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.

  • Sue

    Sure, it’s democratic. If you’re a guy.

  • CaptM

    Inaccess to power? My wife would dispute that. And if you’re talking about the priesthood and who is allowed to hold it, which I think is likely, then that is not a matter of democracy in the church, but a matter of revelation from the Lord. And any man who referred to the priesthood specifically in terms of power (in this context that makes me think of authority or dominion) would be chastised and referred to the 121st section of the Doctrine and Covenants.

    I also don’t think it out of bounds for a white male to be able to post regarding any church topic without having their opinion denigrated due their race/gender.

    • dankrist

      “I also don’t think it out of bounds for a white male to be able to post regarding any church topic without having their opinion denigrated due their race/gender.”

      I didn’t say it was out of bounds for him to post because of his race and gender. I implied that his race and gender are skewing his perception of the issue he is discussing.

      I really think it is remarkable feat to dimiss the disenfranchisement of more than half the church population in an essay lauding the democratic nature of church leadership. He devotes one phrase to the fact that women have less power than men (though, more accurately, women have no power that men do not voluntarily cede to them) and then sets the issue completely aside because they do ‘have responsibilities that some faiths would entrust to professional clergy.’ I think it speaks to the normative power of patriarchy in the LDS church that someone claiming to analyse the action of democratic principles in church governance can view women’s lack of power so cavalierly.

      There is not a single occasion of governance in the entire church that allows for a woman to have final say. There is always a man in a position to overrule her. The fact that your wife may believe she has power in the church does not mean she actually does. It’s an illusion.

  • Heidi Harris

    Kaimi is right on the money. I’m completely on board with you on your descriptions of the nuances of democratic forms and how they relate to Mormonism. However, I think that here, even though it may not have been your primary topic, it is important to specify that those democratic responsibilities you mention as being accessible to women are only, in their ultimate forms, a kind of participation under inaccessible governance rather than evidence of the democratic forms you’re describing.

    I do, however, think your thoughts are totally valid when looking at Mormonism from an adult male perspective–it’s just important to be up front about that, I believe.

  • Rick

    Love the insights here, and agree with the “participatory governance” clarification from Chris and Kaimi. One careless line from the post kind of stuck in my craw though: “I’m sure these clergy are much more accountable and conscientious than government bureaucrats.” I don’t know whether you meant to impugn government bureaucrats like that or not, but that is completely unfair. I work with and for those bureaucrats (I prefer the term public servants), and have found them, on the whole, to be among the most conscientious and public-spirited people I have ever known. Sure, you may have had a bad experience with a cranky counter person at the DMV, but I have encountered many more exemplary public servants than I have the stereotypical ones you refer to. Public service is a noble vocation and we should honor those that choose public service. So I hope the author will reconsider the caricature of bureaucrats employed in this argument.

    That observation leads me to a broader point regarding democracy versus participatory governance. Those bureaucratic clergyman (if you will), those high up in the hierarchy in the LDS church, I would argue, also are honorable with the right intentions. And we need their experience and expertise (not to mention revelation). And the fact that the church is structured in a participatory manner helps them to be less detached as you observe might be the case in other churches.

    The same argument can be made for government too. I don’t think we’d want a direct democracy. Our world is too complex. We need the experts. But if they engage citizens in a form of “participatory governance” as Kaimi says, they too can become less detached and the gap between expertise and on the ground knowledge can shrink.

    But one of the beauties of how the LDS church is structured is that it is (paradoxically) both a top-down hierarchy and a bottom-up, grassroots organization. And the church as an institution is the beneficiary. We get the consistency and order of top-down hierarchy plus the shared learning, innovation, and investment of a grassroots, participatory enterprise. It is amazing really.

  • Aaron

    I know the church isn’t a democracy, I accept that, but it does have its democratic moments. Take testimony meeting, for example. Anyone can get up and say anything.

  • CaptM

    I thought it was basically a given that a post from someone named “Alan” would be from an adult male perspective. Honestly, I don’t see the need to be any more up front about it. I’m not trying to be contentious, but I truly don’t understand the point. What more do you feel is needed?

    To a different point, I’m also disturbed by use of the term “disenfranchisement” in this context. That seems to connote some kind of purposeful, negative action taken by someone (not specifically noted who, but it would have to be either the brethren or the Lord) against women in the church. If that’s not what was meant, then my apologies, but that’s how I read it. And if that is what was meant, I respectfully, and strongly, disagree.

  • ji

    I much appreciate the original posting. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is wonderfully democratic (lower-case “d”). In a local area, a proper priesthood leader will come visit and will call one of the priesthood holders here to be a stake president. That man called as the stake president is not an employee or agent of the central church; he is one of us — he is our neighbor, a brother. And he calls counselors and a high council, all of whom are our neighbors and brothers. And he calls other neighbors, brothers and sisters, to serve in different capacities — this includes bishops, who also call other neighbors, brothers ad sisters, to serve in different capacities. In all of this, all of us join together to sustain them with a vote and also with our prayers. It is a beautiful picture.