Bring me your resources re: “The Church is not a democracy”

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.


  1. At the risk of fulfilling the caricature of a historical nerd, I’ll point out a fabulous article by Claremont’s Pat Mason (Bushman’s successor with the Hunter Chair) on how 19th century leaders presented Mormonism as a theodemocracy. He argues that it is simplistic to think that it is an either/or argument of whether Mormonism is a democracy, but to rather see their constructions of ecclesiastical–and even governmental–structures as straddling the tension between top-down and bottom-up rule. It sounds contradictory to us, but Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and John Taylor believed that they were, in some remarkably sophisticated if still underdeveloped, ways. If I were any less lazy, I would give a much better summary than that.

    But that’s where my historical helps end. Good luck post-1900.

  2. I don’t think I have anything helpful, but this reminded me of Julie Beck’s talk at the 2009 General Relief Society Meeting, when she discussed a policy change about “additional Relief Society meetings”: “Relief Society and priesthood leaders, this message will serve as your current official policy regarding additional Relief Society meetings. Should you have questions regarding anything we have taught here after studying this message, please counsel together in your own wards and stakes to discover the solutions you need.” I loved it when she said that because it was like the church was officially encouraging members to take more local initiative–because local differences can be so significant. And you can’t really know what your local needs are without the input of the local members. (You could try, but it wouldn’t necessarily work.)

    Maybe “study it out in your mind” is a good starting point, scripturally speaking, because part of studying something out in your mind is gathering data, so to speak. And so one way we could sustain our local leaders is to, ah, “help them” gather data. This could, of course, turn into a nightmare for leaders, depending on how “helpful” people were. It’s really a delicate balance between remembering that people have stewardship over a certain thing and can receive inspiration and revelation, etc., and remembering that our leaders are still normal, non-omniscient human beings and don’t possess mind-reading powers.

  3. Great suggested piece, historical resource there, Ben. Nice.

    Rebecca: great scriptural resource there, too, with the “study it out” bit. Studying it out can easily accommodate seeking the perspectives of other people on things in order to help arrive at an inspired decision. A delicate balance, like you say, and it won’t always please everyone, but it’s still an important facet of Mormon problem-solving.

  4. You may clinch your teeth, or grind them, but the moment your teeth start to “cringe” I really start to worry. My dictionary defines “cringe” as “to draw in or contract the muscles of the body involuntarily; to shrink” or “to bend the body timorously or servilely; to cower.” And both are intransitive. The only usage as a transitive verb is marked obsolete, and it could never apply to teeth.

    Besides, it sets my teeth on edge, sort of like the sour grapes my fathers have eaten.

  5. My favorite example from the scriptures is the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad. They had a problem that didn’t seem to have been contemplated by their leaders. So they went to the prophet and presented their case, and he said “Huh–that’s not in the handbook. I’ll ask.” It seems to have all been pretty straightforward–they weren’t chastised for explaining their difficulty, Moses wasn’t embarrassed or defensive about not having an answer. And God, as always, was on the women’s side ;)

  6. D. Fletcher says:

    I don’t think of the church as a democracy, but when put into a historical context (i.e., formed in the United States only a few decades after the U.S. itself was formed) it does seem to use America as an organizational and social model. The Catholic church had a Pope who lived in a palace and was, for many, the Emperor of the world. But our church has a lay clergy, and it’s overseen by a President, who lives in an ordinary house and guards against self-aggrandizement.

  7. haha Mark, excellent. I repented of my mistake. At first I thought of excommunicating you from the thread for pointing to my foible, but hey, I don’t know how to do that.

  8. Mark Brown says:

    Blair, there is that scripture in D&C 58:26 which reminds us emphatically that we shouldn’t need to be commanded in all things, and that we can bring to pass much righteousness on our own initiative. In last month’s priesthood meeting. Elder U. said this:

    You’re going to have to chart a course that is consistent with the Lord’s doctrine and matches the circumstances of your geographic area. To implement divine welfare principles, you need not look always to Salt Lake City. Instead you need to look into the handbooks, into your heart, and into heaven. Trust the Lord’s inspiration and follow His way.

    In the end you must do in your area what disciples of Christ have done in every dispensation: counsel together, use all resources available, seek the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, ask the Lord for His confirmation, and then roll up your sleeves and go to work.

    “You need not always look to Salt Lake City…”, remember, you heard that from a member of the First Presidency.

  9. Agreed, Mark. Also, sometimes it is the local leaders who we might be wanting to advise. I know the “steady the ark” situation can be precarious, though, I know.

  10. Chris Gordon says:

    You know, I see a lot of room within the existing institutions of the church to follow the examples of Zelophehad’s daughters. If home and visiting teachers really home and visiting teach to their potential, for example, and if presidencies really counseled with their councils on all levels, I think there’d be a lot more returning and reporting on the vein of “This is the problem that we came across, this is how we solved it, this is how I think we could prevent it moving forward, and we’d be excited to hear any kudos and/or input.”

    We’re a hierarchical church, and surely there are institutional and historical reasons why our culture has trended that way. But anyone who says that the institution fails to allow for a more bottom-up form of governance isn’t looking closely enough at the intent.

  11. I always find this phrase so frustrating especially how it is often applied. My reading of D&C 121

    “No apower or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;”

    is that the moment a priesthood leader makes appeal to their positional office as a reason to make someone “get in line” is the moment that we can rightfully ignore them. Every father, bishop, SP, 70, and Apostle is basically banned from using appeals to their office as a means of getting compliance. This is why I find the 14 Fundamental talk absolutely anathema to canonized scripture. It is the check and balance given to us by the Lord within the hierarchical structure. It is just chicken Patriarchy, it is chicken hierarchy! It shifts the burden to the leader to “persuade” not dictate. I believe this is absolutely critical because it is precisely because well-intentioned disciples of Christ must be persuaded consistent with their own conscious that it places a real check on abuse of power. If a leader can’t persuade me and others through logic, the Spirit etc. maybe, just maybe the action is coming from that apparently ubiquitous place, unrighteous dominion, that even the best of us is wont to fall into when given power. In this system it is incumbent on us as members not to succumb to the temptation of easy, unthinking obedience and a service to the men who are trying to lead righteously despite the natural man. By requiring them to justify actions it protects them from making mistakes. When we stop requiring persuasion we make the church weak and do a disservice not only to ourselves but the leaders. It helps them become Christ-like leaders. I would honestly want/need that help as a father, bishop or whatever. It protects me from myself!

    I think most the horrible things that have happened in our past have been because we have failed to live up to God’s system of checks and balances. So yes we may not be a democracy but this section makes clear we aren’t supposed to be a banana republic either!

  12. StillConfused says:

    The church is definitely not a democracy in that people don’t get to elect their leaders etc. But the Mormon church has what I would call an extremely political-type structure. You have extensive structure and hierarchy. Except for maybe the Catholic church, no other religious comes close to the structure and uniformity. The church “government” structure reminds me greatly of the US government structure.

  13. >>For one, this phrase helps us better understand why some outsiders think of Mormons as belonging to a “cult.”

    The “Mitt Romney Rule”: If you don’t want people to think Mormonism is a cult, don’t act like a cult.

  14. I would submit, with the others, that there are numerous checks and balances. Nevertheless, the struggle between a leader and the led will continue through the end of time. As for who is in the right, well, its probably situational. I’ll forgo citations on this one.

    We can certainly come up with many references on proving that many are capable of putting their shoulder to the wheel. But is the OP wondering whether a person has their shoulder to the correct wheel? One must be careful to distinguish between pushing against one person’s personal agenda, and the true wheel of our church. Thus, I worry that the arguments on how every person can help push can cause the forwarding of improper ideas. That is for every person to decide in prayer with God, I think.

    With these two democratic and monocratic ideas, we musn’t forget also that “when the Prophet speaks, the debate ends.” This seems to be the case with resolving most big dichotemies between top-down and bottom-up ideas. The mission field provides a perfect example: community (district, zone) leaders may express their opinion (to which other missionaries begrudingly obey), but given enough noise the tables can still be turned upside down (or cemented in for good). I think there is probably some give and take between leaders and the led, until you make it really far up the chain of command.

    Yuck… church politics.

  15. You might find something useful in Nels L. Nelson’s 1904 book Scientific Aspects of Mormonism. The chapter on how God became God specifically addresses democracy — although I admit it’s too high-falutin’-philosophical for me to summarize. (I can write briefly only when I understand something a whole lot better than I do this.)

  16. ““when the Prophet speaks, the debate ends.”

    Uh, Josh, you know what a prophet said about that Church News editorial, right? It makes it kind of a dicey line to pull out in support of an authoritarian position.

  17. No, actually. Link? Sorry for my ignorance.

  18. Ok, I found this. But it doesn’t completely remove the phrase’s meaning as it is often used today.

  19. #19

    Used by whom and why? It seems to have been resurrected with the 14 Fundamentals – a talk given at the Y that required Benson to give two separate apologies to the 12 and 70 after he gave it. The pendulum swings. Hopefully it will swing back and these types of talks and statements will melt into the night.

  20. The “debate ends” quote is a little culty, even though I strongly dislike that label. It’s been repudiated (or refudiated, if you will), but it’ll keep making the rounds.

    Do I think it is ok to give feedback on a policy or teaching even after it has been instituted or taught? Absolutely. Do I think we should be very careful about the when, how, and what? Absolutely.

  21. Josh B.–what do you mean it doesn’t “remove the phrase’s meaning”? What part of “the prophet said it’s false and pernicious” is unclear??

  22. Ultimately, the PotC makes Church policy (which sidesteps the question of whether a given policy ultimately inspired by revelation, inspiration, or not at all.) In that sense, when the PotC puts something forth, the debate has effectively come to an end, because there’s a policy in place. (It’s kind of a legal/administrative version of “when the time to act has come, the time for preparation is past.”)
    But it certainly doesn’t preclude further thinking, praying, evaluation, implementation, etc.

    I suspect the phrase about the Church not being a democracy is one coined at the bottom, not the top.

  23. One would hope that after any policy is passed in a hierarchical organization that the time for thinking has just begun. Evaluating, tweaking, and modifying should be expected and even canceling and changing course could be on the table. We have even reversed course on doctrine, of course, and usually after a lot of evaluating, thinking, and questioning have gone into it. Should we do it in the right Spirit? Sure. But I think what many object to, including me, is the way this quote is used to ask people to suspend these capacities, to justify past errors, and in any attempts to bully people into doing something.

  24. Ok, sorry for the confusion. Here’s an attempt to explain what I mean; of course, you will surely let me know if I keep digging myself a deeper hole.

    Here is the verbatim quote:

    When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done.

    Here is what I wrote:

    when the Prophet speaks, the debate ends.

    I find it interesting that my memory recalled the quote slightly differently and wonder if this would be a common theme among people who throw the quote around today. Meaning, today the “thinking” happens, but the “debates” do not. The slight change is what I meant by “But it doesn’t completely remove the phrase’s meaning as it is often used today.” While people feel free to think independently, the debates going on drop off after the prophet has spoken on a particular issue (e.g., Gordon Hinckley’s oral sex is still sex talk).

    Further, President George Smith’s letter (another excellent source for the OP) contains several quotes like the following—”The Lord Himself does not attempt coercion”—suggesting that while free agency is important, so is hearkening to the Prophet’s counsel. President Smith makes it clear that we are free to use our own democratic judgment, but that most likely, the Lord/Prophet is going to be in the right.

    I don’t mean to sound stereotypical here, and apologize if I really touched some nerves on here in my ignorance. This is how I see it. We may “be” in charge, and like Moses’s time, get laws reduced to 10 commandments against the prophet’s council. But it will not always be in our best judgment.

    Or maybe to some minds, it will be. But that’s a very conditional thing of which I have zero desire to debate, and zero desire to express any opinion.

  25. But that’s a very conditional thing of which I have zero desire to debate, and zero desire to express any opinion.

    Oh, and on this, don’t target me too much on this one. I think you know what I mean. I’m not interested in debating when and when not to follow a leader in gross detail, that’s for the church courts (yikes). I’d prefer to stay out of that debate world. Let’s stick to “safer” topics.

  26. Josh–I’m sorry, I don’t see how “hearkening to the prophet’s council is important” in any way follows from ”The Lord Himself does not attempt coercion.” And the moment you connect Lord/Prophet with merely a solidus, I think you’re on very, very shaky ground.

  27. Josh,

    It does seem to come down to the model one has in their head about the relationship between between different form of “prophetic counsel” and the Lord’s will. We are each responsible for our own determination of what that model is and what it means for the decisions we make. Is prophetic counsel “binding” when it is said over the pulpit or in writing? Or is it only when it is said in GC or only when said “under the Spirit?” This is all very muddy for me (and I think many) when it comes to doctrinal issues as well as matters of counsel in application. The “when the prophet speaks the debate is over” version, which as has been pointed out is contested by the very prophets it was reported to apply to, is at best contested. I personally, per my other comments, don’t take much stock in treating this as a velvet gloved/iron fist suggestion where it really means “yes it is binding unless you want to be damned!” There is something really deeply embedded in our theology that provides a counterpoint to this type of thinking. It is a tension, but one that we need to have. If we try to resolve it by eliminating one side (which is what I think many people are trying to do who use such logic as when the prophet….) we all suffer. Keep in mind that we aren’t only talking about GAs here either. The OP is also referring to local leadership etc. as well. Just something to think about. I respect people who come to different decisions than I do about how to navigate these issues. I am not one to hate on a woman who takes out the second pair of earrings due to Hinkley’s counsel. I am also not one to think there is much wrong with the lady that keeps them in. There were many that saw Prop 8 as an Abrahamic test of obedience, putting aside their feelings to follow the leaders. For me, I felt it was important to say, “Sorry, I listened, I thought about it and I prayed and I am not persuaded this is God’s will.” Shouldn’t there be places in the Church for both? When the prophet has spoken leaves no real place for me and others. That feels wrong. GA Smith’s letter leaves a place for both kinds. That feels more right to me.

  28. “If we try to resolve it by eliminating one side (which is what I think many people are trying to do who use such logic as when the prophet….) we all suffer.”

    Amen, rah. I believe the principle that “there must needs be opposition in ALL things” requires that many things be legitimate choices which do not result automatically in punishment – and I believe it also means there will be individual leaders, at all levels, who will get some things wrong (even some important things). Otherwise, there really isn’t opposition in ALL things. In general, I don’t think members take that verse literally enough.

    Also, fwiw, I personally look at D&C 1:38 in the following way (copied from a post I wrote back in July 2009 –

    “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice (SINGULAR) of my servants (PLURAL), it is the same.”

    I believe this verse says “it is the same” when the servants speak collectively (plurality of individuals over time) as a united body (singularity of message) – not when any one or two or six speak as individuals. That’s worth considering.”

    There are relatively few things that “the servants” collectively have said with one united voice over time – and I accept those things as God’s will. I believe I am responsible to try to understand everything else to the best of my ability and act “according to the dictates of my own conscience”.

  29. It’s true that the church is not a democracy, yet it has its democratic moments. Testimony meeting, for example. It is unprogrammed, unscripted. In the old days, it was very democratic. Anyone could say anything and often did. Today this wonderful meeting has been seriously weakened by the need to stick to certain language (I know…) and the equally bad need to force young children to participate. We need to understand what it means not to be a democratic institution so that every time a church president dies we don’t have some goofball get up, as always seems to happen, and compare church government with our national government and wonder why our country can’t operate as smoothly as the church. Don’;t they teach civics anymore?

  30. If the truth be known, the organization set up by Christ was to become a theocracy, where each person answered only to God. We’ve gone the other direction, as shown by so many comments in this thread.

  31. The modern church may be “political” in the sense that there is a clear chain of command, but thankfully those in positions of authority do not seek those positions in the first place. And once in place, they act as servants of all and to do God’s will instead of worrying about being re-elected. To me that is the key difference between church and civil government. I know there are exceptions, but my experience is that this is the way it works at least 99% of the time.

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