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.