LDS Culture, Power Posturing, and Stunted Spiritual Development: The Dangers of Hero-Worshipping our Church Leaders

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.

Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.


  1. Spot on! I wasn’t raised in the church, so didn’t receive the “infallibility” message until many years after I’d been baptized at age 20. I didn’t hear it and I hadn’t seen the actively worshipful behavior regarding the brethren until I moved to Utah over fifteen years ago. That move was like moving to a differenct decade. What had seemed a beautiful church, filled with great experiences, became a pain in the neck as I learned to tiptoe around the TBMs. I don’t like tiptoeing, so it became necessary for me to seek deeper spiritual discussion and connection to deity elsewhere. I love my neighbors and the Lord, so it is easy to stay affiliated and fellowship with these beloved siblings. But I divorced myself from the idea that the brethren have anything genuine to offer my spiritual journey.

    • I’m glad you had a few years of infallibility-free church discourse! But sorry to hear that the fawning behavior emerged when you moved to Utah and that it was so disruptive to your experience a Latter-day Saint. I’ve never lived in Utah, but I think it would be so hard to be around fawning constantly.

      • I’d had interaction with top leaders via my local leaders that caused me to divorce myself from thinking that church HQ had anything to offer my spiritual journey and relationships, so moving to Utah didn’t affect that, but it is still very discomforting to me to hear people brag about any relationship with or interaction with or even a sighting of a GA. That puts a bit of a cultishness on members who think that those things matter a whit. For instance, when my daughter was in college in Orem, she had a roommate who wasn’t allowed to date anyone who’s father was less than a stake president. WT actual H?

        • It really happens that members are exclusionary in how they treat others, even acting as if we have a caste system within the church. Your story about only dating children of leaders was used to reject my husband by a girl he had been dating before he met me.

          When we talk about only associating with people who can pull us up rather than down it teaches a hierarchical rather than egalitarian way of looking at others (plus it is impossible for everyone to be pulled up without someone bending over to help others).

          People use this as an excuse to exclude those who are less fortunate than themselves due to disability or socioeconomic differences. We say we are sharing the gospel with the world but we are told “the cream will rise to the top”. In other words, we aren’t going to accommodate, or have charity for those who don’t fit into our culture easily.

  2. Thank you. This is a very insightful post. As it happens, I read it to my wife just before joining Zoom fast and testimony meeting. And the majority of the testimonies were about President Nelson. We noticed, what we called fawning over the prophet, this past conference, and found it embarrassing.

    I loved this summation from your post:

    “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).”

    Unfortunately, the opposite was taught this past week by General YM 1st counselor Ahmad Corbett. He expanded it to warning not to think you’re following God over the prophet. In other words, when the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done. Sadly, I sometimes feel like President Nelson’s “Hear Him” push was not so much a real admonition as it was a slogan for t-shirts and Instagram.

    • I just heard about the talk by Corbett. It sounds like it was a very troubling talk. Wasn’t it Brigham Young (of all people!) who said: “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self security. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.”

  3. I just cannot get over the bishop advising a woman to wear an adult brief/diaper for that time of month! It took me years before I finally started wearing only an underwear at that time, too many soiled garments due to the pads shifting. For some years I wore both underwear with oad and then the garment bottom.
    Topic for another article but yeah, definitely hope the woman did what worked for her.

    • Yes, his advice was wacky! But I also can’t get over the fact we’ve created a culture where a woman feels compelled to talk to some guy she probably only sees Sundays about her issues with bleeding through her underwear. Clearly, we need a better emphasis on personal revelation.

    • A terrible response from the bishop, to be sure. Bishop’s need to learn to say (over and over again, in many different conversations): “This is between you and God. I encourage you to pray about it.”

  4. Did you see the recent speeches by Sherri Dew and Elder Corbitt? Both exemplified many of the problems you’ve highlighted here. Quite troubling.

    • And yet I see social media abuzz with praise for both Dew’s and Corbett’s talks. There is a very strong “follow the prophet”campaign underway. Sadly, the “Hear Him” push has faded into obscurity.

    • I had heard about Corbitt’s but haven’t looked up Dew’s yet. For me personally, it really is a distasteful trend. Is there any awareness on the SLC’s part how this sounds to people not of our faith? We are often accused of not being Christian. This kind of language really isn’t helping the situation.

  5. Beautifully written. The more we argue the infallibility of our leaders and that mistakes are never made, the more we build our own case to the contrary. Despite still having a long way to go in openly acknowledging how egregious in most cases, we do admit ancient prophets made mistakes. Nobody thinks David should have had Uriah murdered so he could continue his affair with Bathsheba even if we don’t admit this was rape and abuse of power.
    However, we cling so tightly to the “either it is all true or it is all false” binary we can’t admit any human error post Joseph Smith. Failure to acknowledge past missteps does more to harm membership, and the credibility of our leaders, than modeling repentance and a true living church with continued revelation ever could.

    • I think maybe David could be considered a lower-case p prophet, though his main role was king. At least Peter refers to him as a prophet in the New Testament. But regardless, I think you’re right on. The Old Testament is filled with very troubled, very problematic, very human, very sinful heroes/prophets/protagonists whom God charges with carrying out various tasks. Not sure why we can’t handle servants of God today who are likewise very human and flawed. And yes, some humility and apologizing from church leaders would certainly increase my faith in the church.

  6. I love this post so much. So many folks have told me that questioning church leaders hurts members and fans the flames of doubt. But I agree with you that “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.”

    • Yes. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has a great essay called “Lusterware,” in which she talks about how church members have pedestalized leaders, held up policies as coming straight from God, etc. when they should never have been held up like that in the first place. The crash when people understand how human the church is is shattering for so many people. So much better to not have pedestalized in the first place.

  7. Brava, dear Caroline! You’ve highlighted the undo influence members are programmed to grant LDS Church leaders over their bodies and their minds.

  8. Years ago, I spent a couple hours around then-Elder Nelson. He was an unpleasant, arrogant man. I find the current placing of him on a pedestal nauseating.

      • He has always come across as arrogant and self-absorbed to me. Radio Free Mormon has done some episodes about the lies that are often in his stories. The plane going down in flames, but Nelson was calm? Didn’t happen. The attack in Africa story did happen, but Nelson’s version is demonstrably exaggerated and self-important. And more. And he sends lobbyists to legislatures and Congress to fight against equality for women. He’s not worth listening to.

  9. You have a powerful voice. “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.” Agreed.

  10. Infallibility of leaders is a clearly false concept that even President Nelson rejected in his first press conference. Under questioning about Joseph Smith he said we don’t have an infallibility doctrine for either Joseph Smith or for the current president of the church. Unfortunately it seems I was the only person listening. “Follow the prophet” is such a catchy primary song that it drowns out reality.

    • Someone has said (I wish I could remember who) that Catholics are taught that the Pope in infallible, but the members don’t treat him as if he were fallible. And that Mormons are taught that the leaders are fallible, but members treat them as if they were infallible. I think it’s a pretty true statement. Even though we’ve heard from leaders that they themselves are fallible, we are then taught to not question, disobey, or go elsewhere for information.

      • Yes, Beth, that’s exactly right. There is no doctrine of prophetic infallibility, but LDS culture and discourse strongly encourage people to never voice disagreement. So there’s kind of a de facto assumption of infallibility happening, particularly when it comes to decision-making about church policies and doctrines.

  11. I think the trend started with Benson, and subsequent Presidents til Nelson (propped up by Oaks) didn’t really see it as a problem. Nelson seems to be trying to “make his mark” to be one of the Presidents remembered for something, anything. (Temple building? Church portfolio? trying to drop “Mormon”?)

    I recall the one time I went to General Conference in the (then new) conference center decades ago. When Pres Hinkley entered, the audience broke into “We Thank The, Oh God, For A Prophet”, to which he briefly acknowledged with a wave but otherwise ignored in favor of whatever final prep he needed for the session.

    Lastly, I wonder why the POX wasn’t more of a wake-up call against prophetic infallibility. It didn’t last very long and was very quietly removed (after much too long), and we got treated to even more “follow the prophet” talks.

    PH, RS, YW, YM, Sacrament Meeting talks, all need to be disengaged from Conference Talks as lessons (which took over from the “Lives of the Prophets” manuals). Gon are the last bits of local adaptation, needed to address local issues, pressed into whenever we have a 5th Sunday.

    Sorry, a bit scattered. This is one of those areas that frustrates me the most (and there is plenty of competition).

  12. I was serving as a bishop when President Hinckley stood up and proclaimed (paraphrasing) “It’s either all true, or it’s all false. There’s no in between.” That’s the complete emphasis now, with plenty of unhappy saints in tow.

    After a lifetime of obedience and submission of will (as beloved Neal A Maxwell called it), the ever-increasing intractability of the LDS leadership power structure finally broke my back (along with plenty of insight into *real verifiable* Church history). I sadly concluded that following this covenant path will never bring me the joy and spiritual maturity I’m looking for from life. I am pleased to be cutting my own path now — though not for the faint of heart.

  13. It’s sad because it’s true. And I believe prophet-worship will only increase when Oaks takes over. His views on LGBTQ+ issues are so polarizing that the TBMs will stand by him instead of standing by our brothers and sisters in Christ.
    I think part of the prophet-worship phenomena with Nelson comes because of the doctor-ego. Oaks’s lawyer-ego will be similar.

  14. I long for President Hinckley.

    To me, the mantle was worn quite differently by Hinckley versus Nelson. Hinckley wore it the way a grocer might don an apron while sweeping floors and greeting customers, and Nelson wears it like a regal robe, expecting us to bow.

    That being said, the adulation and prestige for the position began to be overly celebrated during Hinckley’s administration. Sheri Dew wrote his biography, and the RS/PH curriculum focusing on presidents was rolled out. The power of it didn’t seem to phase the humble 5’2” company man who lived through the depression and whose ever-practical wife wore JC Pennys polyester skirts and orthopedic sneakers to events, but unwieldy (maybe even kryptonite) in the hands of a high-falutin’ surgeon with a gushing second wife.

    If I were the Lord, I’d start looking for the “smite” button. But I’m not the Lord. He actually put up with Paul, who wasn’t any better. So, I just leave it to Him. His problem, not mine.

  15. My sincere compliments and thanks for your article; beautifully articulate, heartfelt and absolutely correct! I wish I could broadcast this message “from the rooftops”. I’m just thoroughly sick and tired of the never ending hero worship in SLC. And, the more it happens….the ever more I distance myself from “the Church”.

  16. I once heard a friend say that Catholics have a doctrine of papal infallibility, but act like they don’t; Latter-day Saints DON’T have a doctrine of prophetic infallibility, but act like they do.

  17. I’ve felt this way for a while. I believe in the gospel, in Heavenly Father, and Jesus Christ. But the dog & pony show, and the leader worship that accompanies it, gets on my last nerve.

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