The phrase “Speak Truth to Power” has become something of a cliche among people on the political left. Street protesters, urban activists, and environmental organizers often think of and talk about their work in these terms. Implicit in this phrase, I think, is the idea that the truth (about poverty, the environment, the morality of abortion, civil rights, etc.) is self-evident to anyone who is willing to look. Furthermore, authority figures are probably willfully blind to this truth. So, protest and social communication are not only justified but, perhaps, mandatory: people in power need to be made to see the truth. Once they recognize the world for what it is, the social truth will overwhelm leaders’ decision to disregard a given problem and force them to take righteous action.
All of this is, of course, deeply problematic. The truth about whatever aspect of society people are interested in is not in fact easily discovered by simple observation. If nothing else, the social sciences have proven that intellegent people with access to extensive information can come to wildly different conclusions about social reality. Furthermore, people in fact have genuine differences of opinion about how to resolve social problems, so communicating one’s perception of the truth to leaders will not necessarily result in the desired action.
The phrase “speak truth to power” in fact originated in a context where its meaning was far less problematic. The slogan developed among Quakers during the mid-20th century. For Quakers, some portion of the truth lives within each of us, as a kind of equivalent of Mormon ideas of the Holy Ghost or the Light of Christ. Quaker religious practice is dedicated to the idea of nurturing, listening to, and acting on that portion of the truth within each of us. Hence, for example, the worship services in which a congregation gathers in a room and doesn’t speak, move, or perform any real outward ritual–instead focusing on accessing the inner truth in a communal way. So the truth that was to be spoken to power is obtained metaphysically, rather than through observation.
Whether among 20th-century Quakers or 21st-century leftist political activists, the act of speaking truth to power fundamentally involves asking questions. Protest is an inherently questioning activity: Why is the world the way it is? Why should we fight this war? Why did the jury acquit these civil rights abusers? When effective protest acts align with a mobilizable public and appropriate institutional allies, answers to the questions posed by dissent may become mandatory. If such answers are unsatisfactory, genuine change may result–as was the case in the development of the American welfare system (see the excellent book partly on this topic by Piven and Cloward).
Within Mormonism, we also speak truth to power. The prototype for how we do this is the temple recommend interview. The interview, like the street protest, involves communication between a relatively powerless individual and a relatively powerful leader. As in acts of social and political dissent, the interview is structured by a series of questions, and inadequate answers to those questions generate real consequences. The idea that the powerless participant in the interaction will speak the truth to the powerful participant is fundamental to the success of the interview. Some Mormons believe, with the Quakers, that the speaking of truth in this context will be reinforced by metaphysical communication.
But, there’s an important difference. When Mormons speak truth to power in temple recommend interviews, the member’s standing within the community is at stake, rather than the leader’s authority. The leader–not the rank-and-file member–poses the questions, and the information that comes out of the interaction is about the member’s behaviors, not the leader’s goals, motives, and plans. Rather than a tool for holding leaders accountable for their use of power, the temple recommend interview is a tool of leaders’ power.
The same framework seems to be available to, and widely used by, church leaders whenever members engage in acts of speaking truth to power. If church members protest a policy decision or misbehavior by a leader, that act of protest can just as easily be treated as damaging information about an individual’s worthiness as information about institutional failures. The result is that few lines of communication exist outside of the church’s formal authority structure. Hence, information, accountability, and power all flow through the same channels–and all pass through the same individuals. The result is that innocent errors, as well as the occasional malicious misbehavior, may persist much longer without being detected and corrected than would be the case in a more open environment of communication.
Nowhere is this more true than in the missionary system. Missionaries are repeatedly and explicitly instructed not to communicate concerns or grievances to church leaders other than their mission president, or even to family members and friends. Instead, such issues are only to be addressed with the mission president himself. If the president is the well-intentioned source of the problem (or, if the mission president in question is the rare but definitely real malicious misbehaver), the missionary is given no opportunity to communicate in such a way that the problem becomes known.
Is this feature of our church’s institutional design justified by Mormon canonical scripture? Clearly, it is not. Our scriptures repeatedly warn us against the dangers of priestcraft that arise when religious leaders acquire impure motives (see, for example, 2 Nephi 26:29 or Alma 1:16). Are priestcrafts impossible within the true church? The scriptures give no reason to believe that this would be the case, and the Mosiah narrative of the unfaithful priests of King Noah may provide an example demonstrating that priestcraft can indeed happen within the true faith. Furthermore, Doctrine and Covenants Section 121 famously warns that human nature usually leads individuals placed in positions of power to fall, at least to some extent:
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. (D&C 121:39)
The statement makes no exception for Latter-day Saints. Clearly, our church institutions should be structured with this revealed expectation of behavior by leaders in mind.
Would the provision of institutionalized, bottom-up channels for speaking truth to power have to be disruptive to our church’s structure of priesthood leadership? To the extent that the current structure permits the persistence of error and occasional misdeeds, one would hope that there would be some disruption. However, small institutional changes that are perfectly compatible with our revealed church constitution could dramatically alter the situation described above.
One such change would be the revitalization of the principle of common consent. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, votes to sustain or release individuals sometimes went against the proposal from church leadership. When this happened, the voice of the congregation was law; dissenting votes could thus be used to convey information about leaders and not just about individual worthiness–as is now the case. Allowing and institutionalizing the possibility of a negative vote, as revealed in our scriptures, would go a long way toward balancing our church institutions in such a way that they do not remain as vulnerable to individual error or sin.
A second possibility would be institutionalizing regular, anonymous leadership evaluations. As at the end of a college course, ward members could be provided (at ward conference, for example) an anonymous feedback form that would be read by the bishop and stake president together and would be archived for future reference. This approach would allow information about mistakes to be communicated in a way that doesn’t threaten the communicator’s social or religious standing.
Other institutional modifications could, of course, be equally or even more viable. I don’t know what changes would be best. But I do know, from first- and second-hand experience, that our current organizational structure can be taken advantage of by individuals in local and regional leadership positions. I hope the day will come when this will change, and truth, whether addressed to or coming from power, can be spoken more openly within our community.