The (Not So) Radical(ly Conseravtive) Mormon Priesthood

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

That Mormonism was at one time a radical movement which challenged dominant American liberal norms–most famously regarding marriage and sexuality, but also (and I think more importantly) regarding economics and government–is pretty well understood by most who have even a passing familiarity with Mormon history. (If that’s not you, see here and here.) That Mormonism today–at least American Mormonism, at least if the dominant voting patterns and preferred modes of discourse amongst the majority of American Mormon wards are taken as evidence–is no longer much committed to radical communitarianism and egalitarianism, to radical re-organizations of social life, to radical distinctions in how one talks about sovereignty and loyalty, is also pretty well understood. (Again, if you’re lost, begin here and here.) America is a different place than it was in the late 19th-century, to be sure, when the U.S. government invested considerable effort to imprison church members and break apart church operations…but then, we are also a significantly different church than we were then, far more at peace with, and far more aligned to, dominant American ways of socializing, making money, electing our leaders and living our lives. Sure, we could point to all sorts of contrasting evidence–but we’re much more sexually traditional than most Americans! we challenge all sorts of trends regarding divorce and family! we’re considered weird by people in Hollywood!–but all that is, I would assert, fairly circumstantial: fundamentally, for better or worse (or both), the “Mormon moment” has come, in all its multicolored variety, and its conclusion is: even allowing for our mostly traditional mores and mostly conservative politics, here in America we are, I think, undeniably a pretty modern mix of mostly independent individuals, just like nearly everybody else (or, more honestly, just like nearly every other mostly white, mostly suburban church in America).

Rosalynde Welch, one of the best thinkers the we have around, would presumably disagree with me: in her latest Patheos column, she calls Mormonism a “demanding, distinctive, and stubbornly un-modernized—possibly un-modernizable—church.” I suspect our disagreement here is more a matter of our focus rather than our conclusions; I am talking about Mormon life, popular culture, and everyday practice, while she is talking about our institutions, doctrines, and forms or organization. This is an important disagreement, because in a church which presents itself in the lives of its members in such a comprehensive fashion, it’s not always clear where (or if) one should end and the other begin. (Moreover, I think a good argument can be made that even our forms of organization have become increasingly professionalized and, as a result, assimilated to modern American expectations and practices in such a way as to challenge the thesis of Armand Mauss, who famously saw in the second-half of the 20th-century, at the same the time when a thoroughly correlated bureaucracy was developed throughout the church, a period of retrenchment into the unmodern and distinct. Mauss notes this critique and argues with it in the most recent issue of  Dialogue.) But that argument aside, Rosalynde’s disagreement with me is one I take seriously, because in her column she focuses on one element of Mormon life which arguably has remained “un-modernizable”: the way notions of “priesthood” leadership function in our community. That is not an easily challenged claims–indeed, I would hardly challenge it at all, especially given that she uses this observation to call attention to one of the greatest theoretical resources which Mormonism has, and one that is extremely appealing to me: namely, a familiarity with the costs and benefits which come from refusing the lure of the liberal meritocracy.

Rosalynde writes:

The hierarchical, authoritarian nature of the church, with its orientation toward group roles and obedience over individual rights and freedoms—that is to say, everything about the Church that rankles in the context of modern liberal democracy—can provide a set of emotional and intellectual tools with which to examine the buried assumptions of that liberal democracy….I want to suggest an example of this dynamic, by which the apparently illiberal features of a conservative church can usefully destabilize the silently-encroaching paradigms of modernity….[by floating] the idea that the all-male LDS priesthood enacts a critique of the notion of meritocracy that vibrates at the center of the American dream….

From some perspectives, an all-male priesthood is nothing more than an atavistic institutional carryover from the days of hard patriarchy, sexism pure and simple; from other perspectives, it’s a divinely-ordained reflection of the deep cosmic order that secures and connects individuals in a harmonious chain. Either way, a male priesthood is difficult to explain, much less justify, in the language of liberal meritocracy. Indeed, an organization in which an arbitrary half of its membership has no access to institutional authority is the opposite of meritocracy; leadership is not a reward for ability, hard work, or worthiness—it can’t be, since many of the most able, dedicated, and worthy members of the church will never hold positions of executive leadership simply by virtue of their female condition….

A male priesthood, then, stands as an enacted rebuttal to the idea that meritocracy is natural, inevitable, or necessary. The encroachment of merit-based thinking into a Christian community would be disastrously corrosive to gospel teachings on humility, love, dignity, and status; one can never win one’s mansion above or compete for salvation. There are no merit-based scholarships to heaven….Spiritual meritocracy is poison. The all-male LDS priesthood, for which no merit-based explanation can be offered, reminds us of that the kingdom of God is not a meritocracy.

There are, of course, some problems with this insight of Rosalynde’s. Most crucially, there is the reality that in this mostly voluntary church, despite our affirmation that merit and skill have little or no influence over matters of faithfulness and worthiness, the truth remains that some of the callings to service which are extended are, shall we say, more equal than others. (Please give me a ring the next time a deeply devout, unfailingly generous, but also unemployed, public-transportation-dependent Mormon is called to be his ward’s bishop.) This point becomes all the more incontestable the further one moves into the Mormon church hierarchy, away from purely voluntary pastoral responsibilities and into the full-time ecclesia…which nonetheless remains, for all it’s adaption to professional norms, also thoroughly committed to some understanding of priesthood authority. This trickles down into ordinary Mormon practice, which inevitably leads to situations where presumably merit-rewarded positions often carry with them traces of priesthood authority (as long as the holders are male), and conversely priesthood callings are often seen to carry some patina of intellectual or administrative competency or merit, so that we not infrequently see the overruling of technical or administrative decisions or policies made by non-priesthood (that is, female) workers who were, until they ran up against some unthinking, perhaps power-jealous individual, providing important service to the church.

For all that, though, her point is an enormously valuable one: in the pews and duties of everyday American Mormon life, hundreds of thousands of people, in millions of day-to-day ways, are arguably taking a break from the competitive, zero-sum, measurement-and-outcome-based meritocratic world they encounter and (unfortunately, I think) mostly take for granted as workers, students, employers, and citizens. Instead are invited into a world of grace, of gifts, through the example of a radically conservative institution–an all-male priesthood–which in principle refuses to acknowledge both the appeal and the dangers of turning every kind of authority into merit-based, process-bound, context-and-culture-be-damned, administrative procedure. That has to mean something–it has to be the sort of thing that could lead Mormons to recognize, even internalize, a critique of the modern liberal project, and open themselves up to alternative (even radical!) forms of organization and behavior, even at the cost of setting themselves against the American behemoth. Doesn’t it?

Maybe not. To be sure, some have asked these broader questions. They’ve been discussed on blogs, and sometimes you even see them reflected in church leaders’ warnings about trusting too much in accomplishment and forgetting about grace and gifts. But, in light of my general assertion above, I would continue to argue that Rosalynde’s acute observation about the meritocracy-critiquing potential of the Mormon priesthood–a potential that it has by virtue of its radically conservative, and therefore illiberal, presumptions–does not travel: her “enacted rebuttal” to meritocratic liberalism enacts, and thus rebuts, relatively little. Why not?

Forty-five years ago, the social critic Christopher Lasch also wondered why Mormonism–which he didn’t like and happily mocked, even while admiring it in some important ways–didn’t (or, at least, didn’t any longer) follow through on its embedded critique of modern American life. His answer: it’s the federal government’s fault (or, more particularly: it’s the economy, stupid):

From the point of view of liberal Christianity, the Mormon experiment was impossible to understand….In Utah, under Brigham Young’s leadership, the Mormons created a self-sufficient, cooperative, egalitarian, and authoritarian economy devoted not to individual enrichment but to the collective well-being of the flock….Cooperation and planning caused the desert to bloom, in marked contrast to the exploitive patterns of agriculture which on other frontiers exhausted natural resources and left the land a smoking waste. These practices of the Mormons, however–so successful both from a human and from a technological point of view–ill accorded with the prevailing drift toward laissez-faire….Beginning with the “Mormon War” of 1857-58, when federal troops tried unsuccessfully to break up the Mormon settlements, the government harried the Saints by a combination of military, legislative, and judicial action….The destruction of the temporal powers of the church put an end, for all practical purposes, to the Mormon enterprise…[though] the Mormon church continues to grow. It grows because it can offer special attractions of its own–more community sense, more social discipline, more mystique than other churches competing for lower-middle-class converts, a combination that is appealing to those reared strictly who find things falling apart. But the growth of the Mormons…has been achieved by sacrificing…the conception of a secular community organized in accordance with religious principles….From posing a challenge to the American way of life Mormonism has become a defense of its most reactionary aspects. (Lasch, “The Mormon Utopia,” in The World of Nations [Viking Books, 1974], 66-68)

Lasch’s observations are not nearly as careful as Rosalynde’s, nor are they as accurate. For one thing, Lasch’s comments were written before the 1978 revelation which thankfully ended priesthood discrimination against black males, and thus are historically dated (Proposition 8 notwithstanding, institutional Mormonism almost certainly cannot be legitimately awarded the “most reactionary” prize any longer); for another thing, Lasch fails to appreciate the spiritual important which we believing Mormons attach to our own history. But for all that, there is a sense in which Lasch here provides an important historical correction, or shall we say a complement, to Rosalynde’s hypothesis. Lasch acknowledges that modern (post-polygamy, post-theocracy) Mormonism offers much of that Rosalynde herself mentions: “the rewarding communal experience of serving in a Mormon community, the trust, fellow-feeling, practical support, and, yes, the opportunity to practice forgiveness” which dwelling with a context of authority and solidarity may provide. But that isn’t the aim of Rosalynde’s piece; rather, she is looking for Mormonism, and particularly our Mormon doctrines of priesthood to “provide useful critical views of liberalism’s unfinished or unfounded projects.” The critical view may be present, but is there any sense of it being used by Mormons to articulate an actual critique of America’s meritocracy? Given the accommodation of Mormonism with American public life, civil religion, and state power, I see little evidence of such. Lasch suggests that this absence is the result of the collapse of the Mormon church’s temporal power over a hundred years ago, and while that is a simplistic answer, it has the virtue of making good sense. It’s hard to rebut liberalism–which, as Rosalynde notes, is “firmly entrenched in the common sense that governs everyday experience in modern America”–when you don’t have much of a place to stand apart from it. (This is, of course, a central problem with nearly all so-called conservative thought in America today–which, as Alasdair MacIntyre noted long ago, has become, since its embrace of the mobility and creative destruction of modern industrial capitalism in the decades following the Civil War, almost wholly a species of liberalism itself. For good and for ill, Mormonism was “radically conservative” once, in a way not dissimilar to how the Confederacy was radically conservative: because there were specific forms of community organization which it sought to conserve against modernity. Nowadays, not quite so much.) In short, Lasch’s observation takes some (though perhaps not all) of the wind out of the sails of Rosalynde’s argument about the Mormon priesthood: even if she is right about her reading of it–and I think she probably is–there is good reason to recognize that, given how our shared church currently constitutes its own place within the American liberal order, probably little will come of it.

Here’s one final observation: would any American Mormon today, including Rosalynde herself, even want more to come of it? I frequently and happily express my preferences for a more populist or socialist or communitarian order, and think there is more to learn from radical utopian ideas than progressive ones (particularly in the Mormon sense)…but ultimately, I myself am mostly in favor of mildly distasteful progressive compromises with modernity, and I suspect that nearly every other Mormon I know who has benefited from the way the church has evolved over the past century would agree. Remember that if Lasch is correct, then probably the only way to fully enact Mormon radicalism would be through the re-establishment of real Mormon political and economic sovereignty and territoriality. To be part of such an establishmentarian project would obviously constrain us modernized American Mormons even further–and it would especially constrain women. As someone with real feminist concerns (if not an allegiance to any particularly aggressive feminist agenda), Rosalynde rightly worries about the costs involved in maintaining our radical(ly conservative) priesthood alternative, even if just on the level of theoretical argument: “even if some social good does come of the anti-meritocratic critique embodied in a patriarchal priesthood, who is to judge how that good might compare to the pain and confusion that some women feel as they try to make sense of their own identity in a patriarchal institution?”

This is the liberal side of all us modern American Mormons, peeking around and out of the church we have joined or inherited, filled as it is with much spiritual good and even truth, but also filled with remnants of a radical project–a conservative and authoritarian one, to be sure, but a powerfully egalitarian and communitarian one as well–that now exists mostly (if not entirely) as an echo. There’s a part of me which is looking for that echo to once more sound robustly; I want an alternative to the liberal order. Rosalynde, more Burkean than I, isn’t sure we should want that, and as one who feels the force of Mormon illiberality much more seriously than a white man like I probably ever will, her caution speaks more authentically than mine, I suppose. But still, thanks to her essay, the next time I sit in church and observe my fellow Mormons and myself go through our highly unmeritocratic ritual practices, I won’t be able to do anything but hope that we’re learning something.


  1. Very interesting thoughts, Russell. There’s a lot to consider in here.

    My only contribution right now is to point out the same tension, per se, within the radically different temple endowment – and also the tension between that structure and the corresponding one you discuss outside the temple.

    I’ve been fascinated by the complexity of Mormonism for many years, so I really appreciate this post.

  2. Fascinating piece, Russell. The echo is faint indeed–Mormon radicalism would probably be surprising and disappointing to those who might be praying for its return the most.

  3. I won’t claim to understand all that you are saying here, that will hopefully come with additional readings. I will say, however, that you, and the quotes from Rosalynde, have given me much to consider in my Mormon complexity-induced anxiety.

  4. StillConfused says:

    In an interesting contrast to the patriarchal view, I saw an independent person’s review of the Mormon Church and they thought that it was way cool and modern that women preached sermons from the pulpit. (In LDS speak that would equate to giving talks)

  5. “Please give me a ring the next time a deeply devout, unfailingly generous, but also unemployed, public-transportation-dependent Mormon is called to be his ward’s bishop.”

    Interesting you should say that – Geoff B. just made a comment over at M* on a different topic that relates: “The bishop in our ward lived in a hut in a favela and was unemployed for most of the four years I lived there [in Brazil].”

  6. Yet another comment caught up in the Spam trap. You may not have Captchas here, but you have a much more aggressive spam filter.

  7. Eveningsun says:

    If inegalitarian policies have value because they remind us that the Kingdon is not a meritocracy, then it’s too bad that black guys can now be in the priesthood…. For a brilliant essay on the dystopian potential of pure meritocracy, read Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy.

  8. Ray, that’s an interesting observation, and probably a valid one. I don’t think the rituals of the endowment necessarily map upon illiberality/radical conservatism in quite the same way the priesthood can be seen as doing, if only because one of the essential principles of liberalism is the idea of equal individual worth, and I think there is a strongly egalitarian sense of individual respect in the temple, in the sense that once we are admitted all are treated the same. But if you are thinking about being admitted to the temple in the first place, and the fact that unelected authorities determine whether or not we can be admitted in the first place, then I can see the parallels.

    Kyle, Karmen, I glad you found my ruminations upon Mormonism’s theoretical radicalism interesting.

    StillConfused, you make a good point: the degree to which Mormonism may appear to have resisted modernity depends in part on how far from the liberal, egalitarian principles associated with modernity one’s original perspective is.

    Eveningsun, I think that’s an entirely legitimate point to make: in the same way that there were some defenders of the white power structure against the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s who quite explicitly saw themselves as attempting to maintain a kind of Christian aristocracy against an encroaching, homogenizing liberalism, one an imagine that Rosalynde’s point would have been even stronger (and the costs she recognizes as part of it would have been that much greater) if someone had made it pre-the 1978 revelation.

  9. Russell I wonder if an equivocation isn’t at play here over meritocracy. I think it undeniable that sometimes calls come to people because they have the skills and resources to do a particular task. Other times people are called to the same position so that they can learn skills. Sometimes people are called out of desperation in order to get someone to do the job. Yet it also seems clear when people can’t do a job they aren’t asked. I remember being released from working with the Priests simply because I regularly had to work during the scheduled activities. Is that a form of meritocracy? I don’t know – it’s hard to exactly figure out how you are using the term in the above.

    If a true egalitarianism is to deny our skills, resources and other such things we consecrate then we are not egalitarian. (Nor would I want to live in such an egalitarian system)

    Likewise I must confess that when cries of modernism, pre-modernism or even post-modernism are made I quickly get lost in what exactly is being claimed.

  10. Im not sure this is a valid claim

    “the all-male LDS priesthood enacts a critique of the notion of meritocracy that vibrates at the center of the American dream”

    Priesthood leadership certainly is based on merit. It simply has different criteria than liberal democracy for determining such merit. Maleness is a plus. Personal wealth functions that way as well. As of course do the standard merits of having orthodox beliefs and orthopraxy.

  11. Well, since the comment appears to be lost in the spam filter, never to emerge, I shall try again:

    RAF’s aside comment:
    “(Please give me a ring the next time a deeply devout, unfailingly generous, but also unemployed, public-transportation-dependent Mormon is called to be his ward’s bishop.)”

    Interesting that you should state this around the same time Geoff B. makes a comment elsewhere (I won’t post the link in case that is what’s causing the spam filter to catch me):
    “The bishop in our ward lived in a hut in a favela and was unemployed for most of the four years I lived there [in Brazil.]”

  12. Russell, I found a discussion on Front Porch Republic where I see you also commented. I am interested in the quote by GK Chesterton where he says:

    “That the thing we call aristocracy in Europe is not in its origin and spirit an aristocracy at all. It is not a system of spiritual degrees and distinctions like, for example, the caste system of India, or even like the old Greek distinction between free men and slaves. It is simply the remains of a military organization… Now in an army nobody ever dreams of supposing that difference of rank represents a difference of moral reality… No one ever says, in reporting a mess-room conversation, “Lieutenant Jones was very witty, but was naturally inferior to Captain Smith.” The essence of an army is the idea of official inequality, founded on unofficial equality. The Colonel is not obeyed because he is the best man, but because he is the Colonel. Such was probably the spirit of the system of dukes and counts when it first arose out of the military spirit and military necessities of Rome.”

    I see this perception as quite accurate, no one thinks the EQ President is “the best man for the job,” but rather that “he is just the same as me so I should support him because someday that could be me needing support.” What interests me is that when the church was small and fragile, it may have needed this hierarchy quite desperately. Is that still the case today? Are we in a regular state of emergency where we need men and women in top offices to make snap decisions?

%d bloggers like this: