jon bialecki, UC san diego

“The Wheels Came Off”: COVID-19, Mormon Missions, and the Christian Nation-State(?)

It seems safe enough to say that in the United States, there is an association between, on the one hand, conservative Christian beliefs, and on the other hand, a skepticism about scientific claims regarding COVID-19 and hostility towards practices intended to deter the spread of COVID-19. Given their longstanding reputation for political conservatism, one might expect members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be particularly antithetical to anti-COVID-19 safety measures and the science behind them. This expectation might advance to a sense of sure certainty if one was to additionally weigh the fact that there are plenty of Mormon* traits and practices that seem to be animated by science-denialism: Church members are more likely to reject evolution than almost any other American religious group, and many believers use essential oils and other naturopathic-like cures that are at best only questionably effective.  

It is true that in Utah, there has been significant resistance to State rules intended to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, including public social events intended to protest restrictions by purposefully flouting them. But even acknowledging this, the hypothesis that Mormons across the board either disbelieve or disregard COVID-19 is not quite right, either. It appears that Mormons take this quite seriously, or, to be more exact, the institutional Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints takes COVID-19 quite seriously. In March, Church leaders closed one hundred and twelve Temples worldwide, and instilled strict social distancing measures in the remaining fifty-six (Temples in Taipei, Seoul, and Rome were closed earlier in the year when those regions were struck). Meetinghouses (home to weekly Sacrament Meetings and other social and religious events) were also closed worldwide; and even when later in the pandemic Church leaders slowly lifted these restrictions, they also encouraged members to follow (as they phrased it) a “growing chorus of medical authorities” and to wear masks. “Now we ask all Latter-day Saints in the Utah Area to be good citizens by wearing face coverings when in public,” they implored in their written announcement.

What accounts for this reaction, so much different than that of many other conservative American religious denominations? Any broad-brush explanation covering a social object as vast as the Church will be lacking, but it seems that part of the reason rests in quintessential Mormon organizational imperatives and nation-building apocalyptic anxieties and aspirations. And perhaps the best way to see these at work ethnographically is to turn to a quintessential Mormon institution: the young ‘Elders’ and ‘Sisters’ who, in their iconic pairs, have become the face of the Church’s Missionary outreach.

The first thing to keep in mind is that for missionaries who were either in training or early in their two-year tour of duty, COVID-19 did not land with a crash; as it did for many others, the pandemic seeped up from below, and only became an issue when some particularly critical marker was reached. One missionary I talked to, then just beginning his post in the Ivory Coast in the early months of 2020, first realized it was serious when a fellow missionary told him some news from the States. That other missionary had received permission to receive texts from home, and he passed on the news that two players on the Utah Jazz basketball team had tested positive. The first missionary asked his friend to text back to learn which players were infected: it turned out to be his two-favorite team-members.

This may sound like a shallow way to find out, but basketball has an outsized importance in Mormon culture; it’s common for American-situated meetinghouses to have (sometimes carpeted) basketball half-courts as a part of the structure. But soon more significant Mormon institutions than basketball were affected. Out-of-country missionaries were “evacuated” back to their home nation in a process not unlike an airlift; all other missionaries were ordered to quarantine themselves. One event that really brought the seriousness with which the Church was taking COVID-19, though, was what happened to the Spring General Conference. 

The Spring General Conference is usually held in the main auditorium of the Conference Center, a cavernous building that seats roughly 21,000 people. Only a block away from the Salt Lake Temple, it is normally packed with believers who come to listen to sermons delivered by the heads of the Church, with the rest of the Church members listening using distance technology. But this year, it would be only distance technology; the Conference was moved to a smaller chamber, and held without any audience being physically present. (Though the substance of the General Conference talks chose to focus more on the bicentennial of what is referred to as Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” than on the public health emergency.) Shortly afterward came the announcement that regular Sunday services were canceled as well.

It felt, as another missionary also just starting his mission period stated at that time, like the wheels were flying off.  As he quipped, “I left the world alone for what, something like three weeks, and the world falls to pieces – do you all need me that bad?” He was then in training at the flagship “MTC,” shorthand for the Missionary Training Center, a Provo, Utah complex located right next to BYU (Brigham Young University). At the start of each day, the teacher would announce the latest Church-related COVID news. And after that, the missionaries-in-training would undergo the exact same pedagogical program that they would have been put through six months or a year before.

This juxtaposition started to eat at the confidence of many of the missionaries.  Many wondered if they would even be able to go to their mission field site in the first place. Missionaries-in-training who were going to be posted to non-English speaking regions would express less and less sureness that they would ever get to use the new languages they were being taught. Our then-in-training missionary got through this continuing uncertainty by repeating to himself that no matter what happens, today at least he was a missionary until told otherwise. This anxiety was not limited to the MTC. The missionaries who had been evacuated from posts outside the United States were (for the most part) at home with families. Not hearing from the office of First Presidency (the organ responsible for determining missionary assignments) for one to two months (or even occasionally longer), they were unsure if they would even be given a new assignment (this was despite earlier assurances on this point from Missionary program officials that they would return to some field, if not their original field). And some missionaries, after receiving their new posts, ended up having to be reassigned again, since their second assignment was to places like Canada that refused to accept Americans into their country.

On top of all this, there was what appeared to be an ill omen: the Utah Valley, which includes the city of Provo, was struck by a 5.7 earthquake, damaging the main Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. This earthquake, during this pandemic, activated the never all that latent “Latter-Day” segment of the Church’s imagination. Many Church members are already always on the lookout for signs of the imminent apocalypse, and these same people were also always preparing for the chaos and violence that was sure to follow. So, under these circumstances, seeing this as an indicator of the end-of-days was a natural mode of thought to fall into. As one of the missionaries I talked to put it, on the day the earthquake happened, “I said to myself well, I better start studying the Book of Revelations real quick, cause stuff’s going down.”  Add this to a longer litany of portents, such as Australian forest fires and locust swarms in Africa. All this, as he said, “’calls up our minds to remember the Lord our God,’ as they put it in the scriptures.”

This mix of soft institutional breakdown and rising apocalyptic anxieties may seem like a recipe for disaster – and yet, at least so far, things are going better than one might have imagined. Since those early days, missionaries have been reassigned to the field, including some foreign assignments. And even though the MTC itself was eventually shut down due to fears that it could foster an outbreak, missionaries-in-training were still taught via Zoom. (I have heard tales of an MTC instructor being caught on screen wearing shorts, which didn’t match with the necktie and suitcoat he was also wearing.) And the number of missionaries who have contracted COVID-19 is strikingly low.

As for the two missionaries I spent the most time talking to, they eventually became each other’s partner, working while quarantined in an apartment complex that is located in a state within the southern United States. Outreach has changed, of course. Now, they find new ‘investigators’ (the term for people who express an interest in Mormonism and regularly talk to missionaries) via social media; the same tools are used to reach out to Mormons who are ‘inactive’ (once baptized, one remains a member of the Church unless one resigns, or is found guilty of apostasy, or a similarly weighty-by-Mormon-standards sin, by a Church disciplinary council).  But while there are obvious limits to the use of such media, there are advantages as well: for instance, the two missionaries I spoke with have found a substantial number of investigators who are located in Africa.  Furthermore, much of the ‘service’ work that also normally takes up a fair chunk of the time of missionaries is still done; service, for the most part, is free labor donated to and by Church members, usually consisting of arduous physical tasks such as breaking rocks with a pickaxe at some believer’s home, shoveling snow from a sidewalk, or tending to gravesites. And since much of this labor occurs in the great outdoors, it can be carried out almost as normal (though based on reports, apparently wearing masks while using a pickaxe is not the most pleasant of experiences).

This is not to say that there are not also costs. One of the chief metrics by which success as a missionary is gauged is how many ‘key indicators’ one reaches. By ‘key indicators,’ we are speaking here of the goals of finding ‘new investigators,’ of investigators who attend a sacrament meeting, of investigators with a baptismal date, and ‘investigators baptized and confirmed.’ And while reaching these various milestones are not all impossible, it turns out that under quarantine conditions, the last three are more difficult than they are under normal circumstances. Further, both the Church and the missionaries are still learning how to operate under new conditions. But the Church is finally in a position to make up for having an unresponsive curriculum during the Spring by having training on topics such as the production of ‘homemade’ videos for evangelical purposes, and on the use of social media (including Facebook, which seems like an alien, obstreperous, and slightly geriatric land to young missionaries). What is more, these trainings and the documents that support them, while clearly somewhat improvised, are characterized by the same aesthetics and level of quality as other, pre-COVID missionary materials. As one of the missionaries said, “[s]omething that kinda amazes me about the Church is as a whole, the Church when it operates as a machine, is its efficiency and ability to make to make things look good even whenever – even when it’s something that’s a little bit rushed.”

It is at this point that we can say something about how the Church’s response to COVID-19 shows a perhaps not always seen facet of the problem that animates the Christian Nations project. That there is a nation-building aspect to Mormonism is clear from its history, running from Joseph Smith’s quixotic run for the office of President of the United States, to the establishment of a secretive Council of Fifty that was intended to act as a “Living Constitution,” to Brigham Young’s Mountain West theocracy of Deseret. Even today, when the Church has grown comfortable with having members scattered all over the globe, instead of having them concentrated in Utah, they still see their project as building up Zion; but Zion is also the way that the communities making up the Wasatch Front are sometimes referred to. This conflation of the Utah community and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints laminates the project of building a global Church with the project of constructing a particular sacred city. Finally, there is a crypto-ethnic logic in much of Mormon identity.  Mormons see themselves as a ‘peculiar’ people (to use one of their own terms), with an emphasis on the word ‘people.’ And this sense of being a people comes with its own ethnic foods (such as funeral potatoes and fry sauce), its own holidays, festivals, and parades, and its own cinema and theatre.  Of course, this knowledge isn’t evenly distributed generationally. (An example: the missionaries I talked to about COVID, knowing full well that I was a ‘gentile,’ joked archly once that I must be a better Mormon than them since I was more familiar with Mormon-created musicals that they were). And many of the faithful who were brought up outside of the Intermountain West find this Mormon culture strange, and sometimes off-putting. But Mormonism in that region still stands as the paradigmatic form of the religion in many people’s minds, and that form is one where Mormonism is as much an ethos as it is a religion. This is one reason why leaving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is sometimes so painful and difficult.

However, if we are going to take seriously the division between State and Nation as analytic categories, then the disruption wrought by COVID-19 suggests that there can be times where the Christian State – meaning here the executive and institutional aspect of the religion – seems to be the more relevant category. Of course, the state can’t stand alone; the entire missionary project as a collective endeavor only makes sense if we laminate religious longings with a sense of belonging to a particular set of people. And even in Utah, the Christian state has to be parasitic on the services and modes of sociality made possible by the secular state. But, it seems that the drive towards management and control exercised, for better or worse, by the Church has its own cohesion making power, and can do much of the same work in fostering larger identification with being a people as the Christian nation can.

What is more, at least in the case at hand, the strength of the Mormon nation and the Mormon State do not appear to be synchronized with one another. Rather, they can arrive staggered, like overlapping sine waves whose crests come in a rhythm, rather than hitting all at once. At certain moments, when the cohesion of Mormon faculties for governing and management appeared to be breaking down under the weight of COVID-19’s sudden onslaught in the Spring of 2020, some of the apocalyptic imagination that we might associate with the Mormon vision of nationhood comes to the fore. If Mormonism is engaged in the work of building Zion, and if Zion has a (Christian) Nationalist edge to it, then building Zion is an apocalyptic project with a millennial payout. And so, in strange ways, the signs of the end times were also signs indicating that the Mormons as a people were on the cusp of their apotheosis. Thus, apocalyptic anxiety and organizational prowess, Christian Nation fears and Christian State action, were tightly interconnected with one another even as they appeared to be out of sync. And it was thus the same apocalyptic watchfulness and hesitant expectation that allowed the COVID-19 virus to be taken seriously as a potential threat. Unlike Evangelical Premillennial dispensationalism, the Mormon apocalyptic imaginary is not overly structured: the only thing that is certain is that bad things will happen, and that there will be no ‘rapture’ allowing them as a people to collectively escape the oncoming horrors. Mormons must forge bonds and make plans where others merely rely upon being whisked away.

The institutional breakdown, though, did not last forever, and the apocalyptic fever broke as well, or at least fell to a lower level of intensity. The wheels had ceased to come off. (Though the Church did end up holding its October General Conference without any live audience, just as they did in the Spring.) But, as control was exercised by the Mormon State, and as the organization, deployment, and labors of missionaries reached a (new) normal, the National and eschatological edge of Mormonism receded. But receding does not mean disappearing. Because it is the vision of Mormons as a people, of Mormons as forming a Christian Nation, that make the Mormon State possible. And it is the organizational genius of the Mormons, the trait that inspired them to call Utah the ‘Beehive’ State, that allowed the sense of Mormons as a people to survive the various slanders and multiple instances of actual and threatened violence visited upon them as they cohered and grew as a community and a Church. And as COVID-19 shows, these eschatological hopes and the organizational drive still remain, potentialities waiting to be actualized again when needed.

*A note on the use of the term Mormon: In the August 2018 General Conference (a bi-annual series of speeches from Church leaders that all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are encouraged to listen to, either in person, or more likely via broadcast or internet live-stream), President Russel M. Nelson stated that members should only use the Church’s full name, and rejected the use of “Mormon” to refer to the institution, its members, or the associated culture. I refrain from following his admonition here for two reasons. The first is that most of my research on the Church was done before the announcement, and hence my engaging in such a change in nomenclature would be ahistorical at best, revisionary at worse. The second reason is that many individuals and organizations, including the Mormon Transhumanist Association (the particular group I worked with the closest), has declined to change its name. Part of the reason for this is institutional, having to do with their status as a non-profit corporation. Another reason is that the term Mormon, though initially derogatory, was embraced by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; further, a large part of the nineteenth-century religious speculative movement that the MTA draws some of its inspiration from understood itself to be engaged in “Mormonism” as well. The MTA also notes that several religious movements also trace their origins back to Joseph Smith and include the Book of Mormon in their cannon; to change the name of the association could be read as alienating these other constituencies. Finally, even those who aspire to follow Nelson’s guidance find themselves often invoking the name Mormon despite their best intentions: as one of my interlocutors said, “I’m an orthodox Mormon. Even though I guess using the word ‘Mormon’ isn’t very orthodox.”

Photo: Anonymous (Used by Permission)
Photo: Anonymous (Used by Permission)