Tuesday, July 28, 2015
Dialogue published this essay in its spring 2013 issue. Since two years have passed and the essay has emerged from behind Dialogue’s premium-content pay wall and is free for nonsubscribers to read, I thought it would be helpful to post it here as well. I concocted the first draft of this essay in 2006, while still working at Church magazines, which means this piece went through seven years of revising and softening before I felt comfortable releasing it. It is an attempt to deal honestly with one of the primary reasons Church members experience faith crises.
In an August 2008 letter to Brigham Young University’s student newspaper, a disgruntled student (who believed campus Republicans were deflating his car tires because of his Obama bumper sticker) made this inadvertently revealing statement: “I do realize that although the church itself is perfect, the people in it are definitely not.”1 He was right about the members, of course, but his naive assumption that the Church is perfect is as illuminating as it is pervasive among Latter-day Saints. It is also fundamentally inaccurate. Indeed, I suspect that this misconception lies at the heart of many of the struggles the Church and its members find themselves facing in our increasingly complex and information-saturated world.
Some members, when confronted with incontrovertible evidence that the Church, its history, and its leaders are not perfect, arrive at an unexpected crisis of faith, and some of them conclude that because the Church is obviously not as perfect as they have perhaps been led to believe, it cannot be true either. On the other side of the ledger, because of the wealth of information available on the Internet (some of it accurate and some not), the institutional Church faces increasing challenges in its effort to credibly portray itself and its history in the radiant light it has attempted to establish over the years. Indeed, the institution finds itself having to deal with certain topics and events that it would probably prefer to just sidestep. But, since we are now living in an extended “Mormon moment,” this is hardly possible.
The threefold purpose of this essay, then, is to examine the fallacious belief that the true Church must also be perfect, to show that this belief is damaging to Church members and to the organization itself, and to suggest a more realistic and less stressful understanding of the Lord’s work in our day.
The Church as a Living Organism
At the heart of this fallacy may lie nothing more than a superficial understanding of the organization. Now and then, for instance, I hear people make the claim that the Church is perfect because it was revealed by the Lord. What these individuals undoubtedly mean is that the Church is perfect because its basic organizational structure is dictated by revelation, either in canonized scripture or, more recently, through inspiration to the President of the Church.
In one sense, their assertion may be true—the Church is indeed “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Eph. 2:20)—but, in a more practical sense, when we speak of the Church we are not really referring to an organizational chart. The Church is not just a sterile, conceptual structure. Any organization—the Church included—is a living, changing entity, an organism, as it were, composed not just of a hierarchical structure, but also of imperfect people, of an evolving culture, and of certain foundational ideas. In the Church, these foundational ideas include doctrines and principles that are constantly being examined, interpreted, and applied by Church leaders and members to ever-changing circumstances. So, if the lifeless institutional structure is the skeleton of the Church, then the living flesh of the organization is its members, with all their warts and blemishes.
Mitch and President Benson
Let me give an example of how human imperfections can produce organizational dysfunction and thus create moral dilemmas for individual members. Many years ago I had a neighbor—let’s call him Mitch—who worked as a trauma nurse at LDS Hospital. He was a returned missionary, a husband and father, and an active member of our ward. One of his patients at the time was President Ezra Taft Benson, who had suffered a severe stroke. My memory of the specifics is somewhat cloudy after so many years, but a Church spokesperson had released a statement about President Benson’s condition that upset Mitch. The statement must have at least assured the public that President Benson was responding well to treatment and conversing with his wife, because Mitch’s response was: “When you’ve had two massive brain hemorrhages, you’re pretty much a vegetable. President Benson doesn’t recognize his wife. And he’s not talking with anybody.” Why, he then asked me, was the Church telling lies? I didn’t really have a good answer for him at that time, but I think I could offer one today.
This episode was probably not the only reason for Mitch’s eventual decisions—he left both the Church and his family—but it certainly didn’t help him any. He apparently never came to understand what I first began to comprehend only after seven years of Church employment. Still, Mitch’s question is worth considering. Why did the Church release a statement that was not truthful? Somebody, I would guess, failed to grasp the concept introduced above, that the Church doesn’t have to be perfect to be true. I can imagine someone reasoning, with that common combination of good intentions and faulty logic, that if the Church is true, then it has to be perfect, and in a perfect Church the prophet can’t be mentally incapacitated. Not only that, but this person (or perhaps committee) probably assumed that if the truth about President Benson’s condition were made public, the public would get the wrong impression. Members who were weak in their faith would certainly lose their testimonies if they found out the prophet was in a vegetative state, because that would mean “continuous revelation through a living prophet” wasn’t really continuous.2 This concern was actually defused more than a century ago by Elder B. H. Roberts, who explained that revelation is probably more sporadic than continuous.3 The important point, of course, is that it is ongoing.
Unfortunately, this persistent misconception about what it means to have a true church sometimes causes people within the organization to overreact, to feel a great urgency to portray the Church as it is not. This is probably just an overzealous manifestation of seeking to put the Church’s best foot forward, but too often it turns into excessive agonizing over the Church’s public image and, ironically, acting in ways that inevitably damage that public image.
Two Kinds of People
The Church may be true (meaning that it is legitimate or authorized),4 but it is certainly not perfect. Perhaps I’m a little slow. It wasn’t until I had worked in the Church Office Building for seven years that I finally began to understand this basic truth and its implications. Then again, maybe I’m not so slow. As I listen to frustrated Church members recount their less-than-satisfactory encounters with Church bureaucracy, and as I read letters, essays, posts, comments, and articles by disaffected Saints in newspapers, magazines, books, blogs, and other forums, I realize that many people struggle with this basic principle—some even to the point of forsaking their affiliation with the Church.
The gap between a true church and a perfect one may fall along any of several fault lines, but regardless of the particular issue that disconnects the ideal from the real, the fact remains that the Church is not perfect. And this bothers two different kinds of people. It bothers the first sort so much that they seek to erase the disconnect by either hiding the truth or hiding from it. As is only fair, however, the true-but-not-perfect sword cuts both ways. People on the other side of the misperception, like Mitch, also fall for this fallacy. A friend who read an earlier version of this essay observed that most of the Latter-day Saints he knows who are “fragile” in their faith are “walking on the thin ice of their overexpectations.” They assume that since the Church claims to be true, it is somehow also claiming to be perfect. And when they learn an uncomfortable truth about Mormon history or when somebody in a position of responsibility makes a particularly egregious mistake, these members of the second group find the resulting cognitive dissonance difficult to deal with. They see the imperfections and the attempts by members of the first group to either whitewash or ignore those flaws, and they see hypocrisy. This bothers them so much that their testimonies suffer and sometimes even die, especially if those testimonies are founded upon a warm, fuzzy feeling or a logical assemblage of intellectual notions rather than a genuine witness from the Spirit. These are the type of people who say, “The Lord would never permit his church to produce a fruit so rotten as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.” Either way you approach it, however, the belief that the true Church also has to be perfect creates difficulties and inflicts damage on individuals and the organization.
A More Useful Metaphor
A basic principle that, if understood, would help both of the above-mentioned groups is the notion that the Church not only is not perfect, but cannot be, at least not here, not now in this fallen world. If the Church were perfect, it would fail miserably in its mission, which is, in part, to perfect us. In essence, if God were to spell out specifically for his apostles and prophets and stake presidents and bishops and auxiliary leaders every step in the Church’s onward march of establishing his kingdom on earth, if he were to dictate every decision and inspire every policy, he would defeat his own purpose. What purpose? To help us become as he is.
As disconcerting as this idea might appear on the surface, both reason and experience suggest that God treats the Church in much the same way he treats each of us. As we strive to learn and grow and follow the Savior, our Heavenly Father intervenes periodically in our lives in ways that maximize our opportunities for growth and service. Sometimes when we pray for guidance, the Spirit gives us quiet promptings and confirmations. At other times, perhaps to steer us away from danger or to change our direction in a dramatic way, he may prompt us (or even set the celestial equivalent of neon signs in our path) without our even asking. But often when we pray for guidance or for knowledge in making decisions, the heavens are perfectly silent. In these perplexing instances, God expects us to use our own intelligence; his revealed word; the counsel of family members, trusted friends, and ordained leaders; the gospel values we’ve accepted; and our best understanding of the circumstances we’re facing to make decisions on our own, and to trust that he will warn us if we go too far astray. And more often than many of us wish, he even allows us to experience the negative consequences of our unwise decisions—so that we will learn wisdom.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks has taught:
What about those times when we seek revelation and do not receive it? We do not always receive inspiration or revelation when we request it. Sometimes we are delayed in the receipt of revelation, and sometimes we are left to our own judgment. We cannot force spiritual things. It must be so. Our life’s purpose to obtain experience and to develop faith would be frustrated if our Heavenly Father directed us in every act, even in every important act. We must make decisions and experience the consequences in order to develop self-reliance and faith.
Even in decisions we think very important, we sometimes receive no answers to our prayers. This does not mean that our prayers have not been heard. It only means that we have prayed about a decision which, for one reason or another, we should make without guidance by revelation.5
Someone once quipped, “Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.” Often this is how we learn, difficult as it seems. God wants us to learn not just to be obedient to specific commands but to “be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of [our] own free will. . . . For the power is in [us], wherein [we] are agents unto [ourselves]” (D&C 58:27–28). He doesn’t want us to become robots or computers, automatically following every command in minute detail. He wants us to become gods.
If Heavenly Father wanted to impede us in our progression, he would answer every prayer immediately and specifically, spelling out exactly what we should do in any situation. Likewise, if he wanted to cripple his chosen servants—prophets, apostles, stake presidents, bishops, quorum and auxiliary presidents, home and visiting teachers, and parents—he would tell them exactly what to do every step of the way. If he led them by the hand and never let go, they would remain infants. They would never grow in their ability to make decisions, use good judgment, or exercise initiative. Latter-day Saints love to sing “I Am a Child of God,” but many seem to forget that children are supposed to grow into something other than children—adults—and God is unwavering in allowing us the freedom to explore exactly what that means. Indeed, he is so hands-off at times in this process that life’s experiences can often become rather perplexing.
It becomes quickly apparent after even a cursory reading of Church history that the Lord wasn’t spelling out specifically how the Restoration should unfold. His hand was in the broad strokes, but the finer detail was and is tainted by human inadequacy and error.6 Even the Lord’s revelations to Joseph Smith were not perfect; they were couched in the Prophet’s imprecise human language: “Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24). The reason Church history is so messy (and sometimes so uncomfortable for those who desperately want a perfect organization and therefore feel compelled to sanitize its past) is that the Lord was more interested in the growth of individual leaders and quorums than he was in having a perfectly logical and orderly unfolding of his kingdom in the latter days. And if some of those leaders and quorums made mistakes and perhaps never learned from them, it is a testimony to the fact that God is serious about our development and our free will.
In a nutshell, then, if the Church were perfect, none of us ever would be. But the Church is not perfect. On the local level, this imperfection is taken for granted. Few people, inside or outside the Church, have any illusions about the fallibility of their fellow ward members or their LDS friends. But on the impersonal, general level—where the Church is presented through carefully screened, scrutinized, and simplified publications or distant, carefully choreographed encounters with revered leaders who are deemed to be perpetually inspired from on high—we sometimes find ourselves believing the unbelievable. We also find ourselves struggling to navigate the complex and idealistic terrain of corporate mission statements and public-image production. If we carefully consider the purpose of the Church, however, we will not be so squeamish about its imperfections.
Maybe we just need to embrace a new metaphor. Perhaps it would be more useful to portray the Church not as a perfectly designed and smoothly functioning machine that sweeps up multitudes of converts and churns out prodigious quantities of laudable good works, but as a laboratory—God’s grand laboratory—where we are allowed to experiment with dangerous substances such as free will, authority, differing perspectives, disagreement, incomplete intelligence, and unrefined personalities. In this new metaphor, the Church is a somewhat-controlled environment where we don our lab coats, roll up our sleeves, and get down to the business of finding solutions to real problems. In our experiments, we are able to apply our minds, hearts, ingenuity, initiative, and faith in creating crude approximations of something truly wonderful. And if we sometimes mix the chemicals wrong and blow up part of the lab, so what? In this metaphor, there is also room, refreshingly, for such realities as humor and irony.
Failure as Part of God’s Plan
If the Church were perfect, we would have little opportunity for growth. And, more importantly, we would not have the opportunity to fail in any way. In fact, a perfect Church in mortality would be a devilish institution, exactly what many of us assume Lucifer promised in the premortal existence to deliver in this one.7 This thought should give us pause, for whenever we feel the urge to portray the Church as perfect, we may end up inadvertently advertising for the adversary.
A unique element in the Mormon view of theology is that failure is an integral part of God’s plan—and this theological notion applies to organizations as well as individuals. This insight might allow us, for instance, to give a more comprehensive interpretation to the episode of Church history known as Zion’s Camp. (Our current reading of this affair glorifies the silver lining while almost totally dismissing the dark cloud.)8 It might also induce us to stop idolizing the handcart migration—a flawed program from poverty-inspired start to abrupt end—with our own romanticized mock treks. Most importantly, acknowledging the honored place of failure in God’s plan might allow us to gain a new appreciation for our own personal and inevitable Zion’s Camp debacles and handcart disasters.
Just as God does not condemn us individually as long as we are repenting and moving generally in the right direction—even if it seems at times that we are stumbling and bumbling and meandering toward our eventual goal—so he also does not seem to mind if the Church takes a few missteps, adopts ineffective programs and wrongheaded policies, or even tramples a few toes, as long as it is moving overall in the right direction and accomplishing its purpose. Indeed, all evidence suggests that God is a whole lot more liberal with us and with the Church than we are. We tend to be rather judgmental of each other, and some of us are very hard on the Church, even though we expect God to grant us a rather generous allowance for error as we follow the gospel path ourselves. According to Mormon legend, J. Golden Kimball was once asked whether he stayed on the straight and narrow. “No,” he replied, “but I’ve crossed it many times.” We may laugh at such a candid confession and hope God will permit us the same allowance, but for some reason we don’t imagine he would grant the Church or especially its current leaders such liberty.
Free Will and Progress
As I grow older, I become increasingly convinced that nothing is more sacred to our Heavenly Father than our free will (which Mormons refer to as agency).9 In fact, our free will is so sacred to him that only very rarely will he violate it, even if that means allowing us to violate each other’s free will. And we do. Regularly. Church leaders, for example, are learning to use authority appropriately in the only way they can—by experience—which explains why Joseph Smith’s observation holds just as true for Mormons as for those who don’t share our convictions: “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, [that] they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39). Even Joseph struggled at times with the competing demands of exercising authority. Indeed, the only way God could possibly prevent us from abusing authority would be to deny us any latitude by prescribing exactly how we are to promote his work. But that would prevent us from learning how to righteously exercise authority. Trial and error is a cluttered and chaotic way to learn things, but sometimes it is the only way.
We understand well enough the difference between the plan God presented to us in the premortal world and Lucifer’s proposed alternative. Even so, many of us seem to wish God would use some of Satan’s methods as he administers the Church in mortality—to make sure it is effective and efficient and, well, perfect. But he will neither coerce nor control us; nor will he prevent most of our mistakes or simply pretend they didn’t happen. He will guide and command and warn and even chastise and forgive, but he is serious about allowing us both the freedom to choose and the opportunity to experience real consequences. The reason for this is that in God’s mind perfection is the end result, not the process. It is the destination, not the path leading there.
Still, it is good to note that even with all its imperfections, the Church is nevertheless able to accomplish a great deal of good in the world and fulfill the basic function the Lord requires of it, which includes providing the ordinances of salvation, teaching fundamental gospel truths, offering a sanctuary from the wickedness of the world, and creating local communities within which we can support and love each other along the pathway to individual and collective perfection.
“To Whom Shall We Go?”
After the bread of life sermon, many of Jesus’s disciples were offended and “walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? . . . Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou has the words of eternal life” (John 6:66–68). Apparently, even Jesus, who was sinless, was not perfect enough for many of those who had followed him. He taught difficult doctrines and didn’t meet their expectations. Do we then have any right to expect more from his sin-stained servants?
Now and then, when I come face-to-face with imperfections in the Church, inconsistencies in its doctrines, perplexing incidents in its history, or deficiencies in its leaders, I look in vain for a viable alternative and find myself crying out with Peter, “To whom shall [I] go?” As aggravating as I find Church bureaucracy, and as much as I wish our theology were more complete and our history less troubling, I can’t deny that I know things I can’t deny. I have received a witness from the Holy Ghost about Joseph Smith that I simply can’t dodge, discount, or explain away. Without going into detail,10 I’ll just say that this was much more than a warm feeling in my heart.
And what about all the doctrines that I cherish and believe and sincerely hope are true? How could I forsake these? Yes, polygamy bothers me—not the fact that it was practiced, but the way it was practiced—and yet if I toss polygamy out, I must also discard the nature of man, the nature of God, and their relationship to each other.11 A theology without the premortal existence, the physical resurrection, the three degrees of glory, and eternal marriage would feel empty and unenticing.
Frankly, there is not another Christian denomination or non-Christian religion whose God I am even remotely attracted to. Oh, to whom shall I go? I have no choice but to stay with the only Church that has the authority Joseph received from heaven and passed on to others. What this means is that I have to learn to live with imperfections and inconsistencies, and this leaves the door wide open for a handful of paradoxes and ironies.
A Final Word
The foregoing discussion is in no way intended to justify either category of troubled Latter-day Saints in their sometimes extreme reactions to the Church’s imperfections. People who see the Church’s flaws should neither try to whitewash them nor become so offended that they abandon their covenants. A reasonable middle path is simply to acknowledge the Church’s imperfections and even their necessity while working constructively to eliminate the most obvious and troublesome ones. Of course, determining just where to draw the line between those imperfections that are unacceptable or harmful and those that are innocuous or even helpful is a difficult question that we will undoubtedly face again and again. But if we face it openly and with faith, we can certainly benefit from the process, both individually and collectively.
1. “Tire Prank,” Daily Universe, August 5, 2008, http://newnewsnet.byu.edu/story.cfm/69136.
2. It may be argued that revelation is continuing and not continuous, but the term continuous revelation has been used by Church leaders for decades—indeed as recently as President Monson’s use of the term in the October 2008 general conference—to describe the Church’s relationship with the Lord. Other examples include a 1989 talk by Elder James E. Faust titled “Continuous Revelation,” in which he said: “I wish to speak today of a special dimension of the gospel: the necessity for constant communication with God through the process known as divine revelation. . . . This process of continuous revelation comes to the Church very frequently. . . . This continuous revelation will not and cannot be forced by outside pressure from people and events.” James E. Faust, “Continuous Revelation,” Ensign 19, no. 11 (November 1989): 8, 10. President Hinckley also made the following statement: “In other words, we believe in continuous revelation.” Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Quorum of the First Presidency,” Ensign 35, no. 12 (December 2005): 48. Although these leaders used the term continuous revelation, the context of their usage indicates that they probably meant continuing. Elder Faust refers to “constant communication,” but he also states that “continuous revelation comes to the Church very frequently.” If something is continuous, it cannot happen “frequently.” To be continuous, it would need to happen nonstop, day and night, 24/7, 365 days a year. The dictionary definition of continuous is “marked by uninterrupted extension in space, time, or sequence.” “Ongoing” is probably a more accurate description of the Lord’s communication to his agents on earth.
3. Elder Roberts very candidly discussed the limited nature of God’s direct involvement in day-to-day Church governance in an Improvement Era article at the time of the Reed Smoot Senate hearings—when questions were being raised about the autonomy of Church leaders. Wrote Roberts:
“There is nothing in the doctrines of the Church which makes it necessary to believe that [men are constantly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit], even . . . men who are high officials of the Church. When we consider the imperfections of men, their passions and prejudices, that mar the Spirit of God in them, happy is the man who can occasionally ascend to the spiritual heights of inspiration and commune with God! . . .
“We should recognize the fact that we do many things by our own uninspired intelligence for the issues of which we are ourselves responsible. . . . He will help men at need, but I think it improper to assign every word and every act of a man to an inspiration from the Lord. Were that the case, we would have to acknowledge ourselves as being wholly taken possession of by the Lord, being neither permitted to go to the right nor the left only as he guided us. There could then be no error made, nor blunder in judgment; free agency would be taken away, and the development of human intelligence prevented. Hence, I think it a reasonable conclusion to say that constant, never-varying inspiration is not a factor in the administration of the affairs of the Church; not even good men, though they be prophets or other high officials of the Church, are at all times and in all things inspired of God. It is only occasionally, and at need, that God comes to their aid.” B. H. Roberts, “Relation of Inspiration and Revelation to Church Government,” Improvement Era 8 (March 1905): 362, emphasis added.
4. An organization cannot be “true” in the same sense that a principle, a doctrine, or a fact can be true, meaning “conformable to an essential reality.” Thus, when we speak of the restored gospel being true, we mean something very different from what we mean when we say the Church is true. If we use the scriptural definition of truth—“knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come” (D&C 93:24)—then every church is “true,” in other words, it is as it is. So when we speak of the organization being true, we mean that it is legitimate, that it is authorized by the Lord. This is a different but equally acceptable meaning of the word true.
5. Dallin H. Oaks, “Revelation,” devotional address given at Brigham Young University on September 29, 1981; http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=6846&x=65&y=7.
6. I suspect the finer details are also quite often enhanced and blessed by the ingenuity and genuine goodness of human agency also, but that is a topic for another day.
7. Personally, I don’t agree with the belief that Lucifer’s plan was to coerce us to do good and to keep the commandments. I prefer the idea that has been addressed thoroughly of late that the devil was really proposing to simply save us in our sins. Either way, though, Lucifer’s church would have been perfect—either by force or by twisted definition, sort of like the former Soviet Union, where there was no pollution because the government declared that there was no pollution.
8. At present, we tend to emphasize that the purpose of Zion’s Camp was to train up the future leaders of the Church. But this was not at all the purpose of that long march. The Lord’s purpose is stated very clearly in the D&C. “I will give unto you a revelation and commandment, that you may know how to act in the discharge of your duties concerning the salvation and redemption of your brethren, who have been scattered on the land of Zion. . . . Behold they [my people] shall . . . begin to prevail against mine enemies from this very hour. . . . Behold, . . . the redemption of Zion must needs come by power. . . . And my presence shall be with you even in avenging me of mine enemies, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” D&C 103:1, 6, 15, 26. They went to Missouri to restore the Saints to their lands. But in terms of fulfilling the Lord’s initial purpose, Zion’s camp was a total failure. In D&C 105, the Lord rescinded the commandment to “fight the battles of Zion” (v. 14). Because of “the transgressions of my people,” he explained, “it is expedient in me that mine elders should wait a little season for the redemption of Zion” (v. 9). In other words, the elders of the Church failed in this venture because of personal disobedience.
9. See Robert D. Hales, “Agency: Essential to the Plan of Life,” Ensign 40, no. 11 (November 2010): 24–27; available online at http://lds.org/ensign/2010/11/agency-essential-to-the-plan-of-life?lang=eng. To most English speakers, agency means simply the capacity or obligation to represent another person, to act on another’s behalf. This common meaning of the term appears in D&C 58:27–28: “For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves.” When we have freedom to choose, we are not agents unto someone else, obligated to carry out that person’s will, but are agents unto ourselves, free to carry out our own wishes. Free agency, a term that has fallen out of favor in the Church, probably brings to most people’s minds the idea that a professional athlete can jump from one team to another when his contract expires. To avoid the confusion these terms can cause, I have used the term free will in this essay.
10. For that detail, see Roger Terry, “Frau Rüster and the Cure for Cognitive Dissonance,” Dialogue 40, no. 3 (2007): 201; available at http://dialoguejournal.metapress.com/app/home/contribution.asp?referrer=parent& backto=issue,13,13;journal,15,33;linkingpublicationresults,1:113395,1, or at http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Frau-Ruster.html?b=1&showAll=1.
11. I have a complicated relationship with polygamy. While I find it unappealing personally, I realize I would not be here without it, being the descendant of a second wife on both sides of my family history.
Tuesday, July 21, 2015
Let’s take a break from more serious topics and have some fun today with the Church’s dress code. Oh, where to start? How about the 1970s? That should provide a little culture shock for those of you who have known only the suit-and-tie corporate Church of recent years.
I was ordained a priest in the Aaronic Priesthood in 1972. The first photograph here is of me during my senior year in high school wearing one of my favorite Sunday outfits. That’s a nice brushed denim jacket with a red turtleneck. Too bad you can’t see the pants that completed the ensemble. You’ll just have to imagine a pair of very white bell-bottoms. Cuffed bell-bottoms, no less, that were wide enough to swallow a pair of Sunday shoes whole and leave no trace. Very patriotic, I might add.
In case you were wondering, yes, I did indeed bless the sacrament in that outfit. And no one batted an eye. Remember, this was the ’70s, which Time magazine dubbed “the decade taste forgot.” I’m pretty sure, though, that the writer was referring to boxy functional architecture, wood paneling, orange shag carpet, and lime-green furniture and not my Sunday-go-to-meeting duds. Still, if one of the priests in a typical ward today wore a getup like that, I really can’t imagine what would happen. It’s just unthinkable in today’s Church. I’m not sure how many of the ward members would partake. They might think the ordinance was somehow invalid if not performed by someone wearing at least a white shirt and tie, if not a full suit.
The other Sunday outfit I remember included the same brushed denim jacket, a nice tan pullover shirt, a pair of navy and tan plaid bell-bottoms, and a pair of really nice navy and tan oxford shoes. Sweet. Too bad I don’t have a photo.
Moving on to Exhibit B . . . when it came time for seminary graduation, my parents thought I needed something a little more “churchy,” so they bought me this nice plaid sport coat and some brown slacks. Somehow they even got me to wear a white shirt and tie. When I had to have a photo taken for my mission application the next spring, I was away at college and hadn’t had time to shop for missionary suits, so this is the photo I sent in. I know, I know—I looked like I was sixteen, but trust me, I was really nineteen, and now, forty years later, the youthful looks are paying a few dividends.
Most of the missionaries in my mission had the good sense to have their mission picture taken in a suit (maybe they borrowed one from Dad), so on the big mission transfer board, I was pretty easy to find. This may also explain some of the assignments and companions I ended up with.
In all fairness, though, the elders in my mission weren’t like the group of young LDS proselytizers I ran into last year at Burger King in Orem. These missionaries of the new millennium were all decked out in black suits. All six of them. They looked like they were going to an undertakers’ convention. In my mission in the mid-’70s, by contrast, I remember a beige suit, a forest-green corduroy suit (yes, that was you, Rick), a royal blue suit, and even a suit that was some shade of yellow I can’t describe in polite company. When my second mission president arrived, halfway through my two-year stint, he took one look at us, shook his head, and laid down the law. The Germans were a formal people, he said, and we had to dress the part if we wanted to earn their respect. So out with the beiges and forest greens and off-yellows, and in with the blacks, grays, and navies. We looked downright professional, especially after he made us dump our crumpled American shirts and replace them with crisp new Seidenstickers, a German brand that featured eternally starched cuffs and collars.
In his delightful mission memoir Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary, Craig Harline tells about the president of the Salt Lake Mission Home, who boomed at this new crop of inductees, “What we want is for you to look like the local businessmen.” The only problem with this advice was that when Harline arrived in Belgium the same summer I arrived in Germany, he discovered that the local businessmen didn’t dress at all like Mormon missionaries. This was Europe, after all, not Chicago. Instead, the missionaries looked a lot like CIA agents. Go figure.
Now fast forward about twenty-five years. It’s somewhere around the turn of the millennium, and I am employed at Church magazines. I am wearing charcoal slacks, black shoes, a white shirt, and a bland tie, standard Church Office Building attire. My hair is just starting to turn grey. I pass one of our designers in the hallway. She stops and looks at me in a scrutinizing way and says, “You look like a photocopy.” That was in some ways the low point of my seven and a half years at the COB.
Now, if you’ve been paying attention over the past several months, you’ll know that I’m not the corporate type. In fact, when I taught operations management at the Marriott School in the ’80s and early ’90s, when most faculty members were still wearing business suits or at least white shirts and ties, I made it a point to wear colorful shirts and ties. And today, since fleeing the Church Office Building nine years ago and winding up at BYU Studies, I’m back to wearing colorful attire, sometimes rather bright colors, in fact.
So where am I going with this? Well, have you ever wondered when the Church adopted the business suit? The better question, I suppose, is why? I mean, I’m not the first person to refer to the business world as “Babylon.” But why, of all the various options available, would the Church choose the uniform of Babylon as the foundation of its dress code? Maybe we ought to think about this a bit.
As I’ve put it before, “Did the Savior and the early Apostles mimic the powerful men of their day in dress and grooming?” Can we assume that Peter the fisherman or Matthew the tax collector went about dressed like either the Pharisees or the Roman centurians? I don’t imagine so. The Savior actually went to great lengths to criticize and even alienate those who held the power and purse strings in his society. His ministry was to the poor and lame and hungry and humble. Nowhere do we read that he made any effort to fit in with the rich and powerful.
So why do we?
I’m not suggesting that we adopt elaborate robes such as Catholic bishops wear or revert to brushed denim, turtlenecks, and bell-bottoms, but can’t we tone down the corporate look just a bit? Nowhere is it carved in stone that Mormon males have to dress like Wall Street bankers. I’m old enough to remember President McKay and his striking white suits. Maybe he was fighting a losing battle, but I think he may have been trying to make a statement of sorts. Whatever the case, he had a bit of flair, and as far as I know he was never struck by lightning. I feel lucky to be in a ward where the bishop wears sport coats and oddly-cut Asian suits. During the whole month of December, he wears a bright red sport coat. So, since when does the business suit equal righteousness or spirituality or any of the traditional Christian virtues?
In case you haven’t noticed, we have a bit of a double standard in the Church when it comes to “appropriate” attire. I love watching the guest choirs that sing in some sessions of general conference. Invariably, the left half of the choir is as colorful as Vancouver Island’s Butchart Gardens. The right half looks like the aforementioned convention of morticians. The contrast is so stark, it’s almost comical. It is definitely cultural. American twentieth-century cultural. And we’re now exporting it all over the world, so that Nigerian and Mongolian and Japanese and Finnish Mormon men all look like American corporate executives.
Where did this all start? I’m not sure, but I found a picture that may give us a clue. It’s one of my favorite photos from Church history. It was taken on May 6, 1922, at a photoshoot celebrating the first radio broadcast of Salt Lake station KZN (K-Zion?), which was later renamed KSL.
President Heber J. Grant is holding the microphone and, for some reason, a book. Maybe he’s reading something to the ten listeners who own radios in Salt Lake City. He is wearing the obligatory business suit and is surrounded by several men—other General Authorities and KZN executives, I presume—also in business suits. A woman is standing next to President Grant (someone’s wife?), clad according to a different dress code. And next to her is Elder George Albert Smith, who succeeds President Grant twenty-three years and fifteen days after this photo was taken. I’m not sure what Smith is wearing. He looks like maybe he’s just come back from duck hunting. He’s sporting a nonwhite shirt, buttoned at the neck, but no tie. Some sort of jacket, probably not business attire. And some sort of trousers that are short enough to reveal his knee-high boots. Elder Smith looks like he’s caught in a time warp. Maybe he is. Maybe in 1922 the business suit hadn’t quite yet conquered the Church.
But why the business suit? Why not some other sort of outfit? Because it’s respectable? Perhaps. The Church was certainly looking for as much respect as it could attract, both then and now. But I think there’s another reason. The business suit, in business, is a symbol of power and position. Executives wear business suits. Ordinary workers wear, well, other stuff. It may be the goofy uniform of a fast-food server or just the “business casual” that prevails today in many workplaces. In the corporate side of the Church, this division between those with power and those without it is spelled out in specifics. As an ordinary, nonmanagerial editor, I had to wear slacks and a shirt and tie, but I could get away with a light gray or light blue shirt now and then. I kept a sport coat hanging behind my door in case I had to meet with somebody important. But managers were required to wear suits. Why the different dress codes? Hint: it has something to do with authority.
And speaking of authority, at some point between the flamboyant 1970s and today, somebody got the idea that anyone with authority (translation: priesthood) needs to dress like someone with real corporate authority, and so we now have miniature corporate executives blessing and passing the sacrament in our wards. No more patriotic colors, unless you’re my bishop. Most members probably think this is a good thing. But even if we wanted to be more tasteful than the ’70s, couldn’t we find something, anything, besides the business suit? How about business casual?
A few months ago I was channel surfing and found the movie Heaven Is For Real. In the movie, Greg Kinnear plays Wesleyan Pastor Todd Burpo, whose son has had a near-death experience and seen heaven. In the course of the story, Burpo is shown preaching to his congregation one Sunday. He is dressed in jeans, a shirt that looked like maybe light blue denim, and no tie. Yes, I know this is Hollywood. But it’s a Christian film, and so I assume Burpo’s pastoral attire didn’t offend the sensibilities of the film’s intended audience. But it caught me totally off guard. I couldn’t help thinking what would happen, even in my ward, if the bishop dressed like that one Sunday. It would probably go over like a lead balloon. But why? When Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, do we assume he was gussied up like a member of the Sanhedrin? Of course we don’t know, but I just assume he dressed like, well, a stone mason. (No, he wasn’t a carpenter, and neither was his surrogate father, Joseph, but if you want that story, google Jeff Chadwick’s ebook Stone Manger.) I also assume Peter dressed like a fisherman. And the people who listened to Jesus were probably dressed in their everyday attire, whatever that might have been. Nowhere in the scriptures, to my knowledge, is there one word about dressing up fancy so we can sit in meetings.
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
In the previous post, I introduced Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar’s three-tiered economy. The middle tier in that system would consist of what we now know as corporate America. Let me explore some of the rationale and structure governing that second tier, the body of medium to massive organizations that dominate our current economy.
The Federal Model
Each responsible citizen in the United States has a vote, but each citizen doesn’t vote on every issue, every bill, every executive decision, every Supreme Court ruling. Such a voting system would create political and social gridlock. Instead, we elect representatives, then they vote for us, make executive decisions, and appoint judges and other government officials. If the majority of citizens disapprove of their voting record, we don’t reelect them. It’s not a pure democracy, but it is a workable compromise between potential anarchy and the imposed order of arbitrary authority.
We are, at least in theory, a democratic republic (although corporate power is threatening to dismantle that republic). Industrial democratic republics would follow the same principles. Equal ownership, equal voice, equal representation. And to prevent the abuses of power and position that prevail in Congress, we would have to designate a limited term for those elected as managers within corporations and other organizations. Four or five years would be sufficient. And after a manager’s administrative term is completed, he or she would then return to the regular work force. This would eliminate the professional managerial class and would prevent the politicizing of organizational leadership, which is exactly what has happened to American government on the national level.
The advantages of this form of economic organization would be similar to those created in government by the U.S. Constitution. These advantages were laid out by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay in The Federalist Papers, which were arguments in support of our particular form of Constitutional government. These advantages include the following:
The U.S. government is a federation of states. The states retain some power and autonomy, but they are bound into a greater whole. The creation of this federation was originally a move toward centralization, the intent being to overcome the major weak point of the Articles of Confederation. This move was primarily due to military, security, and commercial concerns. The states needed to be strong, to be unified in a larger cause, and only a strong central government could achieve those ends.
In most businesses today, however, the movement would have to be in the opposite direction, toward decentralization, since most organizations are authoritarian in nature and dominated by strong central control. Departments or divisions, acting much as states do in the federal government, would retain certain powers and perform certain roles. Limited, universal ownership, however, would create strong incentives toward smaller, community-oriented businesses, and away from national or international conglomerates. There would be little purpose or justification for large, nonregional businesses under such an ownership arrangement and great impetus for breaking down today’s conglomerates into regional- or community-sized pieces that focus on one particular product or a set of related products. Some companies might divide up into several small, independent, department-sized groups.
Checks and Balances
Our federal government, as designed by the Constitution, is a brilliant plan for preserving political freedom and democracy—by preventing one individual or segment of government from gaining too much power. Power is balanced in at least four ways: between the states and the federal government, between the two houses of Congress, among the three branches of the federal government, and between the people and their elected leaders. It is not my purpose in this post to explore all the ramifications of these governmental checks and balances, only to say that a similar system would need to be established in large economic institutions.
In the vast majority of today’s businesses, large and small, the owner or CEO or perhaps a small group of leaders hold total power. They function more or less as dictators, exercising the legislative (policy-making), the executive (administrative), and the judicial (decision-rendering) powers in the organization. They can do just about what they want to, with no internal checks and balances, for only certain external restraints (usually inadequate) prevent them from abusing the awesome power that is theirs. Separating the executive, legislative, and judicial powers in businesses makes perfect sense. It is the best way to prevent the abuse of authority, even if that authority is granted by the employees themselves through elected management.
Because in the United States the people are sovereign (in theory), their will influences all branches of government. The only tyranny theoretically possible under such a government is the tyranny of the majority, which worried Tocqueville.
The tyranny of the majority is not, in fact, the only tyranny possible in America. Our political system has been reshaped over time so that the wealthy and influential can exert a form of tyranny. This oppression will be with us until we accept certain types of political and economic reform. But tyranny of the majority is a very real thing in America. And, ultimately, it has but one check: the virtue of the people.
If the majority is wise and moral and virtuous in its selection of leaders, the potential tyranny of the majority will be of no consequence. The danger comes only when the majority forsakes its virtue. The Founders were well aware of this, but they had enough confidence in mankind to try this experiment anyway. Said Madison:
I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks, no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men; so that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rules, but in the people who are to choose them.1
The Founders quite clearly trusted the overall virtue of the people regarding the selection of political leaders. And I believe their confidence was well placed, for even though times have changed and our choice of political leaders is regrettably limited by money and influence, we still scrutinize these candidates through the lens of a morality that no longer governs our own lives. We expect (even demand) of our elected leaders standards of morality and virtue that we do not apply even to ourselves. The day may come when the majority totally loses its sense of virtue, but enough has survived to prevent the tyranny Tocqueville feared.
If we organize our economic institutions according to the principles set forth in the Constitution, they would be subject to the same threat of tyranny from the majority. But this threat is insignificant next to the actual tyranny we see in our present authoritarian organizations. What this system would remove from our economic institutions is the ignorant body of employees that is willfully blind to injustice, pollution, dishonesty, unsafe products, and unfair business practices. No longer would there be powerless employees who say, “Hey, I didn’t know. I just do my job and don’t ask questions. I have no influence over what management does.”
The (supposedly) good leaders we elect after examining them under the media microscope are our representatives in government. They speak and act for us. The President of the United States executes the public will; the legislature enacts laws through the authority given them by the people; the Supreme Court acts for the people in determining whether laws (and decisions of lower courts) are in harmony with the guiding principles set forth in the Constitution. None of these branches of government, however, pleases everybody. Sometimes they don’t please the majority. How is this possible?
Well, regardless of whether they were elected by popular vote or appointed by an elected official, these individuals have their own interpretations of right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust. Representing a diverse populace is no easy matter. Sometimes special interests, because they have purchased influence (or gained it some other way), sway public representatives away from the majority position. Sometimes the representative, because of individual conscience, votes or acts contrary to the will of his or her constituents. Sometimes there are several options, and pursuing even the most popular one still leaves 75 percent of the people dissatisfied. Representation, in short, is a compromise between the tyranny of the majority and the tyranny of individual rulers. It is the most necessary element of a republic.
In businesses this element would also be necessary in order to control the chaos into which a purely democratic workplace would inevitably fall. Every worker can’t have a voice in every decision, nor would he or she want to. That would be highly inefficient. But every worker would need a voice in the overall management of the enterprise and a knowledge of what is being done and why—because the workers would be the owners. And they would exert the powers of that ownership in choosing those who would represent them.
These four features of our democratic republic, established by the Constitution, should apply to any organization comprised of more than, say, fifty or so individuals. We must put ownership back where it belongs—in the hands of the people—but we must also avoid the chaos that a purely democratic system would spawn. The federal model is the ideal solution, the perfect compromise.
Business leaders have recognized the benefits of giving employees at least the illusion of democracy, though they generally give employees only a fraction of the voice they deserve. The recent commitment in some companies to permit employees to participate in ownership is commendable and is gaining momentum in the United States. Much of this growth in employee ownership has come through employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), now in place at some 7,000 companies, involving 13.5 million employees (11 percent of the full-time work force).
These plans are popular because they (predictably) increase employee commitment and generate cash flow, but they do not go far enough. Employee shareholding at limited or token levels should not be mistaken for actual employee ownership. A business can never become an economic “democratic republic” if most of the stock is held by either a few powerful individuals or a multitude of distant, disinterested shareholders. Authoritarianism with a democratic facade should not be confused with republican democracy.
If we are serious about overcoming our nation’s deep problems, we must make sweeping fundamental changes in our economic system, in both theory and practice, by bringing it in line with our political philosophy, social ideals, and moral principles. Says Shann Turnbull:
To minimise corruption of all sorts, we need to decentralise power to the greatest extent possible so as to maximise checks and balances. The most fundamental sources of power in society arise from the ownership and control of land, enterprise and money. The current ownership system was developed to serve the needs of past rulers who sought absolute powers. As a result, there is no limit as to the extent and value of property which any person can possess. New rules are needed to decentralise the power of owning things—rules which follow the self-limiting and self-regulating principles found in all living things.2
Given the fact that capitalism as we know it is both corrupt and gradually unraveling, we are faced with the dilemma of how to get from our present system to one which is both more equitable and more workable. This will not be an easy transition, for it will involve the conversion of our present authoritarian organizations into democratic institutions. Unfortunately, recognizing that we need to make this transition is much easier than actually making it. How do you convert from a system of either narrow, unlimited ownership or widely dispersed absentee ownership to a system of limited, widespread ownership?
A good argument can be built for making this transition over a long period of time. If we were to try to make this shift overnight, the consequences would likely be as horrible as they are predictable. Suddenly abolishing our present system of ownership would create a crisis perhaps even more perilous than the Civil War, which arose from abolishing a different though related form of ownership. It would be naive to think that those who have accumulated vast amounts of money, property, and power would simply yield to reason (or even newly enacted laws) and give up these possessions without a fight. And I mean a literal fight, one in which the odds are stacked against change and democracy.
How then can we make this transition? Turnbull takes a shot at this dilemma. He proposes a system in which ownership of corporations transfers gradually, at a rate of 5 percent per year, from investors to stakeholders (employees, customers, suppliers). The investor would reap profits for ten years, after which this gradual transfer would begin. What this means is that thirty years after the initial capital infusion, the investor would have no ownership in the enterprise. This, says Turnbull, “would make corporate investment consistent with the time-limited rights provided to all investors in intellectual property like patents and copyright.”3 Mature corporations, according to Turnbull’s plan, would then finance new technology and market growth by transferring parts of their operations to spinoffs or “corporate offspring,” which would attract new investors.
This system, though a far cry better than our present heap of perpetual, monopolistic shareholding, is still a system in which technology and economic growth would be supreme, and in which capital would still be concentrated enough that individuals and groups could invest heavily in new spinoffs or corporate progeny. Seen in the context of these issues, Turnbull’s vision of economic change might be an intermediate step that would pave the way for a system of complete equality and limited, widespread ownership.
The first question we should ask, though, is this: Do we have thirty years to convert our present system into Turnbull’s vision, which is still only a halfway house from our current economic prison to the free society we would become?
1. Elliot’s Debates, quoted in The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (New York: Bantam, 1982), xxi.
2. Shann Turnbull, “Transforming Society,” World Business Academy Perspectives (Winter 1992): 6.
3. Turnbull, “Transforming Society,” 6.