One of the biggest selling points of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is its claim that it has “the keys” — the only source of authority on Earth today to speak for God and act for God. Basically the 15 guys at the top (especially the President of the church) have the hotline to God, and nobody else has a direct connection. If you believe them on this, it’s a pretty big selling point. In practice, however, this claim carries some pretty big drawbacks.
For example, it makes it really inconvenient to ever be wrong. There’s no mechanism for correction — admitting an error cracks the entire foundation. It’s not like Science, where you expect corrections based on more/better evidence and improved theoretical models. If Prophet A say “X is true” and Prophet B says, “X is false” — and they were both ordained President of the CoCJoL-dS (hence presumably got their info on X from the God-hotline), then there’s clearly something wrong with the God-hotline.
Consequently the CoCJoL-dS can’t admit to errors, hence can’t address and correct problems. They’re stuck doing a dance of obfuscation, largely through “de-emphasizing” problematic past statements. They just print a new set of correlated manuals every few years, and declare the current Conference issue of the Ensign to be scripture — and with every new print round, filter out all the bits that are to be forgotten. But the old, de-emphasized teachings are still there, under the surface, living kind of a festering half-life in which the members who remember them as doctrine are left wondering whether they’re still doctrine or not.
In a typical Protestant Christian denomination, new ideas can sweep away the old as new leaders rise up through the ranks. If some influential pastor or theologian of your denomination preached that dark skin is “the Curse of Cain”, for example, it’s easy to say “that guy was simply wrong” — without it shaking your faith in your denomination. It’s a little different when the guy you disagree with was “The Prophet” — whose prophetic mantle is the same one that gives your current Prophet his authority.
So the CoJCoL-dS has a strong motivation to say as little of substance as possible. When you don’t say anything, then you don’t say anything wrong.
You may have heard the expression that pinning down Mormons on doctrine is like nailing jello to a wall. The leadership of the CoJCoL-dS won’t give clear, straight-forward explanations of Mormon doctrine and theology on most subjects. Bruce R. McKonkie’s attempt to clarify LDS beliefs in his book “Mormon Doctrine” caused a political battle within the top-tier church leadership for decades, and has since slipped into the land of the “de-emphasized.”
I’ve heard liberal Mormons praise the lack of clarity because it allows members the freedom to believe as they see fit on various doctrinal issues. Except that it doesn’t really allow that freedom. The message from the top leadership of the CoJCoL-dS is that there are right answers to doctrinal questions and the prophets know those answers. (They’re just not going to tell you what the answers are for any theological issue outside the list of Correlated topics.)
This strategy can lead to frustrating misunderstandings, for example the Randy Bott affair: Some professional journalists naturally assumed that a professsor hired by the CoJCoL-dS to teach the LDS religion at the CoJCoL-dS’s main university would be qualified to answer questions on LDS doctrine. Nope. The anonymous voices from within the official newsroom indignantly stated: “BYU faculty members do not speak for the Church. It is unfortunate that the Church was not given a chance to respond to what others said.” So, in a nutshell, any human you can speak to directly (including pressing for follow-up questions) has no business making statements about what the CoJCoL-dS’s doctrines are. This creates a poisoned atmosphere where simply wanting to have a straight answer on a Mormon doctrinal question is perceived by many faithful members as an attack.
But that’s not even the worst consequence of the CoJCoL-dS clinging to its monopoly on authority. The worst consequence is that it causes the CoJCoL-dS to see its most dynamic young leaders as a threat rather than an asset.
In an ordinary organization, a bold leader with new ideas who gathers a following can energize people, attract new members, modernize practices, and generally revitalize the organization. The problem is that the CoJCoL-dS claims to be the only true hierarchy. The Prophet (with input from God) chooses his underlings, who choose their underlings in the same way, and so forth down the line — down to the leadership of individual classes. And you sure as hell don’t climb that ladder by making waves.
If Kate Kelly built a vibrant and popular organization within the church that pressured the leadership to allow women to hold positions of authority within the CoJCoL-dS, that’s a threat. Because if God wanted women to be allowed into the leadership hierarchy, why wouldn’t he just get on the hotline to the Prophet? Why would he work outside His Chosen Hierarchy and work through Kate Kelly? If the best inspiration isn’t coming down from the top, then why is the leadership hierarchy even there? The leadership can’t abide these questions, so she got the axe.
Lots of members would like the leaders to state clearly that they talk directly to Jesus, but the leaders won’t do it. They may be OK with passively allowing members to believe they are meeting with Jesus in the Holy-of-Holies in the temple, but they won’t state it directly. Unfortunately for the leaders, Denver Snuffer was willing to publish books about his personal meetings with Jesus. But wait–! Why is Jesus coming down to have conversations with Denver Snuffer and not with the Prophet?! So Denver Snuffer got the axe.
Even John Dehlin — whose real crime was simply to develop a huge personal following within the CoJCoL-dS — was a threat the the church’s leadership monopoly, so he got the axe.
The CoJCoL-dS can’t benefit from the vitality of organically-arising popular leaders because there’s no mechanism for including them. And the by-laws of the organization make it difficult for the Prophet to even begin to compete for a following — due to the unfortunate way the Prophet is chosen: he’s the oldest* one in the quorum who’s not (quite) dead yet.
Obviously it’s possible for people of advanced age to be dynamic leaders. But putting people in leadership until the day they die means having leaders who are not merely old, but who are specifically near death. In our wonderful modern era of medicine, people often enjoy ten years or more of life after they’ve passed the point of dramatically reduced faculties. During my lifetime, the CoJCoL-dS has repeatedly faced the challenge of putting on a show of how the beloved Prophet is still on the hotline with God — and running the church — and not, in fact, a vegetable.
So, ironically, the CoJCoL-dS’s insistence that is holds the monopoly on divine leadership has led to a crippling leadership vacuum.
* technically, the one with the most seniority.