FIRST, I try to keep in mind that the Church
makes no claim to being a democratic institution,”
–Armand Mauss, “Seeing the Church as a Human Institution,” Sunstone Magazine (July 2003), 20.
Here’s one of those rare phrases that I can simultaneously whole-heartedly agree with even while clenching my teeth. The teeth-clench admittedly stems from specific circumstances when this completely accurate phrase (“the church is not a democracy”) has been used to slam doors, to maintain top-down policy arrangements, however trivial. But there are good things to say about this phrase, even if we don’t always taste the fruit such a circumstance should bear. For example, Alexis De Tocquville famously worried about the “tyranny of the majority,” and many framers of the US Constitution hoped to confront this problem by establishing a constitutional republic (despite the recent meme which emphasizes the latter over the former for political ends. There’s a side-track for you!). So the little folk might be better protected.
I fully recognize a few potential problems here.
For one, this phrase helps us better understand why some outsiders think of Mormons as belonging to a “cult.” When the leaders do the thinking for the masses, simplistic narratives about Jonestown (or Mountain Meadows, for that matter) aren’t far behind. Yes, the Church is quite hierarchical, but it has also been argued that from the outset Joseph Smith intended to “routinize charisma,” to spread the authority out even while centralizing it (see Richard Bushman’s “Joseph Smith and the Routinization of Charisma“). Joseph, like the current prophet, carries the dual title of “president” and “prophet.” So while the Church clearly isn’t a democracy, we need not assume that democratic elements cannot exist within the Church. Mostly I say this because such elements do exist here, and that is a very good thing.
The simple fact of the matter is that we have many scriptural resources to draw on when considering how each member can impact the wider Church. We have verses talking about “common consent,” we have teachings on “personal revelation,” the ideas of “stewardship” and “unrighteous dominion.” One of my favorite more-overlooked principle is the “Holy Spirit of Promise,” which can be understood as a mediator between God, us, and the already-mediated sacraments of the Church. Perhaps more than any recent Church leader, Elder M. Russell Ballard has emphasized the principle of “councils” in Church and family governance. He wrote a whole book about it: Counseling With Our Councils: Learning to Minister Together in the Church and in the Family.
Such resources aren’t always accessed. President Uchtdorf’s lament that we are living far beneath our privileges likely applies just as well here as it does to the other specific areas he discussed. Sometimes I don’t feel like I have very good channels for feedback, but sometimes I recognize my own hubris in thinking my input should be well-considered beyond the things certain leaders are already considering when I’m not directly involved. By and large, I’ve been really blessed with supportive and understanding Bishops and other leaders. I appreciate their time and efforts; I certainly don’t begrudge them their heavy responsibilities.
So it seems to me that there can be good and crappy, effective and ineffective ways of trying to employ our sometimes-nascent elements of democracy in our admittedly non-democratic church. Aside from the elements I mentioned above, I’m specifically interested to hear your input about what sort of scriptural/doctrinal resources we have to draw on when considering ways that every Church member can put their shoulder to the wheel. This conversation has made its rounds on the blogs in the past, and it will in the future again and again. But I’m thinking about it today, and I’d like to get some feedback.