Editor’s note: The following commentary from scholar Ralph Hancock is a response to Spencer Fluhman’s recent article, “The coming reconfiguration of Latter-day Saint politics.” Both pieces are part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.
The election of President Donald Trump has understandably opened a floodgate of reflections on an emerging political realignment.
As presented in his recent article in the Deseret News, my colleague and friend Spencer Fluhman sees in this conjuncture an opportunity for a political reconfiguration within Mormonism, and he seems to predict and perhaps wish for a “pluralistic” or even a “progressive” political shift within the faith.
But wishful thinking can lead to overinterpretation. There is, after all, no shortage of editorialists who see an opportunity for a momentous realignment toward their tastes. The temptation to envision an open future just to one’s liking can make it easy to disregard basic facts and to gloss over important LDS principles.
One of the facts the piece misses, for example, is that despite a visceral aversion to Trump, ultimately Mormons overwhelmingly voted for him. And, while the LDS Church is politically neutral, the election results were further evidence that en masse Latter-day Saints in the U.S. remain politically right of center.
Fluhman’s essay implies that a “progressive” view on immigration can be coherently grounded in Latter-day Saint belief. There’s no denying that the LDS Church has tempered the most strident immigration policies from passing in Utah. But, the church has also consistently stated that the federal government has the right and responsibility to secure its borders and enforce its law.
In order to fully judge whether a “progressive” immigration policy is plausibly grounded in LDS belief, we would have to know a little bit more about what counts as “progressive.” By Fluhman’s moralistic rhetoric (Islamophobia! Racism!) it would seem that a “progressive” immigration policy might mean moving the nation toward a more cosmopolitan society with less restrictive borders or a more global system in which considerations of national concerns regarding immigration are viewed as repugnant.
This seems to be the main link between religion and progressivism here: both are beyond calculating policy costs and benefits, and they are beyond what some might view as the pedestrian facts of discrete nation states. They deal mainly in the abstractions of universal rights and morality.
Apart from LDS teachings that governments are ordained of God, the flaw in religiously inspired progressivism is that it tends to wish away the tension between the universalism of the city of God and citizenship within a particular political community, and, by doing so, it erases the hard, but vital, work that occurs when religious believers negotiate the fruitful tensions between the city of God and the city of man.
Indeed, taken to its logical conclusion, Christian-based progressivism leads not only to weakened borders but also to weakened property rights. After all, the logic goes, a truly Christian society cannot permit the excessive accumulation of property when so many suffer from a lack of property. Never mind that such policies would, in the long-run, be economically devastating for both the rich and poor, but such policies also neglect other Christian principles like free agency, stewardship, self-reliance, eating by the sweat of one’s brow and providing for one’s family.
The second element where this kind of religious progressivism fails to be grounded in an LDS worldview is that it elides the very important “moral” questions that Fluhman’s essay characterizes as merely “the priorities of the ‘religious right’” that have caused Latter-day Saints to be “mired” in “culture wars.”
No matter how unpopular such “wars” may be in certain circles, Latter-day Saints could never abandon the Christian responsibility to resist the emerging ethic of sexual expression and gender-identity entitlement that often threatens to prevail at the expense of society’s immense interest in fostering stable families. And it’s also worth noting that there would never be so-called “culture wars” if progressives had not assiduously pursued a half-century-long goal of overturning the traditional consensus on biologically intact families.
The two poles of a religiously based progressive morality are not hard to put together — borderless globalism and free “sexual expression.” They are part of the same ethic that seeks to emancipate the individual from the needs and norms of all real, concrete national and religious communities. It’s a stretch, therefore, to imply that such a political perspective can be genuinely grounded in LDS belief.
And in the absence of any readiness to actually discuss, or even to see, the real religious, political and moral questions involved in issues surrounding borders and families, the invocation of a “vibrant pluralism” rings hollow. It certainly resonates within the progressive bubble of the academy where “openness” means deferring to the vision of a world without nations or norms.