In this first substantive edition of the Temple Recommend Series I will consider the guidelines for the administration of the Temple Recommend interview. I will however preface my approach to this series of essays with a bit of theorizing. My approach will be largely discourse analytical. That is, I will be analyzing the Temple Recommend language and the way in which words and phrases can be ascribed certain meanings and how those ascribed meanings can be problematic.
For instance the idea of ‘God’ has generated multiple meanings and interpretations across time, and as we know communities have formed, splintered and shattered because of debates and new agreements on the idea of ‘God’ that emerges from time to time. To that end the role of LDS leadership is to manage meaning making and interpretation. Leaders do this through talks, media, and curriculum materials. In doing so they tend to be strategic in their use of language. For instance, the words ‘Prophet’ and ‘church leaders’ are often deployed in Mormon discourse to stand in for Jesus or God. This is an important substitution supported in Mormon religious discourse by the oft repeated verse ‘whether by mine own voice or the voice of my servants – it is the same. (D & C 1:38). The preferred meaning here is that whoever ‘my servants’ are, they can pretty much say what they like in Jesus’ name.
In this Mormon moment however there has been unprecedented conflict over the meaning of certain words that seemed so straightforward against a backdrop of highly correlated LDS materials that formed the basis of our religious language for many generations. With the internet opening up many Mormons, in relationships beyond their geographical communities, are working out new ways of understanding old certainties in contemporary contexts, using new tools and resources. Thus Mormonism finds itself in a season of vigorous and sometimes challenging debate. It would be highly unlikely that this series on the Temple Recommend interview would be necessary if there were broad consensus on the meanings generated from the Temple Recommend interview. But there isn’t, and the micro-management of meaning that can happen at the point of interview delivery can be vexing. Temple recommends interviews are by definition evaluative. But if a local leader chooses to orient the interview in order to use the process as a disciplinary or a punitive measure members can be assured that there is no formal commission for them to do so.
There are actually few specific guidelines for the interviewer to follow which means that there is a great deal of latitude both in terms of the way that the interviewer interprets the questions, and the meanings that they assign to specific words and phrases. The most specific instructions regarding the interviewer are that they are directed to avoid any deviation from the questions. In conducting the Temple Recommend interview it is the responsibility of the interviewer to not ‘add any requirements to those that are outlined in the Temple Recommend book.’ Interviewers are also to take care in conducting the interview ensuring that they take their responsibility seriously ‘as the Lord’s representative’ in determining temple worthiness. In addition they should exercise ‘the gift of discernment’ in doing so.
We can have some assurance therefore that any extra lines of questioning wherein an intent to entrap, gain a confession or ensnare the interviewee is not acceptable. The Temple Recommend interview is not a religious trial and it’s not a confessional. Questions in addition to those 15 that are officially prescribed require some kind of rationale and it would be the right of the interviewee to seek clarification for the reasons behind any extra queries. This being said, it is possible and certainly not unusual for interviewees to be dishonest. But the interview process doesn’t allow for the kinds of open inquisition that might uncover duplicity and prevarication. As I say, it is an interview, and the current procedures and instructions are imperfect, meaning that there will be those who shouldn’t have a recommend who do have a recommend and there will be those who deserve a Temple Recommend who have been unsuccessful in securing one. As the current procedures stand these anomalies are inevitable.
In the first instance however the word ‘worthy’ necessitates some careful consideration so that ‘worthy’ isn’t used interchangeably with concepts such as ‘obedience’, ‘agreement’, ‘compliance’ and ‘submission’. In fact there are no Temple Recommend Questions that require obedience. Not one!
To be temple worthy means to be spiritually equal to the work of the temple. So, in order to make a covenant of strict chastity one would doubtless need to have this area of ones life under control before participating in a ritual that requires such a serious spiritual commitment. In general however, our religious engagement on an everyday basis is regardless of temple worth. Very few Mormons, post-endowment, actually need a Temple Recommend to get by in their wards and stakes; rendering service, and participating as usual. In fact the need to have a Temple Recommend is very limited outside of those wishing to attend the temple for their own or others’ work. Anyone who gives a Temple Recommend interview naturally requires a recommend, as do ordinance workers (obviously), missionaries, and church employees.
Therefore, worthiness to serve in most ward callings should not be judged as ‘temple worthiness’. Temple worthiness might be the gold standard but the only people who are required to be temple worthy are those who wish to serve in the temple and those who are willing to serve in Bishoprics and Stake Presidencies. Currently there are no callings in the ward or stake (save ordinance workers) that require a woman to be temple worthy. According to the handbooks of instruction members are issued callings, outside of those listed above, simply based upon their worthiness to hold that particular position. In short they should be spiritually, emotionally and physically equal to this particular task. Thus if their calling is to be a Sunday School teacher, temple worthiness is not a requirement. However one needs to be equal to, or worthy of the undertaking the task of Sunday religious instruction. In the same way those of us who participate in ordinances should be spiritually equal to those ordinances as well – such as taking the sacrament. To take the sacrament worthily is to be equal to the spiritual exertion required in remembering that the consumption of the symbols of the blood and flesh of Christ carries with it a raft of concomitant Christian obligations.
The exercise of the spirit of discernment (which is an instruction given to interviewers) is similarly often misunderstood. The spirit of discernment is not the same as intuition or having a hunch. It is a specific spiritual gift wherein one is able to recognize the difference between a spirit that is holy and comes from God, and one that comes from Satan. In its more general application discernment is a particular gift given to discern a Satanic teaching from a Godly teaching. Additionally, the spirit of discernment is not the gift of the Holy Ghost. It is a spiritual work whose application goes beyond the realm of ‘feeling’. Hugh Nibley would argue that even manifestations of the Holy Ghost aren’t felt in ‘hot emotional surges’1 but are experienced as ‘pure intelligence’.2 Unfortunately the specious interpretation of truth and error in the name of the gift of discernment has given interviewers tremendous leeway in disciplining those with whom they are uncomfortable. If they don’t ‘feel’ content with the answers of the interviewee or they just don’t like their demeanour or their politics, or their Facebook posts then they might interpret their personal feeling as spiritual discernment – when its really just a case of ‘he or she makes me feel bad’. This is natural enough. We are very attached to our opinions and our ideologies and many of us are wedded to the church as a social framework and the supplier of moral discourse. To have these ‘certainties’ challenged can feel like an attack on oneself and ones community wherein these opinions were nurtured. In its worst form the interview process can be used as a social testing ground wherein the motivation behind the questioning process could be an interrogation simply to determine if the interviewee is ‘like us’ in that they agree with church authority, they are compliant, and therefore ‘safe’ to admit into the community while the ‘gift of discernment’ is deployed as the justification.
MEANINGS AND INTERPRETATIONS
There can often be some wild variability of meaning ascribed to certain words or phrases. Words are often not fixed in their meaning and the tensions and difficulties that often arise as a result of the interview process have much to do with this inconsistency. Remembering that the Temple Recommend is usually issued upon an affirmative answer to each of the questions, the recommend can be legitimately withdrawn if it becomes clear either through confession or external evidence that this is no longer the case. Recent tensions and troubles throughout the church have often arisen when the person seeking a Temple Recommend is understood by their ecclesiastical leader as ‘unworthy’ because they have demonstrated in contexts outside of the interview itself that they are a) outspoken in their questions b) don’t agree with a particular position taken by the church on certain political topics c) have questioned certain doctrines or historical narratives d) don’t agree with a church leader.
The spoken rationale behind the withdrawal of a Temple Recommend for any of the above is usually that the Temple Recommend holder is considered for some reason or another to be in contravention of questions 4 & 7:
4. Do you sustain the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the prophet, seer, and revelator and as the only person on the earth who possesses and is authorized to exercise all priesthood keys? Do you sustain the members of the First presidency and the Quorum of the Twelves Apostles as prophets, seers and revelators? Do you sustain the other General Authorities and local authorities of the Church?
7. Do you support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
I will be discussing these particular questions in detail in later posts but for now I’ll examine the discursive and complex nature of words such as ‘sustain’, ‘affiliate’ and ‘oppose’ simply because the variations in interpretation seem to be creating not a few difficulties.
Language tends to take on a life beyond the words themselves. Communities and groups hold themselves together based upon the shared the values they hold that are expressed in language. So in one area of the church (lets say Orem for instance) the group’s understanding of ‘sustain’ could be to unequivocally ‘obey’ or ‘follow’. In another church community (let’s say Berkley) the shared understanding of ‘sustain’ might be to support their local leaders to do a good job. Some of the Berkley Mormons might feel that in sustaining their leaders it is their duty to let their Bishop know if there are corrections that he needs to make to help him be more effective, and the Bishop in turn might be grateful for that input. In Orem it might be that they support their local leaders by never questioning them – ever.
In Orem to ‘affiliate’ with individuals and groups who oppose the church, might mean being friends with anyone who doesn’t believe in God, or liking a social media post by anyone who is a member of the church but holds some contrary opinions to their Orem community’s agreed values. In Berkley however, one might have to disaffiliate from the church and make an occupation out of trying to discredit the organisation as an avowed anti-Mormon before they are considered to be affiliating with groups who are contrary to the church.
In Orem it might not take very much for someone to be considered as ‘opposing’ the church. An interviewee might say they don’t like the use of church funds in retail building complexes or the sale of church property for development and that might be cause for a recommend revocation. In Berkley it might mean picketing the Oakland Temple, or writing books trying to convince Mormons that they are simple dupes caught up in a vicious religious scam.
The central issue here is that a Mormon socialized in Orem will always get a recommend wherever they are. But a Berkley person might struggle considerably in places like Orem. A Berkley Mormon might even be shunned in a ward in Orem. Their facial hair, pink shirts and bow ties might be considered by the interviewer as far too ‘controversial’ for the Orem locals because their shared community understanding of the Mormon ideal does not include that kind of dress. Suspicion might mount and when it comes time for recommend renewal the inquisition might linger around questions 4 & 7. It might turn out that the Berkley Mormon supports marriage equality because he thinks his non-Mormon lesbian sister and her partner should be able to form a legal family. The interviewer in this case might feel perfectly justified in denying a recommend as part of his duty to sift the wheat from the tares. The net effect of this will be that the kind of ideological diversity required to keep our faith relevant and meaningful, and full of dialogue will be lost. Moreover, the orthodox and conservative bent of the current church will grow forcing out friends and family members who won’t be able to tolerate such a narrow and unquestioning orientation in a religion that in a bygone era had such an audacious and radical beginning.
The lingering question must therefore be asked:
Is there a universally agreed understanding an interpretation of the Temple Recommend questions so that every Mormon can feel safe during this process?
My answer to this would be no. Local leaders have too much discretion in this process and can attach virtually any personal bias they wish and infect the interview questions with them. I agree that deferring to local decision makers decentralizes control which is a good thing, but in the meantime there are good people being denied access to the temple simply because of variations in understandings of the Temple Recommend questions. In any event, there should be a complaints or review processes put in place so that if there are discrepancies and it is felt that local interviewers have overstepped the bounds of reasonable behavior the interviewee is able to seek clarification from an independent body (as long as its not located in Orem).
Having said this, we are not entirely powerless in the interview in situations where the exercise of the interviewer’s authority seems to be over stepping the mark. We can be assured of our right to:
- Remind the interviewer that their line of questioning is not in keeping with the instruction and that they are required to stick to the questions as written without adding any requirements. In order to do this you will need a list of the interview questions, which you can legitimately request from your Bishop.
- Question the interviewers interpretation of certain words or phrases. You could say ‘when you say “affiliate” what exactly do you mean?’ In addition, there is not reason why you can’t object to the particular meaning provided by your interviewer. At this point you might wish to bring in your scriptures and defer to Jesus in rebutting your interviewers interpretations with such responses as, ‘Jesus associated with the most despised people among the Jews’ do I take it from what you just said that it might have been injudicious of him to do so?’
- Demand an interview that is loving and kind and terminate an interview if you feel that your emotional and spiritual safety is in jeopardy. In which case you should withdraw and write to the interviewer outlining the exact nature of your concerns and invite them to reconvene the meeting when they have chosen to conduct themselves more circumspectly. You should let your Bishop or Stake President or even an Area Authority know of your concerns. Or you could ask from another interviewer.
- Not hold a recommend if you choose not to – there might be tremendous social pressure to do so, but it might not be really necessary for you at this point in time? If community belonging is contingent upon one’s possession of a Temple Recommend, then this should be the basis for membership in the church, not baptism. Creating social exclusions around who and who doesn’t have a Temple Recommend is adding a layer of religious expectation that goes beyond simple Christian community practice wherein a group of like minded people congregate in order to learn about the teachings of Jesus. In truth during Jesus’ mortal ministry he seemed very ambivalent about the temple and used it as a symbol of great dissatisfaction with his religious community and leaders.
I’ve been in an interview situation where it seemed to be treated like a tool of governance, discipline, surveillance and punishment wherein I was made to feel ‘not enough’ because of my interviewer’s narrow interpretation of the meaning of worthiness and testimony. I’ve been in interviews where I have felt like one of a number, unseen and unheard and uncared for. I’ve also been in interviews that were beautiful and transformative and great care was taken by my interviewers to be thoughtful, mindful and kind. I much prefer the latter, and if the Temple is really beckoning us to come, should it not be this way always?
1. Hugh Nibley, “Zeal Without Knowledge,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer (1978).
2. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 151.