Some scholars see Trump years adding to problems abroad for LDS Church

(Courtesy photo) Sister missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teach a young man in Lyon, France.

There’s an old saying that in order to be converted to the message, you have to be converted to the messenger.

So David Erland Isaksen, an assistant professor in business communication at the University of South-Eastern Norway and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, worries his Utah-based faith is having a harder time attracting converts abroad in an era when the U.S. government is withdrawing from alliances, stifling immigration and failing to control COVID-19.

“People have a bit more of a negative view toward Americans in general because of Donald Trump’s presidency,” Isaksen said. “... It just makes it harder [for the missionaries] to get that first invitation to come inside, to get to know them if the perception of the country is very negative.”

In interviews, some scholars who are Latter-day Saints — or have studied its worldwide operations — expressed concerns about the implications a diminished U.S. reputation has for the LDS Church.

“It’s an American-based church and has an American theology,” said Walter van Beek, a Latter-day Saint and a professor of anthropology at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Decoupling the church from the United States is difficult, the scholars say, especially when so many of the faith’s full-time missionaries come from there. So when the U.S. government does something the international community doesn’t like, it can look bad for the church.

“The church likes to see themselves as a global church,” said Kristeen Black, who has a doctorate in religion and studies Mormonism. “What they actually are is a U.S.-based church with global settings.”

Impact in Europe

(Photo courtesy of Matt Martinich) Independent Latter-day Saint demographer Matt Martinich.

Not everyone, of course, views Trump and his policies as big problems for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Matt Martinich, a clinical psychologist who researches and reports on demographic trends in the church for his ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com website, sees no correlation between Trump and growth rates.

“There are other things,” Martinich said, “that have more important impact on church growth than who is the president of the United States.”

Those more important factors, he said, include adequate prebaptismal training for converts, well-functioning local leadership and whether the country has a society that is secular. Historically, Martinich said, the less secular a society, the better the church has done at attracting and retaining converts.

The scholars who are more wary of Trump acknowledge he has fans abroad, particularly on the far right, who share the U.S. president’s unease toward immigration and internationalism.

(Photo courtesy University of South-Eastern Norway)  David Erland Isaksen, an assistant professor in business communication at the University of South-Eastern Norway and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Isaksen, though, sees those supporters as a minority. He is running for a City Council post as a candidate with a center-right party that does not share alarmists' views of immigration. And Trump’s disdain for NATO and his benevolence toward Russian President Vladimir Putin pack potential consequences in Norway.

“We rely on NATO a lot in Norway,” he said, “and we share a border with Russia.”

For his part, van Beek said Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic — and the U.S. president’s statements about the science that could mitigate it — is also distasteful to Europeans. But the Dutch scholar doesn’t see the challenge for the church in Europe being so much about attracting converts — the baptism rate there has been low for decades — but rather retaining members.

Van Beek says he knows multiple men with high positions in their Latter-day Saint congregations who have stopped attending services. One factor, he believes, is the notion that the church’s general authorities and its Utah home are more politically conservative than the European membership.

Losing members is a bigger problem in Europe than in the United States, van Beek said, because the congregations are so much smaller. Fewer churchgoers can make it harder for those wards and branches to operate effectively.

“Let’s say this very clearly,” he said, “not reelecting Donald Trump will be a boost for the church.”

Impact in Latin America

(Evan Vucci | AP file photo) President Donald Trump points to his shopping cart during a tour of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints' Welfare Square food distribution center, Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, in Salt Lake City.

Henri Gooren, an associate professor of anthropology and director of religious studies at Michigan’s Oakland University who has studied Mormon conversions in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, believes Trump’s impact on proselytizing in Latin America has been negligible. Martinich has written about how the growth rate there — once skyrocketing — has slowed in recent decades.

Still, Gooren said, Trump’s anti-immigrant, racist actions and rhetoric aren’t helping matters and could further erode the church’s appeal. Many Latin Americans are attracted to the faith because of its emphasis on family and continuous spiritual development, and also because the church’s ties to the United States represent an opportunity to advance economically.

“It’s more the image of American culture,” Gooren said, “and the image of American success and prosperity, and let’s just call it the American dream.”

As an institution, the LDS Church is neutral in partisan political matters, and its general authorities are forbidden from partisan activities. Gooren believes that has served the denomination better than the way some evangelical clergy have embraced Trump.

Some academics wish the church would speak out more on humanitarian and religious issues.

(Photo courtesy Kristeen Black) Kristeen Black, who has a doctorate in religion and studies Mormonism.

Trump’s positions on immigration, his seeming indifference toward the pandemic’s human toll and his use of the Bible as a prop after the clearing of protesters near the White House clash with Latter-day Saint teachings, Black said. The church’s reluctance to speak out on those issues, she added, might be seen as siding with Trump.

“I don’t expect the church to make a strong statement about everything,” Black said, “but since they don’t make a strong statement about the big things, then people start to question everything.”

Van Beek said Latter-day Saints in Europe have received some positive news coverage the past four years when Sen. Mitt Romney and former presidential candidate Evan McMullin opposed Trump’s words and policies. The scholar believes the LDS Church could gain some esteem abroad if Utahns vote against Trump in the presidential election.

When told Utah’s Electoral College votes are overwhelmingly expected to go for Trump, van Beek replied with surprise.

“That’s a put-down for the church.”

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