About twenty years ago, I was lucky enough to come into the orbit of the great LDS sociologist Armand Mauss. We were a group of young adults connected to UC Irvine, and we invited him to come to our weekly study group. Those were fantastic years. We loved how he modeled a kind of mature, nuanced discipleship that embraced the fallibility and humanness of our leaders and church institution.
Mauss mentioned a number of times how different contemporary church discourse is compared to discourse when he was growing up. “When I was young, there was only one prophet. And that was Joseph Smith. You almost never heard the president of the church referred to as the prophet,” he told us. In my recollection, Mauss found the newer trend toward emphasizing the prophet status of church presidents slightly distasteful, as he pointed to the last verse and chorus of the rather creepy Primary song “Follow the Prophet” as a manifestation of this newer trend.
A recent post by Christian Anderson and Quentin Spencer pointed out that this trend of emphasizing prophetic authority seems to be increasing under President Nelson. More and more General Conference speakers refer to President Nelson and his prophetic mantle, quote him, thank him for his beloved prophetic leadership, etc. This is a troubling trend. As Jana Riess says in her terrific article on the LDS church and celebrity culture, “When [General Conference] speakers mention the current leader’s name as often as the Savior’s, it’s no longer clear just who it is we’re supposed to be worshipping.” Another friend pointed out that these rounds of very public deference and loyalty to President Nelson reminded her of President Trump’s bizarre first meeting with his cabinet, where every member took his/her turn to fulsomely praise Trump.
I want to delve more into this dynamic we’ve developed in the church to emphasize prophetic authority, hero-worship our highest leaders, tout that the prophet is the mouthpiece of God, and basically treat our highest leaders as infallible. These trends are often modeled by top leaders and then trickle down to regular members on the ground. Some might see good result from these trends — having a human, living exemplar of Christ-like behavior is no doubt inspiring to some. This language can also help to create a unified church culture. But I think it’s worth pointing out that there are some dangers to this trend (in addition to those mentioned above).
First, this kind of rhetoric is often a part of spiritually abusive systems. In a recent series of episodes of the Latter Day Struggles podcast, Valerie Hamaker points out that, according to this book, one aspect of a spiritually abusive system is the pervasiveness of something called power posturing. Power posturing occurs when leaders “spend a lot of time focusing on their own authority and reminding others of it as well.” As Hamaker says, the job of a spiritual leader is not to point to himself (or to each other within the power system) as authorities. Rather, the job of a spiritual leader is to point to God, Jesus (if Christian), and loving, just principles. If church leaders are continually orienting their listeners to themselves (or to those in their power circle) and to their own authority, be wary, the authors say. Hamaker points out LDS church discourse definitely includes overt power posturing.
Second, the repeated emphasis on obedience to church leaders (and the LDS cultural tendency to hero-worship them) can create in members an unhealthy dependence on leaders. We need to be careful about discourse that encourages members to outsource their own spiritual authority, as they seek permission from leaders to make decisions about the minutiae of their lives.
I remember being in a feminist Facebook group years ago where a woman posted that she had asked her bishop if she could take off her garment bottoms for the days of the month she was on her period because she was constantly staining her garments. The bishop responded that rather than taking off her garments, she should wear adult diapers underneath them. The woman was outraged by this response. I was outraged – well maybe not outraged, but just distressed – that this woman had been taught to outsource her spiritual authority like this, that she felt she needed to go to a fallible church leader and ask for his permission for something so personal.
We have infantilized, damaged, and diminished our people and their development when we have taught adults to outsource moral responsibility and decision making to others. Rhetoric pointing us to obedience to leaders who always “know the way,” as the Primary song goes, can discourage members from discerning for themselves how to live into their own integrity and how to move forward amidst complicating factors. Not that we can’t borrow wisdom from church leaders–some no doubt have insightful things to say on certain subjects. But ultimately, we need to be empowered to weigh out our options using good principles and make complicated decisions ourselves.
Third, emphases on prophetic authority and “the prophet is a mouthpiece for God“ language also can set members up to crash and burn when they realize how fallible their leaders are. Inevitably, members with access to the internet who know English will at some point come to learn some of the terribly racist things Brigham Young said. They’ll find out Joseph Smith married a 14-year-old. They’ll find out that our current church leaders have socked away billions of dollars of tithing money in escrow accounts rather than using that money to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and do all sorts of good with it. If we have held leaders up as mouthpieces for God who can “never lead the church astray” we’ve created a binary of either the church is true or it isn’t true. Many people therefore choose to disaffiliate, feeling that if prophets actually did make all these mistakes, then the church must not be true. We could save our people from some significant pain and disillusionment if our rhetoric included an emphasis on the humanity and fallibility of our leaders and church institution, alongside a pervasive rhetorical emphasis pointing to God and Jesus.
There’s something seductive about the possibility of prophet speaking for God who could never make a mistake in his capacity as president of the church. It’s so clean and simple to forego having to make complicated moral determinations because “once the brethren have spoken, the thinking has already been done” (as the old Mormon saying goes). Such emphases on authority also no doubt make leading easier for church authorities throughout the hierarchy. But the costs of such discourse are not inconsequential. Do we really want a spiritually stunted people, unable to discern for themselves good and right ways forward? Do we really want people to outsource moral responsibility to fallible leaders? The principle of integrity (to our best selves, to gospel principles, to our moral consciences) should always trump the principle of obedience (to human leaders). Our church and its people would be overwhelmingly better off if there was space within the institutional church to disagree with leaders and reject their worst ideas and actions. If one can reject the worst of the tradition, room is left to embrace the best of it.