Lay Clergy: The Democratic Vision of Mormonism

Mormonism isn’t democratic. Everyone knows that.

There are no public debates to determine Church policy. There are no contested elections. Mormons vote almost weekly to “sustain” decisions made by their leaders, but these “sustaining votes” signal acceptance of the decisions rather than actual agreement. And they are almost always unanimous in the affirmative. In thirty years of church attendance in three countries and a dozen states, I have never seen a single “no” vote.

This line of reasoning is accurate, as far as it goes, but democracy has many dimensions. When we say Mormonism isn’t democratic, we usually focus on only one dimension: the democracy of the ballot, in which regimes are considered legitimate because their leaders are chosen in “free and fair elections.” In its modern incarnation, this sort of democracy could also be called top-down democracy, since its goal is to keep the people on top, with their representatives and the bureaucracy firmly under their control.

Of course, democracy of the ballot by itself never quite works out that way. Flawed voting systems and the inevitable power of special interests make representatives less than ideally responsive to the people. Even when the representatives are responsive, they have a hard time controlling the bureaucracy because it is so vast and complicated, and because the bureaucrats are drawn from a trained elite with a different culture and agenda from elected representatives and the people at large. The outcome: The people control the very broad outlines of government policy—mostly, most of the time—but except in rare controversies that catch widespread attention, specific decisions are completely beyond popular control.

One remedy to this problem is another kind of democracy, the democracy of the jury, in which the people themselves are responsible for carrying out government policy. To the authors of the Bill of Rights, this sort of democracy was important enough that they protected it in three different Amendments: the Fifth, requiring indictment by grand jury; the Sixth, requiring a jury in criminal trials; and the Seventh, requiring a jury in federal civil trials (lawsuits). When these protections are effective, the people rule—not merely by electing the legislators who write the laws, but by interpreting and executing the laws themselves. Congress may pass what it wishes, but unless it can persuade the people to enforce its statutes, they will have no effect.

So, how democratic is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when judged by this second idea of democracy, especially when compared to the United States government and to other churches?

In American government, democracy of the jury is largely dead, surviving only as a formality. Grand juries—once an important organ of government—now merely rubber-stamp the work of professional prosecutors. Trial juries, on the other hand, are becoming increasingly rare: at the federal level, 95% of criminal cases end in a plea bargain, and 98% of civil cases settle before trial. And the legal system as a whole has grown steadily less important. Once most implementation of Congress’s laws depended on judges and juries. Now Congress acts primarily through bureaucracies, to which the Constitution’s jury requirements do not apply. In short, the once mighty American jury has relinquished most of its power to lawyers and bureaucrats.

In other churches, policy may be set either democratically, as in many Protestant faiths, or hierarchically as in Catholicism. But in nearly all of them, the day-to-day operation of the church is entrusted to professional clergy. I’m sure these clergy are much more accountable and conscientious than government bureaucrats, but they share the same basic problem: they are a trained elite, and as an elite they are likely to have a different culture and different goals from the members of their congregations. Witness the wide gulf between Catholic bishops and the Catholic laity on the issue of contraception, for example.

But in Mormonism, all but the highest church leaders look a lot like jurors. They are drawn from the local body of the membership, given minimal training, and expected to govern their own friends and neighbors. They continue their worldly careers while serving, and they know that after a few years, they will be released and one of their neighbors will be called. A Catholic-style culture gap between the clergy and the laity is impossible in Mormonism: the clergy is the laity.

This aspect of Mormonism is far from perfectly democratic by outside standards. Women have less power than men, though they too have responsibilities that some faiths would entrust to professional clergy. And local leaders are chosen by the hierarchy, rather than randomly, as real jurors would be. But the democratic power of Mormonism’s lay clergy is formidable, certainly much greater than that of the contemporary American jury system. It guarantees that every aspect of Mormons’ religious life—from the governance of their congregations to the music in their worship services and the theology they hear from the pulpit—will reflect not only the policies of faraway Church leaders but the beliefs and choices of their own family, friends, and neighbors. And because the work in our congregations is so widely distributed, Mormon democracy is participatory in a way that American democracy has never been: nearly all members of a congregation have the authority and responsibility to shape their religious community in some way.

These elements of democracy in Mormonism are no accident, but in fact represent a core principle of our faith. When Joseph Smith received a revelation listing God’s purposes for our Church, prominent among them was this:

“The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones . . . that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world; . . . That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple . . . .” (D&C 1:19–23, emphasis added)

Mormonism doesn’t elect its leaders. Everyone knows that. But it is nonetheless deeply committed to its own democratic vision.

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Review: “Selma”
Doubting at Zion’s Gate
  • Weise

    “A Catholic-style culture gap between the clergy and the laity is impossible in Mormonism: the clergy is the laity.”

    In theory the clergy and laity of Mormonism are equal and do inhabit the same space, but by and large, especially in the geographical seats of Mormon power, lay church leaders are caste from a fairly uniform cultural and economic mold. This is a significant gap because, although it is not necessarily enforced consciously, it does ensure the perpetuation of a certain form and look of ecclesiastical and cultural practice.

    “… nearly all members of a congregation have the authority and responsibility to shape their religious community in some way.”

    And yet, the basic structure of church life, its framework and layout, are beyond the control of the laity to shape. We often hear vague suggestions from senior church leadership directed toward the membership to change this cultural deficiency or that organizational habit. But the irony is that those same habits continue until direction from above changes the structures that enable them. Meanwhile, everyone in the church remains static in that inertia, unable to budge the unwieldy status quo.

  • Alan Hurst

    To dankrist, Sue, and others who thought I too easily dismissed women’s relative lack of authority in this post:

    I certainly had no intention to dismiss or denigrate your experiences or those of any women who feel disenfranchised or voiceless in the Church–or any of the men who feel that way, of whom I’ve known a few. I just don’t have any scholarly expertise to help me address that subject, and for the reasons you point out, my relevant personal experiences aren’t likely to be found compelling. I knew I couldn’t address my topic without mentioning the issue, and I hoped that merely acknowledging it would be sufficient. Clearly I was wrong.

    That said, neither do I wish to dismiss or denigrate the experiences of the many women who do not share your feeling of disenfranchisement, so I felt I also had to acknowledge that women do have significant (but not equal) responsibilities in the Church. For what it’s worth, my own feeling of enfranchisement in the Church has nothing to do with my own meager likelihood of becoming bishop, stake president, etc., but rather with my feeling that I know and trust those people, that I have immediate easy access to them, and that because they are untrained, unpaid amateurs serving for short terms they are fundamentally like me, despite our many differences, in a way that my political leaders are not. It also has to do with my own service in the Church and my ability, despite my lack of formal authority, to influence what goes on around me—again, an ability greater than I have in my political communities.

    Obviously, these reasons for feeling enfranchised will apply differently for women than for men, as bishops and stake presidents are male and thus less like them than they are like me. They also apply differently from man to man and from woman to woman. It is therefore not at all surprising that some women and some men do not share my feeling of empowerment without formal power. And to repeat, I do not wish to treat the experiences of those who feel differently as in any way illegitimate. I merely want to explain an important aspect of Mormonism that is underappreciated in our public discourse.

    Finally, those who know this subject better than I do recommend the following source:

    Catherine A. Brekus, “Mormon Women and the Problem of Historical Agency,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 59-87 (“When historians write about agency, they often imagine an individual in conflict with his or her society who self-consciously seeks greater freedom…an agent is someone who resists the constraints of the social structure, who challenges social norms to create something new . . . . Because historians have implicitly defined agency against structure, they have found it hard to imagine women who accepted religious structures as agents. This is why there are so few Mormon women in American religious history textbooks–or for that matter, Catholic women, Orthodox Jewish women, or Fundamentalist women…scholars in search of a “useable past” have rarely been interested in studying women who seem to have accepted female subordination “). A quick review here:

  • party bars nyc

    Lay as in they have a full-time job to support their family, do preaching as a volunteer deal. I once had a pastor that was a graveyard shift patrol cop. So if you ever went to see him in the evening at church, he’d be wearing his police uniform and everything for almost leaving on the shift. Not sure what the divide is on religions that have paid clergy and other religions that have lay clergy.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Not sure exactly how I as a regular high priest am more “enfranchised” than my wife. Are we talking about power to make decisions in the ward? Like what time we meet, or the format for sacrament meeting? Or who to call to speak? Or issuing callings to the leadership of the priesthood quorums instead of Relief Society, Young Women, Primary? Or assigning home teachers versus visiting teachers?

    Are you envious of the time the bishop spends interviewing people for callings and temple recommends and tithing settlement? Do you have a real itch to sit up on the stand every Sunday and announce the order of the songs and speakers? Or to sit down for an hour opening tithing envelopes, recording donations, and making up the deposit?

    Maybe it is a concern about the ability priesthood holders have to ordain people in the priesthood, to confirm people after baptism, to bless the sick. Do you crave the power, or the opportunity to help people?

    I served in a branch presidency once, on a district council and on a stake high council. I didn’t have the sense that I was particularly “franchised” or “empowered”, just that I had more things to do than with my usual calling of teaching Gospel Doctrine. My guess is that you might be disappointed about how much added power you get as a leader in a ward or stake, beyond what you are already able to do as just a member to make a difference in the lives of your neighbors, at your own initiative.

  • Andrea


    I appreciate what you’re saying about the ratio of power to sheer trudging workload. My dad has always said, “There’s something wrong with a man who wants to be bishop,” which I think most Mormons will agree with – apart from the injunctions against aspiring to positions, there’s the 20-30 hours of unpaid labor per week, the pastoral responsibility for the spiritual and physical welfare of a few hundred people and their individual struggles, the sometimes unkind scrutiny of your imperfect decisions/style/family members, and so on. While some men (and women, perhaps) do crave whatever built-in prestige the job has (which varies from place to place), most church members I know don’t want a job that demands so much of self and family.

    All that said, implicit in the structure of an all-male hierarchy is the assumption that women can’t or shouldn’t be in these weighty, difficult, and important positions. There’s no official stance on *why* women can’t hold the priesthood, which is a prerequisite to holding higher leadership positions – it’s simply clear that they aren’t allowed to hold it in the traditional way. Some of the most facile answers to those ‘why’ questions are painful. For example, it’s easy to read it as a vote of non-confidence in women’s ability to contribute well, and hard to rule that out that completely given the dearth of authoritative “why” information on the subject. And to the point of some commenters above, exclusion from most leadership positions – positions that naturally provide a greater voice in the running of a congregation – proportionally limits a woman’s participation in the congregation’s self-governance, too.

    So women who struggle with this aspect of our church don’t necessarily think priesthood service is a power trip or a ticket to anything more than, well, lots of work. But joining such service would be a quick and direct way of laying to rest knotty questions of why the church has this foundational but unexplained message of difference.(How much it bothers people day-to-day varies greatly – while some can wait a long time for an answer, some want it thirty years ago.) So what I’m saying is that these concerns about priesthood restrictions aren’t necessarily driven by women’s naïve underestimation of the workload or their over-glorification of the power and influence that come with it. Should women receive the priesthood by revelation tomorrow, I would just as enthusiastically not-want to be bishop as I currently don’t-want to be Relief Society President. If called, I would serve, but in the meantime, I’m glad for people willing to take on those demanding, albeit rewarding jobs.