on the verge of becoming a denomination

Mainstreaming

I originally wrote this essay with the idea of submitting it to Sunstone. Thanks to an email exchange with some of the people at Sunstone I’ve come to realize that I don’t belong there… nor does any of my writing (they have quietly become very pro-Mormon over the last few years). As this essay doesn’t really have a good home elsewhere I figured I’d share it with the people on here.

On the Verge of Becoming a Denomination…: Resolving the Cult/Sect/Denomination Issue Once and For All
In a relatively recent Sunstone podcast Jana Riess noted how the labeling of Mormonism as a “cult” by her husband’s congregation caused both her and her husband extreme duress. Mormons seem to be unaware that it is common within the ex-Mormon and anti-Mormon communities to label Mormonism a “cult,” though clearly there is an agenda involved in such a labeling effort.1 In contrast, within faithful Mormon circles the LDS religion is regularly referred to as a “church” or “the church.” In every one of the above situations the language used is used incorrectly, at least insofar as religious bodies are classified within the sociology of religion. As a sociologist of religion, I am hyper-sensitive to church/sect designations as the labels imply important distinctions that are part and parcel of sociological theory. In this essay I intend to outline what those distinctions are and then propose a classification for Mormonism. I invite rebuttals and reclassifications, but I would prefer that any such responses respect the classification system presented.

Within the sociology of religion there exists a classification scheme often referred to as the church-sect typology that presents a series of “ideal types” or hypothetically perfect examples of the different types of religions that can exist.2 Because the classification scheme is built upon ideal types it is important to understand that the scheme is not a collection of rigid categories but rather a continuum, with different religious groups falling in different places along the axis. The classic categories of the continuum include the following, each of which will be discussed in greater detail below: church, sect, cult (or New Religious Movement/NRM), and denomination.

Churches are defined as bodies that encompass the entire spectrum of religious expression in a society. Churches are monopolistic and tend to be closely allied with the government and secular powers in their respective nation-state. Membership in the religion comes about primarily through reproduction rather than proselytizing and citizens of a nation-state are either by requirement or default members of the religion. Churches tend to be highly organized and bureaucratized, with paid clergy and a clear division of labor. Examples of churches include: the historic Roman Catholic Church in many countries prior to the Protestant Reformation, the remnant state churches of much of Northern Europe, and many Islamic nations today, wherein the government is either a theocracy of sorts or closely allied with the religious leaders and/or based upon Sharia law.

A sect is a newly formed group that generally develops as a form of protest toward a parent religion. Sects often begin as an internal push within an existing religion toward some idyllic past in which the parent religion’s beliefs and/or practices were more orthodox. While sects may have among their early ranks some charismatic leaders, such leaders are not the primary motivators suggesting a split with the parent religion. It is often the case that the leaders of sectarian movements come from a lower socioeconomic status than the leaders of the parent religion, a factor that seems to play a role in sect formation. It is also noteworthy that there are only three paths sects can take: dissolution, institutionalization, or development into a denomination. Examples of sects include many of the well-known religious groups in the U.S. today: Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, etc.

Cults, like sects, are newly formed religious groups, but unlike sects they tend to have very little connection with existing religious groups.3 Cults are also distinguished from sects in that they seldom advocate a return to an idyllic religious past of an existing religious group but rather are encouraging the embracing of a new philosophy or a philosophy that is alleged to have been forgotten in the past. Additionally, cults are usually led by a charismatic leader, an individual who derives his or her power from the force of their character rather than through legal-rational or traditional means.4 Like sects, cults seldom remain in their original organizational format – they either dissolve, institutionalize, or become denominations. It should be noted that there is an active effort within the sociology of religion to relabel cults New Religious Movements (NRMs) because of the negative connotation associated with cults in popular parlance. Both Christianity and Islam arguably originated as cults.

Denominations are institutions that lie somewhere in the middle of the church-sect continuum. Cults and sects fall on one end, representing recency and lack of bureaucratization; churches fall along the other, with their highly developed bureaucracies, long-standing tradition, and monopolistic tendencies. While similar in many regards to churches, several things make denominations different from churches. First and foremost they are not monopolistic; they co-exist peacefully in nation-states with other religious bodies.5 Additionally, they maintain tolerant and sometimes friendly relationships with other denominations (though they tend to frown upon sects and cults). Their membership is derived from both reproduction and conversion. They also often have professional clergy and well-organized worship services and rituals. All of the above named religions that originated as sects are considered denominations today, as is the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. and the variants of Judaism (Reformed, Orthodox, Hasidic).

Turning to Mormonism… What can the church-sect typology tell us about Mormonism and what language should be used in describing the religion? While the influence of Methodism on Joseph Smith is still debated,6 it is apparent that the religion began under the direction of a charismatic leader and had many of the characteristics of a cult or New Religious Movement. In fact, most sociologists of religion view Mormonism as a very close approximation of the ideal type for a cult. But in keeping with my earlier statement that these labels should be understood as continua rather than rigid categories, I think it is also fair to say that the early Mormon religion had some characteristics of a sect as well. If I had to put percentages on it, I would probably classify it as 80% cult, 20% sect.

That said, 1830 was a long time ago and clearly the religion has changed. The transfer of leadership crisis from the first charismatic leader (Joseph Smith) to the second (Brigham Young) passed and has now been institutionalized as the formal means of transferring the mantle of authority from one leader to the next. Yet the very idea that there is a transfer of authority and charisma from one leader to the next is part of what lends toward the classification of Mormonism as something other than a denomination. Arguably, the current leaders of the religion would not qualify as ideal types of charismatic leaders. But their positions have been imbued with power and charisma, regardless of the actual personalities of those who hold them. Thus, while apostles can give relatively lackluster speeches that leave listeners dull-minded, when sighted or greeted with a handshake, everyday “Joe Mormons” often feel a special sense of awe.7 In short, the charisma that is often associated with cults remains.

Another important consideration in this debate is the level of tolerance of other religious groups. While Mormonism remains an exclusive religion,8 it does appear to be more willing to work with other religious groups to achieve its goals these days.9 The balancing act between exclusivism (i.e., the claim that it is the only true church) and tolerance places Mormonism in an awkward position along the continuum. Clearly it is moving toward denominational status, but it is not there yet.

When I have been asked whether I would consider Mormonism a cult or not, I respond that it has some vestiges of its cultic past that are keeping it from being considered a full-blown denomination in the U.S. today.10 I place Mormonism somewhere between “institutionalized cult” and “denomination” along the church-sect continuum.11 So, there you have it – Mormonism is increasingly more like a denomination, but has not lost all of its similarity to cults.

There is still one last issue that warrants further consideration – the use of the term “church” to refer to the LDS religion. This is often done by Mormons who, like those calling Mormonism a “cult,” are unfamiliar with the sociological significance of such a term. It is true, in a certain sense, that at one time in Mormonism’s history it was a “church” of sorts. Shortly after Joseph Smith died and the charismatic leadership passed to Brigham Young, the Mormons left the United States and moved into Utah, which, at the time, was not U.S. territory. Prior to becoming a U.S. territory, Utah was basically ruled under a theocracy. During that time, for Mormons at least, Mormonism would have been both a “church” and “the church,” though to outsiders it remained a cult (though this terminology wasn’t developed until the early part of the 20th century, so it would not likely have been used in this sense). I believe Mormonism’s theocracy days (which some would argue are still around thanks to temple oaths) have carried over in the common, everyday language of its adherents, especially in Utah. By referring to Mormonism as “the church,” Mormons are wrongly describing their religion (though I don’t mean to dictate to laypersons what language they should use to describe their religion). I have, since writing this essay, made a conscious effort to refer to Mormonism as a religion and never refer to it as the “LDS Church” or the “Mormon Church.” It is the “LDS religion” and the “Mormon religion.” But, admittedly, I do that because I usually refer to it in the sociological framework and not in the atmosphere of discussing Mormonism with a lay audience.

In summary, when sociological terminology is used to describe Mormonism, the most accurate way to describe the religion would be to call it an “institutionalized cult” or maybe even a “soon to be denomination.” Additionally, referring to Mormonism as a “church” is not an accurate usage of the term, sociologically, except, perhaps, in the eyes of the religion’s adherents who may, in fact, view it as one.

All that said, very few people outside of sociology use the terminology of sociology in their everyday language. The term “cult” outside of sociology has a very different meaning (see Wikipedia’s decent treatise of these differences). If you think of Mormonism as a “cult” in the popular usage of the term, so be it. That classification is open to debate. But the sociological understanding of “cult” no longer really fits for Mormonism.

Notes:
1. The goal is to associate Mormonism with a label that has gained a negative connotation, thereby painting Mormonism in a negative light.
2. For a thorough treatment of this please see: Johnstone, Ronald L. Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion. Fifth ed. Upper Sadle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall; 1997.
3. Though it is generally the case that they draw heavily upon existing religions in the development of their beliefs and or rituals even if doing so is not readily admitted.
4. Bendix, Reinhard. Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait. California: University of California Press; 1978.
5. p. 34 “Pluralism encourages, indeed it requires, norms of tolerance and acceptance—what John Murray Cuddihy calls the “religion of civility,” a stance of being religiously inoffensive, of being sensitive to religious differences in a pluralist context. An emphasis upon “good taste” and tolerance is essential to the larger religious unity. Pluralism forces upon each group, no matter what its heritage, the status of “denomination”—that is, each group has to accept coexistence with others and must give up claims of authority over them. Catholics and Jews thus have become “denominationalized” as they have accepted norms of freedom and tolerance in keeping with pluralism, and have modified their teachings and practices. Over time they have adjusted to the realities of voluntarism, though not always without theological ordeal or institutional trauma. As Cuddihy says: Immigrants arrive with their sects, shuls, and churches. America then teaches them to be discreet. It does so by means of its unique creation: the denomination, or better many denominations. This is known as “pluralism.” America tames religious sects up into denominations bringing them into the respectable middle class. America also tames churches down into denominations (The American Catholic Church is one of its recent converts and now bears the humble civil demeanor of an American denomination.). The point is that centripetal forces in American religion propel —”taming” up or down—toward some inclusive culture of non-offensiveness.” (Roof, W. C. and McKinney, W. American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press; 1987.)
6. O’Dea, Thomas F. The Mormons. University of Chicago Press; 1957.
7. I witnessed this not to long ago when, during a visit to Utah I was walking through the ZCMI center with my in-laws and we ran into Russell M. Nelson. My in-laws, faithful Mormons, couldn’t help but stare. Even though I am now an apostate, I was surprised to see Mr. Nelson as well (though it probably had more to do with the fact that he wasn’t surrounded by an entourage of bodyguards than anything else – I was amazed he wasn’t mobbed by members wanting to shake his hand).
8. Within the sociology of religion, “exclusive” refers to religions that hold the belief that the only way to gain salvation is through membership in their religion. Technically, Roman Catholicism is also an exclusive religion.
9. For example, the Mormon leadership has worked with Catholics and conservative Protestants on political issues they oppose, including homosexuality and the Equal Rights Amendment.
10. Armand Mauss has argued (1994) that every time the LDS religion enters a new nation it starts over in a sense as a cult.
11. I’m not alone in that sentiment, “Tracking the salience of numerous themes across the five “generations” that span Mormon history, Gordon and Gary Shepherd have observed a broad pattern of continuing but limited Mormon accommodation. They conclude that “while modern Mormonism has become less exclusive and more conciliatory toward the world, it continues to maintain enough of its original sectarian character to be regarded as an established sect’ rather than a fully accommodated denomination” (Shepherd & Shepherd 1984a:175).” (Iannaccone, Laurence R. and Miles, Carrie A. Dealing with Social Change: The Mormon Church’s Response to Change in Women’s Roles. Social Forces. 1990; 68(4):1231-1250.)

26 thoughts on “on the verge of becoming a denomination

  1. You might try Dialogue – it is an interesting piece, though I’m sure other sociologists would quibble on specifics – for example the charisma of “the prophet” compared to the charisma of “the pope” is interesting to think about. Sunstone (and Dialogue for that matter) have never been anti Mormon so much as independent. The current leadership at Sunstone is trying to be non controversial and fly beneath the radar, which certainly means there’s some interesting stuff that won’t be accepted.

  2. To get a feel for what is happening among fundamentalist Christians, I listen to Christian talk radio for a couple of weeks every other year. Within a two week segment, you will hear at least three times that Mormonism is a cult.

    Most Mormons have no clue how much our right wing allies loath and hate us.

    If Gordon Hinckley got his wish and traditionalist Christian morality would dominate American social life, Mormonism would be among the first victims.

    I find it interesting that Mormonism prospered most in the wake of the New Deal. That’s when the LDS Church became financially autonomous and when there was solid membership growth in the United States and abroad.

    Hopefully, legacy Mormons will recognize how threatening the religious right is to liberty. Hopefully, legacy Mormons will begin to understand that most Mormons rely on civil and human rights and the federal courts.

    The religious right is threatening Mormons everywhere but in the Mormon corridor.

  3. Greg… I’m a bit giddy you think Dialogue would even consider it (and I’m amazed you read this blog). I love Dialogue, even though they’ve never accepted anything I’ve submitted to them. You really think they would accept something like this? (I’m still hoping to read your recent book, too; unfortunately I have a lengthy “to read” list, but it’s on there.)

    Hellmut, you have more patience than I. I can’t handle Christian radio or right-wing political radio. I start grinding my teeth and then punch things.

    And yes, you’re right, they still think Mormonism is a cult.

  4. I witnessed this not to long ago when, during a visit to Utah I was walking through the ZCMI center with my in-laws and we ran into Russell M. Nelson. My in-laws, faithful Mormons, couldn’t help but stare. Even though I am now an apostate, I was surprised to see Mr. Nelson as well (though it probably had more to do with the fact that he wasn’t surrounded by an entourage of bodyguards than anything else – I was amazed he wasn’t mobbed by members wanting to shake his hand).

    Why don’t experiences like that challenge the assumptions and biases you have about the Church? If you were wrong in assuming that members would want to mob Elder Nelson to shake is hand, then isn’t it possible that you are wrong about other assumptions and beliefs you have about the Church?

    I had a similar experience in seeing Elder Eyring walking down the hall at the Salt Lake airport with no one trying to shake his hand or curry favor.

  5. John, you make a good point. But I’m contrasting that experience with the experiences I had as a missionary in Central America. Gordon Hinckley came while I was on my mission and the aura that surrounded him was really stunning. People would literally swarm him to shake his hand, touch him, etc. And if they could touch him, some would break into tears. There is still a strong sense of charisma associated with these GAs. However, if you see them every day (like in Crossroads Mall), it might take away some of the fascination. Or maybe it was just the mission culture, I’m not sure. But when you have someone like Dallin Oaks saying that you should never speak ill of the Lord’s Anointed, I can’t help but think the imbued aura of authority around General Authorities is intentional and its intention is to give them a sense of “charisma” or “being special”.

  6. But when you have someone like Dallin Oaks saying that you should never speak ill of the Lord’s Anointed, I can’t help but think the imbued aura of authority around General Authorities is intentional and its intention is to give them a sense of “charisma” or “being special”.

    I can understand the inclination to attribute the worst of intentions to people’s actions.

    As for the reaction of people in your mission, it seems logical to acknowledge that a living prophet is something special. Thus for people who actually believe he is a prophet, it would be special to be able to meet him. It seems that this flows from recognition of the office of the prophet and not because of the individual. If it were anyone else who held the office of the prophet, their response would have been the same.

    This does not, however, also mean that this is the reaction that the Church finds ideal among its members. My best guess would be that President Hinckley doesn’t like that kind of reception but is nevertheless gracious about it so as not to offend people’s feelings in a harmless expression of gratitude for the fact of a living prophet. If there is such a thing as living prophets, people are justified in being overjoyed at that fact.

  7. It sounds like your saying that the “special treatment” is expected, but not what the church wants. I’d like to know how you are privy to that information. And, if that is not what the church wants, why don’t they say that explicitly?

    Given my conversations with researchers in the church research division (many trained sociologists like myself), I’m 100% positive they are aware of Weber’s notion of charismatic authority. Whether they have willfully put that into practice in the religion, I can’t say. But I’ve never heard a GA say, “Hey, we’re normal people, just like you. Our shit stinks. And, yes, you can criticize us and disagree with us and even debate us and we’ll listen.” Saying just the opposite (don’t question the brethren) gives a very different message!

  8. But I’ve never heard a GA say, “Hey, we’re normal people, just like you.

    One recent example of many comes to mind, this one from the recent General Conference:

    Everything that is done in the Church—the leading, the teaching, the calling, the ordaining, the praying, the singing, the preparation of the sacrament, the counseling, and everything else—is done by ordinary members, the “weak things of the world.” […]

    Members have had the Holy Ghost conferred upon them after their baptism (see D&C 33:15; 35:6). The Holy Ghost will teach and comfort them. They are then prepared to receive guidance, direction, and correction, whatever their position or needs require. (See John 14:26; D&C 50:14; 52:9; 75:10.) […]

    When I was a young man, I was a home teacher to a very old sister. She taught me from her life experience.

    When she was a little girl, President Brigham Young came to Brigham City, a great event in the town named after him. To honor him, the Primary children, all dressed in white, were lined up along the road coming into town, each with a basket of flowers to spread before the carriage of the President of the Church.

    Something displeased her. Instead of throwing her blossoms, she kicked a rock in front of the carriage, saying, “He ain’t one bit better than my Grandpa Lovelund.” That was overheard, and she was severely scolded.

    I am very sure that President Brigham Young would be the first to agree with little Janie Steed. He would not consider himself to be worth more than Grandpa Lovelund or any other worthy member of the Church.

    The Lord Himself was very plain: “And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matthew 20:27). “The same is appointed to be the greatest, notwithstanding he is the least and the servant of all” (D&C 50:26). […]

    For a long time, something else puzzled me. Forty-six years ago I was a 37-year-old seminary supervisor. My Church calling was as an assistant teacher in a class in the Lindon Ward.

    To my great surprise, I was called to meet with President David O. McKay. He took both of my hands in his and called me to be one of the General Authorities, an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

    A few days later, I came to Salt Lake City to meet with the First Presidency to be set apart as one of the General Authorities of the Church. This was the first time I had met with the First Presidency—President David O. McKay and his counselors, President Hugh B. Brown and President Henry D. Moyle.

    President McKay explained that one of the responsibilities of an Assistant to the Twelve was to stand with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as a special witness and to bear testimony that Jesus is the Christ. What he said next overwhelmed me: “Before we proceed to set you apart, I ask you to bear your testimony to us. We want to know if you have that witness.”

    I did the best I could. I bore my testimony the same as I might have in a fast and testimony meeting in my ward. To my surprise, the Brethren of the Presidency seemed pleased and proceeded to confer the office upon me.

    That puzzled me greatly, for I had supposed that someone called to such an office would have an unusual, different, and greatly enlarged testimony and spiritual power.

    It puzzled me for a long time until finally I could see that I already had what was required: an abiding testimony in my heart of the Restoration of the fulness of the gospel through the Prophet Joseph Smith, that we have a Heavenly Father, and that Jesus Christ is our Redeemer. I may not have known all about it, but I did have a testimony, and I was willing to learn. […]

    There is the natural tendency to look at those who are sustained to presiding positions, to consider them to be higher and of more value in the Church or to their families than an ordinary member. Somehow we feel they are worth more to the Lord than are we. It just does not work that way!

    It would be very disappointing to my wife and to me if we supposed any one of our children would think that we think we are of more worth to the family or to the Church than they are, or to think that one calling in the Church was esteemed over another or that any calling would be thought to be less important.

    As General Authorities of the Church, we are just the same as you are, and you are just the same as we are. You have the same access to the powers of revelation for your families and for your work and for your callings as we do.

    It is also true that there is an order to things in the Church. When you are called to an office, you then receive revelation that belongs to that office that would not be given to others.

    No member of the Church is esteemed by the Lord as more or less than any other. It just does not work that way! Remember, He is a father—our Father. The Lord is “no respecter of persons.”

    We are not worth more to the onrolling of the Lord’s work than were Brother and Sister Toutai Paletu’a in Nuku’alofa, Tonga; or Brother and Sister Carlos Cifuentes in Santiago, Chile; or Brother and Sister Peter Dalebout in the Netherlands; or Brother and Sister Tatsui Sato of Japan; or hundreds of others I have met while traveling about the world. It just does not work that way. […]

    This talk is consistent with what I have observed and been taught over the years in the Church, from the pulpit at General Conference down to the stand in Primary.

  9. I can appreciate the lengthy quotes, but I think you know as well as I do that that isn’t exactly true.

    The article says, “As General Authorities of the Church, we are just the same as you are, and you are just the same as we are. You have the same access to the powers of revelation for your families and for your work and for your callings as we do.” Technically, that is true. Practically, it is completely different. GA’s “receive revelation” for the religion. They have no obligation to listen to anyone below them in the hierarchy. In fact, this is what Joseph Smith instituted to fend off challenges to his authority – you can give revelation down the chain but not up it. This is authoritarianism.

    Whoever gave this talk was probably sincere, but HE was also misleading. It may be true that GAs are held to the same worthiness standards for their own salvation, but they are not seen the same way. People in Central America didn’t throw themselves at every Joe Mormon who came to visit.

    If you really want to insist that GAs are no different from other Mormons, I’ll give you that. But you have to accept what comes with it: That they have no special authority over you and their bloviating is just so much hot air. Either they are special (by virtue of their priesthood or position or whatever) or they are not. You don’t get both – kind of sort of special but not special but still important but not that important but still we should listen to them. Either they have the AUTHORITY to tell you what you should do or they are posers.

    Lastly, claiming “The Lord is “no respecter of persons.”” is bullshit. If that were true, the Lord wouldn’t care if you were Mormon or not. The Lord wouldn’t care if you believed in him or not. The Lord would reward all according to their merits, not based on having the luck of being born to Mormon parents or in a part of the world where Christianity predominates. This allegedly tolerant “Lord” is actually a bigot.

  10. The talk I provided directly contradicted the claim you tried to float here, that “I’ve never heard a GA say, ‘Hey, we’re normal people, just like you.'” To be sure there can be no argument against your statement that you never heard a GA say that. Nevertheless, the fact that an entire talk devoted to the issue comes so readily to hand, from the most recent General Conference no less, implies that you have created a straw man against which to argue. One wonders what else about the Church you have framed inaccurately in order to win argument points that go unaddressed anyway on this blog.

    Whoever gave this talk was probably sincere, but HE was also misleading. It may be true that GAs are held to the same worthiness standards for their own salvation, but they are not seen the same way. People in Central America didn’t throw themselves at every Joe Mormon who came to visit.

    By clicking on the link provided you can easily find out who gave the talk. It was Boyd Packer.

    The talk was not misleading. You were looking for a statement from Church leadership that they are normal people just like everyone else. Not only does this talk contain such a direct assertion, but actually reading the text provided — or the entire talk for the sake of discussion — will readily show that the context of the talk is to address the problem that you have noted: that some people continue to act like GAs are better or worth more than ordinary members — such as what you saw in Central America. If Latter-day Saints in Central America were listening to this talk, perhaps they will rethink the way they manifest their gratitude to God for providing a living prophet today.

    If nothing else, this talk is a manifestation that such a posture of adoring Church leaders is not desirable to the Church or its leaders.

    If you really want to insist that GAs are no different from other Mormons, I’ll give you that. But you have to accept what comes with it: That they have no special authority over you and their bloviating is just so much hot air. Either they are special (by virtue of their priesthood or position or whatever) or they are not. You don’t get both – kind of sort of special but not special but still important but not that important but still we should listen to them. Either they have the AUTHORITY to tell you what you should do or they are posers.

    Packer addressed the issue of position (what Latter-day Saints call “office”) in the priesthood as follows:

    As General Authorities of the Church, we are just the same as you are, and you are just the same as we are. You have the same access to the powers of revelation for your families and for your work and for your callings as we do.

    It is also true that there is an order to things in the Church. When you are called to an office, you then receive revelation that belongs to that office that would not be given to others.

    In other words, it is a basic principle in the Church (although many in local leadership positions seem to forget it or fail to live by it) that all Church members have the “same access to the powers of revelation for your families and for your work and for your callings” as GAs and any other leaders of the Church do. This is accompanied by the principle emphasized above in bold that “When you are called to an office, you then receive revelation that belongs to that office that would not be given to others.” People who do not believe the truth claims of the Church will of course not believe that this is happening but there is no reason to misconstrue what Mormons actually believe about God providing revelation to people specific to the office they hold, in addition to revelation that He gives them for their personal lives and for those under their care, such as their families.

    By responding as you have to the provision of fresh words straight from the President of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles explaining what Mormons believe or should believe about the status of Church leaders, you make it seem like you are not interested in what the Church believes but want to tell Mormons your version of what they believe in constructing your criticisms/ridicule of the Church, thereby importing premises into your arguments that you can more easily deconstruct.

    It sounds like your real criticism here is that the Church is not run like a democratic organization in which all members vote on their leaders and can exercise control over the policy decisions of their leaders through the threat of voting them out of office or impeaching them from office. That is a valid concern for many people and a good reason to leave the Church, particularly if you do not believe the truth claims of the Church relating to the restoration of religious truths and the priesthood authority to perform authorized ordinances that are binding in the sight of God. But it falls short of justification to cast negative aspersions or malign other Latter-day Saints who do not have a problem with the organization of the Church.

    As to the bigoted God that you attribute to Mormonism, many or most Latter-day Saints do not view it this way based on their belief that God loves all his children, regardless of the circumstances into which they were born, and that all will have the opportunity to accept or reject the message of the Gospel at some point, both here on earth and in the afterlife through continued missionary work and vicarious ordinances. Naturally, this sounds absurd as does all religious doctrine with which does not agree, and therefore one is perfectly within their rights and reason to reject it entirely. Whether it is reason to cast negative aspersion or malign those who do hold these beliefs is another question and validly touches on issues of bigotry.

  11. John… really? Here’s what I said, “But I’ve never heard a GA say, “Hey, we’re normal people, just like you. Our shit stinks. And, yes, you can criticize us and disagree with us and even debate us and we’ll listen.”” Yes, you admirably found a talk that refutes the very first sentence. Hooray! I don’t listen to general conference anymore (for the last 6 years or so), so I could honestly say I had never heard that. Now I have. Thank you.

    Even so, you are attacking something I never said. I didn’t say GAs think they are better or that members think GAs are better or more worthy. What I said is that members think GAs are special. Members do think they are special! And, my point in debating your reference is that the LDS religion can’t really forego that claim. They may try to underhandedly minimize it, but fundamentally Mormonism, as it currently exists, rests on the assumption that they are somehow “special.” (else why listen to them?)

    You also didn’t address the last sentence of my quote above, you focused on just one point. Where’s the rest of your refutation?

    Don’t put words into my mouth! I said what I said, not what you want to claim I said (“It sounds like your real…”). Enough with the strawmen!

    Finally, stop playing the victim card. I will criticize Mormonism as much as I like. Claiming I am casting “negative aspersions or maligning people” is a total cop out. Unless I have said something that is blatantly libelous, I reserve the right to speak my mind – and that includes criticizing. You can criticize me all you’d like. In fact, I invite it. Any institution that considers itself above criticism or that feigns offense at the slightest criticism (which Romney loves doing) warrants even more criticism.

    (Oh, and I’d love to find a quote of a GA saying the second sentence… If you can find that quote, well…) 😉

  12. The term I used in my essay –
    charisma:
    a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure (as a political leader) or a special magnetic charm or appeal

    better:
    more attractive, favorable, or commendable

    (These are Merriam-Webster definitions)

    By “special” I mean “charisma”… If someone really wants to argue against the alleged charisma of Mormon General Authorities, I’m game.

  13. Yes, you admirably found a talk that refutes the very first sentence.

    Although it is difficult to concede that one has engaged in an overreaching and inaccurate argument, for example by incorrectly claiming that Mormons beleive a certain thing for the sake of your argument, there is no reason for the histrionics that surface in your comment # 13. A simple discussion would suffice.

    They may try to underhandedly minimize it, but fundamentally Mormonism, as it currently exists, rests on the assumption that they are somehow “special.” (else why listen to them?)

    The answer that Packer gave was that revelation or guidance comes to the holder of a particular office relating to the responsibilities of that office. Therefore, it is the office that matters and the office is “special” in the sense that Latter-day Saints who believe the truth claims of the Church believe that the offices exist as part of God’s structure for leading the Church through revelation.

    You also didn’t address the last sentence of my quote above, you focused on just one point. Where’s the rest of your refutation?

    The last sentence you are referring to is probably the following: [“But I’ve never heard a GA say] ‘And, yes, you can criticize us and disagree with us and even debate us and we’ll listen.'”

    The response to this sentence was as follows:

    It sounds like your real criticism here is that the Church is not run like a democratic organization in which all members vote on their leaders and can exercise control over the policy decisions of their leaders through the threat of voting them out of office or impeaching them from office. [i.e. you said that “I’ve never heard a GA say . . . ‘And, yes, you can criticize us and disagree with us and even debate us and we’ll listen.'”; thus, this sentence seems to restate the substance of your criticism (what I called “your real criticism”), particularly given that I supplied a recent talk that directly refuted the claim you made in your first sentence; as such, the last sentence seems to be the substance of your criticism, and the blockquote in which this bracketed comment is embedded was the answer to your last sentence; I introduced my response with the words “It sounds like your real criticism here is. . .”, which is a completely acceptable method of discourse, particularly since what followed did not misconstrue the substance of your last sentence; in other words, there is no straw man in my response to you but arguing that I have created one is indeed a straw man.] That is a valid concern for many people and a good reason to leave the Church, particularly if you do not believe the truth claims of the Church relating to the restoration of religious truths and the priesthood authority to perform authorized ordinances that are binding in the sight of God. But it falls short of justification to cast negative aspersions or malign other Latter-day Saints who do not have a problem with the organization of the Church.

    In response to this, you stated “Don’t put words into my mouth! I said what I said, not what you want to claim I said (”It sounds like your real…”). Enough with the strawmen!”

    But as shown in the blockquote above, in my response to your last sentence, which response you claim I did not make, I restated your last sentence of “I’ve never heard a GA say . . . ‘And, yes, you can criticize us and disagree with us and even debate us and we’ll listen.'”

    with the following:

    “It sounds like your real criticism here is that the Church is not run like a democratic organization in which all members vote on their leaders and can exercise control over the policy decisions of their leaders through the threat of voting them out of office or impeaching them from office.”

    This does not seem to be a distorting restatement by any means. If the restatement either did not correctly identify what was actually the more substantial criticism in your “But I’ve never heard a GA say” comment, or incorrectly restates the criticism, then please explain how. On its face, however, this restatement of your argument as part of the discourse is not a straw man and does not make claims as to what you said but rather repeats what you actually did say.

    I will criticize Mormonism as much as I like.

    No one is trying to silence you here. You are of course free to say whatever you want, as am I. You have long voiced your criticisms here. This is no reason, however, that someone with a different point of view should let inaccurate, mischaracterized, or misleading criticisms go unanswered or should not challenge antagonistic views towards one’s beliefs. What would be the value in that, in your view?

    Claiming I am casting “negative aspersions or maligning people” is a total cop out. Unless I have said something that is blatantly libelous, I reserve the right to speak my mind – and that includes criticizing.

    This is very true. There is no reason to reserve any rights — your right to say anything you want no matter how tenuous is a given. Pointing out that your approach and much of what you have written is criticism that goes beyond simple discussion and crosses into maligning and ridiculing other people’s faith is not a cop out but form part of the answer to your arguments. Your protestations are particularly weak given your avoidance of the substance of my own comments, resorting instead to accusing me of using straw men where I have not, fallacious argumentation where that has not been present, specious reasoning where reasonable people could disagree whether the reasoning is specious or not, and relying on cop outs to the criticisms you present where such answers have in reality formed part of a larger response to your points that you have by contrast ignored, relying instead on your own cop outs of claiming that I am displaying or using a victim mentality or trying to silence your criticism.

    You can criticize me all you’d like. In fact, I invite it.

    So far, any criticism directed specifically at you or your methods of argumentation rather than at your arguments has been in direct response to criticism you have directed at me and my methods of argumentation rather than at my arguments. (And for the most part my responses to you have focused heavily on the substance of your criticisms rather than on your approach.) As to your invitation for me to criticize you even more, I have no desire to do so and will not criticize your decision to leave the Church or even your decision to continually criticize to the point of harassing the Church now that you have left. I may, however, occasionally feel like responding to some of your assertions, assumptions, and arguments when time permits and am glad that you invite such further discussion here.

    Any institution that considers itself above criticism or that feigns offense at the slightest criticism (which Romney loves doing) warrants even more criticism.

    This seems to lay out an approach of criticism as revenge for not allowing criticism (or for projecting the disallowance of criticism where that is not happening, as has been the case here), or as revenge for being offended at discourteous or rude, very personal and biting criticism (as opposed to what could be an academic level of criticism). This is an interesting and probably very fun (for you) standard but ultimately an untenable one, at least according to some tenets of the derivative of Kantian philosophy that so strongly motivate our mutual friend Hellmut.

    (Oh, and I’d love to find a quote of a GA saying the second sentence… If you can find that quote, well…)

    Such a quote very likely does not exist which to be sure is unfortunate and has contributed surely to the decision many people have taken to leave the Church (feeling that they cannot dissent or criticize the Church leaders without some kind of repurcussions or consequences). That is why leaving the Church for you was likely a very rational choice if this aspect of the Church organization was troubling to you. Whether the fact that other people stay in the Church, including leaders of the Church and GAs — believing as they do in the truth claims of the Church and finding, as they do, spiritual fulfillment in the life of the Church and the association of its members — comprises grounds to question their sanity, competence, intelligence, benevolence, ethics, intentions, affections, desires, dreams, hopes, and lives remains open to the types of debates that are so frequently initiated by people who do not share a belief in the truth claims of the Church. A summary answer, however, and one that is consistent with an approach of religious toleration in a pluralistic society, and with the freedoms of conscience, expression, assembly, and religion that are guaranteed citizens of the United States, is that such religious beliefs generally are not really grounds to question such things and such an approach is often weakened by the need to someone taking that approach to attribute to the object of discussion characteristics that are either unfair or inaccurate (and mean-spirited) stereotypes or factually incorrect descriptions of beliefs and practices or their implications.

  14. John, you must be an attorney 😉

    “Although it is difficult to concede that one has engaged in an overreaching and inaccurate argument, for example by incorrectly claiming that Mormons beleive [sic] a certain thing for the sake of your argument, there is no reason for the histrionics that surface in your comment # 13. A simple discussion would suffice.”
    This is a very subtle way of saying that you still think I was wrong. Impressive (and I mean that sincerely). However, I don’t think I ever really said what you are insinuating I did, that regular Mormons think GAs are better or more worthy, just special (i.e., they have charisma, or, more accurately, the charisma of their office).

    Where we seem to be talking past each other is in the notion that the “special-ness” is associated with the office, not the person. Frankly, that is an argument I agree with (and I believe I even stated as much in my original essay – the institutionalization of charisma). I could be more clear in saying that it is “the prophet” that was rushed in Central America, not “Gordon Hinckley.” But in practical terms, it is the same thing. People didn’t rush “the office of the prophet” but the person carrying the mantle of the prophet, so in practical terms it is the same thing.

    Now that you’ve reworded it, you may, in fact, be right – your restatement is an approximation of my second point (not exact, but getting there), so not so much a strawman. (3/4ths a point for John) Basically what you are saying (and, in a sense, admitting), is that the LDS religion is not a democracy. Frankly, I have no problem with that. That didn’t play a role in why I left. I am only criticizing after the fact because I find such an organization repressive (I think we were debating this on the other post about Romney’s authoritarianism).

    Would I belong to an organization like that today? Probably not. But I’m not sure that was my original intention. I think what I was trying to say by quoting Dallin Oaks was that the leadership considers itself above criticism. That, to me, is another indication of the “special-ness” of GAs. They claim they are no different (i.e., they imply their shit does stink 😉 ), but then they turn around and say, “Don’t criticize us. And we don’t have to listen to you.” That, to me, seems to undermine Packer’s entire talk. Do you not see it that way?

  15. I don’t think this is a charismatic leadership at all really. Quite the contrary.

    What Mormons are “in awe” of is the Church structure, not the men in it.

  16. Hinckley came to visit my mission. For a month, every meeting involved my leaders trying to pump us up with the thought that we would shake hands with the Prophet of God. Much was made of how he would look into our souls. The implication was that we better be good missionaries or we’d be found out by the Lord’s anointed. Hinckley in his advanced age was understandably not ready to shake hands with hundreds of eager young missionaries. I could sense the disappointment when the missionaries found out that they wouldn’t press the flesh with the Prophet.

    Some of this adoration is just being star-struck, but part of it is rooted in the religious feelings of the LDS people. Whether the devotion is to the person or the office makes no practical difference. I think most LDS believe (I certainly did) that these men are a cut above the rest of us because the Lord selected them to occupy the office.

    I have seen and experienced hero worship in the LDS church. I don’t know whether the church encourages this, but they don’t do much to discourage it either. They can’t without undermining their own authority. If they emphasize that they are just plain folks most of the time (i.e. when they’re not issuing joint statements of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve) then people might begin to wonder why they should pay special attention when the GAs speak in general conference or at other times. If there is a clear way to distinguish when a person is acting in their office and when they are a private citizen of Zion, then the church leadership hasn’t emphasized it.

    Someone might counter that the Spirit will help us distinguish. Presumably, then, we would be justified in ignoring the Church leadership when we feel the Spirit has refuted what the leadership has said. But then we have Oaks saying that it is always wrong to criticize the leadership. I’ve also heard critics of the church criticized for being so presumptuous as to believe that they could be more inspired than the church leadership. What is the Spirit for if we can’t rely on it speaking the truth against power?

  17. If they emphasize that they are just plain folks most of the time (i.e. when they’re not issuing joint statements of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve) then people might begin to wonder why they should pay special attention when the GAs speak in general conference or at other times.

    As Packer’s talk quoted above shows, you are wrong about this.

  18. John, I appreciate the brevity, but I’m not sure I see how Johnathan is wrong here. I think this is a legitimate question: If, as Packer said, GAs are just like everybody else, then why listen?

    If I’m not mistaken, your argument is – because of their office. They are not special, their office is. I think I understand your logic, but pardon me if I don’t find it at all compelling. Here’s why:
    1) In practical terms, distinguishing between the office and the person is meaningless. People don’t clamor to shake hands with offices but with people. If that is a failure on the part of the adherent (to make the distinction), so be it. But let me ask you this: Would you be at all excited if you got to shake Gordon Hinckley’s hand? And if you did get excited, would it be because you are shaking hands with Gordon Hinckley or because you are shaking hands with “the prophet”? Would you honestly make that distinction? And would it change things if you could shake hands with Joseph Smith?
    2) If these people are not somehow special, why did they get called to the “special” office? Luck of the draw? Could anyone be called to the office?

    (Frankly, I’m not even sure why I’m arguing this point: I don’t think any of these people are special in any sense except they are adroit at manipulation and they probably believe the bullshit they say. If I were to meet Gordon Hinckley, out of courtesy I might shake his hand, but just because I’m polite. I would then proceed to tell him what I think of his religion and what he does. And that wouldn’t be quite as polite… 😐 )

  19. “The implication was that we better be good missionaries or we’d be found out by the Lord’s anointed.”

    Jonathan, why was this the implication? Can you point to something they actually said? Or was this just your natural adolescent guilt complex manufacturing things out of thin air?

    I’m not being critical, I think most young missionaries operate this way, not just you, or anyone else in particular.

  20. John and Seth, I am not sure which church you are attending but in the LDS Church leaders enjoy a great deal of prestige.

    That’s hardly a matter of folklore of youthful guilt but anchored in our theology. I need not remind you of the temple ceremony.

    Out of respect for the sensibilities of believers, I would rather not go into the details. You know as well as I do, that the temple ceremony contains striking passages about the importance of obedience and the status of leaders.

    You might want to argue that the temple ceremony is not all that relevant to you, especially not in a literal way but that would place you outside the consensus of chapel Mormons.

    May be, you will succeed in moving Mormonism in a more reasonable and more humane direction. To date, however, Mormon theology and mainstream attitudes remain deeply authoritarian.

  21. Seth,

    It’s been a few years, so I can’t provide exact quotations, but my leaders did float stories about how people felt utterly known by the Prophet when meeting him. We were encouraged to work really hard to be prepared to meet him. I can’t say for sure, but I believe they even used the word “repent” in connection with these preparations. I admit that youthful guilt may have colored my memories, but I don’t believe overwhelmingly so. The mission field can be an extremely dysfunctional environment.

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