Speaking Truth to Power

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.


  1. Ed Snow says:

    Nice post. My question is, what is the percentage of “almost all men”, as in “it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority … they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”

    More than 75%, certainly. Okay, not more than 99%. 90%? 85%? Not a very promising percentage, is it?

  2. C Jones says:

    I was with you until the anonymous evaluation idea. Yikes. Bishops are usually well aware of those who are unhappy wih them, and why. What purpose could a one-sided, anonymous story serve? The bishop who is bound to keep confidences could not defend himself. And how could he effectively seek the guidance of the spirit in counseling with people with the prospect of constantly being second-guessed?

    I think most people are already pretty comfortable about going over someone’s head to the next higher authority in the case of egregious wrongdoing on the part of a priesthood leader without opening up an avenue for the constant critics who reside in every ward.

  3. the missionary is given no opportunity to communicate in such a way that the problem becomes known.

    Of course, communicating grievances to family, friends, SP, etc., wouldn’t do anything to resolve the problem either.

  4. jothegrill says:

    My understanding was that we can cast an opposing vote. I’ve never felt that I needed to, but I think I’ve seen it happen before. They didn’t make a big fuss about it, but I imagine it was a little embarrassing for everyone involved. I agree that when you oppose church policy there is a threat to your standing in the Mormon community, but that’s how it was with the Law of Moses too.

  5. rleonard says:

    Well HMMMMM.

    I personally think that self confident yet humble Bishops take constuctive criticism quite well. Also I agree with #2. Most members have no problems getting in contact with a SP if they do not like what a Bishop is doing.

  6. Ed, thanks for your comments. I can’t quantify “almost all”, either, but I agree that the percentage couldn’t be promising.

    C. Jones, I agree that alternative institutional proposals should be carefully considered. The possibility of rehabilitating the principle of common consent doesn’t have the problems you’re worried about. Furthermore, the anonymous evaluation system in actual practice isn’t nearly as dire as you think; tons of organizations have this, and it’s usually easy to recognize and disregard the nonsense.

    Ben, actually, there have been some instances in our missionary history in which missionaries broke the rules and communicated grievances to leaders and friends back home, who in turn communicated to Salt Lake with the result that the problem was fixed. On my mission, for example, this process of communication was one of the two major channels through which a mentally ill mission president was replaced. (The other was by missionaries complaining to local stake presidents and the presidents of neighboring missions.)

  7. jothegrill, there usually isn’t a big public fuss about a negative vote, but there often are private consequences for the negative voter. So, for example, when a violent, abusive woman is called into the Primary presidency (as I have seen happen), there is no clear channel for ward members to express concern.

    rleonard, the problem is that current culture often allows (encourages?) the stake president in such circumstances to treat feedback as a signal that a member needs council or discipline, rather than as information about institutional failure. I don’t want to get into cases, but there have been situations where this approach was adopted even with respect to very severe accusations against bishops or other local leaders.

  8. I do think that there is a tendency to romanticize the Church’s early experience with common consent. If I understand it correctly, the argument goes something like this:

    Back in the early days of the Church common consent was a form of ecclesiastical democracy. This was good. It checked the power of overweaning leaders, reinforced ideas of equality and self-government, and generally comported better with contemporary models of liberal democracy, which generally do a better job than the alternatives at check abuses by authority. Tragically, at some point common consent ceased to be about real ecclesiastical democracy and became a hollow sham.

    However, there is a somewhat less rosey way of looking at the Church’s early experience with common consent, namely that it encouraged factionalization and divisiveness within the Church leading to backbiting, vicious arguments, and schisms. I agree with you that the Church would function better if there were more feedback mechanisms in place, but it is worth remembering that some mechanisms have their own costs, and if we are not going to indulge in a consistently rosey picture of the current structure of Church government then we ought not to indulge in a consistently rosey picture of our proposed alternatives.

  9. Nate, I agree that common consent was never ecclesiastical democracy. At most, it was a form of a confidence/no-confidence vote. Furthermore, I agree completely that it might have institutional costs. We live in the real world; any institutional arrangement is going to have costs, even though some also have benefits. Hence, there’s a problem of optimizing a trade-off. The current institutions have resolved the trade-off almost completely in favor of authority and against communication; because of the starkness of the current institutions, it seems extremely likely that almost any reasonable institutional arrangement between the extremes of the current system and democracy would have gains compared to the status quo.

    The institution of common consent has the real advantage of being profoundly Mormon and scripturally based. But I’m not opposed to the idea that we might try something else instead.

  10. The military has parallel structures of authority for this kind of thing, doesn’t it? So that individuals can always go to someone outside their command structure with problems? It’s always seemed to me that we could benefit from this sort of thing.

  11. I think your proposal here goes to far, and is unecessary. It seems that there is always someone to go to. Even area and general authorities. I think it is pretty clear that letters to general authorities and appeals to stake leaders etc. get taken withan appropriate level of seriousness. Bishops and others receive interviews quite frequently. I think the lines of communication are more than adaquate. Certainly I have seen minor problems with the principles in section 121, but I also think that many complaints from below usually lack real merit when the full situation is known. Of course not always.

  12. “So, for example, when a violent, abusive woman is called into the Primary presidency (as I have seen happen), there is no clear channel for ward members to express concern.”

    It seems to me that the “clear channel” would be to talk to the Bishopric and Primary President. And with a Bishop, the clear channel would be to talk to the Stake President. Neither of these guarantee successful outcomes, because there are no such guarantees in mortality.

  13. rleonard says:

    I am very confident that if you have real concerns with local leaders your voice will be heard and your concerns taken seriously in our current LDS environment.

    On the flip side if you are constantly complaining carping about leaders you will not be taken seriously. This is where you might see some discipline. Its the boy that called wolf syndrome.

  14. Not quite ten years ago, as a stake YM presidency we handed out evaluation forms (names optional) at the end of a priesthood leadership session for ward YM leaders and bishoprics. We asked for evaluations of the topics, the speakers, the stake YM programs, and for suggestions. We received forms back from about 20% of the attendees, and quite useful suggestions and commentary.

    We also had time keepers at the back holding up time cards to help speakers not exceed their alloted time (we received very favorable feedback about that appraoch). Apparently higher authorities did not like the time keepers at the back, so we did not repeat it. I am not sure why we did not continue to hand out evaluation forms at the end of other leadership meetings.

  15. Nate brought up an interesting point about common consent. I think that Joseph’s first presidency during the last couple years of his life was the death knell of common consent. That said, there is obviously some merit to the practice as it is delineated in our scripture. As to responding to bad situations, President Hinckley keeps reading letters in GC…

  16. For me, personally, this is a really important post.

    On the one hand, I would have to say that I’ve had really good experiences overall w/ my priesthood leadership. For example, a few of you may know that Elder Oaks called me personally to apologize after my mission debacle–once I was able to make it back home to complain to my 2nd mission president.

    However, I also know how it feels to be in the situation of being relatively powerless….in a foreign country, the mission office holding my passport…5 hours from the nearest phone. I know that I (and some fellow missionaries) suffered quite a bit from an imbalance of power, and inadequate means of raising concerns (or even feeling like our concerns would/could be heard without stiff retaliation).

    For me, the structure of 1) “Checks and balances” and 2) “Constant channels of risk-free feedback” are critical to healthy organizations–and could be even better utilized within Mormonism.

    Too much unchecked power, with insifficient candid feedback, ultimately corrupts even the most humble, Frodo-like man.

    When Microsoft was going through its anti-trust trial (while I was there), it was really poignant for me to hear David Boise state the Gates and Ballmer suffered from “Napoleonic Complex”–having rarely suffered defeat, and being told constantly that they were brilliant, inspired fellows. In the end, I believe they could have benefitted from clearer channels of open feedback–all across the organization….and I see our current church leadership in a bit of the same pickle (though well-intended, I believe).

    Anyway, as do most threads, I think this one comes down to balance–at some point we just have to trust our leaders and the system. But when an organization emphasizes “exact obedience”, “direct revelation from God”, “divinely annointed leadership”, etc., the potential risks of abuse are that much higher–with much higher stakes as well. I wonder what the institutional process is today for a Bishop or Stake President to regularly gather feedback from their units–not just from the leader’s they’ve hand chosen….but from all levels of unit membership.

    May we always find a way to keep the channels of candid, risk-free communication open, and power in constant check.

    Posts like this are very helpful in reminding me of this.

  17. I think it depends on who’s getting wronged as to whether or not action is taken or higher-ups are told.
    I got squelched by a bishop who was obviously abusing his authority (tho otherwise a very good and well-meaning man) but the whole experience was so difficult that it wore me out. I didn’t want to do all the work to tell his higher-ups. I didn’t want to deal with the experience anymore. I had to take care of myself first. Maybe that’s a shame but I think there’s a lot of people who feel like there is no way to deal with abuse of power because its takes so much energy. I wished there was some way to deal with that that didn’t require making appts and meetings and rehashing over and over again (and of course I would have to sell myself bc bishops I think are generally sided with).

  18. One possible solution to the majority of problems addressed here (and in many a conversation in and out of the Bloggernacle) is simply to allow members to attend Church wherever they want (without moving).

    Now I’m sure, ala Nate Oman’s comment, this wouldn’t be all rosy… just as sure as I am that someone reading this is already thinking the classic “but that’s avoiding the problem instead of facing it.” But in all honesty, when it comes to crap like this (which many times turns into a personality difference on steroids), why not just avoid the problem instead of face it?

    Of course, every ward is bound to have one of the following mentioned: abusive primary presidency, dogmatic and condescending bishop, boring this or that, or whatever else. But at least with the current suggestion, we could choose what problems we face.

    Most members probably like the idea of going to Church somewhere close to them (I’m guessing). So I doubt everyone would leave their current ward (though that would be an interesting sign).

    But this is highly speculative and just interesting to me. Feel free to rip it to shreds as per ‘Nacle discourse.

  19. Elisabeth says:

    One of the most unfortunate consequences of raising concerns (legitimate or not) in the Church is that a stigma attaches immediately to you as someone who murmurs, someone who isn’t a team player, or worse. This consequence is especially destructive to women, who have no authority to change anything in the Church, and must resort to dialogue and persuasion – which most men have no incentive to engage seriously.

    Thanks for this post, RT.

  20. This consequence is especially destructive to women, who have no authority to change anything in the Church, and must resort to dialogue and persuasion – which most men have no incentive to engage seriously.
    Preach it, sister.

  21. someone who isn’t a team player

    Which reminds me, as Mr. Sloan always says, there is no “I” in “team,” but there is an “I” in “pie.” And there’s an “I” in “meat pie,” and “meat” is an anagram of “team” … I don’t know what he was talking about.

  22. I have sympathy for those who feel they have been victims of authority either intionally or unintentionally (the later is more common in my experience). On the plus side, at least for me, I doubt anyone will be nominating me for church leadership soon, so I’m unlikely to carry that heavy mantle of authority soon.

    What I do think is an interesting extension of this post is whether the structure of the church needs to change on a more fundamental basis simply to match the needs and expectations of today’s society. I’m thinking both of the church’s difficulty retaining its youth, and, at least from what I see in Seattle, its inability to attract anyone not in the very bottom quartile of society from an education/financial standpoint.

    Can a structure founded in the nineteenth century, essentially for agrarian citizen farmers, meet the needs of a society composed of well educated, white-collar service employees many of whom find themselves in less heirarchical structures than they did even 20 or 30 years ago? Perhaps this is just another variation of the “New York Times vs. bloggers” debate that technology affords us – certainly relevant to this forum.

    OBEY, that odd latin-sounding (pig latin?) word is not native to my college or graduate school education. It is not a word encouraged even in my workplace. And yet, I hear it every week at church. At work I create value, at church I obey. At work I control my personal career, at church…I, uh, sleep through the same 6th-grade level lesson. Control? If I am lucky I exercise just enough control over my daughters as to not annoy people more than three rows away.

    I find the church structure very alien to my, admittedly entrepreneurial, world. I completely understand the need to keep the religion/doctine/priestood “pure” and am almost never personally offended by authority. But I find the structure completely off-putting and alien to my world.

    Just a thought.

  23. Ty B,

    I completely agree.

  24. Mark Butler says:

    Perhaps there should be an option for retinal scans so that you can return to your home country without a passport.

    Whatever the practice was, the doctrine of common consent is much more than a confidence vote. The scripture says “all things”. Other scriptures refer to consecrated property being distributed according to both needs and wants. What mechanism is there anywhere for a member to express either, especially in a way that a preponderance of member opinion will have the slightest impact on general church administration? With regard to the selection of hymns, or church architecture, or practically anything?

    Pragmatically speaking this all works out pretty well. But can one imagine a system where the Church had complete secular, religious, and economic authority operating this way? So it is an unusually interesting question of ecclesiology of what institutions would be necessary and appropriate to make a Zion society flourish.

    As far as suggestions go, I think a TR denial should be appealable to the Stake President, the Stake Presidency, and the High Council, in that order, with a 2/3 vote in favor (in either the Presidency or the High Council) be actually binding, not just a recommendation to the Stake President to do as he sees fit. Of course a person would have to be willing to subject the dispute to that level of scrutiny.

  25. Jared E. says:

    Ty B,

    I must say, your comments made me smile, I agree with much of what you said. I’ve found much of what has been said on this thread interesting.

    There is one thing I am puzzled by. Lately I’ve really been reconsidering how much of mormon-dom is ‘inspired’. I am sure there are many here that will disagree with me, but I really think that at least the majority of what we profess to be true, are really just cultural derivatives. I am not saying the church isn’t true, but with all I hear about ‘inspired’ leaders… I think by and large people act like people, and leaders act like people, and occasionally leaders receive inspiration.

    I’ve had bad experiences with leaders, a few years ago my wife and I were really put through the ringer by one of the stake presidents councilors. When we tried to call attention to it, they totally circled the wagons (I really am not bitter about this episode, I’ve long since gotten over it.) Essentially our church is a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies are prone toward preserving their own power. I think this is especially the case since ‘our’ bureaucracy stamps itself with the label of ‘infallibility’.

    The leadership of this Church have always hated admitting when they make mistakes; will that change? I don’t think so. As Bruce R. said, obidience is first and for most the most important gospel principle. I think that is one thing he taught that is widely believed amoung the leadership of the Church.

  26. I agree with Nate that the mythic common consent of early Mormon history is something of a pipe dream. This was the frontier church that kept excommunicating people over minor squabbles, couldn’t keep the quorum of apostles filled with reliable men, and in practice was not applied anyway to important decisions (read the actual council meetings where Joseph Smith was present, and things did not tend to go well for the opposition). For people who felt that their leader was wrong, there were repercussions for speaking up, just as there are today.
    There are other models of churches that do use something like common consent, and they are quite different from ours. Do we need another liberal, socially aware Protestant church? I’m quite sympathetic to them, but again, they appear to me to be a different species of Christian church than is Mormonism.
    Part of me likes the tension that I feel when I move between Mormonism and the outside world, the fact that there is this strange, severe authoritarian strain in my church, the feeling that my religion challenges my sense of identity in the outside world.
    I’m of course an incorrigible hypocrite because I generally speak my mind and will approach people about perceived lapses regardless of their rank within the church. I believe this requires a great deal of spirituality and humility, which is a price we’re often not willing to pay, but when it’s done in a God-guided way, I believe that it’s fine to go to any point in the hierarchy and indicate your concerns. I do feel significant ambivalence about this issue and am disturbed and frightened by deep sexism (and racism) in Mormon culture. Still the longer I’m an “intellectual” the more inclined I am to be skeptical of myself and my ilk, at least not to rush to judgments and decisions too quickly.

  27. It’s interesting to me as a physician to think about these issues because American medicine is currently undergoing similar changes. You blog-types are not just skeptical of your church, you’re skeptical of your physicians, and both previously enjoyed significant authority and trust in our society.

    On the medical side, there are clear benefits to the new model of skepticism. We made errors in the past, and even now there are times that, unquestioned, we could make errors again. We didn’t used to involve patients in their care much either, taking the decision-making on ourselves. There is the potential for patients to understand their conditions and take charge of their own health, leading to better compliance with medicines or other therapies.

    There are also downsides. The clearest one is an efficiency problem. It takes an awful lot of time to explain your biomedical thinking at length in lay terms to an anxious individual without prior training. To do so routinely is exhausting and not sustainable unless there are a great deal more physicians. There are subtler problems, too. Some patients are finding the responsibility for their own medical decision-making to be overwhelming, frightening, and alienating. Explaining options and explicitly addressing patient’s preferences, while it is supported by some healthcare reformers, can make patients feel abandoned, confused, and exhausted. We as physicians know how stressful these decisions can be and historically have taken that stress onto ourselves. No wonder our personal lives have historically been so disrupted–it’s a lot of stress to internalize. Another problem is how hard it can be to negotiate authority in any given encounter. Having to negotiate credibility with each physician adds a further level of uncertainty to a patient’s encounter with illness and suffering. Not only do you have to try to understand vascular biology and biostatistics, you have to figure out whether you can trust your given doctor.

    I don’t have an answer. I can tell you in my own practice that I feel a balanced approach with give-and-take tends to solve the problems best. There are patients that really do want me to make their decisions for them, and I try to do so respectfully and thoughtfully. There are patients who distrust physicians categorically and entirely, and I find that I am of no use to them.

    The bishop is a lot more like a physician than we realize. I’m glad to let a bishop be a bishop. I think it’s reasonable to work toward a more balanced approach, but I’d try very hard to remain aware of the potential consequences of something approaching this idea of “Common Consent.”

  28. Cute anecdote:
    Recently I was at a service project with a bunch of Quakers from Pennsylvania. I told them that I worked near the Cambridge Meetinghouse and they all got really mad. “We hate the Cambridge Meeting! They talk so much! Why be a Quaker if you’re not gonna be quiet?”

    Cambridge Quakers obviously speak too much truth to power.

  29. rleonard says:

    When I a conservative “orthodox” Mormon come to BCC I always speak truth to Power :)

  30. Beautiful, Amri!

    Rleonard, who around here has any power? Let me know quickly, because I’m clearly behind on my toadying if there’s a power player hidden away in some corner of our site…

  31. rleonard says:

    The power is that this is a liberal blog and as a conservative I am outnumbered. Its fun oh its fun though.

    At church I am just another suburban multi-kid family man with conservative views in a red state.

    So I see myself as speaking truth to y’lls power. Just like I really enjoyed speaking conservative truth to liberal power while at a Big 10 university. That was fun. There is no place like a liberal university for the suppresion of speech in the whole country I must say

  32. rleonard: “At church I am just another suburban multi-kid family man with conservative views in a red state.”

    rleonard, that’s all you are here, too.

  33. Jared E. says:

    I think it is funny that you would say that you are speaking ‘truth to power’. If fact I find it interesting that anyone would such a thing about the views they espouse. To insist that you even ‘know’ what the ‘truth’ is, I think is ridiculously arrogant. I certainly don’t know what the ‘truth’ about anything is; all I know is what I’ve been told. To insist that your interpretation of what you’ve been told is more correct than that of another individual, I think is monumentally ridiculous.

  34. rleonard says:

    I think y’all are taking yourselves to seriously. Nice snark Mr Evans

  35. Jared E. says:

    I don’t necessarily think I am a ‘liberal Mormon’, I know that I’m not politically. But if by ‘liberal Mormon’ you mean someone who does not fall instep with official Mormon historical/doctrinal issues, than I definitely am. I just don’t know how someone who is informed could actually continue to tow that line.

  36. I just don’t know how someone who is informed could actually continue to tow that line.

    If only I’d thought to inform myself, I’d think just like you!

  37. Okay, folks, let’s dial it down a bit. I know there’s a lot of disagreement in our community, but I have faith we can express difference of opinion or even of conviction without getting quite so aggressive.

  38. Jared E. says:

    It’s not that I am saying that we must all think like I do, there really is so much that I don’t know. I just think that the issues that are discussed here are in actuality so complicated, that simplistic approaches are self defeating (and I’m not saying your approach can be described in this way, I don’t even know you.)

    I guess the above is a knee jerk reaction to the use of words like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’. Those words are so poorly defined, that we’re probably using them in different ways and expecting the other to understand them as we are intending them. How would you define a ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Mormon?

  39. Mark Butler says:

    The problem, rleonard is that if you study much of what is currently considered Mormon orthodoxy, you will find that it is often not very faithful to the founders.

    And I most certainly do not mean polygamy or anything that currently goes by the name of Mormon fundamentalism, but rather what is probably best known as Joseph Smith’s unprecedented theological progressivism.

  40. Mark (#39),I think some consider that “Mormon orthodoxy” is less concerned with the current intellectual view of what the founders believed or taught, and more concerned with what the current apostles and prophets teach.

  41. RoAnn, I think there’s some unjustified dismissiveness in your comment. The issue isn’t necessarily a “current intellectual view” of what Joseph Smith taught. We do, in fact, have access to primary and secondary sources from Joseph’s lifetime. If you think intellectuals are somehow misquoting or misrepresenting those sources, I encourage you to go read them yourself. When you do, I think you’ll find that Mark is right in claiming that some of Joseph’s teachings are not well represented by, say, the current Gospel Doctrine manual.

    Perhaps the reason for change is that we have different needs than people when the church was founded. Or perhaps, as Mark implies, ideas of value have been lost because of tradition or misunderstanding. But in either case, dismissing Joseph Smith’s words and concepts as merely an “intellectual view” probably doesn’t move the discourse forward.

  42. Since you are invoking the Quakers, John, the most important feature is that they have free speech within their community.

    Quakers believe that someone has the Holy Ghost. The problem is that they do not know who. Even the person who has the Holy Ghost may not know it.

    They resolved this problem by letting everyone speak. Actually, you do need some sort of writ from your local congregation. Once you have the writ, you can travel to any Quaker meeting and they have to let you talk. My understanding is that the writ is primarily a function of time and is eventually available to anyone.

    As a consequence, you may show up at a Quaker meeting and hear about bestiality or someone might advocate that there is no God. The way Quakers deal with that is by ignoring the speaker.

    In the long run, Quakers have been consistently on the right side of issues. They have been for abolition, women’s rights, labor rights, and civil rights. They opposed World War I and Vietnam but were divided on World War II. That’s an impressive record, which indicates that freedom of speech does work if you are interested in truth.

    On the other hand, if you value cohesion or membership growth more then freedom of speech might get into the way.

  43. By the way, I don’t think that it is accurate that social science generates radically different conclusions. Of course, there are instances of radical disagreement but often expert opinions trend towards consensus, so much so that some peer reviewed studies substitute expert opinion for data generated by field work.

  44. Hellmut, I agree that Quakers do value freedom — not only of speech, but also from religious hierarchy — very highly. It is exactly for that reason that I invoked them in the post title. Mormons seem to have a somewhat different value system; a strong, coherent community seems, as you note, to rank higher in the hierarchy of goods for Mormons than for Quakers. Which is as it is.

    My point here is that there are certainly institutional changes which could be made in order to allow some of the benefits of free information flow within our community without at the same time overwhelming our strong, coherent sense of belonging.

    As a side note, I’d throw out that, in the few Quaker meetings I’ve attended, it’s much more likely that you’ll hear nothing at all than that you’ll hear something controversial.

  45. Hellmut: right, social scientists, for example, use expert opinion to rank parties on the left-right ideological spectrum. There isn’t radical divergence on every point. But there is radical divergence on some points. For example, try to find a consensus in the literature on whether democracy promotes economic growth!

    But, on a smaller scale, nearly every point of any significance is debated. Even if those debates trend over time toward consensus, the fact of debate indicates that very smart people thinking seriously about issues can reach quite different conclusions.

  46. That’s because the truth is like the Holy Ghost. If we have it we cannot always know that we have it. The only way to find out is to let people speak.

  47. The Quaker way actually seems quite close to the principle stated in D&C 88:122, which states, after noting that someone should be designated as teacher, “let not all be spokesmen at once; but let one speak at a time and let all listen unto his sayings, that when all have spoken that all may be edified of all, and that every man may have an equal privilege.”

  48. rleonard says:

    Here is how Mormons speak truth to the pre-dominant cultural power in the US today.

    1. We marry earlier and have more kids
    2. Many of us spend 2 years unselfishly serving missions at our or ours families expense
    3. Many of us take the law of chastity seriously
    4. 10% of our income goes to charity
    5. unapologetic stands on traditional families
    6. Support for the Boy Scouts
    7. Anti-porn crusade
    8. Cultural support for SAHM
    9. Benevolent patriarchy

    All this and funeral potatoes…..

  49. rleonard, this thread is really about speaking truth within the context of intra-church power relations. I think you’re drifting a bit off topic.

  50. rleonard says:

    I think I am on target. Many of those in my church leadership exp who have issues with local leaders often have issues with many of the topics that I listed. In effect they are opposed to some mainstream LDS ideas and proceed to have issues with PH leaders over other things. Sometimes the conflict is over the mainstream ideas but usually its not. But it serves as a source of frustration for the member. A burr under the saddle so to speak.

  51. Mark IV says:


    I’m coming very late to this discussion, but I want to say that I think this is a thoughtful post and it raises good questions.

    Our church is different from most hierarchies, and even other churches, because of our lay leadership and the practice of regular releases, don’t you think? Even most general authorities are now called for 3 or 5 years, the cycled back out to their local units. Our former bishop is now teaching course 14 in Sunday school. The recently released stake president is an assistant scoutmaster. So much for ambition, megalomania and empire building! I think the way the church issues callings and releases is itself a natural check on the human tendency towards unrighteous dominion. We may get some bad apples, but they won’t be around long. We are also fortunate to have a system where leaders have counselors. One of the functions of a good counselor is to be a counterweight to some of the more fanciful tendencies of the president, and to help the leader step through various options and their likely consequences. For the most part, our leaders cannot act autonomously. The exception would be a mission president, and the example you cite is very sobering.

    I also think that the tendency towards unwise exercise of power is common to all, and just becomes more visible and potentially more damaging when it manifests itself in a leader’s actions. My point is that a member “speaking truth” to a leader is just as likely to be acting out of pride, vanity, a desire to hide sin, or a desire to exercise compulsion as the leader. When former president Jimmy Carter promised the country “an administration as good as it’s’ citizens”, I took it as an ominous threat, not a compliment.

    You make a strong argument about the principle of common consent. I agree with other commenters about the danger of disunity, but the practice has value, even if we only raise our hands out of habit. The value is that the church needs to openly state it’s intentions and, it is hoped, offer some sort of rationale. Probably the two biggest problems (mistakes?) the church has made are 1)polygamy, and 2)the priesthood ban. Neither of those practices or policies was presented to the membership. Even in frontier Nauvoo, it is hard for me to imagine a presiding officer standing in front of the congregation and using the familiar passive voice – “It is proposed that we adopt the principle of polygamy. . .”

  52. rleonard, that’s really not what I’m talking about here. Rather, I’m talking about situations in which local leaders adopt strategies that are inefficient, unproductive, or on occasion abusive. The baseball baptism-type programs that recur every so often in the church would be a good example. These programs aren’t any kind of instantiation of the things that you think are the heart of the Mormon message. So you are actually quite off topic in trying to make this a debate over what the Mormon message in fact consists of.

    Mark, thanks for your thoughts. I agree that members who take it upon themselves to speak “truth” are at least sometimes, and possibly often, totally out to lunch. That’s one of the major reasons I think institutional changes would be helpful: to encourage folks who aren’t out to lunch to share the information and perceptions they have.

    Also, for what it’s worth, 3 to 5 years is a really long time for a lot of purposes. In the worst cases, for example, it’s plenty of time to sexually abuse someone and then intimidate him or her into silence. In lesser cases, it’s plenty of time to waste massive amounts of human time and effort on unproductive programs or ideas.

  53. rleonard,

    RT is certainly right that your list is not what he wants to talk about here. RT wants to talk about priesthood incompetence and abuse of power (like failures in the missionary program), the potential for sexual abuse by Church leaders, and reforming the institutional Church in ways he thinks may ameliorate the above.

    Nevertheless, that’s a great list.

  54. Frank, I’ve been trying to avoid talking about specific problems, since I don’t want this to be a thread of complaints about specific church leaders. Instead, I’m asking whether there might be more that we could do to ameliorate the human frailties that our scriptures (as well as life experience) lead us to expect in our church leaders.

  55. Dallin Oaks and President Hinckley have both given talks on Bishops. I think Dallin Oaks specifically talks about ways to help the Bishops so you may wish to look at that.

  56. Yeah, and I think that individual initiative is a good idea. But institutional change is even better–because it works for the weak and the weakest of the Saints.

  57. Jared E. says:

    Institutional change is something that has taken place in Mormonism in the past, primarily when the changes were intended to impact the family unit. Other than changes of that type, I can’t really remember any institutional changes that have been made; most especially any changes that decreased the amount of power available to the churches leadership. This leads me to be skeptical about expecting any in the future. Can anyone else provide an example?

  58. Jared,

    There has been extensive institutional change in the church. The clearest and most compelling discussion, in my opinion, of what was perhaps the largest historical moment of institutional change is Thomas Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition. But smaller examples are manifold, including the development of the Area Authority Seventy system, Correlation, the elimination of self-financing wards, etc.

    Furthermore, there has been some decentralizing change. I would argue, for example, that all of the initial institutional development during the first years of the church was decentralizing in effect. Authority and decision-making power was initially heavily concentrated in Joseph Smith’s hands; sharing it with others had decentralizing consequences.

    Of course, all of these institutional changes are much larger in scope than the possibility of institutionalizing something like yearly anonymous leadership and program evaluation forms.

  59. Jared E. says:

    I concede that many changes have taken place within Mormonism, it isn’t that I think the church has been static. But all the changes I can think of empowered the leadership of the church to run things more effectively within the leadership’s domain. I can’t seem to think of any changes that have empowered the individual member. Can you?

  60. Actually, I think that improved information flow from rank-and-file members to local leadership would also help the leadership run things more effectively within their domain…

    But, yes, there have been moments of reducing the power of church leadership. The end of the Retrenchment period would be one example.

  61. Jared E. says:

    Maybe I am overly pessimistic about the probability of changes. I’ve always been prone toward skepticism, but I hope you are right.

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