Our unhappy political moment has unfortunately corrected a longstanding asymmetry in ideologically-driven exit options.
It has long been apparent that some liberal and progressive members of the church experience tension between their religious and their political or intellectual commitments. After seeing enough people follow a path from internal critique to a left exit, and as someone who tends toward liberal politics and intellectual pursuits, I have to be honest with myself about the potential for secularism, intellectualism and progressivism to become deadly heresies for me.
Until relatively recently, there was usually no clear equivalent on the right. The primary pitfall for conservatives was if anything fundamentalism, an unyielding and inflexible commitment to particular or contingent teachings and secondary or cultural elements of the church rather than to the core doctrines of the gospel. Fundamentalist faith can be brittle and risks a major rupture whenever a program changes or new possibilities for interpreting scripture emerge. While fundamentalism might bind individuals more closely to the church, I have doubts about its viability as a vehicle for propagating faith across generations.
Secular intellectualism is not the left-hand counterpart of fundamentalism in any case. Instead, the pervasive brittleness of fundamentalism finds its opposite in the cumulative antinomianism of people who see themselves as happily committed members of the church, except for the things that (so they tell themselves) aren’t really essential anyway. For example:
- I love the church, but coffee just doesn’t matter.
- Not ordaining women is nothing but patriarchal culture that the church will soon outgrow.
- The church doesn’t need the money, so I’ll use my tithing for other worthy causes.
- The prophet and apostles simply aren’t prepared to receive revelation about gay marriage, or just haven’t asked.
- The church needs to get away from a simplistic historical view of the Book of Mormon.
- Obedience and following the commandments are antithetical to loving the Lord.
- The concept of sin is harmful and causes psychic distress.
The ultimate conclusion is that there is no sin, no divine law, no need for a savior or a church to provide salvific ordinances. Maybe you find one of these points attractive. But two points define a line, and that line is sloping in the wrong direction. While the fundamentalist clings inflexibly to everything until one sudden movement disrupts the whole structure of belief, the antinomian pares back belief bit by bit until there’s no substance to it.
But creeping antinomianism differs from the tension felt by progressives or intellectuals between their competing commitments. While conservatives have largely enjoyed alignment between their faith and their politics, the rise of Trumpist populism has changed that. Now conservative church members too have to be wary of political currents that will distance them from the church, including
- racism and white nationalism,
- gun rights fundamentalism,
- pandemic denialism,
- conspiracy theories, and
- the embrace of cruelty.
If you’re a Republican, you have to remain vigilant about ongoing changes in your political party. If you’re profoundly upset by the church’s support of immigration and condemnation of racism, or that you have to wear a mask and can’t concealed carry at church, you are in spiritual peril. Progressives have at least become practiced at living with their political and religious commitments in tension, but for you it’s new. If you’re dabbling in the alt right, cosplaying civil war with your AR, mocking Fauci, huffing Q, or delighting in owning the libs and separating families at the border, you may find yourself experiencing the novel feeling of being at odds with the church’s public statements or the target of the prophet’s rebuke.