Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Preventing Abuse...Or Why Mormonism is Better than America

Less than twenty-four hours after I wrote a post including criticism of God's crude system of justice and punishment, my dad sent out a relevant email to our family.  He's been doing a kind of memoir thing which he emails to all of us as he finishes each section (which is a really cool idea and would be a lot more fun for me if it wasn't so saturated with church doctrine).  This week's installment was a musing on power, its abuses, and how the legal system and the church system both try to combat the abuse of power.  He wrote:
Society at large recognizes the potential damage that can result from the misuse of power.  Its approach is to pass laws and impose penalties to be exacted after the abuse has been discovered, with the hope that this will deter future abuses by those in power.  Perhaps this is the only approach society can really take.  But, sadly it is an approach that doesn't tend toward strengthening character to eliminate the abuses.  It doesn't tend toward improving people to protect and enhance the community.
Alma said that God had to establish heavy punishments to deter sinners.  My dad seems to think that this practice is imperfect and fails to build character.  So he's kind of disagreeing with a chapter of scripture that he probably hasn't read in a few months.  Not that big of a deal, right?  But then he goes on to describe, in several bullet points, what makes the church's approach to avoiding the abuse of power so much better.  And that's when it just got embarrassing.
  • In the Church, power is something that is possessed by the Father and the Son.  Those who need it are given authority to use a portion of that power to carry out their calling, but only for a limited time, to accomplish divinely approved purposes, and to be used within the bounds divinely set.
I don't see a difference between that and the organization of the United States society in which he resides:
  • In [America], power is something that is possessed by the [people].  Those who need it are given authority to use a portion of that power to carry out [the duties of their offices], but only for a limited time, to accomplish [Constitutionally] approved purposes, and to be used within the bounds [Constitutionally] set.
It's exactly the same. And, notably, both of these are a little too idealistic.  That's how it's supposed to work, sure, but we all know it doesn't work that way as often as it should.

My dad continued:
  • Should one begin to exercise control in any degree of unrighteousness, authority is lost.
  • All leaders are accountable to a higher authority for their actions. 
When a leader in the church exercises control unrighteously, authority is perhaps officially lost.  But if nobody knows about it, that person is not removed from a position of authority, so everyone still thinks he has power.  If he is perceived to have power and is still free to act as though he has it, doesn't he still kind of have that power?  There are plenty of stories of bishops who have behaved inappropriately or acted inexcusably in their callings who were not officially stripped of their authority.  Abuses of power still happen in the church.  

Additionally, while bishops may be accountable to stake presidents for their actions, stake presidents don't and can't know everything that their bishops do.  A stake president swooping in to save the day and oust a bishop who's overstepping his bounds is possible, but, just like with our legal system, it can only happen after the abuse has already taken place.  How is this any better?  
  • Church leaders do not act alone or in secret.  Bishops and presidents have counselors, bishoprics and stake presidencies have councils, all of which provide "safety in numbers" and protection from things going awry by one's misperception of the authority of his or her office or calling.
No.  That is wrong.

First of all, when a bishop asks a teenage girl about her sexual "purity" in a worthiness interview, it is behind closed doors without a parent or another authority figure present.  That seems pretty secret to me.

And secondly, "safety in numbers" is not the same thing as separation of powers.  There may be three guys in a bishopric, but that doesn't create a system of checks and balances.  The bishop is still the only guy with official keys of priesthood authority and his councilors cannot overrule him.  There is no authority in the ward unit of equal power to the bishop and there isn't anything in the ward that isn't under the bishop's purview.  Congress can block a bill the President is trying to push through and vice verse, but the ward council can't override a bishop's veto.  There is no such thing as judicial review in the church.  There are no official checks and no valid balances.
  • As another source of protection, members can go to their bishop if they see ward leaders do things they feel are inappropriate; they can go to their stake president should they feel their bishop is out of line; they are free to go to the First Presidency if they feel their stake president is misguided. (And I know from personal experience that members do use all three of these recourses.)
If you see a cop step out of line, you can call the police and report the misuse of power.  If that doesn't work, you can contact your congressman to ask for legislation that will introduce more stringent oversight of police behavior.  And you can always write the President of the United States to let him know what's going on, too.

But, considering that leaders in the church are supposed to have authority from God, criticism of their actions tends to produce a stigma on the critic.  Criticism of elected leaders of the nation is much more welcome (and more prevalent), and because of that, I'd argue that you're more likely to be taken seriously reporting something as a citizen than reporting something as a member of the church.

My dad also mentions (in bullet points that, for brevity's sake, I won't quote) that the church trains people to keep power in the proper perspective by stressing that God has the power, by teaching that the office (as opposed to the man) possesses the authority, and by often demoting leaders rather than having them ascend up a "career path" of greater and greater responsibility.  Those arguments fall flat in my eyes because the general authorities are revered like rock stars and not treated as merely vessels for God's actions.  That treatment diminishes with each lower level of power.  Bishops get a little of it and stake presidents get a little more.  In theory, perhaps this builds character and teaches people to respect the responsible use of power, but in practice, it can backfire just as easily.  How many stories have we all heard about nazi zone leaders who gain a little bit of sway over their missionary peers and use it to make themselves feel strong and important?

There is nothing here that trumps society's legal system.  There is nothing here that preemptively stops the abuse of power.  My dad's original pointthat using punishment as a reactionary deterrent is sadly ineffectiveis correct.  But that's what Alma says that God does and that's all the church does.  And that's really all the church can do (although they could afford to do it more effectively) because there's no precognition.  There's no divine inspiration flooding in to stop abuse before it happens.  It's just a bunch of people who can't stop what they don't know about.


  1. Could you imagine the chaos that would happen if the church took over the legal system, kind of like Sharia Law?

    Brigham Young was a tyrant in many ways. He abused his power horribly. There was nothing anyone could do to stop him, because he was God's chosen vessel. (Read the books by John D. Lee, Bill Hickman or Ann Eliza Young all available for free at Google Books).

    No, I'll take our legal system as slow and flawed as it may be. At least we have the option to vote people out, petition for change, run ourselves, etc. Just ask Kate Kelly what happens when you petition for change.

    1. Yes, people generally aren't stripped of their citizenship for trying to suggest different policies. Which is definitely nice.

      Those books are free on Google Books? That's awesome. I need to look those up.

  2. Here are the links to the free books.

    John D. Lee (Mountain Meadows Massacre)


    Wife No. 19 (Wife of Brigham Young)


    Brigham's Destroying Angel (Danite and "hit man" for the prophet.)


    1. Thanks for those links. I'm perusing Brigham's Destroying Angel right now and came across this line, when Hickman is discussing the validity of Brigham's claim to the leadership of the church:

      "I being so thoroughly convinced of the truth of Mormonism was willing to accept anything rather than say our system of things should fail."

      This kind of thinking is, I think, precisely how many modern-day church members are reacting to the CES Letter and the church's essays.