Authority is a key concept in Mormonism. Two really obvious ways in which this shows up are the concepts of priesthood and modern revelation. Priesthood suggests that certain people have the ability to do certain acts on behalf of God that other people do not have the authority to do. Modern revelation suggests that modern prophets have the authority to produce texts that should be added to the scriptural canon, which purports to offer us some sort of heightened understanding of God’s ways unavailable in other texts. In other words, authority matters within Mormonism; it is a central not a peripheral feature of Mormon theology.
It is also a deeply problematic concept for a liberal society. Liberalism suggests that authority comes from two sources only: reason and consent. In other words, the only legitimate basis for claiming that another must believe or do as you say is to offer a rational argument in defense of your position or else demonstrate some previous voluntary commitment to your position. Neither of these basis for authority work particularly well for justifying the sorts of claims that one finds within Mormonism. This is not to suggest that reason and consent are concepts that are somehow absent from Mormon thought and experience. Far from it. On the other hand, they simply do not provide an adequate account of Mormonism’s claims to authority. In particular, philosophical liberalism suggests that so long as attacks on authority are based on reason and do not involve coercion they cannot be illegitimate, and indeed may become obligatory. The result is that we have strong philosophical and social pressures to criticize authority where ever we find it, and this extends to Mormonism itself.
From within the context of liberalism, there is nothing wrong with criticizing Mormon authority. The question for a Mormon, however, must be not only whether or not criticism is justified as a citizen of a liberal polity, but also whether it is justified as a Mormon. Generally speaking, Mormons involved of vocal public criticism of the Church insist that they are not precluded by Church authority from doing so, or alternatively that Church authority over them in this case in illegitimate. In both cases their rhetorical stance pushes them towards a negative view of Mormon authority, defining it in either miniscule terms or else as illegitimate. The problem, of course, is that this raises a suspicion that the rhetorical stance is basically dishonest, and that in reality what is involve is a rejection of any Mormon claims to authority at all, save those that exist by virtue of the supposedly universal liberal warrants of reason or consent. In some cases, I think that this is actually true, and that the critic’s rhetorical stance is basically dishonest. However, in many — most — cases I do not think that this is the case. Nevertheless, I am frequently left scratching my head as to what to make of the criticism. How do I make sense of it in relation to Mormon claims of authority?
Which leads me to my suggestion: Any Mormon who wishes to offer vocal public criticisms of Mormon authority should explain not simply why Mormon authority doesn’t cover this situation or why it is illegitimate. They should also offer — or at least gesture meaningfully toward — an understanding of why Mormon authority works and where it does extend to. In other words, the burden is to show that the criticism amounts to more than a rejection of Mormon authority simpliciter.