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David Holland: Trump's Utah problem is nestled in our national paradox

When Trump promises to strong-arm us past the wearying competition of personal freedom and community obligation, to relieve us from the burden of this paradox, he is also denigrating two of the values that many Mormons and Americans hold dear.
When Trump promises to strong-arm us past the wearying competition of personal freedom and community obligation, to relieve us from the burden of this paradox, he is also denigrating two of the values that many Mormons and Americans hold dear.
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National media outlets have eagerly detailed the elements of Donald Trump’s struggles in Utah. Last week, Mr. Trump himself admitted that he has a “tremendous problem” in the Beehive State.

His inwardly looking nativism clashes with the international instincts of the state's predominate faith; his attacks on Muslim minorities conjure up bitter memories of prejudice against Mormons; his crass playboy persona and his bragging, bullying style offend Latter-day Saint values of modesty, self-restraint and simple human kindness.

As a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and someone proudly born, raised and educated in Utah, I certainly find these things problematic. But there is an even more fundamental reason why many Utahns, and Latter-day Saints in particular, might feel unease with Mr. Trump’s appeal for their support.

In his op-ed published in the Deseret News, Mr. Trump comes courting Utah votes with the same implicit invitation he has made to the rest of the American electorate: Lay down the wearying burden of a great American paradox — the age-old effort to give our highest priority to the competing ideals of personal liberty and communal responsibility.

In making his pitch, Trump appears to believe he is speaking to a nation uniformly weary with the hard work of keeping this American paradox at the forefront of our national conversation. Trump does not approach our perceived fatigue the way a Lbertarian or a Marxist might, by embracing one of the paradox’s values to the exclusion of the other. And he does not address it the way a colorless centrist might, by watering down this vibrant paradox into a thin, unappealing gruel. He instead offers us rest by pushing the conversation away from our tiring debate about individual freedoms and community obligations, shifting our focus from both values with one prioritized promise that he thinks we will be relieved to accept in their place: strength.

The priorities of his pitch are even apparent in his essay for the Deseret News. Matters of personal freedom appear as a secondary concern. Calls to community cohesion are rare and couched in the language of conflict. He leads by stoking our fears and promising his strength. This is the Trumpian priority.

This is a master salesman’s gift of misdirection. It looks like a call to arms, but it is really an excuse to retreat. While Hillary Clinton is certainly not immune to criticism in this regard, the Trumpian preoccupation with strength brashly offers to relieve us of both of the American paradox's values.

Every time he conjures up dangerous adversaries that Americans can blame for their challenges — Mexican immigrants or the media or Muslim refugees — he encourages us to abdicate personal responsibility for our lives.

Every time he ignores the disadvantages that shape so many minority Americans’ experiences, he entices us to turn a blind eye to our community obligations.

Every time he assures us that he alone has the strength to crush our enemies, he undermines both our individual agencies and our communal responsibilities.

And when he irresponsibly raises the specter of rigged elections, or when he refuses to say anything intelligent about the foundational principles of the American republic, he threatens the very system in which these two truths have been allowed to tangle, tussle and have their say for over two centuries.

How do we develop a community that feels bound to the care of the greater good, that expects adherence to a shared set of values, but that also protects for each woman and man the freedom and accountability of their God-given agency? That is a heavy dilemma. And this nation has carried its weight for a long time. The back-breaking labor of maintaining its countervailing principles has up until now woven a consistent thread throughout American history. It shaped the founding generation’s constitutional debates. It fueled the 19th century’s agony over slavery. It pushed mid-20th-century Americans to argue over a New Deal, fight a world war and demand civil rights. These have been the terms in which every great American political contest has been waged.

But the problem with paradoxes is that their competing terms are never fully reconciled. The tension never eases up. As the contrasting claims of personal freedom and community obligation go on and on in American public life they can lead to stalemate in Congress, rancor in our town halls and apathy in our hearts. This country understandably faces some fatigue in carrying on this effort, and in this election cycle we have heard the siren song of many offering to rebalance the terms and shake up the status quo. We’ve been weary enough to give them a hearing. But one candidate appears to offer us a whole new priority, to shift our focus toward our fears.

Mr. Trump seems confused about why his approach falls flat in Utah, the nation’s most reliably red state. I propose one explanation.

Among the elements of the Latter-day Saint tradition that I hold most dear is its tireless determination to embrace principles that others find incompatible. We loudly insist on the sacred coexistence of grace and work, body and spirit, law and mercy, personal inspiration and prophetic authority. These and other paradoxes have brought claims of heresy, hypocrisy and inconsistency from critics; they also provoke repeated bouts of soul-searching among ourselves that lead to fruitful introspection. It is not easy to live at the convergence of competing truths. It requires constant effort. But whatever else we may be, we have never been known to shirk from working hard for the things we value.

Here is what Donald Trump has still not accounted for in his awkward courtship of Utahns. The burden he promises to cast off is not only an American paradox. It also lies at the root of Latter-day Saint teachings regarding the divinity of personal agency and the sacredness of communal obligations. Mormon communities are responsible for their individuals, and Mormon individuals are responsible for their own choices. We believe that cohesive communities are essential and free individuals are of great worth.

When Trump promises to strong-arm us past the wearying competition of personal freedom and community obligation, to relieve us from the burden of this paradox by shifting our sense of priorities, he is also denigrating two of the values that many Mormons hold dear. He believes he speaks to a people eager to walk away from the weight of these truths.

He doesn’t seem to understand that, to borrow a phrase from LDS scholar Terryl Givens, he is speaking to a people of paradox. He is addressing a culture that by its commitment to the American experiment and its connection to Latter-day Saint faith has made a double pledge to continue the hard work of holding onto competing truths. His misdirecting appeal to strength, and the fear-mongering that so often goes with it, are unlikely to distract them from the task at hand.

To shirk this challenge would run counter to cultural forces that shape Utah and the nation. That, perhaps, is Trump’s real problem.

David Holland is the John A. Bartlett professor of New England church history at Harvard Divinity School. His views are his own.