I’ve been pondering the past couple days. I’ve read that our political affiliations are better predictors of our moral worldviews and priorities than our religious affiliations. It turns out that our political tribes have a stronger influence on our moral assumptions than our religious communities.
In retrospect, it almost seems obvious, but I don’t know why I didn’t realize it until now. If someone tells me they are a Christian or a Muslim, that doesn’t say much to me about how they feel about any number of moral issues (and, of course, the line between the moral and the political is sometimes blurry). But if they tell me they are a Republican or a Democrat, I can start to make confident guesses.
The implications of this are startling (if true, and I’m taking nothing for granted here). It means that if a major party goes off the deep end, we cannot (necessarily) rely on churches to keep us grounded. I mean, we see this worldwide and historically. Christianity was all over Nazi Germany, and yet people still drifted morally in horrifying ways when their favored party ventured into terrifying regions.
The moral worldviews of a church often reflects the political dispositions of its parishioners. And what this means is that American Christianity really is imperiled — if the Christian right really is welded to Republican party politics, then if the Republican party drifts more towards nationalism, ethnocentrism, racism, etc., this is going to be reflected in the churches. If American Christians embrace the Democratic party, and the Democratic party reinforces its support of same-sex marriage, abortion, transgenderism, and other issues, this is going to be reflected in the churches.
In short, as our shifting political fads change our party politics, we may very well finding ourselves reading those same fads into our most sacred texts, and our churches will start to reflect our changing politics. And we often don’t even realize it is happening. Our political bubbles are so thick at times that we hardly even see when we’ve drifted. And when the political terrain itself is shifting and ethereal ways, we lose the various benchmarks that we normally use to track our own political movements. When the Overton window is shifting nebulously, it’s hard to see whether we’ve drifted to the left or to the right, or whether the world has. Especially when these drifts take place over years and decades.
What’s fascinating is that the Latter-day Saints may be one of a few religious group with some protection from this, precisely because of our strong emphasis on following the prophet.
It is precisely our emphasis on strong moral leaders acting as moral authorities (to whom we owe great deference) that may protect us in times of potential political confusion and ruin. If the Republican party starts to slide off the deep end, the Christian right is going to slide with it. If the Democratic part starts to slide off the deep end, a lot of progressive Christians will slide off with it. But the Latter-day Saints are going to have at least one anchor: prophets. That anchor is going to keep us rooted when the political ground beneath us is shifting.
In past decades, the slope to the left has been the more precarious (with our wide-scale embrace of the sexual revolution, same-sex relationships, abortion, etc.), so that anchor has been keeping Church membership from sliding to the left. The Republican party became the default within the Church in part because it was the party that stood still on important social issues that the left was bending towards. And with that, many Church members took up right-wing politics even where it wasn’t necessary or good (e.g., immigration, refugees, etc.).
And so progressives within the Church have found value in advancing the narrative of prophetic fallibility. Prophets can make mistakes, many have argued, The theme was consistent: because prophets tended to be conservative on political and social issues, so we should be wary trusting them too much. Some have even attributed the teachings of prophets and apostles to their age, gender, or race.
But now the ground is tilting in strange new ways, and there’s precipices and dangers on both sides. This year, we have heard at least as much of a warning for conservatives and Republicans, as we have heard in previous years for progressives. Elder Ballard expressed sincere concern over the rise of nationalism during a BYU-Idaho devotional this spring. President Oaks has expressed concerns about violence following the election — and it’s certainly not clear which side he anticipates potential violence from. He also expressed some concern during a BYU devotional over our collective reluctance to take up the banner of opposing racism, taking up a theme that President Nelson emphasized at conference. It may very well be that they are currently just as worried about right-wing politics as they are left-wing politics. I’ve sensed a far more politically balanced slate of concerns from the Brethren this year.
Here’s the punchline: If the Republican party slides into more dangerous ideological territories, the same deference to prophetic authority that progressive members lament is going to save us from this right-wing drift. Every time progressive members emphasize the narrative of prophetic fallibility, they are weakening the ties between Church membership and the anchor that’s going to keep them from sliding to the right (just as much as it keeps them from sliding too far to the left). It is a good thing to have moral authorities in our faith who we can trust to be unmoved by political punditry, and who we take to be more authoritative than political pundits, politicians, or party leaders.
I suspect that in the next few years, progressive members of the Church may find themselves thanking President Benson for his 14 fundamentals talk (a talk that many have thoroughly criticized over the past couple decades). And if so, hopefully it leads to some self-reflection, and a broader realization of the tremendous value of having moral authorities who can pierce through our political bubbles and command our attention, over and against the noise, commotion, and upheavals of our political world. Hopefully it leads us all to recognize the value a religious community that has spent the better part of a century nurturing a tradition of taking especial notice of prophetic warning and instruction. That is what may end up saving our religious community in the years to come, in surprising ways.