Salt and Seed
Mormon Priesthood and Meritocracy
Membership in a demanding, distinctive, and stubbornly un-modernized—possibly un-modernizable—church like mine has its costs, to be sure. But it has its benefits as well, even aside from promises of eternal salvation for the faithful. I've written a lot at Salt and Seed about the rewarding communal experience of serving in a Mormon community, the trust, fellow-feeling, practical support, and, yes, the opportunity to practice forgiveness—never forgetting, I hope, that strong LDS wards can sometimes be chilly places for the most vulnerable among us, and that we should never be complacent in reaching beyond our own comfortable circle.
But there's another kind of reward for making one's life in a corner of the American landscape as marginal as the LDS Church, an intellectual reward. The hierarchical, authoritarian nature of the church, with its orientation toward group roles and obedience over individual rights and freedoms—that is to say, everything about the Church that rankles in the context of modern liberal democracy—can provide a set of emotional and intellectual tools with which to examine the buried assumptions of that liberal democracy. The structures of liberalism are so firmly entrenched in the common sense that governs everyday experience in modern America as to become invisible. Thus even when injustices are felt keenly, it can be difficult to find a vocabulary to express them. (The challenges of the Occupy movement in communicating a clear message illustrate this difficulty.) Churches that maintain one foot outside the dominant paradigms of modernity can provide the resources for this kind of criticism.
I want to suggest an example of this dynamic, by which the apparently illiberal features of a conservative church can usefully destabilize the silently-encroaching paradigms of modernity. Specifically I want to float the idea that the all-male LDS priesthood enacts a critique of the notion of meritocracy that vibrates at the center of the American dream. The notion that equal opportunity will allow the best and brightest from all backgrounds to rise to the top by virtue of hard work has energized the American psyche in forms as various as the Horatio Alger novel and the Oprah Winfrey show. The meritocratic promise has unfolded unevenly, to be sure, and in many ways remains incomplete in the face of intractable race- and class-based inequalities. In many ways, the overarching march of American social history can be seen as the unfinished work of drawing all groups into the meritocracy.
Some contemporary observers, however, are worrying not so much about the incomplete reach of the meritocracy but, on the contrary, about the effects of meritocracy itself. Social mobility is notoriously difficult to assess, but by some measures it has actually decreased in American society since the nation's great institutions flung wide their doors to people of any color, creed, or sex. At best, the new elite simply perpetuates a different kind of family privilege than did the old WASP establishment; at worst, meritocracy may in fact reinforce the heartless lottery of inherited genetic advantage that defines the deep history of our species. Whereas the old elite was always vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy and illegitimacy—it was this critique that ultimately brought it down after the second World War, after all—the new elite is more or less secure from critiques leveled in the language of virtuous liberal citizenship: whatever else can be said about them, they probably do represent the brightest of their generation, and heaven knows that they are trained from childhood to work frantically.
Rosalynde Welch is an independent scholar who makes her home in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children.