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“The Politics Of American Religious Identity” – Mormon Ecclesiastical Structure

Posted by: John Schroeder at 09:34 am, March 8th 2007     —    1 Comment »

0807855014.jpgI may be overstepping my bounds a bit with this post, but I hope Lowell will forgive me.  One question has been posed from a variety of sources regarding Romney's religion was not, until I read this book, answered to my satisfaction.  That question was most notably raised in Daimon Linker's TNR piece, although by raising it from a liberal perspective I think Linker reduced rather than raised its impact.

The question which I address concerns the powers of prophecy.  As a church based on prophetic revelation, the CJCLDS strikes many as a boat easily steered onto the rocks.  Creedal Christian experience with prophetic utterance creates an image of leading people in very wrong directions, like Jim Jones.  What prevents such an occurrence in the CJCLDS?  True, it has not happened.  In fact, prophetic utterance since the time of Joseph Smith has moved the CJCLDS in better, not worse directions.  But it still struck this evangelical observer as a theoretical possibility, at least until I read this book.  And while even if the church turned south, it does not mean Romney, or any other LDS politician, would.  Such would certainly create a dilemma and personal crisis for any LDS politician.

However, the incidents surrounding the Reed Smoot hearing in the U.S. Senate illustrate how such a prophet-lead wrong turn is unlikely.  The reasons are both structural and pragmatic.  The pragmatic reasons have been well discussed by Lowell and others.  The church is just too big and too diverse to move like a ship at sea.  The split that developed between pro and anti-polygamists within the church in the period between the 1890 Manifesto and the Smoot hearings illustrates that.

It's the structural issues that I want to look at.  The Catholic analogy is useful.  The word of the Pope is Holy Writ in the Roman Catholic church.  But no one seriously considers them some sort of prophet-led cult.  Why is that?  Simple – the Pope rarely, if ever, speaks without thousands of staff hours, multiple reviews by endless bureaucracies.  The Vatican rivals the federal government in complexity, Byzantine processes, intrigues and bureaucracy.  Utterance by the Pope is in fact the product of an incredibly complex process and politics.

Now, the LDS heirarchy is not nearly so Byzantine as the Vatican, but its intrigues are obvious in the stories surrounding the Smoot hearings.  What is important to know is that there are really two branches of LDS governance – the President/prophet and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the latter being a body of twelve very independently minded individuals.  I had always imagined the Quorum as a body of "Yes" men designed to add a stamp of legitimacy to the utterances of the president/prophet.

Yet, in the Smoot hearings, we see the Quorum acting quite independently and requiring a great deal of political pressure get them to fall in line.  The 1890 Manifesto banned further polygamous marriage, but it did not dissolve existing such marriages.  If you think about it, this is actually humane.  These women were dependent on their husbands for their livelihoods and to force those marriages to dissolve would put them on the street.  However, some members of the Quorum continued to perform the marriages.  This became a huge issue in the Smoot hearings.

During his testimony in the Smoot hearings, president/prophet Joseph F. Smith indicated that church officials performing polygamous marriage would be disciplined.  And yet, it took more than a year for the offending members of the Quorum to be forced to resign.  It becomes apparent in Flake's well-documented retelling of events that Smith's declaration in front of the Senate committee created an extended and difficult political crisis within the church.  Far from his word carrying the force of God, Smith had a great deal of good old-fashioned politics to bring it to reality.

This stems in great part from a structural independence between the two offices of president/prophet and Apostle.  While, as best as I can tell, the CJCLDS lacks the sort of constitutional documents that would set these separate power bases in stone, it is obvious that they exist.  It is also difficult to believe that in an organization the size the CJCLDS that such independence could be overcome through maneuvering or stacking of the Quorum somehow.

What I find most fascinating is that we often see the charge leveled at Mormons that they are misleading or duplicitous.  That somehow they talk-the-talk on say, monogamy, but they do not really walk-the-walk.  Certainly when the president/prophet is in front of the Senate saying one thing, while the Quorum is back in Utah doing another, one could see where such an image would arise.  However, that same observation says that either the president/prophet is a liar of almost unparalleled proportion, or the CJCLDS does not march in quite the lockstep with the president/prophet that people like Linker would have us believe.

Of course, the virulently anti-Mormon will trot off quickly to "the liar" explanation, but is that really the case?  How often have perfectly reasonable people been made to appear the liar by the simple facts of politics?  Take Bush 41 with his "no new taxes" pledge.  Was he a liar or did he get backed into a corner politically?  The answer depends not on the facts but on whether you are predisposed to call him a liar or not; on whether you examine the facts and circumstances carefully, or you simply want to use the event as a weapon against him.  And so it seems to me in the case of the relationship of the president/prophet to the CJCLDS.

The vision of the CJCLDS presented by this book and the events it describes is one quite typical of a democratic organization.  Strife, conflict, discussion and resolution are all at play here.  Hardly the stuff of a prophet driven cult.

Lowell's footnote:  Like all faithful Mormons, I sustain the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve as "prophets, seers, and revelators."  That's fundamental to our faith.  Too many outside observers, however, understandably find that disturbing.  After all, if Mormons were automatons, blindly and slavishly obeying the whims of Church leaders, that would be disturbing even to me.  But as John notes, and as Richard Lyman Bushman has made clear elsewhere, the reality is far different.  

It may help to understand the makeup of the Church's leadership.  The current Quorum of the Twelve includes a former tenured law professor at the University of Chicago who became a university president and then a justice of the Utah Supreme Court; a nuclear physicist; another university president; a former Stanford Business School professor and junior college president; a former senior executive with Lufthansa who was also a 747 pilot and high-ranking officer in the German Air Force; yet another university president; a successful automobile dealer; a senior executive in national retail business; a successful lawyer; a CEO of Revlon; and a world-renowned heart surgeon.  I am probably forgetting some of them.

Now, bear in mind that decisions of the Twelve need to be unanimous.  How easy do you think it is for a group like that– all men of real achievement and distinction who are used to leading– to come to a consensus on difficult issues?  And yet they do it.  More importantly, how likely is it that such a group would come up with weird or bizarre policies?  No reasonable person would think it very like likely at all.  One result of this structure, which we believe is divinely appointed, is that major changes come slowly.  Some evidence exists, for example, the the 1978 change that made all worthy adult men (including African-Americans) eligible to receive our priesthood came so slowly because of the consensus rule in the Quorum of the Twelve.  That may well be, but my point is that the structure of the Church's leadership is inherently deliberate and conservative. Nothing very cultish about that.

[tags]Mormons, prophecy, structure, politics[/tags]

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