Liberalism, Authoritarianism, and the Mormon Experience

Since Chris was lamenting the marginal role of liberty in Brighamite Mormonism, I might as well share some thoughts about Mormon authoritarianism.

There appear to be three hypotheses about the authoritarian nature of Brighamist Mormonism. First, an orthodox Mormon might say that authoritarianism is the organizational manifestation of Mormon theology. Since the prophet reveals the will of God, only the spawn of Satan would refuse to follow the leader.

Second, when I point out that our Church is even more authoritarian than Catholicism, which affords Catholics the rule of law and a vibrant civil society within their church, legacy Mormons on the bloggernacle argue that the Church is too young to develop a culture of tolerance and organizations and communities within Mormonism that would represent a variety of approaches to living the gospel. If we take the maturity hypothesis at face value then it is unreasonable, if not ridiculous, to expect Mormon believers to enjoy as much liberty as other adherents of sacramental and priesthood centered religions such as Roman Catholicism. The road to salvation should be wait another 1,800 years until Brighamism matures. By then even the FLDS might be diverse, tolerant, and provide the benefits of the rule of law to its adherents.

Third, others invoke Armand Mauss’s concept of the optimal tension. Since I don’t have access to his book, I am never quite sure if people properly apply Mauss’s theory but a common representation appears to be that religious sects are subcultures within a host culture, which requires Mormonism to adapt to American society while remaining sufficiently peculiar to sustain a community with a distinct identity. Perhaps, the authoritarian, illiberal and intolerant nature of Brighamite Mormonism is necessary, one might contend, to separate us from our host culture. Another reasonable application of the tension hypothesis might explain Brighamite authoritarianism as a correction or over-correction to suboptimal tension.

Lets look at the maturity, the theology, and the optimal tension hypothesis of Brighamite authoritarianism in turn.

The maturity hypothesis has two problems. a) Mormonism is not exactly brand new. The Church has existed for 180 years. That’s a lot shorter than Roman Catholicism but longer than the German and Italian nation states. It’s three life times and sixteen prophets. Martin Luther confronted Roman Catholic authorities in 1517. Calvin broke with Catholicism around 1530. That means that Mormonis has reached 37% of the Lutheran age and 38% of the Calvinist age. If we haven’t already reached the stage where the maturity hypothesis becomes ridiculous then we are rapidly approaching it.

b) Time is not only a matter of duration but, more importantly, of historical context. Unlike the Church fathers who had to content with the political realities of the Roman empire, Joseph Smith could benefit from the gains of the renaissance and the enlightenment, most importantly, the lessons of the Dutch, the British and the American constitutions. Neither Joseph Smith nor Brigham Young had to start from scratch. They themselves and any of their successors could have benefited from the works of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Thomas Paine, if not John Locke, the Comte de Montesquieu, or Edmund Burke. A little later, prophets could have benefitted from the innovations of John Stuart Mill or Lord Acton to organize Mormon institutions more accountably, more effectively, and more humanely.
In light of Mormonism’s venerable age and the considerable philosophical resources that western civilization provided to Mormon leaders, I am afraid that the maturity hypothesis is not all that useful. Whatever is wrong with Mormonism, it’s neither age nor time.

The theology hypothesis has a lot more going for itself. It is certainly correct that leadership justified in terms of prophetic privilege and authority is a genuine version of Mormonism based on a coherent and widely accepted reading of Joseph Smith’s revelations.
On the other hand, the authoritarian leadership model is not the only genuine reading of Joseph Smith’s revelations that is accepted by a community of Mormons. While Brighamites’ emphasis on priesthood authority unfettered by theological qualifications has striking, though perhaps unintended, parallels with pre-reformation Catholicism, Mormonism also has Congregationalist roots. Congregationalism emerged during the bloody revolution. The idea was that neither the bishops nor the upper crust would be in charge but the community of the Church, which included everyone. Lucy Mack Smith’s ancestor fled England because he was a Congregationalist minister.

We can observe how Mormon congregationalism might play out in the Community of Christ, where members cast meaningful votes in quorums rather than just demonstrating compliance through raising of hands.
Mormonism can actually draw on a variety of traditions and organizational models. Brigham Young style authoritarianism is just one among them. Even if one condemns the Community of Christ as apostates, at times, Brighamite Mormonism used to be more liberal and more decentralized, which brings to the optimal tension hypothesis about Mormon authoritarianism.
Since I have only read about Mauss’s work, I won’t take issue with his hypothesis except for pointing out that one can explain the ebb and flow of concentration of power in the hands of the council of the fifteen and the President of the Church also in terms of power, capacity, and the self-interest of the actors.

Today, Mormon leaders have the opportunity to be more controlling. Even if it hurts the organization as long as the leadership benefits, the brethren concentrate power in their hands and in institutions that they can better control. That’s what any self-interested human being would do and is pretty standard human behavior.

When the emerging Italian nation state assumed control over the territory of the Vatican in 1870, the pope called the First Vatican Council and dusted off the medieval doctrine of papal infallibility, which had fallen into oblivion since the middle ages.

There was immediate push back from liberal Catholics. Lord Acton declared famously that “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” in response to the papal infallibility claim.

Italy and its German ally reacted to the papal threat vigorously. The required civilian and military public servants to dissociate from official Catholicism. Liberal Catholics formed an off-shoot Church called the Old Catholics, which received government support and encouragement.
Germany and Italy struck at the cultural hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church most effectively by requiring civil marriage. Other governments in places like Belgium and throughout Latin America joined in, in some cases reinvigorating the contest between state and church that had been waging since their founding.

Likewise, Mormonism became more liberal when the American government confronted its authoritarian leadership. President David McKay had been socialized during an era when the church was bankrupt. It had taken decades to erase the Church’s debt that had accumulated when the church leadership had been in the underground and when the government had seized church property.

Since the fiscal situation of the Church was precarious, the leaders had to treat the members with kid gloves. By contrast, thanks to the new deal, World War II, and America’s global economy, the new middle swelled the tithing dollars, which empowered the brethren to establish correlation, justified in part by the management needs of a worldwide church and buttressed by a Brighamite reading of Doctrine and Covenants.

Whatever the role of optimal tension may be, Mormon authoritarianism, i.e. the domination of the membership by the leadership, is ultimately a manifestation of the financial and political autonomy of the brethren. There are plenty of religious and secular communities in America and around the world that can maintain a vibrant identity that is sufficiently delimited from the host culture that do not need to rely on the extraordinary level of authoritarianism of Brighamite Mormonism.

Here is how the cycle really worked. Brigham Young was domineering because he was the biggest dog in the neighborhood. The federal government confronted his power and broke him and his successors.

After that struggle, the Church was broke, at the verge of bankruptcy, and the power of the brethren was limited. While Heber Grant could deal harshly with polygamists, his efforts to preserve prohibition in Utah failed. Realizing that the new deal gave the members the option to look to the government for support, Grant established the church welfare system to abolish “the evils of a dole.” Although the Church has not been able to replace the government as the most important source of support when families fall on hard times, the Church welfare system has been effective until the 1970s.

On balance, the power move worked only to a limited degree. What really liberated the brethren was the new deal and the emergence of a broad middle class in the wake of the World War II.

Thanks to new deal policies such as the GI Bill, millions of Americans and thousands of Mormon men could attend college for the first time in generations. Defense and aerospace industry fueled technology industries along the Wasatch front, for which Heber Grant appears to be in part responsible. As a result, our people could afford to pay tithing uncritically and unquestioningly.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and the new dealers created the conditions that would enrich the Church and allow the brethren to reassert prophetic control.
The Church could demand the payment of tithing because it controlled family rituals such as baby blessings, baptisms, and most importantly marriage. If you don’t pay tithing, the father will be embarrassed in front of his extended family and the entire community by being disqualified from blessing his baby. The same threat applies to the baptism. And temple secrecy, an institution initially designed to hide Joseph Smith’s relationships with his followers and foster children, today serves to exclude non-conformist parents from their children’s wedding.

You might get away with some independence of mind but tithing is definitely a red line that keeps you out of the temple until you pay up.

As a result, the brethren have enjoyed control over considerable financial resources since the 1950s and, perhaps, a bit earlier. It took about two decades for correlation to emerge, in part, because decision makers such as President David McKay had been socialized during a time when the Church was a the verge of bankruptcy. At the time of The Manifesto, McKay was 17 years old and must experienced the Church’s capitulation to American authorities vividly. Perhaps, experiencing the might of the federal government and the humiliation and domination of the Church, left David McKay with a sense of the Church’s vulnerability. If that is a formative experience then you will recognize the value of treating the members with consideration and humility.

More importantly, a mountain of debt leaves you little margin for error. You have to court the members to contribute to the Church so that you can pay off the debt and finance the operations of the Church.

Of course, the brethren are a diverse group of people who emphasize different aspects and experiences of the same historical era. Joseph Fielding Smith was only born three years after David McKay but much more dogmatic and assertive with regard to member-leadership relations. Since his uncle was the founding prophet of Mormonism and the Church, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Joseph Fielding Smith would preferred a more expansive view of the prophetic office.

Another proponent of authoritarian Church government, Harold Lee makes for an interesting contrast to McKay. Lee was born 23 years after McKay in 1899. He was not yet alive when Wilford Woodrow issued the Manifesto and five year old at the time of The Second Manifesto. While five-year-olds can certainly have vivid memories of important events, most of what Lee knew about the vulnerability and weakness of the Church must have been second hand while McKay’s generation had experienced the trouble themselves. More importantly, for his entire life time, Lee experienced the success and expansion of the Church.

Lee was also a brilliant opportunist who paid close attention to his leaders and considered attention to the needs of subordinates and constituents a distraction. If we trust Boyd Packer’s recollections then Lee considered devotion to one’s flock and care for one’s subordinates career impediments: ‘ “Either you represent the teachers and students and champion their causes or you represent the Brethren who appointed you. You need to decide now which way you face.” then he added, “some of your predecessors faced the wrong way.” ‘

That’s good advice if your priority is to get ahead. However, this kind of behavior comes at the expense of your followers, the community, most importantly, the mission of your office and thus damages the Church itself. Packer’s revelation probably goes a long way to explain why the missionary program, for example, has become ineffective in attracting and retaining converts as well as binding missionaries to the Church. I also suspect that the authoritarian leadership dynamics that reward only conformists and opportunists is to blame for the failure of Mormon leaders to deal with the obvious failure of correlation.

Reportedly, McKay elevated Hugh Brown to the quorum of the twelve to balance Joseph Fielding Smith’s and Harold Lee’s authoritarian approach. Smith and Lee, however, managed to install acolytes in the quorum of the twelve apostles. Smith recruited his son in law, Bruce McConkie. Lee could rely on the considerable resources of the Church Education System for patronage to install a whole network of loyalists, most prominently, Boyd Packer, throughout Church quorums and bureaucratic organizations.

Regardless of personal relationships, it would have taken extraordinary human beings to pass up opportunities to increase one’s power. Whether we admit it or not, human beings like power. It would have taken an extraordinary person to pass up the opportunity to concentrate power in one’s own hands. That may not be good for us or the organization we profess to love, but we often desire things that are not good for us.

Mormons are human beings and hence we are susceptible to the attraction of power, its folly and its corruption. That is all the more the case, the more we assure ourselves of our virtue. Adam Smith, another author who could have been useful to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, observed: Virtue is more to be feared than vice because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of the conscience.

For the same reason, the brethren will not surrender their ability to dominate the members voluntarily. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass observed: Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has. It never will. If we want more liberty within the Church, we may have to take it. We definitely have to demand it.

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15 Comments

  1. 1
    Chris H. says:

    Awesome! I am swamped in dissertation and teaching today, but I look forward to taking a closer look.

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  2. 2
    Andrew S. says:

    This reminds me, in length, in substance, and in narrative form, of Rock Waterman (of Pure Mormonism)’s writing.

    which is a very good thing, IMO.

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  3. 3
    Hellmut says:

    Thanks, Andrew. I will have to check him out. Where does he publish, please?

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  4. 4
    Hellmut says:

    Got it: Pure Mormonism. I am just a little slow on the uptake.

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  5. 5
    Holly says:

    Wow, Hellmut–this is terrific. Thanks.

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  6. 6
    Hellmut says:

    Thank you, Holly!

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  7. 7
    Alan says:

    Whatever the role of optimal tension may be, Mormon authoritarianism, i.e. the domination of the membership by the leadership, is ultimately a manifestation of the financial and political autonomy of the brethren.

    I don’t know that putting a spotlight on the money does all that you think it does. We’re not talking about a person’s financial worth determining policy (I’m rich, therefore I make the theology); it’s more like the brethren have access to the Church’s combined finances, and so they determine what is done with the money. Mormons know this and they trust their leaders with their tithe. The authoritarian implementation of policy seems to me to be of a separate nature, separate from the money.

    Since your Community of Christ link was connected to their recent vote on gay rights, it made me think about the LDS Church’s support of the Salt Lake City nondiscrimination ordinances in Nov 2009 and how that came about. Obviously, for the CoC, it’s just a matter of having a majority approve, whereas for the LDS Church it’s a matter of an oligarchy coming to a consensus with a tiny feedback mechanism through the Church’s website/headquarters or through one’s local leadership. So, the real question is why the support of the ordinances? How does that help the brethren financially? If you look at it economically, it’s because Salt Lake City is aiming to be cosmopolitan, and the Church is interested in the city’s financial welfare; the Church is also worried about seeming too out of touch with translocal sentiment on the subject (since many major American cities have similar ordinances). But is this really fully why the Church would support the ordinances, as a response mechanism? I think it’s also important to take a look at the interpersonal relationships. Sure, it might still be a question discourses affecting a select group of people, but it takes more than money to do this. This is why I’m tempted to make “optimal tension” the focus and forces of capital secondary.

    I also suspect that the authoritarian leadership dynamics that reward only conformists and opportunists is to blame for the failure of Mormon leaders to deal with the obvious failure of correlation.

    Mind unpacking this a little?

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  8. 8
    chanson says:

    Regarding the comparison with Catholicism, I think that time span and distance are factors in the difference. As I said in the comments of Chris’s post, for most of the Catholic church’s history there has been no possibility of rapid communication. So the top leaders might have wanted to reign in the local units with tighter controls, but (for practical reasons) it was impossible. Then, once you have a centuries-old precedent that Catholics are allowed to form their own organizations within the Catholic church, the top leaders cant just suddenly revoke that tradition.

    That said, I agree that that’s not the only factor at play in the difference.

    Your ideas about the church’s debt are intriguing, and seem to be a pretty good fit with Daymon Smith’s research about the modern functioning of the CoJCoL-dS. Smith showed how there is an almost total disconnect between what the COB produces for the members and any kind of feedback on the effectiveness/desirability/usefulness of those materials. You’re probably right that part of the reason [for this lack of responsiveness] is that the corporate behemoth no longer needs the members’ direct support to keep rolling forward.

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  9. 9
    Chino Blanco says:

    If the LDS church were a Catholic order, would Pope Benedict XVI eventually be required to investigate it, just as he’s currently doing with the Legionaries of Christ/Regnum Christi?

    But the cult-like conditions they endure so alarmed Pope Benedict XVI that in May he ordered an extremely rare full Vatican investigation of the obscure group, which operates in the U.S., Mexico, Spain, the Philippines and a dozen other countries. The inquiry is expected to begin in the coming weeks.

    In interviews with The Associated Press, eight former members from the U.S. and Mexico told of enduring emotional, psychological and spiritual abuse at the hands of superiors who told them they would be violating God’s will if they broke any rules. They said their experiences left them, at least temporarily, unable to cope with real life once they got out.

    Four current members denied the movement was a cult, saying the rules were aimed at creating uniformity while fostering spirituality. Still, they acknowledged problems with the way women were recruited, saying that 18-year-olds shouldn’t make lifelong promises after a six-week candidacy program.

    Shades of the MTC and the Temple. And sorry, it’s a bit of a segue/tangent, but hey, somebody mentioned Catholics, and the next thing I know I’m reading this AP piece, remembering this post, and wondering about any similarities with contemporary Mormonism or the Mormon colonies that Mitt and I descend from. So, anyways, yeah, it looks to me like Pope Benedict XVI would investigate any Catholic order that conducted business like the LDS. Or maybe not …

    Known as consecrated women, they are lay Catholics affiliated with a conservative religious order who dedicate their lives to the church, making promises of chastity, poverty and obedience similar to the vows taken by nuns.

    Poverty? Oh my, there’s the problem right there. No wonder they’re gettin’ probed.

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  10. 10
    Hellmut says:

    Alan, the point about money is not that people are enriching themselves but if you have access to resources with no strings attached then you can do what you want. If you don’t have debt then you can do what you want.

    If on the other hand, you have debts, which need to be served monthly then there is pressure to raise money every month. If you fail then the Church will lose its real property.

    At the same time, federal prosecution had interfered with the brethren’s ability to collect money from the members. In 1894, paying tithing was neither a habit nor a matter of course. Rather, the brethren needed to recommit the members to contribute to the Church.

    Therefore, the brethren needed to be a lot more considerate of the members and their influence over the members was a lot weaker than it is today. Notice, that President Grant failed to sustain prohibition in Utah because the people of Utah disagreed with him in a referendum, which would be unthinkable since the sixties.

    By contrast, today the brethren enjoy financial autonomy. As long as the economy keeps humming along, the members pay without questions asked. So if you need to excommunicate a couple of professors from BYU or to slander Sunstone, you can go for it.

    In 1910, the backlash would have had serious economic consequences. It would have pushed the Church that much closer to the brink of bankruptcy.

    That’s doubly true since federal authorities required the brethren to go after the polygamists. The brethren simply did not have the capacity to sustain a campaign that would have constrained the liberty of the members as aggressively as we witness during our life time.

    Money gives you capacity, the freedom to do what you want. As long as they can agree with one another, the brethren can do what they want.

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  11. 11
    Hellmut says:

    I agree with everything you say, Chanson. It explains the contradictions between Catholic theology and governance. It does not explain Brighamite authoritarianism.

    Notice, that many religious organizations originated during the 19th century, mostly in Britain and America. Few are as authoritarian as Brighamite Mormonism.

    In fact, the comparison to other branches of Mormonism is perhaps most instructive. The Community of Christ dates its origins back to the same time and yet member-leadership relations couldn’t be more different.

    There are obvious contextual differences between the Brighamite and the CC experience. While the CC needed to be reestablished as an organization at the Mississippi, Brigham Young isolated a besieged community.

    In light of the conflict, military style centralization of power was probably more attractive and the costs for exiting the community must have been extraordinary in isolated Utah.

    I can see how context plays a role but not in the sense of particular conditions that were subject to the constraints of space to a greater degree than time.

    Duration of a religious organization only plays a role in one sense. Max Weber famously observed that a movement charismatic leadership will be replaced by a bureaucracy. That transition happens early and has definitely occurred in all branches of Mormonism.

    The President of the Church of Jesus Christ of latter Day Saints enjoys, of course, considerable charisma but that’s not because of an individual’s ability to recruit and inspire followers but because the individual occupies a particular slot on the org chart. In other words, the office confers the charisma.

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  12. 12
    Hellmut says:

    Yes, Chino, the Pope moves against the Legionaries, the Jesuits, liberation theologians, and American nuns.

    Against the latter three because they are not sufficiently orthodox. Those measures are an indication of the Pope’s desire for more control.

    By contrast, the Pope had to be compelled by agitators and the media to straighten out the Legionaries of Christ whose leader had misused funds to enrich himself and corrupt officers of the curiae and sexually abused minors and acolytes.

    So that episode is an indication of the Pope’s constraints.

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  13. 13
    Hellmut says:
    I also suspect that the authoritarian leadership dynamics that reward only conformists and opportunists is to blame for the failure of Mormon leaders to deal with the obvious failure of correlation.

    Mind unpacking this a little?

    Thanks for the question, Alan. Lets take a look at Lee’s advice to Packer:

    Elder Lee had agreed to give me counsel and some direction. He didn’t say much, nothing really in detail, but what he told me has saved me time and time again. “You must decide now which way you face,” he said. “Either you represent the teachers and students and champion their causes or you represent the Brethren who appointed you. You need to decide now which way you face.” then he added, “some of your predecessors faced the wrong way.” It took some hard and painful lessons before I understood his counsel. In time, I did understand, and my resolve to face the right way became irreversible.

    Of course, that’s great advice if you want to get ahead. The problem is that at those moments when you have to choose between your leaders and your flock, it’s a choice between your career and your mission.

    The members are the source of the resources that the Church needs, not the other way around. In the long run, the Church can only sustain itself if the members have reason to support it.

    Sycophancy and opportunism of administrators and leaders will compromise the capacity of the Church to meet the members’ needs. If everyone follows Lee’s advice then the Church will become a parasite that leeches on the resources of the members.

    In a free country, the less value the Church adds and the more resources it extracts without return, the more people will leave or reduce and withhold their contributions.

    Sycophancy disrupts the flow of communication. Bad news no longer reaches decision makers.

    Even if quality information reached leaders, if no one challenges the status quo it will minimize reflection and criticism. As a result, neither programs nor institutions adapt. Mistakes and waste will endure.

    You can see the results in the Church Education System and curriculum development as well as in Mormonism abroad. The inability of the Church to develop an interesting curriculum or to adapt to conditions in foreign countries is staggering.

    Most visibly, however, are the consequences in the missionary program. Retention appears to be negative worldwide. We do have hard numbers for the United States. The numbers of the Pew religion survey indicate that we are losing five members for every four converts we gain.

    I suspect that it may be worse in Europe and Latin America.

    Although, there have always been dishonest methods to generate converts, from immigration promises to baseball baptisms, in the past, we had more success with retention. To a large degree that’s because life in Mormon wards was more vibrant.

    While correlation has been successful in removing the irrational content of Journal of Discourses from the curriculum, it has also deprived local leaders and the auxiliary organizations of autonomy.

    As a result, mismanagement and abuse by local leaders has probably been reduced but the Church has also lost the ability to take advantage of local opportunities and deal with particular challenges. Instead of enjoying each others community, we only tend to go through the motions.

    No wonder, nobody wants to remain with us after the exhilaration of conversion. Thanks, in part, to conversion, it’s a total let down.

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  14. 14
    Alan says:

    You can see the results in the Church Education System and curriculum development as well as in Mormonism abroad. The inability of the Church to develop an interesting curriculum or to adapt to conditions in foreign countries is staggering.

    Correlation overseas is interesting. I would think Mormonism would be new and exciting enough that it would appeal to foreigners for a long while, but leaders of those overseas wards/stakes would be primarily [white] Americans at first. Then, after the Church is established for a while in a place, there would have to be some movement toward localized leadership, which would mean a greater chance that the ward would take on localized curriculum — not because of a lack of conformity but because different cultures are different.

    I recently read a short article about the Church in China. A Chinese guy was told about how the Church has only one prophet to receive revelation for the entire Earth, and the guy remarked: “Only one? So rare…like the panda!” The writer of the article thought this was cute, but I read the comment to mean that the top-down hierarchy of the Church gives rise to bewilderment.

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  15. 15

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