From the beginning of the modern conservative movement in America, there always have been philosophical divisions. We have different species of conservatives: economic, social, neo- and paleo. Unfortunately, the movement often gets lumped together with non-conservative, but right wing, strains of delusional freedom fighters such as libertarians, the alt-right and conspiracy theorists.
In the 1950s and 1960s, conservative icons such as William F. Buckley did their best to create a movement based on what they called “fusionism” – the idea that all freedom fighters can work together for what they have in common. Admittedly, and rightly, fusionism did not include conspiracy theorists and other crazies, regardless of their popularity. In fact, Buckley went out of his way to separate the crazies from intellectual conservatives. Still, a big effort was made to bring every other reasonable freedom-loving philosophy together.
And for many years it worked. The glue holding this coalition together was communism during the Cold War. Everyone on the right agreed that communism was the number one threat to American freedom and everyone circled their political wagons against it. The conservative movement’s success against communism also became its failure as the anti-communist coalition fell apart after Ronald Reagan.
In the age of Trump, some pundits are trying to resurrect fusionism. Certainly, like never before in modern times, Trump’s opponents range the spectrum of politics, from conservative Never Trumpers to the Bernie Sanders’ Left. Fusionism has even been raised in the context of uniting the LDS faith here in Utah. The idea is that Trump’s disruption to political lines and allegiances can be used constructively to inspire a new political culture among Latter-day Saints. This new culture would serve to help LDS transcend their old allegiances to conservative politics and make it easier to accept progressive ideas.
But like the Soviet Union, Trump will not always be around to perversely unite opposing interests. Just as the quest for fusionism in the conservative movement failed so, too, will this idea of fusionism between orthodox and progressive Mormons.
Described by editors as “part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought,” BYU professor J. Spencer Fluhman writes about his hopes for an LDS Church that can transcend political disagreements as a basis for a “vibrant pluralism.” He foretells a “reconfiguration” in Mormon politics. He thinks progressive ideas will gain acceptance now that Trump has blown up political allegiances.
Imagine that: Trump the Unifier! No, of course you can’t imagine that and this is the main reason why this new theory of fusionism between progressives and conservatives will fail. Neither is it a good idea to try. Let me tell you why.
First, as I have mentioned previously, the LDS Church needs to remove itself from politics with one exception: religious freedom. The more the LDS Church has weighed into political scuffles, the more contention it has created among its members and investigators. The LDS Church is simply not nimble enough to effectively contend. It’s big enough to steamroll certain issues but not nimble enough to handle political processes prudently. When it tries prudence it just comes across as accommodation and sends mixed signals on the issue at hand and among the members. The playing field is left in worse condition than when the Church entered the game.
Trump has now made this situation worse. His new executive order repealing a provision at the IRS prohibiting religions from speaking out politically over the pulpit – including endorsing candidates – will only politicize religions even more. This is not a good thing.
A second reason that fusionism inside the LDS Church will fail is because any attempt to do so will implode. LDS Church membership has been on the decline for years now. I’m sure there are many factors that account for the decline but surely the biggest factor is the seemingly universal cycle of religious booms and busts. A friend of mine would ask me to imagine a bell curve and to the left of the curve – the part that inclines – we see solid church growth. To the right of the curve we see religion in decline. The growth occurs primarily because of orthodoxy and the decline occurs when a religion gains broad public acceptance and then moves to assimilate its beliefs with popular opinion. In other words, religions decline when they move from orthodoxy to progressivism – when they move from zero-sum commandments to passively accommodating sin.
I joined the LDS Church in 1978, a period of strong growth. The Spencer W. Kimball and Ezra Taft Benson years saw the highest rates of growth in modern LDS Church history. When the Church deemphasized its orthodoxy, in favor of a more public relations approach, and hardly mentioned the Book of Mormon after the Benson years, its membership went into dramatic decline – from eight percent growth a year during President Benson’s tenure to, now, one and a half percent this past year.
Even if the thought of religious fusionism feels good, it would be disastrous to the Church. All historic mainline religions have gone through this process. Catholics, Protestants and now even Southern Baptists have followed this growth and decline cycle. Not only does progressivism make no sense in political terms, it makes even less sense in religious terms.
History proves and the facts show that a vibrant faith is not diverse. It’s just the opposite, no matter how good the idea makes us feel.