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