be too bad since there is little to recommend the conflation of conservative American politics with the gospel and much that would weigh against it, especially for a church with global aspirations.

With the United States the church’s birthplace and breadbasket, I don’t expect that the influence of American politics on church policy and doctrine will wane anytime soon. But leaders and members ought to give thought to what they hope to gain by allowing a culture to flourish in which conservative American talking points get a pass–if not actually officially sponsored–at church, because I can tell them what they are losing: members. The handout we received last Sunday was the last straw for a good friend who is fed up with the way conservative American politics have come to dominate the church and steer its leadership.

Big deal, you might say. People leave the church all the time. He was on his way out anyway. What a stupid reason. But you would be wrong. It is a big deal. It was a classic own goal, an “avoidable error” as my German teacher used to say, the kind of mistake for which she had little patience. And of course my friend is not the only one to leave. The decisions at church headquarters inspired by conservative American concerns like the November 2015 policy to withhold baptism from the children of non-traditional families have resulted in traditional families leaving the church thousands of miles away in a country where the ship of gay marriage has long since sailed.

This is a wholly unnecessary loss for which all the missionary work here for years to come is unlikely to compensate. Let me repeat that: If past experience is a guide, it will be decades before the missionary effort over here will make up for the local collateral damage of that particular skirmish of America’s culture wars. And that collateral damage is the result of an institutional culture that is in no hurry to disentangle its conservative American politics from its religion.

So let’s add something to Steve’s laundry list: Render unto Cæsar and God that which is theirs and work to make church a spin-free zone. We can always gather at BCC afterwards to bicker about the nexus of Mormonism and American politics.

Comments

  1. That sounds like an amazing lesson!

  2. Conflating personal political opinion with religious belief – and then attempting to pass that opinion off as Gospel instruction is not, unfortunately, going away any time soon. The key is to identify and reject those opinions as uninspired.

    But shouldn’t we be careful not to fall into the same trap? Its one thing to rail against an inexperienced missionary blatantly parroting Fox News; it becomes something different to put forward a competing prophecy that a decision made by Salt Lake (and touted as the “will of the Lord” by no less than the President of the Q12) will counteract years of missionary work.

    I am (VERY) sympathetic to your struggle against conservative American cultural influence, but your conclusion is over-inclusive for this lowly blog surfer.

  3. What thor said.

  4. your conclusion is over-inclusive for this lowly blog surfer.

    Fair enough, I should be humble enough to concede that things could change tomorrow. What I can say with certainty, however, is that I’ve been doing or monitoring the missionary work here for the last 20 years and in that time we’ve never baptized families like those that have left since November.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    You just made my day! I am not the worst GD teacher in the church. Also having lived in Kevin
    McCarthy’s district, I just what you mean. In our time in was prop 22 (precurser to prop 8) that called into our question our temple worthiness. My husband would not ask for a recommend for some time after that. When he finally did, the Stake Pres. said the church needed more people who thought for themselves and cheerfully signed. We moved out of state before Prop 8. I think the Lord led us to do that so we wouldn’t leave the church.

  6. I’m guessing the bit about immigration was entirely at odds with what the church has actually been saying about immigration, which had to make that lesson all the more frustrating.

    I would seriously consider contacting the Mission President about this behavior–he should know that one of his missionaries is teaching false doctrine and driving people inactive.

  7. Thor and JT, I’m afraid you missed Peter’s point. He’s not arguing at church, in the community of Saints assembled for worship that the church’s stance on same-sex marriage will counteract years of productive missionary work (though he’s right about that). He’s saying it at BCC, which is precisely what his last paragraph recommends doing.

    The point isn’t that somehow Mormons should be a collection of apolitical people. It’s that our politics have no nexus with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and shouldn’t be treated at church like they are. Certainly our political (and personal and financial) views should be informed by our Mormonism, but they shouldn’t be conflated with our Mormonism, especially in the context of worship.

  8. And if your impression is that I am “railing on an inexperienced missionary” then I have failed to make my point.

  9. Or what Sam said.

  10. What an awful handout. This guy was a missionary????

    Yes, we have a bad habit of mingling politics with doctrine. I once had a gospel doctrine teacher bring in a Glenn Beck book and read directly from the text. So I hear you.

    It is funny though how things change. I see less lecturing on “follow the prophet” now that the church has issued statements on immigration and the treatment of Muslim refugees which more closely align with a liberal viewpoint. According to some Facebook friends, the church is caving to the left. But I take heart in that most of my conservative friends have fallen in line with the church’s statements. One blessing of Trumpism (sorry for the American political reference, Peter LLC) is that it has caused some longtime members to reconsider the habit of accepting everything the Republican nominee says as gospel truth.

    I really like Timothy Keller…Presbyterian Minister, Theologian, Christian Apologist. He is a guy that some compare to CS Lewis (which is a bit too strong for me).

    Anyway, he made the point in a sermon that Christians really should not be far right or far left. Christ taught community, charity, helping the poor, and economic equality. These are ideals we normally associate with the left. At the same time, Christ taught chastity, sanctity of life, traditional morality, and personal responsibility…values we normally associate with the right.

    So a true Christian really should not be a die hard either way. Not liberal or conservative, but Christian. We all have a higher calling than politics.

    We err anytime when we ignore teachings just because they don’t match our own political viewpoint. Whether we view things from the left or the right.

  11. NotRachel says:

    Sigh. I agree wholly with the OP. For two weeks we had lessons, specifically requested by our stake president, on Religious Freedom and protecting it. It has nearly been the death of my church attendance.

  12. Clark Goble says:

    By and large people tend to assume they represent the majority more than they actually do. So it’s fairly common among liberals to say they don’t know anyone supporting Trump for example. This is made worse by geographic shifting of political views that then reinforce the perception of what the people believe. Of course for Mormons where we often socialize with other Mormons who are overwhelmingly Republican that gives a distorted view of the popularity of Republican views.

    The religious views within particular congregations tends to be regional too. I’ve been in many wards that clearly were typical LDS wards in terms of politics/demographics. I’ve been in wards where people were overwhelmingly liberal. Since wards tend to be drawn from relatively narrow geographic areas, they tend to get made up by people with those views. Say what you will but a ward in Berkeley is apt to have a very different political bias from a ward in Sandy. Since politics tends to be emotionally tied when you combine the peer effect along with confirmation bias you get interesting results if you are from a minority view in that local demographic.

  13. One blessing of Trumpism (sorry for the American political reference, Peter LLC)

    No problem–this is the place to discuss it!

    Also, what I suggest ought to be balm not just to bleeding heart liberals but conservative members too, who I imagine would be put out if they went to church and all they got was someone pontificating on the merits of universal health care.

  14. Since wards tend to be drawn from relatively narrow geographic areas, they tend to get made up by people with those views.

    That’s another distinctive feature of my ward–no boundaries (a desire to worship in a common language is what brings us together), which makes implementing the program of the church a tremendous challenge but also makes for an unusually diverse congregation. I freely acknowledge that this is probably not going to be a recipe for the rest of the church.

  15. That one member in the Ward... says:

    As politically and theologically progressive Mormon in the US I hope that the international members will pull the LDS Leadership out of American Politics and culture wars, but given the excessively slow trickle of people not born and raised in Utah, let alone the US, into the highest offices of the church I think the best chance for it to occur sooner rather than later is by ‘average’ members expressing this type of frustration more frequently, so thank you.

    The myopia isn’t even just political. I grew up in the Great Lakes region of the American Midwest listening to members relocated or broadcasted from the American Southwest preach against the “church of the lake” when talking about keeping the Sabbath holy. Given we lived on a Lake, as did many in our Ward, I’d get frustrated when the comments succeeded in guilting my parents into a ban on Sunday swimming even when it was 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit outside and in our house. Then I go to school out West and spend every Sunday afternoon with roommates up in the “church of the mountain” hikes. I was incredulous. I can’t enjoy the peaceful beauty of a relaxing sunset swim with my family, but they can slough their sweaty selves up a pile of rocks to look back and admire the grandeur of urban sprawl in the central valley?

  16. Clark Goble says:

    Yes one benefit of living where the Church isn’t strong is that you get a much wider demographic net. Where I grew up our boundaries were the entire city and the city had a reasonably diverse population. You’ll always have a certain “Utah component” but while they may have had outsized influence because of how they thought things should be run they were also a distinct minority in the ward. There are some huge benefits to that especially compared to the typical Utah/Idaho/Arizona ward where sometimes the boundaries are measured in blocks.

  17. It sounds like you’re wishing that Mormonism wasn’t an American church. But it is, and it is going to get more so. I just found out about the new CES initiative: to teach English to the young members around the world. Apparently it’s too big a burden to translate everything, so CES is now going to Americanize more international members. I wonder if teaching English will include a few lessons on conservative politics.

  18. FWIW, peter, I simply overstated. That is not what I took away from the post.

  19. Clark Goble says:

    Franklin I suspect teaching English is more meant to help economic opportunities but also to help the upcoming generation to be able to more broadly be leaders. Whether one likes it or not English is the lingua franca of the world the way Latin once was.

  20. New initiatives from the church seem to act like a Rorschach Test for members.

    Perhaps the church has good intentions re: teaching English. Maybe they see it as a way to help.

    But then it just could be part of the plot to make us vote conservative, wear white shirts, eat funeral potatoes and fry sauce, and obsess about BYU.

    In fairness, I guess it could be either one :)

  21. Laurel Warner says:

    This is so very very true. My own parents who were converts in the 1970’s have gone inactive after over 40 years (40 years!!!) of activity in the church due in no small part to the conflation of conservative politics and the church.

  22. Can you find a gentle way to help that clueless missionary? Would it help to ask him to apologize to your friend?

  23. Morthodox says:

    Great post, and I share your frustrations. I’ve begun to wonder lately if some people who “conflate conservative American politics with the gospel” as you so succinctly put it even believe in the gospel or the restored church at all. It seems to me, as I sit in church and hear “othering”, hatred and fear spewed, and political correctness railed against, that perhaps they are merely using the church’s traditionally conservative policies as a shield for their racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc. No one calls them on their lack of empathy.

  24. Yes. “Othering” is a big problem.

    Those other people who do that should be called out.

  25. Morthodox says:

    Glad you agree, Marc!
    I recently moved from a ward where people were active and engaged in discussing gospel solutions to world problems, to an ultra-conservative ward where I overhear men bragging that they are the most conservative guy in the whole ward (it’s a contest?) and “liberal” is a dirty word. Every week we hear about the great and spacious building, and it’s us versus the world. Everyone “in the world” is bad, and we without question are good. Every week it’s the same platitudes. So, yeah, a lot of othering going on that I don’t think is helpful if we are to be a global church, truly fellowship and love everyone.

  26. Can you find a gentle way to help that clueless missionary?

    I hope so. I shared the fallout with my bishop and underlined that my concern is not that the teacher be called on the carpet but that we do what we can to be a place of refuge regardless of the members’ various and sundry political persuasions.

  27. This is a real problem for my family, right in the heart of northern Utah. I have two children in YM/YW and one in Primary. Our discussions with our children over the past two or three years have caused increasing alarm as lessons, seminary curriculum, etc. are now becoming saturated with “save the family” and “fight for religious freedom” messages. The US culture wars are invading our religious space. We go to church to help one another and worship the Savior together. Instead, it is getting increasingly difficult to tell the difference between church meetings and a Republican Party meeting. There are alternatives to the 3-hour block and we are stepping back from the LDS church to avoid the spewing of anti-LGBT rhetoric that passes as religion in our neck of the woods.

    There is a spectrum of beliefs in our communities on any given topic – political or otherwise. Given the Savior’s statement that we are to be one or we are not his, there really are two paths to becoming one in such a spectrum of beliefs: authority/compulsion, or love/persuasion. Unfortunately, it seems the church is choosing the former. They may get their wish and become one, but it will be an awfully small population.

    It’s not the world that is attacking our religion. We’re sabotaging it.

  28. Sister Chris says:

    I’m politically libertarian, but loathe the conflation of politics and religion that I often find at church. If people’s religious beliefs inform their politics–fine–but let that be part of your personal and family study. I currently live in one of the bluest of the blue US states so my personal politics aren’t popular in my community–I’m used to being in a philosophical minority in many ways (#neverTrump). However at church there is still a strong Republican streak that never ceases to annoy me. I’m very much a live and let live person. Conservative in my politics; liberal in my Jesus.

    To me, the bigger issue is bringing American politics into an international church. Our family lived as expats for 8 years and during that time (including 4 years in what would be deemed a “totalitarian style country”), we came to appreciate both the diversity of the congregations we worshiped with and the political neutrality of our Sunday services. If the we truly believe what we claim–that the gospel is eternal and applicable to all–we have to work toward preventing US issues to inform and infiltrate our curriculum. Even seemingly innocuous stories about home life in various manuals often bear no resemblance to the lives many non-US members lead.

    My personal belief is that American culture and politics has informed church curriculum and teaching for so many years that there are likely a number of our missionaries who believe that teaching after that manner is appropriate and supported by precedent. They may not see anything wrong with it because that’s how they were raised. At some point, part of training our youth to be both teachers and adult members of the church must include helping them learn to be less culturally “color-blind” and aware of the needs of those they are teaching. This should be part of the MTC training at the very least

    May the Uchtdorfs in our senior leadership guide us towards a more inclusive and less polarizing rhetorical style in both worship and curriculum.

  29. This is the reason that I have started doing family history in the cultural hall during Sunday School. The last time I went someone informed us that the central message of the Book of Mormon is freedom from the government/taxes. Silly me. I thought the central message was salvation through Jesus Christ. A couple of months ago I asked my 8 year old daughter what she had learned in Primary. I was shocked to hear the teacher had compared President Obama to Korihor and then preceded to tell the 8 year olds about how President Obama wants men to be able to dress like women and enter women’s restrooms. My daughter was confused and I was upset. I talked to the Primary President but man, I am so weary of the conservative politics at church.

    I am grateful for websites like BCC that make me feel less alone in the journey. Thanks.

  30. Back when, my older daughter (she is now in her late 30s) became upset when a seminary teacher informed her class that mixed marriages were against the teachings of the church. My daughter was keenly aware that some kids in her class were the product of a Caucasian / Japanese marriage and others were a product of a Caucasian / Hispanic marriage. She viewed the comments as racist and thoughtless and told the teacher so. I agreed with my daughter, based on what I had been told. Then the seminary teacher called me, and told me that I needed to do a better job of teaching my family the gospel. I must say, I did not react too well to her comments. Then, a sympathetic high councilor called me warning me that the stake was “concerned” about our family, and suggested that my daughter and I offer our apology to the seminary teacher. My daughter has never set foot in church again.

  31. I am very sad that only one of my children and I remain somewhat active in the church. My husband is definitely a causality of the ugly Prop 8 campaign. Other family member’s dissassociation due to a combination of factors–as mentioned by others. Basically–ignorance and thoughtlessness on the part of leaders, teachers and members. My husband stepped away from a leadership position when higher-ups couldn’t/wouldn’t acknowledge that the political teaching material used contained blatantly false information. Sunday the topic in RS and HP will be Elder Rasband’s talk about religious freedom (Sept. Ensign). Big ugh. I won’t/can’t sit through that lesson. I don’t know how much more I can endure. I really try to go with hope, an open heart and willingness to learn–to consider messages given. But more often I come away from the “well,” thirsty and more dehydrated.

  32. Peter's friend says:

    I am the friend Peter refers to. I would like to quickly explain why this particular straw was so devastating to the proverbial camel.

    Church has been a struggle for a long time. Mormonism’s exclusivist truth claims have always been difficult for me to accept (I am too catholic) and much of Mormon culture and aesthetics are not particularly appealing. Still, I have found much of “good report” in being a Mormon, not least the ties that bind family and friends in the faith.

    I resigned from the bishopric after the November policy and have been hanging on ever since. Peter’s story is so grim to me because of what it made me see. I know his ward. It is a wonderful place and far removed from much of the nonsense that seems to bother the mothership . . . except it isn’t is it? There is a John Birch poison in the veins of Mormonism — even in far away central Europe — and I guess I have suddenly lost the energy to hope that it could ever be otherwise. Being a Mormon liberal is revealed *to me* as impossible in the long run.

  33. “Say what you will but a ward in Berkeley is apt to have a very different political bias from a ward in Sandy. ”

    Yet, (speaking from firsthand knowledge) even wards in Berkeley aren’t immune from narrow-minded, ignorant, letter-of-the-law types. But I suppose that is one of our great challenges in this life–to be able to practice love for all. The problem is, I don’t think within the U.S. church the more conservative members get much “practice” from associating with more liberal members since the ratio is more than 2 to 1.

    I too have little hope that the church will develop a bigger tent.

  34. A couple of months ago I asked my 8 year old daughter what she had learned in Primary. I was shocked to hear the teacher had compared President Obama to Korihor and then preceded to tell the 8 year olds about how President Obama wants men to be able to dress like women and enter women’s restrooms.

    Um….

    Then the seminary teacher called me, and told me that I needed to do a better job of teaching my family the gospel.

    Something similar happened to my family; in our case it was a senior missionary couple who let me know that if I wasn’t going to teach my spouse the gospel then they would! That left a mark.

    I really try to go with hope, an open heart and willingness to learn–to consider messages given.

    These sound like the ideal preconditions for worship; it is unfortunate that they are not sufficient in your case.

    Being a Mormon liberal is revealed *to me* as impossible in the long run.

    I suppose there are many who believe this is exactly as it should be. Regardless, it is a loss to Mormonism.

  35. Clark Goble says:

    Lois, some people are judgmental. That’s their sin and they have to overcome it. Even in conservative wards you then have people with different conceptions of conservatism (or raising families or cheering the wrong football/basketball team) being judgmental. The church is an infirmary run by the infirmed. Everyone’s sins are different.

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