So Mormons have a lay ministry. Hence, there is a real sense in which we are “the Church.” This raises some interesting questions about what counts as official Church action and what doesn’t. Consider the case of Martin v. Johnson, 151 Cal. Rep. 816 (Cal.App. 1979).
The case arose out of a lawsuit brought by the indefatigable anti-Mormon Walter R. Martin against Bruce A. Johnson, several local institutes, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Corporation of the First Presidency, and several other church entities. Martin, also known on Orange County talk radio as “The Bible Answer Man,” has been writing anti-Mormon screeds since the 1950s and is among those theologians subscribing to the Satanic-inspiration theory of Mormon origins. Johnson wrote a pamphlet responding to Martin in 1972, which suggested that Martins arguments and use of sources were a bit . . . ahem. . . creative. Martin sued for defamation and libel. He also sued the Church on the theory that because Johnson was a Mormon elder defending the Mormon Church operating as the Church’s agent, which made the Church liable for his actions under the doctrine of respondant superior. This is the legal rule that makes an employer liable for the acts of its employees. (This marvelous rule, for example, lets you sue McDonalds when Jim Bob sells you a cup of over hot coffee rather than simply suing Jim Bob.) Martin lost the suit, but it raises an interesting question.
If every Mormon priesthood holder is an ordained minister of the Church, how do we differentiate their actions from the actions of the Church itself. In the 19th century one of the big objections to the admission of Utah as a state was the activity of the Church in Utah politics. One of George Q. Cannon’s favorite arguments was that because every active Mormon above a certain age was a Church official of some sort or another. Hence, he argued, it would be impossible to get the Church out of politics without excluding all of the “better sort of men.” Where do we draw the lines between personal and corporate action?