Not a Democracy, Not a Dictatorship: My Big Fat Mormon Family

Not a Democracy, Not a Dictatorship: My Big Fat Mormon Family October 23, 2016

DSC_0830U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously suggested moving to New Zealand to avoid Donald Trump. Alas, here I am in Auckland, New Zealand, but there is no refuge here from U.S. politics. Election news is on the BBC. It’s in the headlines. My students at the university get together to watch the debates and quote the best bits in tutorial.

These discussions about political bodies and how they are constituted and governed have coincided with the semi-annual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka LDS Church, Mormon Church). This has led me to think about how the Church’s community is constituted and governed, particularly in light of recent calls for various reforms such as expanded roles for women and greater transparency about its history and internal workings. Below I offer four related and ultimately optimistic thoughts about what the LDS Church is not (not a democracy, and not a dictatorship) and what it is (a kinship network, and in my life, a blessing).

  1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a democracy.

Thank goodness!

Exhibit A: Donald Trump.

As someone who studies China, let me tell you that this election season has made Chinese Communist Party officials and state-sponsored media pretty gleeful. When you look at what American democratic processes have delivered this election, one-party dictatorship looks pretty good.

The LDS Church is in some ways the anti-democracy. Its quorums, councils, and presidencies, held together by centralized authority and administration, are incredibly stable. Leadership is not by popular election, but by hierarchical conscription. I remember the day our family friend was called to be district president. Just after the meeting, I passed him in the stairwell. Congratulations, I said, then paused and amended, if that’s the right word, knowing in that moment that it was not. It’s not the right word, he replied, heavily. The weight already on his shoulders was tangible. High church leadership positions are positions to which few really aspire. And in these positions, church authorities from the seminary teacher to the apostle routinely say things that are hard for their audiences to hear. The prophetic call to repentance is the precise opposite of the democratic stump speech.

  1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a dictatorship.

Exhibit B: D&C 121:41. “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only [except] by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.”

As in the case of the gleeful rulers of China, democracy’s many failings sometimes cast light on dictatorship as the major alternative. And yet Mormonism is not a dictatorship.

It is true that Mormonism can encourage authoritarian tendencies. The power that early Mormon leaders like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young wielded over their people is one of the things that made antebellum Americans so opposed to Mormonism. During the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, people wondered whether he was inherently unfit to lead the presidency because of the suspicion that Mormons are “Mobots”[0] who put aside their own moral judgment and blindly “follow the Prophet.” As someone who studies twentieth century China, I become uncomfortable when at times I recognize within my own Church—and my own behavior as a church member—forms of censorship, thought-policing, and demonization of thoughtful critics that one usually associates with the single-party dictatorship of the PRC.

And yet despite the occasions on which we veer into this demoralizing territory, fundamentally the LDS Church is not configured to function as a dictatorship. The limits of Machiavellian hard power and the value of Christlike soft power is enshrined in one of the key LDS scriptures on ecclesiastical authority, D&C 121:41 (above). This scripture specifically rejects authoritarian leadership (so does the Church parenting manual, for your information, which has been a real lifesaver for me). Because the Church operates with a system of voluntary conscription, it must run on good will and good faith.

Mormon leaders hold no power outside of the small group of volunteers who have chosen to participate in the Mormon world. Assuming that Matt Martinich and David Stewart’s estimate of around 30% activity for church members worldwide is correct, there are around 4.7 million actively practicing Mormons.[1] This means that 99.94% of the world’s people probably don’t know or care about a guy named Thomas S. Monson, the Mormon prophet, and the other members of the group called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. But we practicing Mormons (the .06%) believe that God still speaks through prophets in the ancient pattern of Scripture.

Were these top church leaders to persistently act in a way that many members perceived to be patently un-Christlike (i.e., like the Chinese Communist Party), these leaders’ legitimacy would wane (fewer Mormons would believe that they were acting under divine inspiration).[2] This was and is the issue at stake with divisions and disaffections within the Church in the wake of the November 2015 policy declaring Mormons in same-sex marriages “apostates” and banning the children of such marriages from baptism. Some people felt in their hearts, “This is absolutely what Jesus would do,” and maintained their faith. Others felt in their hearts, “This is absolutely not what Jesus would do,” and lost faith. These two positions represent the extreme ends of the spectrum of varying responses, and most Latter-day Saints I know are somewhere in the middle.

Apostle M. Russell Ballard’s talk in this most recent General Conference demonstrated commitment to leadership that is gentle, not hardline, with statements meant to reach out to church members who struggle to maintain their faith—not in Christ, but in the church leadership’s prophetic ability to represent Christ. He said:

“Some disciples struggle to understand a specific Church policy or teaching. Others find concerns in our history or in the imperfections of some members and leaders, past and present . . . If you live as long as I have, you will come to know that things have a way of resolving themselves. An inspired insight or revelation may shed new light on an issue. Remember, the Restoration is not an event, but it continues to unfold.”

To me, such statements are the cause for hope and anticipation that controversies that are currently tearing rifts in the fabric of Mormon unity will find resolution. Elder Ballard quite humbly and sympathetically acknowledged that one can be a sincere disciple and have sincere doubts. His recommendation of both patience and persistence was borne of personal experience.

The Church’s Ninth Article of Faith, promising that God will yet reveal “many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God,” has always been a source of wonder to me. There are “great” and “important” things that are still not part of the picture! As I look back on the history of my church I find that there are many times in which we (both leaders and rank-and-file members) did what was absolutely the wrong thing to do (e.g. the Mountain Meadows Massacre; the propagation of racist discourse and policies). And yet I believe that this was our problem, not God’s. God can only guide us to the right place when, as the body of Christ, both leaders and rank-and-file members are willing to get up and go. I believe that as a Church we still have places to go. I have faith that we will get there, though I don’t know exactly how or where “there” is.

  1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is structured like an ever-evolving kinship network. 

When I knelt at an altar in the Salt Lake temple to be married to my husband through the LDS ritual of “sealing,” I was not only accepting him into my family, but also his mother and father, to whom he was sealed. In the same sense, by this act of marrying Joseph I was also sealing my Chinese grandmother Po Po to his Aunt Jolayne. When Latter-day Saints make baptismal and temple covenants, we also make promises to each other of eternal significance. Our mortally futile but ultimately refining goal is to link together all inhabitants of the earth into one eternal family.

It is inevitable that if all those people really ended up stuck with each other forever they would not always enjoy each other’s company. Probably many of my Japanese samurai ancestors and Irish farmer in-laws would find me quite annoying; certainly my mother once told me that I was very hard to live with. And yet this collective “long-suffering” (with the emphasis on long) was the vision in the mind of Joseph Smith when he taught about the sealing power: heavenly kingdoms of priests and priestesses, linked together eternally.

Because the LDS Church is neither a democracy nor a dictatorship, but like an ever-evolving kinship network, church leaders both 1) cannot be expected to respond to public lobbying the way that politicians respond to constituents and 2) have a genuine desire to hear and address members’ concerns, especially as pertaining to the challenges of meeting the needs of the rising generation in a global church community. In the wake of this General Conference, I noticed numerous small signals that church leaders are hearing recently expressed concerns and prayerfully discussing them: increased use of the phrase “Heavenly Parents,” President Oscarson’s admonition to women to “function as leaders with power and authority,” acknowledgment of our worldwide diversity, and Elder Hales’s message that, as I have also argued, our youth are the real investigators of the Church.

Mormonism is founded on the premise of continuing revelation, a doctrine that evoked envy from my Jewish friends in college: “That’s so great! That solves so many problems!” Church history shows that momentous—and sometimes tumultuous—changes have brought our community to where we are today.

For example, at the Mormon History Association conference in June, I learned that priesthood ordination used to be a requirement for full-time missionary service (i.e. in order to serve a mission, a person had to be ordained to the priesthood, which meant that women could not serve missions). Gradually this link between ordination and missionary service attenuated until a separate rite (“setting apart”) was initiated. After this procedural change, women were able to serve in callings that previously had been designated only for men.[3] Now, of course, Mormons don’t think twice about the question of whether women can be missionaries. I find this a useful example for how over time, our relationships and roles within the Church community evolve.

  1. In my life, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a blessing.

We spent Conference weekend planting fruit trees. We dangled one of the computer speakers out the window and secured it with a binder clip. As we dug, weeded, and scattered compost, I heard President Oscarson talk about Marffissa Maldonado, a teacher who loves her students. I heard Elder Uchtdorf explain how faith comes to the humble, the diligent, the enduring. I heard encouraging words about parenting and resolved to be more patient. Although I couldn’t see the computer screen as I pulled crabgrass, I could see in my mind’s eye the Conference Center podium, the gleaming stops on the organ, the many faces of the choir, the leaves fluttering on the trees around Temple Square. I felt so grateful to be part of this peculiar, worldwide community of people who are trying to be good and to follow Christ. I felt humble as I reflected on the many ways in which I have not lived up to my covenant to take upon myself the name of Christ, to treat others (including my children) as I would have them treat me, to unselfishly give of my time and means. As I listened with my husband and my children I felt so grateful that we all shared this same frame of reference.

I believe that Mormonism can accommodate and inspire diverse perspectives. Latter-day Saints around the world have different cultural values and even different moral frameworks. For instance, a friend once told me about a Relief Society lesson during her mission in France during which the sisters came to the consensus that modesty meant being nude at the beach but not at the pool—a proposition that might be rejected in the Relief Society in my beachy hometown of Costa Mesa, California. Christ’s atonement and divine commandments are the same for everyone, but deciding how to apply them in real life depends on someone’s cultural assumptions.

Our Heavenly Parents have given us these differences precisely so that we can be humble as we challenge and learn from each other. I particularly loved the General Conference addresses by Elder Uceda (from Peru) and Elder Yamashita (from Japan) because they opened windows into settings beyond North America in which people felt the Spirit and learned about their relationship with God. For the same reason, I hope to see more speakers in the main sessions of General Conference who are women, because gender also plays a critical role in differentiating people’s experiences and perspectives. Receiving spiritual nurture on a Church-wide basis from 93% men seems lopsided to me—kind of like the equivalent of my husband taking care of our kids on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and leaving me only 11 hours to teach and nurture on Saturday morning and afternoon.[4] For this same reason, I also hope to see increasing opportunities for women to lead, minister, and teach at the the Church-wide level.

In the meantime, I have so much to learn from my fellow Latter-day Saints. Let me just mention two women who are very different from me in their thinking but for whom I feel great respect. The first is Carolina Allen, the founder of an activist group called Big Ocean Women. They call themselves “maternal feminists” (as opposed to “egalitarian feminists”) and they have just finished presenting at the UN Habitat III conference on housing and sustainable development in Quito, Ecuador. I disagree with Carolina and other Big Ocean Women supporters on a number of issues, but we also have powerful things in common. We share a belief in the power of the Holy Spirit to speak truth to an individual’s heart. We share the experience of carrying babies, giving birth, and working late at night after the children are asleep. We share culture, including a canon of sacred texts, the habit of bringing food to church meetings, and a bank of hundreds of memorized lyrics and hymn-tunes: “Whenever I hear the song of a bird . . .” These commonalities, which arise directly from our shared faith, help us to engage in civil dialogue over our differences, which also arise directly from how we interpret our shared faith.

The second Latter-day Saint who is different from me but whom I respect is Bryndis Roberts, currently the leader of the Ordain Women organization. I’ve never met Bryndis in person but have followed some of her activities through a social media group to which we both belong. I got to know more about her the other day in an interview podcast. As I listened to this interview I felt deeply that Sister Roberts was not a disconnected extremist but a sister of deep faith, integrity, and love for our Latter-day Saint community. I learned that she saw her position of asking for women’s ordination as part of the honored tradition of people in the scriptures who asked and indeed troubled God persistently for answers to their prayers: from Abraham, to the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’s garment, to Joseph Smith. Although I do believe that Mormon women must be better-integrated into the Church’s governing councils, I do not feel that Mormon women necessarily need priesthood ordination. And yet I felt inspired by Bryndis’s stubborn faith, love for attending the temple, appreciation for the collective nature of Latter-day Saint religiosity, and desire to be “anxiously engaged.”

In sum: Mormonism is neither a democracy nor a dictatorship, but an eternal family. When we act as if it is a democracy by lobbying church leaders, we forget that they are not elected officials who sought this job to represent us, but conscripts from our own ranks. Confronting the Church through strategic political demonstrations risks forcing the Church to act in a strategic, political fashion, provoking defensiveness and mistrust. When we act as if we are part of a one-party dictatorship by cracking down on those who express doubt, or informing on one another, or shutting down sincere dialogue, we run the risk of not only reminding observers of the Chinese Communist Party, but saying to vital parts of the body of Christ, “I have no need of thee.” In truth there are not that many of us in the .06%. We need everyone who is willing to show up and contribute their unique talents and perspectives.

I pray that we can honor our covenants to each other by dropping strategic political and partisan approaches and seeking more productive ways to hear each other along the lines of Elder Uchtdorf’s admonition to “listen differently”. I pray that we will strain not only to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, but also to find Christian sincerity in the voices of our fellow Latter-day Saints, including those who lead the Church and those who fill the pews.

The glue that holds our imagined community together is neither votes nor violence (physical or spiritual) but relationships of trust. This is not a job that can be left to “the Brethren,” or to Ordain Women, or to the Church Public Affairs Department. It must happen on the ground, among people who know each other and spend time together.

I vividly remember the time my visiting teachee (a woman I was assigned to visit once each month) expressed the opinion that Barack Obama was a Muslim. A dismissive response instantly flickered across my mind: Ignorant. Bigoted. Gets worldview from forwarded emails. And yet because she was my visiting teachee, I could not dismiss her but was responsible for her spiritual well-being. At a subsequent visit, I asked her to share a recent experience in which she had felt the Spirit. As she recounted just such a time, I was powerfully moved. I am so thankful that our Church gave us such transformative opportunities to encounter each other.

Too often Latter-day Saints allow ideological disagreements to obscure the magnitude of our common experiences and assumptions. It is a big deal to have differences of opinion on abortion policy, but it is a much bigger deal for one party to be able to sing, “I feel my Savior’s love/in all the world around me” and for the other party to be able to join in and finish all the verses of the song. It is a big deal to not feel sure that Joseph Smith was directed by God in everything that he did, but it is a much bigger deal to believe that the Book of Mormon is a sacred text that testifies that Christ’s atonement was real. What we share with our fellow Latter-day Saints—even those whose assumptions and beliefs we absolutely do not understand and cannot accept—is rare and precious.

Through our regular consecration of time and talents to a collective religious project, we members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been investing in each other our whole lives. We will only be able to truly fulfill our covenants to consecrate our time and talents to each other if we are able to learn how to live with each other’s differences–first within our wards and branches, then within our discursive communities, and eventually throughout the whole world. This process is slow and messy, but an essential step in Mormonism’s maturation into a full-fledged world religious tradition. How can we be a force for good in the wide world if we cannot even figure out how to deal with difference in our local congregations? We must bring each other along patiently as we push the wheels forward—day by day, week by week—until together we’ll find the place that God has prepared.






[0] “Mobot” is a term coined by non-Mormon anthropologist Fenella Cannell in the forthcoming Mormon Studies Review, Vol. 4.

[1] Matt Martinich and David Stewart, Reaching the Nations: International Church Growth Almanac (Self-published, 2013).

[2] Richard Bushman makes this point in his 2007 debate with Damon Linker.

[3] Matthew McBride, “’An Ardent Desire to Speak Myself’: Early Women Missionaries and Gendered Separate Spheres,” paper presented at the Mormon History Association meeting, June 11, 2016, Snowbird, Utah.

[4] In this most recent General Conference at the beginning of October 2016, out of the 28 talks given at the Saturday and Sunday morning and afternoon sessions, 26 were given by men (93%).

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