America, election and the International Church

Over a month ago, I was asked by the Salt Lake Tribune what a reelection of Donald Trump would imply for the International Church. The reasoning of the journalist was that Trump’s performance as President of the United States, especially his handling of the covid-19 pandemic, was severely damaging not only his status in the world but also of the USA as a nation and world leader. Consequently, was the reasoning, conversion to a church that is primarily seen as a USA church, would be hampered.

The Utrecht Ward in 2000
My reaction at the time—when reelection was still possible—was that 1. The moral status of the USA has already been suffering over a long time; 2. Indeed Trump’s administration had done great harm to it; 3. In our eyes the notions of ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘American exceptionalism’ have little meaning other than a self-congratulatory discourse. The fact that the Book of Mormon situates itself in the Americas is important, but that seems to be mainly in Mexico and Guatemala, countries on which I hear little in terms of ‘destiny’, manifest or other. But it is hard to see how the Church could have be established as it is anywhere else but in the US of A.

The association between the USA and the Church is still strong, and the attraction of the Church in many countries in the world, does rely for a considerable part on the appeal of ‘America’. But I do not have the impression that the low conversion numbers in Europe have much to do with that diminished status of America, also not in the Trump era. Trump did not impede baptism. Rather, ongoing secularization, the increasing irrelevance of churches for social and economic life, and a turning away from religious organizations due to spiritual individualization are much stronger factors. Since the conversion numbers are low—and most converts drop out soon anyway—American politics are not overly relevant for missioning in Europe.

However, these politics are important for another dynamic: the way European church members look at their USA-based leadership. The Saints in Europe know very well that the Domestic Church leans to the republican side; since at least the Dutch members to lean slightly to the right on our political specter as well, that is not much of an issue. But in the eyes of Europe voting for Trump had little to do with being a republican, this vote was about a populist leader with media charisma, less about policy. We saw Trump fail in his approach to the pandemic and suffer the consequences; usually incumbents fare well in crises, and Trump has himself to blame. If Europe would have voted between Biden and Trump, counting would hardly have been necessary. In The Netherlands the rate would have been 6 : 1, in Germany 10 : 1, in Belgium 11 : 1. That was before the election. What it would be now, after his pathetic denials of election reality, is hard to guess.

So no re-election of Trump, and for the International Church this is good news. Most of the world uttered a deep sigh of relief after Biden’s win: America came to its senses. Consequently, for Church members their inherent connection with the US has become less of a liability in social contacts. In the past, we had to live with the consequences of the Bush jr. administration. After the attack on Iraq, people had spray-painted Mormon meeting houses with anti-American slogans, and I remember sleeping over in our Utrecht ward with our quorum to prevent similar attacks; the photo portrays the ward at that time (the author is one of the long ones at the back). Obama was very popular, and it helped in social contacts, while the Romney candidacy was a boon for the Church. Too bad he had to take on Obama; over here we hope he will run again later.

So that is one area of political influence on the Church, the ease with which members move around in their own social setting. The other is more serious. Much of the loss of members in the last decades were of a kind that I call ‘bleeding at the top’. I have seen quite a few Dutch church leaders leaving the church after their calling, like bishops and stake presidents. Recently a Dutch stake president took his farewell from the Church after serving for eight years, and he left within a year after his release. The reasons to leave can be subsumed as ‘disenchantment’: the inspired organization turned out to be more human than they hitherto assumed. Especially the PoX ruling was a blow in Europe; it has been revoked now, which helps but does not reverse all the damage. Well, to err is human and to forgive is divine, and we still have to school ourselves in forgiving our leaders, for the tension between inspiration and fallible leaders does remain.

The question now is what the election of Joe Biden-cum-Kamala Harris will mean for the International Church. At the other side of the Atlantic we judge American presidents on their performance in the international scene, and the promised return to political decency will restore something of the status of the USA and thus be beneficial to the Church at large. It may help conversion, but its main effect will be in boosting the morale of the members, who will be less reticent to proclaim themselves as members of an ‘American church’. For the future of the European Mormon Church, stemming the ‘bleeding at the top’ is crucial, and our leadership would be wise to use this electoral outcome in the Church’s favor in this respect. The fact that Utah voted for Trump will be overlooked easily, for it is the whole of the US that matters. However, what would really be a boon for the Church, would be for Utah to follow Arizona’s example and turn into a swing state; that would focus the full attention of the press and the electoral machine on the intermountain West, highlight the political neutrality of the Church, and make the International Church proud. Well, that is not our call, just an idea.

We, members from outside the USA, have learnt from this four year episode some important lessons. The first is that we do not think the same way in politics. In Europe we like to have good governance, which means a reliable, accountable and well-oiled state apparatus, which we have to fund by taxes; in the US the notions of small government and self-reliance by the population and local initiatives, are much stronger, with an aversion to paying taxes. The Gospel relates well to both, so this is an open choice. Second, we have witnessed how dangerous populism is for the democratic values and institutions—something we thought we were immune for since WW II, but clearly are not; we face similar problems, though less massive. At both sides of the Atlantic we face similar issues, and have to find our own solutions. But the inspiration from the Gospel is that its message transcends borders, puts the core questions of our existence at the center of our lives and teaches us that we are each-others brothers—and sisters—wherever we live.

Walter van Beek

25 comments for “America, election and the International Church

  1. If this were our ward, many of those lovely children at the front would no longer number themselves among the believers, largely because of the pox, which remains unexplained and unacceptable to our young people. Us elder folk had the base to take that knock, or some of us did, but for our youth, along with a garbled narrative around race and polygamy, it was a regressive step too far, and all couched in such hate fuelled language. I may be able to look back at a life blessed by the gospel, but my kids can’t.

  2. Walter, Thankyou for your thoughts. I assume Utricht chapel was built in the late 60s. My father was the building supervisor for a similar one in Coventry England.

    Not aware of the local church leaders leaving as you describe, can think of a couple of bishops, and a stake president, but not a lot.

    I think there are some present concerns for the credibility of the church, and some future ones.

    The fact that 70% of members voted for Trump, and 50% of members believe Trump won the election, damages the moral credibility of the church and members greatly. Are they starting to accept the facts yet?

    The fact that church leadership has not helped them with truth, and has not congratulated Biden yet, though they congratulated Obama, and Trump, before 9th of November, before counting finished. Also moral credibility?

    I see Biden, and particularly Kamala Harris, moving the dialogue in America on discrimination. Within a few years it will become unacceptable to discriminate, on race, sex, or sexual orientation. It already is in the rest of the first world. The churchs positions on women and priesthood, and homosexuality, will become less defendable, quickly.

    Good that the leaders have started to move on race, with conservative reservations, but they will need to remove discrimination or become irrelavent, and if thy resist too much the lack of leadership will cause more damage, as did the slowness on the lifting of the priesthood ban.

    Climate change is also going to be recognozed as a real problem, as well as an economic opportunity. Last summer we had extraudinary fires, which burnt nearly twice as much as American fires have yet, and burn places that never burnt before like rain forests. This year in spring, we are having heat, with temperatures in 40c, already for a week at a time.
    There are all sorts of side effects to climate change. It needs to be addressed, not denied, so good, the world could not do it without American cooperation/ leadership.

  3. Geoff, do you have a good source for you statistics on how many Church members voted for Trump and believed he won the election? I’m assuming those numbers are limited to members in the United States or Utah rather than worldwide.

  4. Hear hear Geoff! Add to this the almost unbearable fact that a member of the ruling LDS elite actually referred to this incompetent, mendacious, self-aggrandizing, serial adulterer as “CAPTAIN MORONI” and one is tempted to call the entire Mormon Project into question! After generations of gospel learning, this is Utah? Something is desperately wrong here.

  5. This made me think of a conversation I had with my brother who lives in Europe a couple years ago. He pointed out that the only people who think the LDS church is an International Church are the US Mormons. The rest of the world knows very well it’s an American Church with branches to welcome other cultures into it’s Americanness all over the world. That’s probably a bit of an exaggeration of course.

  6. Chad, those numbers are a small part of what I said, but I multiplied the figure of 70% members voting for Trump which I read by 73% of trump voters still believing he won to get about 50%.
    A mere 3% of voters for President Donald Trump think President-elect Joe Biden won the 2020 election, while 73% think the incumbent was the victor, according to a CNBC/Change Research poll.As Trump repeatedly loses vote challenges in court as his lawyers fail to prove wrongdoing in the election count, two-thirds of his supporters think he should never concede to Biden.The findings underscore the harm Trump’s unsubstantiated claims have done to confidence in the U.S. electoral system.

    These are not the original sources, but ones I can find now. Would you think more or less than 70% voted for trump? I must admit, where I live voting is compulsory, so I did not considder that if 70% of members that voted voted for trump, but if only 70% of members voted, that would mean only 49% of potential voters voted for trump.

    So how many members believe Biden won? Still over 50%?

    As far as I can tell the church leadership have not congratulated Biden, to help these members back to reality. Perhaps they are still hoping too?

  7. Almost half of all U.S. voters voted for Mr. Trump. I have no confidence in the assertion that 70% of Latter-day Saints voted for Mr. Trump — I don’t know what the number is, but 70% seems high to me — that figure can only be a poll result, and I don’t consider it reliable. However, I have much more confidence that most Latter-day Saints accept that Mr. Biden won the election fair and square. I am hopeful that the Biden Inaugural Committee will invite the Tabernacle Choir to sing at the inauguration festivities, if the coronavirus situation allows for such.

    If the poll was done by telephone, probably only old people were contacted in any numbers. The whole polling system needs to be re-visited.

  8. I googled “what percentage of Mormons voted for Trump,” and didn’t get much in the way of results. I recall reading a nationwide poll on how people of different faiths voted: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Evangelical, Mormon. This particular poll stated that 71 percent of Mormons voted for Trump, but polls taken immediately after elections tend to be not as accurate. It takes time to do sophisticated analysis of election results. There was an excellent NYT article today, nearly four weeks after Election Day, that described the gradual realization dawning among Democratic leaders and pundits that Biden’s victory was caused by moderate, suburban Republican voters choosing Biden, because of personal disgust with Trump, but who then voted Republican down-ballot, causing disappointment for Dens. In Senate, House, and state legislature races. Good polling takes time.

    I personally suspect that devout Mormons voted less than 71 percent for Trump. This is based on anecdotal evidence from conversations in my Sandy, Utah ward.

    Biden outperformed Clinton by 10.5 percent, winning 37.5 percent, the highest figure for a Democrat since 1964. Interestingly. Biden won nine precincts in (gasp) Utah County.

    Maybe there is room for hope.

  9. Thanks for the comments. I wrote the first draft of this post just after the election results came in, but a wise friend of mine advised me to wait a little; these are sensite days.
    During the Trump years the notions of fact and truth took a severe battering, and in any political system that is a bad thing. Gospelwise attacking truth is about the definition of evil, and our Church is proud to use the notion of ‘true Church’ in its self reflection. So we have to stand for facts and truth. So-called alternative facts’ are untruths, and whoever invented the term will be held accountable, I feel very strongly about that.
    Politics may change, election results may be debated, but unless we face facts we will never change things for the better. But it takes time to change an opinion, and it demands a major cognitive effort to realize that facts are different from what one thought them to be, or–in this case–wished them to be. Wishful thinking should not last too long.
    From over here it seems as if the Mormons just voted like the ‘Republican Tribe’ as Time Magazine called it, and may have internalized to some extent the untruthful discourse about the elections coming from the White House. We, across the Atlantic, never witnessed elections as closely scrutinized as this one, never as meticulously recorded, and viewing the verdicts of the courts, evidence for any electoral steal is completely absent. Which simply means the elections were OK. Congratulations Biden & Harris and let us move on.
    I think this acceptation is a question of time, and the present situation calls for quiet reflection, not partisan exchanges. As Mormons we have shown not to be immune from misinformation, and surely not if they stem from the centre of power, a good lesson also for us here in Europe. I hope that the idea that ultimately this election result is beneficial for the Church at large, helps a little.

  10. Geoff, I realize the statistics were a small part of what you said (and one of the less important parts). I asked because they did seem high (particularly the “50% of members believe Trump won the election”) and unsubstantiated. Of the Church members I have associated with here in Utah, I know many who did vote for Trump and some who expressed belief that Trump would be vindicated and win the election during the early days after the election (though I’ve heard/seen less of that lately). Many of the members I have talked to about the election, however, either voted for Biden/Harris or third party candidates because they strongly disliked Trump. Admittedly, though, I have been pretty isolated with the pandemic situation this year, so my social interactions are limited and may reflect my own social circles more than the general Latter-day Saint populace in Utah.

  11. “To my Mormon friends, my Latter-day Saint friends, think of him [Trump] as Captain Moroni.”

    J Green, please correct me if I’m mistaken but neither that other senator nor anyone in the LDS hierarchy has in any way corrected much less chastised Mike Lee for comparing President P***y Grabber with one of the most sacred personages in LDS theology. Given Lee’s office and extraordinary pedigree I find this astonishing, disheartening and revealing.

  12. P, you need a basic refresher about what constitutes the “ruling LDS elite,” a “sacred personage in LDS theology” and an “extraordinary pedigree.” In all three cases, you appear to have no idea what you’re talking about. Picking out only the worst examples you can find while ignoring anything that might complicate your thesis is a stupid game not worth playing.

  13. Walter, Not only alternative facts, but alternative morality.
    Lies v truth
    Accepting Racism v fighting it
    Denying climate change v working to defeat climate change
    Freedom is more important than the virus v do what is necessary to defeat the virus
    Opinion v Science
    The gov caring for your neighbour is marxism v governments are the only ones who can redistribute wealth.
    Tax cuts for the wealthy v tax increases for wealthy to help the poor.

    Some of you may not see all of these as moral questions, but if you think of the consequences, particularly for the poor, you may.

    That the church has failed to show leadership on these moral issues, even to its members? That RMNs special message, ignored moral leadership, and instead promoted an American holiday into a sideshow of self congratulation? Moral Credibility for church leadership?

  14. The senior senator from Utah, himself son of a BYU president/founding dean of its school of law, appropriated a cultural symbol so sacred that Latter-day Saints adorn the heights of their temples with it, and used it to describe a dissolute cretin. You do the math, JG.

  15. The Moroni on the temples is not the same as Captain Moroni, but you’re right about the dissolute cretin part.

  16. My math says that the senior senator is an idiot, while the junior senator has earned plaudits on all sides for being the one Republican senator willing to impeach the dissolute cretin, which means that the final answer…requires more than a hasty, facile judgment.

    How long has it been since you’ve read the Book of Mormon? Confusing Captain Moroni with the Angel Moroni is pretty bad. At least check out the videos? I hear they’re pretty good.

  17. As I thought, emotions are running high. The adoration of Trump by his following is troubling, has not changed, and will remain. It is a phenomenon we have to be very attentive to for we have seen the same in our European history, and right now again. Adoring someone is easier than thinking for onself, much easier.
    Yes, I would have liked for our leaders to stand up on behalf of the notions of truth and facts, but maybe that will still come, for they are rightfully reticent to hop into political arenas, while, of course, not prone to stand up against a Republican president; one can understand that. All in all, they are coming out ever more human, but that is what we all are.
    Let us view the nonsensical equation of Trump with Captain Moroni as a campaign hyperbole; my BoM character of comparison would be Master Mahan, and I think a better case can be constructed for that one. But people are what they are, and in the end we all are somewhere in between the solid hero of Captain Moroni (no, not the angel) and Mr Mahan, all trying to fix our feet on a long and slippery slope,
    The fact that this return to political decency does benefit the Church, could be a beam for a bridge between the opposing parties.

  18. In July 1838, Smith wrote an article for the church periodical Elders’ Journal, in the form of questions and answers, that stated the following:

    Question 4th. How, and where did you obtain the book of Mormon?

    Answer. Moroni, the person who deposited the plates, from whence the book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County, New York, as a resurrected being, appeared unto me, and told me where they were; and gave me directions how to obtain them.[7] Wikipedia

    Not true?

  19. p, True or not, it’s irrelevant to the preceding discussion. It seems you have confused two different characters in the BoM, both named Moroni. Read the book. I wonder how often I make similar mistakes.

  20. Ouch, my bad, you’re right! BYU ‘85 I didn’t like BoM first time I read it & have avoided since. For me ONE Moroni is hard enough to believe, but two? Perhaps I must need repent! Thx for the correction.

  21. Well, with both Moroni’s the comparison with Donald Trump is way off, but, again, this is campaign rethoric. One problem is that Trump never got beyond the campaign mode, and he still is pouting in a lost campaign.
    But let us have a prudent hope for a better government in the USA than the past 4 years have shown. For ‘us overseas’ rejoicing, with compassion and understanding for diverging positions, is on the agenda, and a call to unite in striving for the good of all people. President Nelson’s speech was a good stimulus, salvation is not in politics, but decent politicans can help.

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