Lay Clergy: The Democratic Vision of Mormonism

Lay Clergy: The Democratic Vision of Mormonism April 11, 2012

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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