If you survey the damage left by Donald Trump and Covid-19 in our neighborhood of the American religious landscape, a sigh of relief is warranted. We made it through this storm relatively unscathed.
Maybe the flower beds are looking a little bedraggled, but if you peek over the fence, you’ll see that our neighbors’ houses have suffered a lot worse. (Maybe they could use a crew in yellow shirts to help with downed branches or a flooded basement? It couldn’t hurt to ask.) Another storm will inevitably appear some day, but consider the issues we’re not facing right now.
Our church leaders did not go all in for Trump. General authorities didn’t anoint him God’s chosen leader from the pulpit, either literally or figuratively. Church leadership maintained an arm’s-length distance and even issued a few statements opposed to various administration actions when necessary. Church members in the Senate include both dead-end Trumpers and the Hero of the Resistance. Everybody had someone to cheer for. No one got everything they wanted. There were enough Latter-day Saint never-Trump conservatives that the media started to notice a pattern.
The third quorum of the Seventy didn’t debate whether to disfellowship Mitt Romney or exclude him from the sacrament. Certainly there are some new political tensions and old ones have been inflamed, but you see it mostly as disgruntled individuals—both progressive and conservative—on the Internet or in local congregations. We’re not looking for signs that, say, Team Oaks and Team Uchtdorf are about to go their separate ways. As we return to regular church meetings, relations across the partisan divide are mostly okay for most of us.
The church responded quickly and decisively to Covid. Not perfectly, but no one responds perfectly to a pandemic. The church largely aligned itself with the CDC on public health measures and vaccination. (Where it dissented with state guidelines on grounds of religious liberty, it was more in theory than in practice, and it concerned something—what could be open when and under what conditions—that was such a national train wreck of inconsistent rules and misguided priorities that no one noticed.) Pandemic response in Utah—everyone’s favorite convenient stand-in for What Mormons Do—was, like most states, somewhere in the middle, better by some measures and worse in others. It turns out that fighting a pandemic is really hard and requires choosing (and at first, guessing) correctly for a long time, and eventually everybody blows it somehow. (If you missed your chance, there’s still time to muck it all up even now.)
We entered the Covid shutdown with a home-based curriculum in place, a year’s worth of priesthood ordinations just behind us and wide latitude for local units to figure out decentralized solutions to a worldwide problem that took different forms from place to place and month to month. Every ward and stake did things slightly differently, and that turned out to be mostly the right call.
Instead of going to war with Critical Race Theory, church leaders are finding new ways to cooperate with the NAACP. That will not erase the issue of race or reset the balance of history, but I’d much rather have the church exploring possibilities for racial reconciliation than trying to combat a diverse set of academic critiques of race and power in history.
While a significant fraction of American academia experienced an existential crisis, the church’s universities maintained healthy enrollment growth. The schools’ financial footing remained strong; it turns out that socking some money away in advance of global disasters isn’t a bad idea after all. If not all the BYU headlines were positive, neither did they involve pictures of administrators’ unzipped trousers.
This is not to say that everything is perfect or even that all is well: pandemics and political polarization and a national disaster like Trump (even if you think three justices were worth it, you can still admit he was a disaster in some important ways) are hellish problems with no easy solutions. It’s always tempting to look at some trend or crisis in another sector of American Christianity and assume it must apply to us as well. It doesn’t, at least not always, and not this time. National media outlets have treated the agonies of American Catholics or Evangelicals or Christians in general in numerous long-form articles over the last several years, articles that have been largely and blessedly silent about us.
There’s a certain segment of our readership that is perpetually certain that the church is on the precipice of disaster (or at least on a slippery slope tilting steeply toward it). What I’m trying to tell you is that the church is, at the time of this writing, not doomed. There have been some difficult situations with the potential to cause real, long-lasting harm (just look over the fence to see what might have been), but this time, we did okay.