Mormonism is navigating unpredictable waters in the Age of Information. For the better part of half a century Church members have held unwavering confidence in Church leaders—in counsel, in doctrinal explication, in moral guidance, and in running the Church—as a cornerstone of their religious lives. Of course we don’t embrace the notion of prophetic infallibility (the joke goes: Catholics claim to accept Papal infallibility, but none of them act like it, while Mormons claim to reject prophetic infallibility, but act like they believe it unconditionally—a bit of a disservice to both traditions, really, but still funny). The Mormon version of Papal Infallibility actually goes something like this: Church leaders, including the president of the Church, are imperfect human beings, but God will not permit their imperfections to fundamentally lead the Church astray. (There is a bit of irony here, in that this truism was first articulated by a Church president who many in the Church were frankly and openly concerned was, in fact, leading the Church astray).
That approach to confidence in Church leaders actually leaves quite a bit of latitude for application. It could inspire absolute confidence in what leaders say and do, and a hesitancy to ever question Church leaders, practices, or policies. Or, it could inspire freedom to disagree with and question all manner of, well, questionable teachings, policies, claims, etc., safe in the basic confidence that the Church is still being guided by the Lord, He is in control, things will progress, we will progress, more revelations are coming, and problems will work themselves out with time. And most of us find ourselves somewhere in between these positions, accepting both in various ways an to varying degrees, regardless of which pole we happen to gravitate toward.
The Information Age is changing things only insofar as it has made the evidence for prophetic fallibility—something we all, to some degree, already accept—more public, accessible, and widespread. It is a potent tool. We all use it in one form or another. Skeptics of this or that current church policy or position sometimes use obvious examples of past prophets getting it wrong (“Mark E. Peterson was a racist git”) to explain their current skepticism, while those who are uncomfortable criticizing current leaders can point to past mistakes as evidence that the Church has acquired more light, has more truth now than it once did, that we should be more confident in present leaders than in obscure statements from the past. And, of course, ex-Mormon, post-Mormon, and straightup anti-Mormon critics of the Church use examples of prophetic fallibility as a flog for almost relentlessly mocking and disparaging the confidence of Church members in our leaders, in revelation, in Joseph Smith, in the Restoration.
As the fact of prophetic fallibility becomes more inescapable and obvious in our brave new world, and as we are increasingly confronted not just with the evidence of it but with people who wield it with sometimes rather less than friendly intent, I would like to propose a framework for better integrating it with a testimony that Mormonism is true and with a confidence that Church leaders are called of and regularly inspired and directed by God.
It’s not a cognitive dissonance manager, it’s not a jedi mind trick, and it’s not a trojan horse for a progressive takeover. It’s not even new. It comes from within one of the most faithful, and faith-promoting parts of our tradition: Missionary Work.
Mormons fervently believe that the missionary work is among the most vital and important works in the history of the world. We fervently believe that it is strongly directed by God, that missionaries are regularly and routinely guided and inspired in their work, that it is the Lord’s work, that nothing can stop the work from progressing, and God is the one who makes it what it is. And yet every single one of us has wondered, privately or aloud, in amazement at the fact that God manages to perform such a work despite the obvious and plentiful and sometimes embarrassing weakness, inexperience, foolishness, lacking wisdom, and general unimpressiveness of the barely post-adolescent kids we entrust it to. Indeed, it is the manifestly lacking qualifications and ubiquitous foibles of our missionary force that underscores for us the miraculous, divinely-directed nature of missionary work. We love missionaries, we appreciate their efforts and their sacrifices, we see the Lord’s hand in what they do even when their failings are laid out before us, we pray for them, and we really believe that God will and does answer our prayers by guiding and empowering their work.
I get that there are real concerns among faithful Mormons that weakening confidence in Church leaders, accepting their fallibility, accepting that they might be doing something wrong, even now, could have a baby-bathwater effect. It could destroy so many people’s confidence in the Church itself, and in the Restoration. It could leave people without a foundation, without an anchor in choppy waters. But I also think that shifting a bit away from “Never Lead The Church Astray/Follow The Prophet” and applying our already well-worn framework of “God clearly must be running things notwithstanding the shortcomings of His servants” to general Church leadership would serve us well as we navigate together.
A little more embrace of our common humanity and shared confidence in the divinity of the work.