Reforming the Church, Angst, and the Spirituality of Democratic Liberalism

July 23, 2010 | 42 comments
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t seems to me that what is at issue here is less one’s conduct than one’s emotional and intellectual stance.  In other words, I suspect that there is relatively little in terms of conduct that would differ between folks here.  We’re all interested in remaining faithful, contributing, serving, etc.  I suspect that none of us is likely to go along with some great evil perpetrated by the church (such evils being — in my opinion — mainly hypothetical intellectual playthings rather than regular aspects of lived experience). We can all think of changes that we would welcome and that we would be willing to act to bring about.  The difference, it seems to me, lies in the presence or absence of a particular kind of angst and how we interpret it.
I can’t help but notice the many places in which James invokes analogies to democratic liberalism.  There is a desire for participatory self-government, a fear of institutional suppression of rights or other kinds of abuse, a desire for an ever more egalitarian, universal, and inclusive kind of discussion.  Seen in these terms “fatalism” looks like an abdication of political responsibility, a failure to behave as virtuous citizens ought.  It seems to me that the spiritual angst here is a spiritual angst that is filtered through a set of political ideas, ideas that we would do well to treat with some skepticism.  Indeed, one of the intellectual virtues of a being involved in a hierarchical, authoritarian, and — in some ways — amodern (I say amodern because I haven’t figured out if the church is pre-modern or post-modern) way of life is that it gives one the resources to be skeptical about the democratic liberal universe that otherwise encloses us so fully as to become invisible.
Now my point here is not the glib, “the church is not a democracy” — although that is true and something worth thinking on.  Rather, my point is that I would prefer that my spiritual reactions to the church are expressed in an idiom native to the gospel and I fear that at times democratic liberalism is so firmly implanted in our intellectual and spiritual DNA that we denigrate legitimate spiritual stances that cannot be expressed in the idiom of virtuous citizenship.  I am not fatalistic, if by fatalistic one means to suggest an unbecoming abdication of agency.  I am hopeful and I am pragmatic.  In some sense this means that I am passive because I don’t believe that I can and necessarily should work dramatic changes in the community.  My pragmatism makes me extremely open to the notion of tinkering and playing around with new ideas and new practices.  In this sense I am entirely sympathetic to creating more and better modes of dialogue between members and leaders and the like, as I suspect that such things could prove useful to the kingdom.  My hope, however, is to be a tool in God’s hand, and this means that at times — often? — I am entirely content to do the best that I can and leave the rest in his hands.
I suppose that a big part of what makes me uncomfortable with spiritual reactions rooted in democratic liberalism is that embedded in such reactions is a notion of sovereignty in which we the people are vested with ultimate authority.  Hence, we worry about abuse and illegitimate authority and locate such problems in a tyrannizing other that is something separate from and threatening to ourselves.  Likewise, we see virtue within democratic liberalism as the proper assertion of self-sovereignty and we condemn fatalism as a failure to insist on sovereignty that ought to be insisted upon.  We see the student before the tank in Tiennamen Square and rightly regard it as an act of extreme heroism, one in which the legitimate authority of democratic self-ownership asserted itself against the illegitimate authority of force and tyranny.  We want to be like that.  We worry that we are not.  We worry that we are embedded in institutions that are more like the tank and less like the student.  This is the spirituality, if you will, of modern democratic liberalism.  It is a great, good, and noble thing.
The problem, however, is that in the end, we are not self-sovereign.  We do not own ourselves.  We were bought with a price and sovereignty lies elsewhere.  Our emotional and spiritual reactions must make sense of this fact and I suspect that it means in some sense the proper stance toward the church and kingdom will necessarily seem perverse and at times even pernicious from the perspective of democratic liberalism.

Mormons of a certain bent (a bent that often leads to the bloggernacle) are prone to debate how one should relate to the institutional church and how one ought to think about trying to change it.  On one side are those who are concerned about institutional failings and wish to find better avenues for reform and better ways of protecting those who might be subject to abuse.  On the other side are those who seem to take a more passive or fatalistic stance toward the church.

It seems to me that what is at issue here is less one’s conduct than one’s emotional and intellectual stance.  In other words, I suspect that there is relatively little in terms of conduct that would differ between folks here.  We’re all interested in remaining faithful, contributing, serving, etc.  I suspect that none of us is likely to go along with some great evil perpetrated by the church (such evils being — in my opinion — mainly hypothetical intellectual playthings rather than regular aspects of lived experience). We can all think of changes that we would welcome and that we would be willing to act to bring about.  The difference, it seems to me, lies in the presence or absence of a particular kind of angst and how we interpret it.

I can’t help but notice the many places in which those calling for reform in the church invoke analogies to democratic liberalism.  There is a desire for participatory self-government, a fear of institutional suppression of rights or other kinds of abuse, a desire for an ever more egalitarian, universal, and inclusive kind of discussion.  Seen in these terms “fatalism” looks like an abdication of political responsibility, a failure to behave as virtuous citizens ought.  It seems to me that the spiritual angst here is a spiritual angst that is filtered through a set of political ideas, ideas that we would do well to treat with some skepticism.  Indeed, one of the intellectual virtues of a being involved in a hierarchical, authoritarian, and amodern (I say amodern because I haven’t figured out if the church is pre-modern or post-modern) way of life is that it gives one the resources to be skeptical about the democratic liberal universe.  Without the benefit of being embedded in such a way of life, democratic liberalism encloses us so fully as to become invisible.

Now my point here is not the glib, “the church is not a democracy” — although that is true and something worth thinking on.  Rather, my point is that I would prefer that my spiritual reactions to the church are expressed in an idiom native to the gospel and I fear that at times democratic liberalism is so firmly implanted in our intellectual and spiritual DNA that we denigrate legitimate spiritual stances that cannot be expressed in the idiom of virtuous citizenship.  I am not fatalistic, if by fatalistic one means to suggest an unbecoming abdication of agency.  I am hopeful and I am pragmatic.  In some sense this means that I am passive because I don’t believe that I can and necessarily should work dramatic changes in the community.  My pragmatism makes me extremely open to the notion of tinkering and playing around with new ideas and new practices.  In this sense I am entirely sympathetic to creating more and better modes of dialogue between members and leaders and the like, as I suspect that such things could prove useful to the kingdom.  My hope, however, is to be a tool in God’s hand, and this means that at times — often? — I am entirely content to do the best that I can and leave the rest in his hands.

I suppose that a big part of what makes me uncomfortable with spiritual reactions rooted in democratic liberalism is that embedded in such reactions is a notion of sovereignty in which we the people are vested with ultimate authority.  Hence, we worry about abuse and illegitimate authority and locate such problems in a tyrannizing other that is something separate from and threatening to ourselves.  Likewise, we see virtue within democratic liberalism as the proper assertion of self-sovereignty and we condemn fatalism as a failure to insist on sovereignty that ought to be insisted upon.  We see the man standing before the tank in Tiennamen Square and rightly regard it as an act of extreme heroism, one in which the legitimate authority of democratic self-ownership asserted itself against the illegitimate authority of force and tyranny.  We want to be like that.  We worry that we are not.  We worry that we are embedded in institutions that are more like the tank and less like the student.  This is the spirituality, if you will, of modern democratic liberalism.  It is a great, good, and noble thing.

The problem, however, is that in the end, we are not self-sovereign.  We do not own ourselves.  We were bought with a price and sovereignty lies elsewhere.  Our emotional and spiritual reactions must make sense of this fact and I suspect that it means in some sense the proper stance toward the church and kingdom will necessarily seem perverse and at times even pernicious from the perspective of democratic liberalism.

42 Responses to Reforming the Church, Angst, and the Spirituality of Democratic Liberalism

  1. Alison Moore Smith on July 23, 2010 at 1:31 am

    Nate, a very thought-provoking post.

    Unfortunately, it’s the very thing that causes me the most spiritual anxiety. The church is not a democracy. But neither is it a theocracy — yet still we are expected to behave as if it is.

  2. Nate Oman on July 23, 2010 at 1:36 am

    I suspect that there are limits on the possibility of alleviating your anxiety, but I suspect that part of the problem is the dichotomy between democracy and theocracy. I suspect that to make sense of things we are going to need a much richer vocabulary that will include terms like covenant, charity, hope, faith, authority, sin, repentance, and the like.

  3. Paul on July 23, 2010 at 3:23 am

    This one makes me think. There are times that I dearly wanted and expected more from the church and became somewhat bitter. At the same time, I feel richly blessed by my participation in the church and am convinced it is well worth it in my case. Sometimes the core commitment to build the kingdom seems asymmetric in a way that causes tension, i.e. we are to put in everything we have and give it to the church for the building of the kingdom, and there seems no basis to expect that we could get or even ask for the specific things we are hoping for from the church, from historical issues down to facilities management and much of the in between. How do I deal with this asymmetry? I have evolved in three ways to try to reduce this tension:
    1) Lowered expectations: I think my previous trust was misplaced, i.e. I perhaps idolized the church in a way that was immature. In my particular case I was looking for something to trust after being disappointed by my parents. We can end up trusting the institution and the institutional memory instead of trusting the living God. It took me a long time to realize this, though it now seems so obvious.
    2) Lowered expectations: A similar asymmetric responsibility is parenting. We give it our best but we have a realistic view of the nature of our kids and try to work with them rather than against them. The fact that they are imperfect, stupid, have particular problems facing life, etc. doesn’t rock my world. If I think of the church as an immature child that is somewhere in the process of arising from the dust and putting on its beautiful garments, so to speak, I can be much more patient. It goes without saying that I hope others will view me patiently too, so my relationship to the church may not be nearly as asymmetric as I think. In other relationships, this asymmetry goes entirely the other way, like between me and the Savior.
    3) Opining is healthy as long as we view our opinions as modifiable as we learn more. I have realized that in my case passivity takes me right to depression land. I have learned to speak my mind and advocate for things here at the local level. I think it is very important to be able to speak up. Negative feedback, delivered in a way that doesn’t threaten the underlying relationship but rather affirms it, is crucial in all systems. I don’t insist, but I do expect them to listen, and I try to be as convincing as possible.

  4. brian larsen on July 23, 2010 at 4:24 am

    I’m a bit concerned with the use of terms. “Democratic liberalism,” as used in this essay, seems to suggest that the adherents advocate for more individual role. I’m fine with that usage: democracy, etc.

    However, both those terms have strong connotations with the “left” side of the political spectrum. Meanwhile, phrases like “There is a desire for participatory self-government, a fear of institutional suppression of rights or other kinds of abuse” seem to connect with the “(far) right.” Then the essay concludes with statements that suggest favor toward some traditionally “left” ideas: “in the end, we are not self-sovereign. We do not own ourselves.”

    In the end, this article may not intend to be offering political commentary – if it is, I don’t understand it.

  5. Aaron R. on July 23, 2010 at 4:38 am

    I think Kathleen Flake’s article on ‘Rendering to the Corporation’ goes some way in providing that idiom and also a form of praxis that can create space for dialogue. What I have learned from that article is two things: first, we must very careful about fighting for the things we love, because the act of working for them changes them in ways we did not intend. Second, in her article I sense that finding those spaces, i.e. being willing to work with our leaders, is a task that demands a great deal of faith and love. It requires that we take our covenants seriously (‘That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death’).

    btw, I don’t think of the Student and the Tank. Instead I recall this picture by Sebastiao Salgado:

    http://graememitchell.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2007/08/salgado_2.jpg

    Thanks Nate.

  6. Carl Youngblood on July 23, 2010 at 6:18 am

    “The problem, however, is that in the end, we are not self-sovereign. We do not own ourselves. We were bought with a price and sovereignty lies elsewhere. Our emotional and spiritual reactions must make sense of this fact and I suspect that it means in some sense the proper stance toward the church and kingdom will necessarily seem perverse and at times even pernicious from the perspective of democratic liberalism.”

    I feel this assertion neglects some particularly compelling concepts in Christianity and Mormonism, such as our co-eternality with God and the notion of the Church and Zion as the embodiment of God. If the community we belong to is in a very real sense the emerging body of God, then our self-determination and progress towards more egalitarian forms of government can been seen as a part of God’s eternal progression.

    The passages of scripture that most resonate with me are those that teach me that I am not utterly alien from God/Christ, but that I am a branch in his vine, a participant in the atonement and ultimately a very real part of him. In this sense, my growth is his growth and my glory adds to his. I gladly reject the creedalist Creature/Creator paradigm.

  7. RogerDodger on July 23, 2010 at 7:07 am

    I think the church has been suffering suffering some sort of decline dating back to the change in meeting schedule and the introduction of correlation, but I wouldn’t presume to tell the bretheren what to do about it since that is not how our church works. I am reminded of my Catholic neighbors who did not like Pope John Paul II because he wouldn’t make changes to the Catholic church that they wanted. If he made them, I asked, wouldn’t that diminish the church’s claim to authority, the very thing that makes you Catholics in the first place? I suspect the same thing would happen to our church.

  8. Nate Oman on July 23, 2010 at 7:31 am

    brian: I am using the terms democratic and liberal in the way that they are used in political philosophy rather than the way in which they are used by journalists. Seen in these terms both Democrats and Republicans are democratic liberals.

    Carl: I disagree. There is certainly a tradition of reading Mormon metaphysics as a kind of cosmic liberalism but I think that this is mistaken. The rejection of God’s absolute metaphysical otherness is not the same thing as rejecting his sovereignty. Nor does the notion of the soul’s uncreatedness necessarily imply self-ownership.

  9. Russell Arben Fox on July 23, 2010 at 8:12 am

    A wise and thoughtful post, Nate. Also a rather communitarian one, which perhaps you intended, or perhaps not. If not, then I would encourage a re-assessment for your (I think entirely plausible and insightful) claims along more fleshed-out communitarian lines, both ontologically and politically. For one thing, I don’t think “democratic liberalism” is actually the presumption you’re addressing here; “democratic individualism” would express it better. This comes out when your line of argument leads you to say that there is an angst-creating incompatibility between basically accepting the rules, norms, and practices of a our church community–which includes basically accepting the roles general authorities play in it–and being a “virtuous citizen.” But that’s not really correct; as numerous different communitarian and republican formulations throughout history have shown, there are many ways in which “democratic citizenship” can be made more or less perfectly compatible with a humble acceptance of the group, and the group’s sources of authority. Liberal individualism, not democratic liberalism, is the problem here.

    Also, in regards to your exchange with Alison…

    [This is] the very thing that causes me the most spiritual anxiety. The church is not a democracy. But neither is it a theocracy–yet still we are expected to behave as if it is.

    I suspect that there are limits on the possibility of alleviating your anxiety, but I suspect that part of the problem is the dichotomy between democracy and theocracy.

    …it’s worth noting that Joseph Smith, as well as some other early leaders of the church, sometimes talked about how, in the end (which may or may not have meant when Christ returns), the saints would live in a “theodemocracy.” It’s by no means clear what exactly that would mean, but that hasn’t stopped people from speculating about it.

  10. jkimballcook on July 23, 2010 at 9:10 am

    “The problem, however, is that in the end, we are not self-sovereign. We do not own ourselves. We were bought with a price and sovereignty lies elsewhere.”

    I’m not sure that this rejection of self-ownership really captures it completely. For me, the purpose of our having been bought is to make us free to choose. And the point of moral agency, to me, is that we must own ourselves, both what we do and who we are, and that we must own the consequences of who we are and what we do.

    So to me, the gospel does mean that we own ourselves is a very real sense. That should not detract from the fact that our self-ownership is a gift from a greater sovereign. The savior does not buy us to have us continue in slavery, just with a new master. He buys us in order to give us our freedom so that we can give ourselves freely to him. As you said in your reply to Alison’s comments, the covenant is an important part of this relationship.

    Perhaps a better description would be that we co-own ourselves with God?

    And I think this is true on an institutional level as well. While I agree with you that the church is not a “democracy” in the sense that it is governed by revelation and not by popular will, I think it is a “democracy” in the sense that we, as a church, must own what we, as a church do and who we as a church are. This is democracy in the same sense that the Book of Mormon links rejection of monarchy to accountability, and in the same sense that the Lord tells the church in the Doctrine and Covenants that if they fail to do certain things, they will be rejected “as a church.”

    I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think self-ownership is as foreign to the gospel as you suggest.

    But this is a great, thought-provoking post.

  11. Dave on July 23, 2010 at 11:00 am

    Helpful thoughts, Nate. It’s worth noting that there are procedures within the Church that almost invite participating members to think in terms of democracy: sustaining votes of those called to local leadership positions; a lay clergy; an open theology that eschews creeds and allows members to (with some limits) define their own theology; an emphasis upon indivdiual agency; and republican (small “r”) ideals that are found throughout the Book of Mormon. At the same time, despite these features, actual church governance tends to be a top-down, one-party sort of system, not a particpatory democracy.

  12. Adam Greenwood on July 23, 2010 at 11:01 am

    We’re arguing at a pretty high level of abstraction here, which is probably why the conversation has remained civil.

    In my view, democratic liberalism isn’t the whole story, unless you define democratic liberalism to include a utopian component. In my various heated arguments with the Bloggernacle over the years, the conversation has often come down to me arguing that somebody’s pet liberalization will have negative side effects and them responding that no, it won’t, because if we’re doing the right thing the Holy Ghost won’t allow negative side effects. There is no tragic vision that maybe its impossible to fully embrace the kid who got pregnant without damaging your witness to the other kids that they shouldn’t be hanky-pankying out of wedlock.

    Let me put it another way. I think your description of democratic liberalism does full justice to the democratic elements but not the liberal elements. One of the major strands in liberalism’s DNA is the sense that people are basically shiny good, and maybe its in the Mormon DNA a little too. I remember early on at BYU taking an honor’s Book of Mormon class. The teacher said believing that people are basically good is one of the key truths of Mormonism. Serious? Have you ever, ah, read the scriptures? Do you know any people? Apparently not. I was astounded. They were just as astounded at my attitude. We were in mutual incomprehension like a yak trying to socialize a tea party. But given that point of view, if people in the Church feel judged or unwelcome or excluded or not full participants or even if they just keep sinning, well, then the Church programs and institutions are at fault, because the people themselves are naturally good and would flourish if there weren’t some kind of institutional obstacle.

    So that’s my main point. Plus I have a couple of side observations. First, given the understanding of liberalism that I’ve sketched above that sin and suffering are fairly superficial and fixable, I would argue that most ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ in the Church are actually both liberals, just with respect to different groups. ‘Liberals’ tend to think that the Church could be fixed pretty easily if only it would and ‘conservatives’ tend to think that individuals could be fixed pretty easily if only they would. Second, although I’m pretty contemptuous of liberalism as I’ve defined it here, not being a liberal saps your strength. Once you’ve admitted that both institutions and people are very hard to change and have complicated reasons for being the way they are, you often stop trying. For one, you think that success is unlikely and for another you’ve lost your moral indignation. In theory you should keep going just because God demands it, and sometimes you do, but very often pure God-sevice isn’t enough to motivate (another non-liberal insight). Fatalism is very often the right word.

  13. Andrew on July 23, 2010 at 11:40 am

    “The problem, however, is that in the end, we are not self-sovereign. We do not own ourselves. We were bought with a price and sovereignty lies elsewhere.”

    But we were bought by Christ, not by the Church. In fact, Christ bought the Church too. The problem arises for me when I see the people in the Church (yes even the leaders) being mere mortals (which they are), and yet members treat leaders as sinless and perfect (you know its true, and “I don’t think the Prophet is sinless” isn’t what I’m talking about). The idea that I cannot offer constructive criticism to people above me in the Church reinforces this notion (except callings are temporary, even if they last till death, the person is still released and we’re all equals in the CK).

    So these “sinless” leaders make mistakes, and act in unchristian ways (again, they’re mere mortals), but we simply brush their errors under the rug and ignore them. And even though Church leaders could and should stress their own imperfection before Church members, they don’t (they could mention it in Conference, in more obvious and direct ways, since we value plain and simple things so much), but instead they play into this paragon of virtue imagery that people put on them.

    Christ is Perfect; He paid for me, and He is my sovereign.

  14. J. Stapley on July 23, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Matt Bowman’s piece on dissent is likely important context here as well.

  15. Wm Morris on July 23, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    “Once you’ve admitted that both institutions and people are very hard to change and have complicated reasons for being the way they are, you often stop trying.”

    This is why I continue to invest time in aesthetic approaches to Mormonism and the LDS Church. It allows for a little bit more play and fun, a little bit more exploration of tragedy — a way to gaze upon the complications, to arouse both indignation and charity (because if you don’t have both, the aesthetics fall apart), to play out how covenants operate and failings and forgiveness.

    Of course, there are limits to its utility and to its success as an aesthetic endeavor.

    ——

    I have no desire to see more self-flagellation on the part of our leaders. And I don’t see the paragon of virtue imagery — when general authorities to talk about themselves as persons, they are very often self-deprecating and even talk about their imperfections. They ask virtue of us. But so do the scriptures. And there’s never any sense that they don’t ask it also of themselves. In fact, I wonder to what extent the pedestal-placing of general authorities can be ascribed to democratic individualism. The putting charismatic politicians and sports heros (and others) on pedestals and up for emulation and then knocking them down is fairly steady cycle in latter-day U.S. democracy.

  16. Matt Evans on July 23, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Great comment, Adam, especially your last paragraph. It’s my experience that people who complain about the church’s structure because it limits their ability to affect change are uniformly naive about the strength of institutional inertia no matter the institutional structure.

    The problem isn’t due to the church’s formalized heirarchy or male priesthood, it’s due to the fact that there are millions of people with their own opinions and desires regarding the church, and each of us happens to be just one of those millions of people. Even with all of the institutional privileges afforded the president of the church, it is still incredibly hard for him to affect change because even his rudder is small relative to the million ton ship that is the church. Very little changes from one president to the next, though we often associate presidents with particular issues, like President Benson and the Book of Mormon or President Hinckley and small temples, but in important ways they were moved by historical trends (most of the increase in Book of Mormon conference citations occurred *before* President Benson’s famous talks, for example), and with the exception of blacks and the priesthood, there are few examples of rapid change within the church. This isn’t because the presidents don’t want to make changes, it’s that institutions are so dang hard to change. They’d be thrilled if they could simply get members to have regular family prayers.

  17. CT on July 23, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    This is something I was thinking about over the past few weeks as I prepared the lesson on “Priesthood Organization” out the Gospel Principles manual. Of course, one of the most striking things about that organization and its role in church governance is its hierarchical, authoritarian nature. This is nothing new, nor is the church shy about it: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, is neither a democracy nor a republic. His is a kingdom—the kingdom of God on earth. His is a hierarchical church, with ultimate authority at the top” (Russell M. Nelson, “Honoring the Priesthood,” Ensign, May 1993). Bushman points out that Joseph Smith’s organizational moves in the first several years of the church were quite remarkable in contrast to American protestant churches, which were undergoing a process of democratic leveling. The Church was instead moving piecemeal towards a Catholic-style hierarchy (and we should know how Americans largely felt about Catholics) that was at odds in many ways with the philosophic foundations of American liberal democracy, especially as the early democratic aspects (councils/conferences, sustaining by popular vote, presentation of revelations to conferences, etc.) morphed into formalisms rather than meaning democratic participation.

    It was precisely this potential of religion that led Tocqueville to champion the cause of religion in democracy as the key to healthy democratic politics, though he himself struggled with belief. For Tocqueville, religion could serve as a restraint on the overwhelming and often dangerous impulses of democracy; the sovereign people must be subject to God to utilize that sovereignty well Religious institutions, and the forms, symbols, hierarchy, ritual, and substantive focus on the soul and immortality that go with them, might serve to check our passions for equality, for material well-being, etc. But Tocqueville leaves one wondering whether such religious beliefs can survive, or whether, in the end, the democratic impulse will prove stronger and that religion itself will be transformed by the demands of a democratic age. Regardless, with him, and with you, I think we are right to worry and warn about the potential dangers of undiluted democratic liberalism, whether on religion, or on politics.

  18. Adam Greenwood on July 23, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    Matt E.,

    that’s an excellent expansion of my point. When we say change is hard, we aren’t saying that productive, useful change is hard. We’re saying that making change of any kind happen is hard. Productive, useful change is even harder.

    The liberal democracies are ostensibly more compliant with the demands of democratic liberalism than the Church is, but voter satisfaction is not high.

  19. DavidH on July 23, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    “It’s my experience that people who complain about the church’s structure because it limits their ability to affect change are uniformly naive about the strength of institutional inertia no matter the institutional structure.”

    I completely agree with Matt. Changing the direction of the United States, which is a liberal democracy, is just as difficult for a single individual as changing the direction of the LDS Church. Of course, the means for change are different as a structural and cultural matter.

    ****************

    I respectfully disagree with Elder Nelson’s implication that the Church is intended to be purely “a hierarchical church, with ultimate authority at the top.” Certainly, the description is currently correct–that is the way the Church is organized and perceived by members: that the opinions of all members, except the hierarchy, are irrelevant.

    But I do not think that is what the Church is intended to be.

    I agree that “ultimate authority” is “at the top”–meaning God. I do not believe that “ultimate authority” is always and purely with the human leadership of the Church.

    The Doctrine and Covenants clearly states that the Church is to be operated upon principles of common consent. While the sustaining process has been converted by custom and by the teachings into a formality, I think common consent means more than that. In my opinion, the will of the ultimate authority–God–is expressed through the hierarchical structure and through the common consent of members, which can be withheld.

    Example: It was not at all clear from published revelations of Joseph who was to succeed him. The decision that the 12, with Brigham leading, was to succeed him was one made both through Brigham’s claim to the mantle AND by the common consent of the majority who agreed and who did follow the 12.

    Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, and some episcopally organized Protestants teach that authority flows from God to a human leader and then “down the line.” Other Protestants, believing in the priesthood of all believers, teach that authority flows from the believer “up to” the leaders they select.

    In my opinion, the LDS Church is, or is intended to be, a combination of both.

    Thus, as its name implies, the Church is “of”–belongs to–Jesus Christ, AND the Church is “of”–belongs to–the Latter-day Saints.

    Diarmaid MacCulloch in Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years points out that there are two words for church that derive from the Greek.

    1. Ekklesia (from which ecclesiastical is derived) means “church” in the New Testament, but was “borrowed from Greek political vocabulary, where it signified the assembly of citizens of the polis who met to make decisions.” He further notes, “If the ekklesia is the embodiment of the city or polis of God, lurking in the word ekklesia is the idea that the faithful have a collective responsibility for decisions about the future of the polis, just as the people of a polis did in ancient Greece.”

    2. The word “kirk” or “church” “started life as an adjective which emerged in late Greek, kuriake, ‘belonging to the Lord’, and because of that, it emphasizes the authority of the master, rather than the decision of those assembled.”

    Macculloch concludes the discussion: “The tension between these perspectives has run through the history of ecclesia/kirk, and is with Christians still.” Pages 26-27.

  20. Chris H. on July 23, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    As an advocate of a very democratic form of left-liberalism, I am not sure if I want that democratic liberalism for The Church. In this sense my liberalism is political. Of course, my moral liberalism tend to make me an odd duck within the LDS community…but I do not care anymore about solving that tension.

  21. Scott B. on July 23, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    Even with all of the institutional privileges afforded the president of the church, it is still incredibly hard for him to affect change because even his rudder is small relative to the million ton ship that is the church.

    Intellectually, I believe this is true, and yet emotionally and spiritually I cannot help clinging to the hope that “a very large ship is benefited very much by a very small helm in the time of a storm, by being kept workways with the wind and the waves.” (D&C 123:16)

  22. Harold Dwyer on July 23, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    “(such evils being — in my opinion — mainly hypothetical intellectual playthings rather than regular aspects of lived experience)”

    This assumption/bias wrecks your analysis. Sorry.

  23. Nate Oman on July 23, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    Harold: Well now I know…

  24. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 23, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    It seems to me that much of the outside opposition to Mormonism is over the concern that the Church lacks the kinds of “liberal democratic” tendencies that would make it more susceptible to the influence of the opinion leaders in liberal democratic society, in other words, a weaker organization.

    Instead, the Church goes its own way, without much of the centrifugal tendencies that are institutional to most Protestant churches in the US. The opinion leaders thus see the Church as competitors, and every manifestation of the Church’s effectiveness is perceived as making that threat stronger. While we might expect that news stories about Mormon Helping Hands doing public service and helping out after disasters should improve the Church’s acceptance among the larger public, for many of the liberal democratic opinion leaders, it makes Mormons more scary. Since they conceive of their own way of thinking as the ONLY rational way of thinking, they assume Mormons are irrational and unthinking.

    Many of the books written by non-Mormons about Mormons express the hope that we will come around to their way of thinking. The prospect of the Church growing in numbers and influence and capital (both human and physical), without changing to be more like the larger social environment, makes them apprehensive.

  25. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 23, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    You know, I liked your earlier quote “If you don’t pay your tithing and serve in the Church, you give up your right to bitch,” — it is what motivates me to donate to NPR after I’m irritated at them over something.

    Rather, my point is that I would prefer that my spiritual reactions to the church are expressed in an idiom native to the gospel and I fear that at times democratic liberalism is so firmly implanted in our intellectual and spiritual DNA that we denigrate legitimate spiritual stances that cannot be expressed in the idiom of virtuous citizenship.

    That is a great insight. I’ve posted a number of essays about how to make changes and accomplish things in the Church structure, and it hits me that they have failed because I was not communicating well to people locked into a non-LDS idiom. I need to rethink things in those terms.

    Nate We were bought with a price — I know that Carl seems to reject that, though I think remembering the core message of Christ as our savior is a key to the gospel and to redeeming others that is too easy to miss. I appreciate the way you capstoned your essay with that.

    Wm Morris — those were thoughtful comments.

    Nate, thanks for this post.

  26. Chris H. on July 23, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    “Since they conceive of their own way of thinking as the ONLY rational way of thinking, they assume Mormons are irrational and unthinking. ”

    Not all Mormons. Just you.

  27. Cameron Nielsen on July 23, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    Sooner or later we need to accept the duality of the Gospel and be at peace with it. The Spirit teaches balance, temperance, etc. to us as we have experiences each day.

    I have come to believe that besides the desire to do bad things, one of the most common causes of apostasy is the perception of a false dichotomy in the Gospel.

  28. MarkP on July 24, 2010 at 12:25 am

    This piece is such a navel-gazing jumple of gobbledy-speak I can’t tell what you’re contemplating or concluding. Maybe you could try again with fewer dollar-words where a dime would do?

  29. Manuel on July 24, 2010 at 1:31 am

    I suspect that none of us is likely to go along with some great evil perpetrated by the church (such evils being — in my opinion — mainly hypothetical intellectual playthings rather than regular aspects of lived experience).

    Yes it does wreck his analysis. It is very telling of his Mormon experience and rather clueless (or perhaps intentionally disingenuous?) of blatant current problems in the Church. One couldn’t expect a person with this mindset to understand the true root causes and the actual spiritual needs that fuel the desire for reform. Thus the dismissive tone of the whole post. If there isn’t a true evil to be changed, then the thought of one seeking reform is reduced to a capricious reaction based on political ideals.

    Perhaps loosening some of the “all is well in Zion” walls used to vindicate the demeaning attitude and actually listening (no, seriously, truly listening) to those who hurt in the Church and seek reform would help?

    Just sayin’

  30. Chris H. on July 24, 2010 at 11:19 am

    “Maybe you could try again with fewer dollar-words where a dime would do?”

    MarkP,

    Would you like some help with the big words?

  31. Harold Dwyer on July 24, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    Nate if it makes you feel any better about my comment @22, your article on the legalistic approach to explaining how doctrine is made and interpreted contains one of the most brilliant incites I have encountered in Mormon studies.

  32. Robby on July 24, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Chris H. I agree with you, I have read this article twice and I can’t figure out what the whole point is.

  33. Alison Moore Smith on July 24, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    Russell, I really appreciated your insights (#9). It cleared up some things that were muddy for me.

    Adam #12:

    Let me put it another way. I think your description of democratic liberalism does full justice to the democratic elements but not the liberal elements. One of the major strands in liberalism’s DNA is the sense that people are basically shiny good, and maybe its in the Mormon DNA a little too.

    Oooo. Good stuff, Adam. Sam and I were talking about the problems with the utopian aspect of progressivism last night (yes, that’s what our date nights are like…after Inception, anyway) and you contributed nicely. :)

    Andrew #13:

    So these “sinless” leaders make mistakes, and act in unchristian ways (again, they’re mere mortals), but we simply brush their errors under the rug and ignore them.

    It doesn’t seem to me that we are expected to brush them under the rug. It seems we err in noticing them at all. Questioning — and I don’t mean condemning, but actually just asking for clarification or reasoning behind decisions or positions — can bring a firestorm of antagonism. Very frustrating.

  34. Nate Oman on July 24, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    Harold and Manuel: I think that you are misunderstanding me to be suggesting that there is nothing in the church that could be changed for the better or that members who seek to bring about such change are misguided. I believe neither of these things. I am fully aware of the fact that the church as an institution on occasion can mangle people, and I have dealt personally with a number of such incidents. I am also reasonably aware, I believe, of the anguish that some feel about particular doctrines and practices. (There are one or two that have been known to keep me up in the wee hours of the night.) Rather, my point was that conflicts that present existential crises, like being asked to participate in the mountain meadows massacre by priesthood leaders, make for fascinating and revealing conversation pieces they don’t come up all that often in actual practice. Even something like being asked to support Prop 8 (which presents an existential crisis for many of my friends) is actually a relatively rare event.

    In this post what I am interested in is the way in which we think and talk about these things, and the difficulties that arise from the ease with which our discourse falls into the well-worn groove of democratic and liberal categories (using those terms in their philosophical rather than journalistic senses). Democracy and liberalism rest on a particular vision of human beings and the way in which they constitute authority. It’s far from clear to me, however, that the philosophical anthropology that undergirds liberalism and democracy can be reconciled with various ideas about the soul and authority within the gospel. I want to resist the notion that these philosophical tensions can be neatly reconciled or that we can move unproblematically from the discourse of democratic liberalism to the discourse of the Restoration and back again without pausing to reflect on what we are doing.

    I am not making any specific practical point, and I certainly think that the kind of over-reaction to questioning that Allison flags happens all that time and is wrong. One of the ways of taking a question seriously, however, is to try to get at the structure of its basic assumptions. This s not a way of dismissing something. This is a way of showing respect for another by showing respect for the ideas encapsulated in their speech. Finally, although I am not making any specific practical point, the fact that I do not believe in the neat reconciliation of the Restoration and democratic liberalism means that in the abstract I believe that at times authentic and justifiable responses from within the framework of the Restoration will be irrational and perverse from within the framework of democratic liberalism.

    Mark P. and Robby: Here’s the point — Sometimes the way we talk about what we do when we see problems in the church doesn’t make sense, even if what we are doing in response does. The confusion arises from talking in a way that implicitly assumes a number of things about human beings and authority which seem to be inconsistent with the way in which the Restoration invites us to think about human beings and authority. This is a problem about which we should think more carefully.

  35. Alison Moore Smith on July 24, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    Matt Evans #16:

    The problem isn’t due to the church’s formalized heirarchy or male priesthood, it’s due to the fact that there are millions of people with their own opinions and desires regarding the church, and each of us happens to be just one of those millions of people.

    While I don’t disagree with your main point, I do think there is an inherent problem with all male priesthood. Given the church’s oft-repeated and emphasized position that men and women ARE very different and have very different prescribed duties and roles in life, leaving (a very different) half of the church very underrepresented in the decision-making process and the formulation and implementation of policy will almost always result in a biased organization. While I think this problem could be overcome (even without giving women the priesthood), I think it would take much greater efforts than we have seen.

    When you say “change is hard,” I’d qualify that more along the lines of “influencing people to choose to change individual behavior is hard.” But policy change is relatively easy. When we changed from the old schedule to the consolidated one, I didn’t see any wards refusing to adjust and retaining their old meeting times. When blacks were given the priesthood, I did hear of some idiots who did things like refuse to take the sacrament from black deacons, but overall the new church policy overruled anyone who resisted.

    Sure, we still have stake presidents who won’t let women say opening prayers — contrary to the handbook — but it seems that when the church leaders really want something implemented *in the church* (as opposed to at home and in private), it happens in short order most of the time.

  36. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 24, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    In this post what I am interested in is the way in which we think and talk about these things, and the difficulties that arise from the ease with which our discourse falls into the well-worn groove of democratic and liberal categories (using those terms in their philosophical rather than journalistic senses).

    I think this essay is very valuable for that exact point.

  37. WJ on July 25, 2010 at 3:30 am

    “Given the church’s oft-repeated and emphasized position that men and women ARE very different and have very different prescribed duties and roles in life, leaving (a very different) half of the church very underrepresented in the decision-making process and the formulation and implementation of policy will almost always result in a biased organization.”

    Perhaps this view suffers from the same “problems with the utopian aspect of progressivism” you described in an earlier comment. It seems to strain reality to argue that the implementation of church policy will ever be done without some bias. We are all biased, men versus women, men versus men, women versus women, etc. We might have fewer objections to specific varieties of bias, but bias will always be with us nonetheless.

    “Indeed, one of the intellectual virtues of a being involved in a hierarchical, authoritarian, and amodern (I say amodern because I haven’t figured out if the church is pre-modern or post-modern) way of life is that it gives one the resources to be skeptical about the democratic liberal universe.”

    I really enjoyed this point. We very often condemn organizations governed by any kind of a hierarchical structure. The media loves providing gory details of hierarchical abuse and hypocrisy, while failing to notice that democratic liberalism often spawns the same and different negative behaviors.

    I wonder though if this is an “apples and oranges” situation, which Nate touched on. Membership in the church is purely voluntary. National citizenship, however, is much less so. If individuals don’t like their religious hierarchy, they have options, the most dramatic of which is withdrawal. While perhaps difficult and uncomfortable, it is still readily available. But if one’s government is hierarchical and less democratically liberal, the situation can be more complicated.

  38. Alison Moore Smith on July 25, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    WJ, very good point and probably true. Deep in my heart I really want every aspect of the church to be exactly as God wants it to be. Then the only task is to get my stupid head in line with his will. Being uncertain about which things are God’s ways and which are just people being people keeps the target moving.

    Utopia aside, I think we could get much, much better in the church with gender issues (if still imperfect) really easily — but I can’t see how without somehow giving women a larger voice in the church.

  39. Rameumptom on July 26, 2010 at 10:10 am

    The reality is, The Church has a very good, yet imperfect framework. And it is cautious with change. That is not necessarily a bad thing. I think we’ve made wonderful changes in the past 30 years in issues that have affected the Church.

    Given that much of the real work happens several layers below the Corporation of the Presidency, perhaps the discussion should be looked at in how local units carry out the mission of the Church. There are some units that lovingly embrace all, and there are some who are ripe for destruction IMNSHO.

    For example, recently in Utah, a mother with two children with high functioning autism was driving by the nearby park and noticed her oldest son’s cub pack playing in their uniforms. She stopped to ask what was going on, and found out that there was a conspiracy set up by the cub leaders and Primary President to not let the sister know about several of the activities. I was visiting this unit a week or so after the event, and had the high priest group leader (who was a missionary when I was ward mission leader) ask me how to establish unity in a ward. Given that this sister had every right to sue both the Scouts and the LDS Church for such an action, I’m surprised the bishop did not release several people immediately, or at least march them all down to the family’s home and profusely apologize with expensive gifts to offer on the altar.

    The Church is not a democracy. Thank God. But it is filled with people who often lose their way when it comes to learning the true gospel of Christ.

  40. TMD on July 26, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    Very good post.

  41. Paul Bohman on July 26, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    Nate, you have a way of articulating things that have been on my mind for years, but never felt I had an avenue through which to share them myself. I suppose in many ways I still don’t feel I have that avenue. Perhaps that puts me in the camp of the fatalists, despite finding the fit of fatalism very uncomfortable indeed.

  42. Eduard A. Erdtsieck on July 29, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    Is history repeating itself? The history of Christianity is filled with schisms and reformation and repression.

    Joseph’s First Vision tells the story of God, Father-in-Heaven pointing to Jesus – He is my Son, Hear Him. As a grandfather on earth I would go the end of all legal solutions, should any of my children meet with bullying. HE DID! But the ungodly chooses life according to the management of his creature.

    It is not the Church or its doctrines and authority, but the Priesthood Quorums! They sit in Moses’ seat awaiting their titles, as if they’ve already earned it. Expecting Jesus, Christ to do all the work; meanwhile the ungodly are turning the US into Babylon.

    The Quorum is not committed to Jesus’ doctrines, but to the doctrine of Korihor; whose moral standards states “every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius and that every man conquered according to his strength”. What’s missing?

    The new manuals are just great. They teach the doctrines of Jesus of Nazareth and Joseph Smith.