Romney’s a Priest? What does that mean?

Romney’s a Priest? What does that mean? March 28, 2012

Via the Daily Dish, I found an article by Howard P. Kainz, that argues that the media’s relative comfort with Romney’s religion is proof that most Americans don’t consider Mormons to be real Christians.  Here’s a pull quote:

[T]he fact that Mitt Romney, the first Mormon candidate for the presidency in our nation’s history, is not only a bishop in the LDS church but a High Priest of the highest echelon (the “order of Melchizedek”) within that religion, and is not being opposed because of the “separation of church and state,” is an indication that Americans do not consider him a bona fide Christian. In contrast, one can imagine what would happen if a Catholic or Lutheran or Episcopalian bishop or priest sought the presidency. An impossibility! … It is becoming clear that—from the ‘ordinary’ Christian point of view—Mormon “high priesthood” is a sui generis order, possibly analogous to higher Masonic degrees, incorporated into a religion quite different from most Christian denominations.

I was a little suspicious of the correspondence Sullivan and Kainz drew between Romney’s priesthood and that of Catholicism (which, as TV Tropes points out, we tend to treat as the default form of Christianity). Luckily, I’ve got a geeky Mormon friend, who’s very generous with his time, and he agreed to do a guest post here to give us all a crash course in what the Mormon priesthood entails.

Michael Haycock is a classmate of mine, and has his own blog at Not A Tame Lion.  He’ll be going to Claremont Graduate University’s School of Religion in the fall. After this post, there will be two additional posts of Q&A, where Michael answers some of my questions about Mormon hierarchy, theology, and culture.  Michael’s post starts below his picture, and he’s put all the LDS-specific terms in bold.

Kainz gets his reasoning all wrong, mainly because Mormon definitions of ecclesiastical terms are drastically different from typical Christian ones, even though we use some of the same words. Honestly, a (relatively) quick primer on Mormon jargon and administration would go a long way to allay many people’s fears.

(Note that when I say “Mormon” or “LDS” I am referring exclusively to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not any of the many offshoots.)

First, nearly all active (regularly-attending and involved) Mormon men are “priests after the order of Melchizedek.” If a man’s been on a mission, been deemed worthy after turning 18, or held any significant leadership position, he holds the Melchizedek Priesthood and is designated an elder. Older men, holding higher positions, are ordained to be high priests. (There are higher offices – patriarch, seventy, apostle – but they are much rarer.) These titles are called offices in the priesthood, and they determine what leadership positions a man can hold and which ordinances (rituals) he can perform. Once a man has been ordained to one of these offices in the Priesthood, he holds that authority until he dies unless his rights are removed due to disciplinary action.

On the other hand are callings, which are positions of responsibility that Mormons hold. In the LDS vernacular, “calling” doesn’t have the same sense of “vocation” that it does in other contexts: Mormons do not perceive some divine “call” and pursue it; instead, their leaders extend a calling to them as an assignment they can accept (or, if circumstances do not allow acceptance, decline; this is rare, though). Any position in the LDS Church is regarded as a calling, from Primary (children’s Sunday school) teacher to missionary (truly the only calling for which one volunteers oneself) to stake president. Both men and women receive callings, and some callings are generally gender-specific, like that of bishop or stake president (for men, because they are positions within the Priesthood).

All callings, however, are temporary. When you accept a calling, you are officially set apart for that duty; when the responsibility is going to be passed on to another person, you are released from that calling, and your responsibility shifts to your new calling.

Because the LDS Church has a completely lay ministry, only very few Church authorities maintain their positions through their lives: the First Presidency of the Church (the president and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the twelve men who with the Presidency lead the Church). Even the Quorums of the Seventy, just below them hierarchically, only hold their positions until they’re 70-75 years ago, and then they’re designated “emeritus” – a position of respect, but no official authority.

Very few other callings are full-time positions (mission president and missionary are two that are because they involve leaving your home for 3 years or 1.5-2 years, respectively), and even those get no financial remuneration. In the case of missionaries, for example, one gets a minimal stipend from the Church derived from funds to which every missionary has already contributed. Thus, despite the demands of their callings in time, effort, and energy, people in local positions of authority must hold down their jobs, families, and perhaps studies in addition to having sometimes upwards of 40-50 hours of church work a week. (Scoutmasters have the exquisite joy of spending a week of summer vacation time camping with rambunctious teenage boys.)

But I don’t think Kainz even knows the term “stake president” and the difference between that and a Mormon “bishop,” both of which are positions that Romney has held, nor what men in these positions do. The smallest geographic unit of the LDS Church is called a ward, which is presided over by a bishop and his two counselors. A stake consists of at least five wards (and/or branches, which are small wards). Bishops are entrusted with overseeing the smooth operation of the unit they are called to lead. They extend callings, collect tithing funds, help manage local church finances, participate in the distribution of welfare funds, authorize some rituals (like baptism), counsel their fellow congregants, and interview members to ascertain their worthiness to participate in special ordinances and ceremonies in the temples or to receive new callings. Stake presidents do much the same thing, just on the next level of organization up.

The LDS temple in Boston

Note that there are upwards of 28,000 bishops (or the equivalent) and nearly 3,000 stake presidents in the LDS Church worldwide: Romney, even when in a position of “authority,” was one of thousands, each of whom outside his assigned sphere has no authority and minuscule influence. Unlike in some other churches, these figures do not even vote on general policies of the Church.

Mitt Romney, having been released from all his callings that put him in positions of local leadership, has no residual ecclesiastical authority in the LDS Church. The most he could have is a little bit of symbolic weight as a very publicly prominent figure, but he is admirably reluctant to place himself in a position wherein he would attempt to formally represent the Church. In his mind, this silence is most likely a sign of respect and deference; passing himself off as an expert on doctrinal matters would be overstepping his bounds. (Though I won’t vote for him, I still thank him for not making himself into the “Mormon candidate.”)

Moreover, ANY male adult Mormon politician – including Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, Orrin Hatch, and other LDS congressmen, Cabinet members, or other politicians – holds the Melchizedek Priesthood. And this issue seemed to have been settled over a century ago: in 1904, Mormon apostle Reed Smoot (one of the top fifteen leaders of the LDS Church, a position Mitt Romney has never even approached) was elected to the US Senate and subjected to four years of congressional hearings to determine his eligibility for office. In the end, he was confirmed and allowed to serve. Another LDS apostle, Ezra Taft Benson, served as Secretary of Agriculture under President Eisenhower. It’s now 2012; are we going to backslide now?

Reed Smoot

In the end, if people complain about Melchizedek Priesthood holders serving in public office, they’re not only turning back the clock but effectively disqualifying all Mormon men from politics. Of course, this would lead to the situation in which only Mormon women, who are not ordained to the priesthood and are not currently represented in the US Congress, would be the only Mormons eligible for (American) office. Some might say that this would be a sort of hilarious poetic justice to repay years of ecclesiastical patriarchy. I know I’d get a good chuckle from it.


Part One and Part Two of my Q&A with Michael are now up!

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  • Your friend does not mention the Aaronic priesthood, and the omission tends to minimize the importance of the Melchizedek priesthood.

    • I didn’t mention the Aaronic Priesthood specifically because I did not feel that people had concerns about 17-year-olds running for public office. But you bring up a good point, so I’ll briefly describe it here.

      The Aaronic Priesthood can be received by boys between 12-18 years of age and is always received as a “preparatory” step to the Melchizedek Priesthood. In addition to leadership assignments over age groups, the three offices in the Aaronic Priesthood – deacon (ages 12-14), teacher (14-16), and priest (16-18)- are responsible for the passing, preparation, and blessing of the Sacrament, respectively. Teachers and priests can be assigned as “home teachers” to visit (alongside a Melchizedek Priesthood-holding companion) members they are assigned to watch over on a monthly basis. Priests, with authorization, can perform baptisms.

      • leahlibresco

        It was a major concern to me at 17 that I could not run for public office, irrespective of any priesthoods I might or might not hold.

      • Is holding the Melchizedek priesthood effectively synonymous with holding a regular temple recommend?

        • by chance saw this

          I first want to say that this is my opinion and I’m not an expert on this matter.

          No, holding the Melchizedek priesthood is not synonymous with holding a regular temple recommend. A temple recommend is handled at both the ward and then the stake levels as a proof of worthiness to participate in what could be considered Mormon’s most sacred ordinances. While ideally every worthy member of the LDS church, male or female, holds a temple recommend, it is something that does have to be requested. You will be interviewed by a member of the bishopric (bishop and two counselors), then a member of the stake presidency (stake president and his two counselors). It is rare for a member of the church to obtain a temple recommend before either going on a mission or getting married. There is an exception for “older” members (I would guess mid 20s and up but no specific age) who would be able to obtain a temple recommend if they feel that they are mature enough for the responsibilities that being endowed (the first of several necessary temple ordinances for adults) will include. Temple recommends must be renewed every 2 years.
          There is a temporary recommend given to members 12+ which will allow them to participate in baptisms for the dead.
          So no having the Melchizedek priesthood is not synonymous with being a temple recommend holder, it is even possible to be in some disciplinary trouble with the church where they might revoke your temple recommend, but still allow you to hold the priesthood. With the exception of excommunication (actually being kicked out of the church for a serious sin), I don’t think a holder of the Melchizedek priesthood ever has his authority revoked. It is always possible to repent and be baptized back into the church though.

          • So a person can still perform blessings and ordinances when dis-fellowshiped or inactive, and all of the saving ordinances are revoked when excommunicated or after successfully being removed from the records, but none are removed before that. I thought I never knew a “high priest” who did not have a temple recommend, but I must have been mistaken. I guess I know quite a few. I think I will call upon them for some blessings.

          • Common Sense

            No, Adult Onset, that’s not exactly right. There are SOME ordinances that may be performed without authorization from the local priesthood authority, but not many. I suppose you could ask them to perform a blessing of healing, or a father’s blessing. Maybe you could ask them to dedicate your home. However, none of these ordinances would be valid, as the giver himself would readily acknowledge, if there is unresolved sin or unbelief ongoing in their life.

            It never ceases to amaze me how much Atheism resembles religion. You obviously amuse yourself with the ardor of your mockery… but that very ardor defies the description of a “non-believer”. Whom would you attempt to offend with such an act (and thereby amuse yourself)? A believer like me? I couldn’t care less what pantomimes you enact with lapsed members. The erstwhile or fallen priesthood holder in question? If he’s of a mind to be offended by such a pantomime, then he’s not likely to assist you in carrying it out. The Mormon God you don’t believe in? That might be the only person you could possibly succeed in offending with your mockery, but you don’t believe he exists.

            I believe you made this mocking comment to prove once again, especially to yourself, that there is no God. All you have proven to me is that your own doubts are much stronger than mine ever have been.

        • JimN

          Not all Melch. Priesthood holders are currently worthy to have temple recommends, but all (male) temple recommend holders have the Melch. Priesthood.

    • curious

      In spite of all the questions concerning Romney’s status in the Mormon Church, the question probably on most people’s minds is why is his religion so hush hush during this presidentail campaign and even somehow now embraced by Christian circles when in the past it has been considered a cult based on their position on the deity of Jesus Christ. What has changed that took it from being deemed a cult and embraced as something that can be neatly tucked under political covers? It is the very reason that Christianity is viewed as wishy washy by world views.

  • JimN

    Just one technicality – “Bishop” is an office of the Priesthood that you fail to mention specifically – it is a unique office in a couple of ways. First, it is an office in both the Melchizedek (higher) and Aaronic (lower) Priesthoods. It is also an office for life – the title “Bishop” stays with someone even if they are no longer actively serving in the role. It would be 100% appropriate for someone to address Mitt as “Bishop Romney”

    • JohnH

      Bishop is not technically a Melchizedek priesthood office at all, but presiding high priest is. Since, as far as I am aware, there are no literal sons of Aaron serving as bishops then all Bishops must be high priests as a high priest can officiate in any other priesthood office. Since the bishop must be a high priest then out of simplicity the presiding high priest and the Bishop are combined at the ward level. Further, all offices that hold keys are for life, the president of the deacons, teachers, the bishop, the elders quorum president, the stake president, patriarch, the seven presidents of the seventy, and the apostles and first presidency are in some sense something one holds for (most likely) life.

      • Common Sense

        You are correct in that Bishop is an office of the Aaronic Priesthood, not the Melchizedek Priesthood:
        However, a High Priest cannot officiate in *higher* offices, only lower offices of the priesthood. He cannot officiate in the office of an Apostle, Seventy, or Patriarch without being ordained to those offices.
        Furthermore, it is completely incorrect to say that keys of presidency are held for life. They are not. Even the keys of dispensations (my apologies to the general audience for this esoteric topic) will be “delivered”, and thus implicitly surrendered, to Adam before he delivers them to Christ. Were it not so, then I would be able to direct the work of the Teachers Quorum in the ward where I grew up, since I was once its president and therefore still hold those keys.

  • JB

    @AoA Surely you jest. Technically you could perform a blessing, however it would mean absolutely nothing. Authority to officially perform a blessing is predicated on having the proper priesthood authority and being worthy to do so. Performing ordinances goes a step further not only does it require the aforementioned requirements but also permission by one who holds the proper “keys” (priesthood keys are the rights that a priesthood holder has based on the calling he currently inhabits), to preside both over the person and the ordinance such as baptism. So if i wanted to preform a baptism i would need to be a worthy holder of the Aaronic priesthood (or Melchizedek) , a Priest or higher, and i would need permission from the Bishop of the ward where the person resides and/or if I were a missionary permission from the mission president of that mission to preform said ordinance. An excommunicated priesthood holder has his priesthood authority revoked and thus meets non of the requirements nor would he be given permission by one in authority to do so.

  • JB

    @By chance – you may be confusing the scripture regarding the withdrawal of the priesthood due to unrighteous dominion (D&C 121:36-37) with excommunication. As a excommunicated person one would no longer be a member and his priesthood is revoked. Part of the purpose of excommunication is to give the person a clean slate and allow them to start over.

    • JohnH

      The authority to use the priesthood is revoked, but they still technically hold the priesthood and if rebaptised have it restored to the office the previously held.

  • J Eller

    Probably the most controversial area of Mormonism is the blood oath. Does The State of Utah still allow a death row inmate to elect execution by firing squad to fulfill the atonement requirements of the blood oath? This is evidence that state law was directly influenced by religious doctrine.
    While not every person considering themselves religious can be considered a zealot, the influence of religion on a person’s thinking is a relevant political issue. It is now years that the conservative right-wing in America has questioned Pres. Obama’s religion, some accusing him of disloyalty to America because they accuse him of being under the influence of Islam. He proclaims himself Christian, but the attacks are ongoing, therefore, Romney’s religion is open to review as well.
    Just posted a video compilation of a secretly recorded Mormon Temple ritual from 1984. While there is proselytizing from ex-Mormons, it is still interesting to hear an actual ceremony complete with the obvious masonic structure it was built upon.

    • Common Sense

      No rational person on the right argues that Obama is Mulsim. No reasonable argument could be made for this nor for the idea that this would automatically render him the enemy of our Constitution. I am an ardent Tea Party activist and I have literally encountered no one who actually believes this. I have occasionally heard callers on radio shows assert this viewpoint, but they are generally laughed off the airwaves by even the most strident hosts, like Glenn Beck.

      Far more prevalent on the right is the belief that Obama is a secular humanist, and that this motivates him to policies inimical to religious expression and freedom. I will confess to finding this line of argument compelling, but I defer to a person’s own statements to define their religious beliefs, as I demand this same respect for myself. I choose to believe, therefore, that Obama at the very least believes himself to be a Christian. What level of literal belief he has in what Christ asserted himself to be in the surviving records we have is an open question.

      Either way, utilizing the fringe, crazy assertions of a minuscule minority as a screen for your own fringe, crazy assertions is not a rhetorical device that will get you far with an audience like you will find on this website. You obviously have small comprehension of what you speak since you don’t even use the correct terminology for a set of beliefs that you fail to mention have never been official doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Your dim awareness of apocryphal precepts has no place in this discussion.

      As for the laws of the State of Utah, your understanding is once again incomplete. It is true that both firing squad and hanging were technically still allowable forms of execution in the State of Utah, the same was and is true of many states. It has simply had never been removed from the books, even though it had been completely ignored. The first official statement from the Church on the matter was to reject the notion that any form of death was a prerequisite for the repentance process for any sin, including murder… much less that the particular form of death (i.e. whether actual blood issued forth in the process) would make any difference. That stance has never changed.