Leadership monopoly, leadership vacuum

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.

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* technically, the one with the most seniority.

What the CoJCoL-dS offers: Testimonies!

There are loads of possible reasons for wanting to join / stay in / participate in Mormonism, but the main official reason is that you know it’s true; you have a testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel, and that the current President of the Church is God’s sole mouthpiece on the Earth. Certainly if you believe that God exists and wants you to practice Mormonism, that is a pretty strong motivation to do it.

But — as even the most faithful believers will tell you — a testimony requires effort. You have to want to get one. And that’s where a lot of the other trappings of Mormonism (like community and culture) play a role.

I read with interest this post by an LDS author listing some of the changes in the CoJCoL-dS during her lifetime (which is about the same as my lifetime since I was born the following year). I can relate to most of them, but the ones that really jumped out were numbers 14 & 15 — road shows and church farms. Neither of these are directly related to “the gospel,” but they’re both projects that build a sense of community.

Road shows and other amateur theater productions were one of my favorite parts of practicing Mormonism. I also liked the unique/esoteric doctrines of Mormonism — it was fun to participate in the theological discussions that (as I discussed in my previous installment) are being suppressed (“de-emphasized”) these days. Eliminating these varied peripheral components of Mormonism narrows the range of people who will find Mormon practice enriching and rewarding.

Replacing cultural, service, and educational* activities with testimony-building activities is (IMHO) counterproductive. Even if your goal is to build people’s testimonies. Think about it.

Imagine you’ve gotten to know a group of people through shared work on service projects and theatrical productions and through exchanging new insights and information through debates, discussions, and lectures. Then imagine that these same people — many of whom have earned your respect and esteem — occasionally stand up and give a heartfelt talk about how much the gospel means to them. That will be pretty convincing, particularly to young people.

Now instead imagine that you know a group of people, and every time you see them, you take turns reading out of a repetitive manual. And practically your only non-scripted interaction with them comes during the frequent testimony time, in which they give weepy, emotional testimonies. That might be convincing for some people, but I think that for others it’s very off-putting. I imagine a lot of kids react by finding it uncomfortable (even a bit creepy) — not a great way to increase their motivation to be a part of this community.

So, while scrapping varied activities in favor of (super-cheap) testimony activities may look like a good idea to the bean-counters in the Church Office Building, I don’t think it demonstrates wise or long-term thinking. Whipping out testimonies at every drop of a hat can’t help but cheapen them.

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* non-gospel-related and/or non-correlated

Earlier installments in this series:

The CoJCoL-dS: A little bit of nothing for everyone!

When you picture the Mormon mishies pitching the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to a random Never-Mo, it’s hard to imagine who would find the pitch appealing. Yet it had to have been appealing at some point in the past. In the 19th century, whole congregations were converting. Wagon-trains full of converts were crossing the plains to Utah — often having made a trip across the ocean as well. So what gives?

I think a big part of it was that the United States at the time offered very real economic advantages to poor white people from Europe — even those arriving with nothing (or close to it) — so there was some psychological appeal to joining a group that offered a framework for being a part of that adventure.

But I think an even bigger part of the appeal was that Mormonism was a hip, cutting-edge movement that validated a whole lot of popular beliefs at the time. In other words, there were a lot of popular ideas floating around at the time (as there always is…), and it was appealing to hear someone say “God told me X is true!” when X was something the listener already believed. The prophet Joseph Smith provided new scriptural canonization for a bunch of stuff that (to 19th century eyes) was missing from the ancient books (which, unsurprisingly, dealt more with the pressing issues of their own days).

Here are some of the popular ideas that Mormonism validated (and that are now frozen in the amber of Mormon doctrine):

Temperance and Cold Water: If it weren’t for the Mormon “Word of Wisdom” would anyone remember that part of the Temperance movement included a belief in abstaining from hot drinks?

Dispensationalism: There was a popular Christian idea that all of history (as recorded in the Bible…) can be divided into thousand-year “dispensations” (culminating with “The Millennium”). In the Book of Abraham Joseph Smith came up with an awesome riff on this idea by claiming that these Biblical dispensations correspond to Kolob-days — which also had the advantage of explaining the problem of “days” in the creation. I mean, duh, obviously God didn’t create all this stuff in six ordinary days — it was six Kolob-days a.k.a. six thousand years! I love this charming belief because it fits so logically (except for the fact that changing the creation from six days to six thousand years doesn’t really make the Biblical creation story fit the evidence any better, but he tried).

Conservation of Mass-Energy: This was a cool new scientific discovery that led Joseph Smith to explain that God didn’t create spirits ex nihilo (that would be impossible!) but instead “organized” pre-existing spirit matter.

The Native Americans should fit somewhere in the Biblical worldview — like, maybe, as Lost Tribes of Israel!

The “Curse of Cain”: The corresponding Gospel Topics essay helpfully explains that it certainly wasn’t the Mormons who invented the “Curse of Cain” doctrine (that black people are black because that was the “mark” God put on Cain, and that the curse survived Noah’s flood because Ham’s wife was black) — it “had been promulgated in the United States from at least the 1730s.” But for other random Christians, they can easily dismiss it as a dumb idea that some racist Christians came up with a few hundred years ago (and has since fallen out of favor). Sadly for Mormons, the whole story got canonized in the Pearl of Great Price — hence can’t be so easily dismissed if the scriptures are God’s word and all. This little hiccup isn’t mentioned in the essay, so I assume CoJCoL-dS is going with the strategy of “Let’s just pretend it isn’t there, and maybe no one will notice.”

And probably many others…

Unfortunately, aside from conservation of mass-energy, these ideas have mostly fallen out of favor. Some of them are downright embarrassingly offensive. So the thing that was once Mormonism’s big selling point is now a huge liability.

It’s sad because it really was a cool, central part of early Mormonism — the idea that people aren’t limited to the old texts and can study and learn and develop new doctrines. Joseph Smith was very big on the idea that people should be constantly learning and discussing doctrine. But as popular ideas fall out of favor or become discredited, it becomes a problem that God confirmed and canonized them at one point. It’s difficult to say “Oh, God didn’t really mean it about that one,” without calling this whole prophetic-revelation thing into question.

The solution that the CoJCoL-dS has hit upon is “correlation“. In essence, the top brass came up with a short list of simple gospel topics for all official teaching materials. So the distinctive 19th-century ideas are still in there somewhere, but members are encouraged to ignore/forget them by filling their church time with repeating the same simple fluff over and over (the “milk” of the Gospel, as it were) — and so avoiding all “meaty” discussions.

This strategy, unfortunately, raised a new problem. Joseph Smith had followed the Protestant tradition of rejecting Catholic pomp, with its vacuous “vain repetitions.” Joseph Smith was all about the “meat” of the Gospel. He felt that his church should be having interesting, engaging doctrinal discussions and debates instead of empty show.

So if you deliberately cut out the showy/symbolic rituals in order to replace them with meaty gospel discussions, and then later the meaty discussions are off limits — what are you then left with…?

Nothing.

And that is Mormonism’s biggest problem.

What Does the CoJCoL-dS Offer?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sends tens of thousands of enthusiastic young adults — carefully trained in sales strategies — all over the world. Why don’t people want what they’re selling? On the flip side, if the prospect of joining Mormonism is so obviously unappealing to the average person, how did the LDS missionary program enjoy periods of tremendous success in the past?

As a long-time insider/outsider observer of Mormonism, I’ve been fascinated by these questions, and also by the question of how long the CoJCoL-dS can continue with this absurdly outdated and ineffective marketing strategy. (Note: no successful company today relies on a door-to-door salesforce — I don’t think anyone besides the really elderly remember a time when it was considered reasonable to listen to a pitch from some random stranger who shows up at your door.) The solution to the riddle isn’t entirely about their marketing strategy — it’s more about what Mormonism adds to your life (and what it subtracts).

Many people speculate that the highest leaders of the CoJCoL-dS know it’s a fraud. I disagree; I think they really believe the God exists and that He’s at the head of the church. My evidence is their random and incoherent strategies for marketing the church and running it. The leaders can’t just ask themselves how Mormonism functions in people’s lives and then (cynically) use that information to craft their program and materials to maximize members’ positive experiences in Mormonism, to inspire them to stick with it. They think they really do hold the keys to salvation and exaltation (which is a valuable enough selling point all by itself!) — and since God is running things, if they could be doing things better, then God would tell the prophet what changes they should make.

As far as retention is concerned, so much of the discussion of the church centers around whether or not the church is true. This makes sense because if its central tenets really are true (especially the claim that there’s an afterlife, and the only way to ace it is through LDS temple ordinances), then it’s a good idea to practice Mormonism. The converse, however, doesn’t necessarily hold: If the truth claims aren’t true, there may yet be reasons to continue to believe and practice Mormonism.

A lot of faith crises begin when members start wondering why Mormonism isn’t working for them; why they’re so miserable in this culture that is supposed to bring eternal joy. When that happens, it can be a relief to discover that it’s not true, and that you can stop pounding your head against the wall of trying to make it work. Of course not all faith transitions begin this way. The people for whom Mormonism “works” are somewhat less likely/motivated to start asking the questions that will lead them out the door, but sometimes they do. Such people are often inclined to construct a more nuanced faith — perhaps pick an alternate definition of “true” — in order to continue in the Mormon community and lifestyle they value.

The people following these different paths can have a hard time understanding each other. One side says, “Don’t you see? You don’t have to keep believing and practicing this stuff — it’s not true!” while the other side says, “Don’t you see? You don’t have to give up Mormonism just because it’s not literally true!” As I’ve said, the real question is whether you want to.

Mormonism clearly appeals to some people and not to others; it works for some people and not for others. Please join me in this bi-weekly series exploring what the CoJCoL-dS has to offer!