It is no secret that Trump has a Mormon problem (see this NY Times article and this Washington Post article, for example). During the troubled campaign, the LDS Church released a statement implicitly responding to (and opposing) Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration, and church-owned Deseret News published an editorial condemning Trump’s misogynistic behavior and rhetoric, calling him to withdraw from the race–something all the more notable because the newspaper had not taken sides politically for 80 years. And although Trump ultimately won Utah, Mormons (in Utah and elsewhere) opposed Trump’s presidency more than any other traditionally conservative religious group. Yesterday, it was announced that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would be performing at Trump’s election.
This somewhat surprising announcement has been greeted with consternation and resistance by many of my more liberal LDS friends, and with grumbling “just what you’d expect” by other more liberal (but less Mormon) friends. As a Mormon who did not vote for Trump and who has significant concerns about his presidency, I have mixed feelings. I worry that the choir’s performance will be viewed (by Mormons and non-Mormons) as tacitly condoning Trump’s platform. I worry that some of my co-religionists who tend to be conservative will see this as an official stamp of approval of extreme views, and I worry that my friends of other faiths who already oppose some of the Church’s stances will see this as a confirmation that the Church is bigoted. For these reasons, I am not thrilled that the Choir accepted the invitation. At the same time, I recognize the sticky situation of the LDS Church and Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It was unavoidable that their response would be politicized one way or another, and they have an explicit policy of political neutrality. I do not blame them for accepting the invitation.
But there is something deeper here than a church’s flagship choir choosing whether or not to perform at the ceremony of a controversial figure. This is an instance of responding to a leader with whom you have “a problem.” And this is terrain that many of us will need to navigate in the near future. How should we handle our individual and institutional problems with Trump as he begins his presidency?
There are many responses to this important question and I will only discuss one aspect to take into consideration: A large block of the population voted for Trump and other Republican representatives. As we respond to Trump we implicitly situate ourselves in relation to these people. There are certainly issues with the rhetoric and means by which this block of the electorate was mobilized, but they are fellow citizens with whom we will be working and voting in the years to come. I believe our relationships with these fellow citizens is just as important as any response to the President-elect. This is particularly the case because of the antagonism and polarization that has afflicted our politics, and the continued divisiveness that has accompanied the campaign. Although there are real dangers in bad foreign and domestic policies, I see a greater danger in our political polarization, escalating extremism, and increasing inability to tolerate ideological heterogeneity. Unchanged, the ultimate destination of this radicalizing balkanization is, I believe, civil war.
Both sides are at fault for not moderating their rhetoric and actions; each of their polarizing moves aggravates and further entrenches the opposing stance. Like a traffic jam, this outcome may be the result of a complex system in which each side is justified in the choices they make, but the aggregate result is mutually harmful. So, while there are immediate issues to address with an approaching Trump presidency, we must also consider the long-term effect of systemic polarization. The outcome of this complex system could be much worse than a traffic jam. I have come to believe that addressing this (meta)issue is one of the greatest moral and political challenges of our time.
Some of my friends are gleeful whenever an artist has refused to perform at the inauguration and seem to think that this is the only moral response to Trump’s invitation. While I sympathize with these friends, I am not convinced that there are no other moral responses. In fact, I think it can be just as moral (or even more moral) to de-escalate potentially polarizing situations. I am not so naive as to suggest that we should simply smile and get along, supporting the Trump transition and presidency without question. There may be times when intense resistance is both expedient and appropriate. But I do not believe that blanketly opposing the President-elect is either. In my opinion, opposition should be issue-specific and precisely targeted (or it will be polarizing); a priori anti-Trump everything aggravates an already tenuous intranational situation.
I honestly don’t know how best to respond to Trump’s presidency, and I understand others’ opposition to him, and to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s acceptance of his invitation, but somehow we need to learn how to have disagreement without disaffiliation, and collaboration with criticism. If I’m right that political polarization will, in the long run, prove to be as great a risk as Trump’s presidency, perhaps the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s performance for a president with whom they have a problem is just what the doctor ordered.