Eric Hubner: Christian extremism: Will the Saints go marching in?

An Al-Anon kind of approach may help steer family and friends away from Christian nationalism.

(Erin Schaff | The New York Times) People protesting the presidential election results inside the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2020. The Capitol building was placed on lockdown, with senators and members of the House locked inside their chambers, as Congress began debating President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. President Trump addressed supporters near the White House before protesters marched to Capitol Hill.

Many among us have cause to mourn as we observe friends and family members who are currently caught up in radicalized American political and conspiracy movements. We must talk openly about our concerns for these loved ones who have become “true believers” in radical causes.

I was saddened to learn that at least one returned missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints participated in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Some Idahoans saw a friend and neighbor as they and the entire world viewed a photo of 34-year old Josiah Colt as he held onto the rim of the U.S. Senate Chamber gallery before he dropped onto the Senate floor. I wonder what we could have done to help Josiah Colt before he chose to engage in such an extreme act?

None of us want persons of any faith — including Latter-day Saint neighbors, friends and family — to be among the number of radicalized citizens who go marching into the next U.S. federal building or state legislature as part of a misguided movement to “save our country” by force. But we shouldn’t be too surprised if they are among the insurrectionists either.

When the religious faith of a family member or friend is based less on scripture and more on conservative culture with strong authoritarian leanings, and they view political disagreements “as having nigh-apocalyptic stakes” and their belief in love of God and love of country are “one and the same,” that person may be at risk for radicalization.

Christian nationalism is a gateway to political extremism. Many Evangelicals and many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are Christian nationalists. In fact, according to a recent poll, “a plurality of Latter-day Saint voters in Utah (40%) and Arizona (43%) score in the highest tier of Christian Nationalism. ... Another 36% in Utah and 31% in Arizona are ‘Accommodators,’ or those who subscribe to many Christian Nationalist sentiments.”

Recent additions to the LDS Church’s General Handbook that caution against unreliable sources of information that “promote anger, contention, fear or baseless conspiracy theories....” may not be sufficient to provoke some LDS Church members to renounce their extremist and conspiracy views.

Authoritative, unambiguous statements by leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on political extremism, similar to those made by church leaders on racism, would be instructive to members of the church who live in the U.S. Such unequivocal pronouncements would also reassure LDS members of other nations that the church’s political neutrality should not be confused with silent consent or support for radicalized American political and conspiracy movements.

There is little value, but great danger in drawing a line and then blurring it. Compromise often begins with wishing not to provoke anger among those who need to rethink their views and allegiances. The awful consequences of the Catholic Church’s efforts to walk a blurred line of mutual accommodation with National Socialists in Nazi Germany is a reminder that history is kinder to those who take a clear stand for the greater moral good, no matter the present cost.

In addition to the moral courage of leaders, we need good hearted persons to form online “recovery” groups to help individuals and families struggling with the consequences of conspiracy beliefs and political radicalization. When one of our family members was wrestling with an addiction, my wife and I attended a family support group known as Al-Anon. It was a relief to learn we were not alone in our challenges. Al-Anon helped us learn strategies that assisted us in our efforts to set limits while simultaneously reaching out to our loved one in healthy ways.

We need “evidence-based” approaches to help families of persons involved in political extremism. We also need solid research on how to help individuals extricate themselves from addictive, online forums that move them further “down the rabbit hole” to become toxically radicalized patriots.

If we don’t proactively address the risk factors that make our friends and family members susceptible to political extremism, don’t be surprised if you see some of the Saints go marching in as part of the next insurrection or act of domestic terrorism.

Eric Hubner

Eric Hubner, Volcano, Hawai’i, received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brigham Young University, as well as a master of social work degree from the State University of New York. He is a retired mental health therapist and school social worker, who also worked in the addiction field and coordinated services for families at risk of child abuse and neglect.

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