You are likely aware by now that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has agreed to perform at the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20th. Both support and criticism have been expressed for this decision by Church members and by non-members. Critics have largely focused their concern on the way the decision and its framing as a continuation of a proud tradition contribute to the normalization of a thoroughly abnormal incoming presidential administration that rode a belligerent wave of bigotry, lies, and depravity to a controversial electoral win. Trump is no normal president, and to treat him as such not only mitigates our ability to challenge and undermine the threats he explicitly and proudly poses to the safety and freedoms of millions and millions of Americans, but also belies the sincerity of our moral convictions. How can we signal tolerance, if not support, for an unrepentant sexual predator and then stand before our congregations and honestly tell them—with victims of sexual abuse among them, who already feel marginalized and devalued—that sexual sin is the sin next to murder?
Supporters have focused on the way the acceptance signals our patriotism. The performance, they insist, does not honor the incoming president anyway, just the office and the country as a whole. To turn it down would be seen as engaging in partisan politics, against which our Church has an ostensibly firm policy. We have never turned down an opportunity to let our light so shine at a presidential inaugural, and we’re not about to start now. Additionally, this provides a wonderful missionary opportunity. We should not turn down a chance to inspire, influence, and move those around us (and perhaps even Trump himself). These supporters of the decision are not unilaterally supporters of Trump, either. Many loathe the man but see this acceptance as a sign of our prioritization of our responsibility to our nation.
As I’m writing a doctoral dissertation right now that incorporates the cognitive science of religion, I thought I would share some thoughts on how these two reactions can be viewed through that lens. First, some background: in short, the cognitive science of religion, or CSR, applies insights and theories from the cognitive sciences and other related and cognate fields to the study and explanation of patterns of thought and behavior that we commonly call “religious.” Since the 1990s, two broad evolutionary approaches have been common: the more common approach views the features of our conventional conceptualization of religion as the evolutionary byproducts of cognitive features evolutionarily selected for other more generic purposes. The three main features are mentalization (or our ability to perceive and draw conclusions about the presence and intentions of minds in the world around us), teleological reasoning (the propensity to find purpose and reason in the things that exist and happen around us), and mind/body dualism (the intuitive belief that our minds are neither identified with or confined to our physical bodies). These cognitive features mainly served other evolutionary functions, like survival, but also contribute to the production and cultivation of mental representations of deities and other types of supernatural agents. Religion is thus a spandrel (or unintended byproduct) of other cognitive architecture.
The other approach sees religion as an evolutionary adaptation itself, primarily on the grounds that these features were selected because they contributed to greater prosociality, or social robustness and cohesion. One of the main ways they helped social cohesion was to provide mechanisms for high-cost displays of in-group fidelity (with a deity usually as proxy for the group), allowing larger populations that extend beyond normal kin-based groups to maintain trust and mitigate the free-rider problem (the problem of free-loaders who take advantage of the group’s productivity without contributing themselves). Those not willing to invest in the appropriate displays will not be considered part of the in-group. These displays have become known as CREDs, or Credibility Enhancing Displays. In performing these displays, our commitment is perceived as more genuine, which enhances our credibility within as well as outside the group, increasing the cohesiveness of the group and the likelihood of others joining as a result of that degree of cohesion. These can range from fire-walking, to crucifixion, to self-castration, to vows of celibacy, silence, and/or poverty, to food restrictions, to dress and grooming standards, and on and on and on.
These days, these two CSR approaches are coalescing into a coevolutionary model that sees the constituent parts of “religion” as cognitive byproducts that were then adapted for through the mechanisms of cultural evolution as societies grew larger and larger. If you want a very recent and very thorough case for this model, along with over two dozen responses from other CSR scholars, see here.
So how does this relate to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Both responses betray the CREDs given priority by the individuals asserting them. For critics of the choir’s performance, sacrificing that publicity in the name of our rejection of racism, sexism, and oppression would be a powerful display of commitment to those standards, both to other members within our group and to those outside the group assessing our sincerity and our values. For supporters of the choir’s decision, the acceptance of the invitation may signal to them commitment to the country, to the office of the presidency, or to conservatism/the RNC (depending on their position vis-à-vis party politics). There is an additional dynamic in play with the latter, however: opposing the choir’s choice represents opposition to the inspiration and infallibility of Church leadership, and so the position we take itself represents a display of our own commitment. Are we willing to subjugate our own feelings about the choir’s performance to our “Follow the Prophet” standard? Those prioritizing this consideration tend to be more authoritarian in orientation, and are largely concerned either with rooting out those considered inadequately committed to the group’s authority structure or with using that authority structure as a rhetorical trump card.
One more theoretical model of CSR is relevant: dual-process cognition. According to this model, our mind operates on a spectrum, with one end largely the purview of our subconscious or intuitive cognition, which is quick, automatic, and tied to those evolutionary predispositions about mental agents, teleology, etc. As we move toward the other end, we have more conscious control of our cognition, and it slows down and incorporates reason, evidence, and other considerations. Conflict frequently occurs between these two types of cognition as thinking unfolds, with two broad approaches possible: rationalization (the use of reason and evidence to try to affirm or defend our intuitive beliefs) or decoupling (the use of reason and evidence to overrule or inhibit our intuitive beliefs). These dynamics have been demonstrated in numerous different ways, with an interesting recent example discussed here.
So these different beliefs about what the choir is signaling are all in conflict with each other as different members of the Church with different cognitive predispositions, understandings of our ethical priorities, and convictions about the relationship of the Church to the United States, try to apply their reason to either rationalizing or decoupling their intuitions and their conscious ideological frameworks. We either prioritize our values related to the oppression/abuse of marginalized classes, our values related to patriotism, or our values related to the infallibility/authority of Church leaders. The second priority is inarguably not given priority in the literature and rhetoric of the Church and its leadership, but we have become so thoroughly integrated into the conservative evangelical American worldview that it has become an undeniably central part of Latter-day Saint self identity for many. To assert that the LDS Church actively avoids all displays of partisanship in light of this is demonstrably untrue, but this is the worldview I think has become intuitive for many, and so there are many who are hard at work rationalizing this, with concerns for authority or the infallibility of leadership frequently buttressing it. The assertion that the inauguration is a celebration of democracy and the office of the presidency, and not Trump himself, is an example of another factually incorrect attempt to rationalize that intuition.
I, for one, proudly and absolutely unapologetically prioritize standing against the oppression and abuse of minorities, women, and the poor. I have relationships with victims of abuse who already feel marginalized and devalued in the Church, and seeing the choir further marginalize them in the interest of celebrating democracy, maintaining tradition, or not appearing partisan has been especially dehumanizing. Donald Trump is a self-described unrepentant sexual predator who has repeatedly asserted intentions to facilitate grotesquely racist, sexist, xenophobic, and generally hateful, violent, and destructive legislation. His elevation to the presidency has already catalyzed a spike in hatred and a scurrying to exploit and protect the mainstreaming and normalization of that hatred. I believe this is the greatest threat to our nation and to its citizens that our generation has ever faced, and I will not participate in its normalization, much less its celebration, in any sense whatsoever. If you are LDS and you’ve made it this far in this post, consider where your priorities are placed, whose wellbeing is most important to you, and how you may have been trying to rationalize things.