Authority is Our Sacred Cow, and It Must be Domesticated

I believe that there are members of our faith that would engage in acts of terrorism if asked by the leaders of our Church. For instance, in a discussion about two years ago on M*, one of the perma-bloggers said the following with regard to Abraham attempting to sacrifice Isaac: “Smallaxe, with the testimony I have of the living prophets, if President Monson were to call upon me to sacrifice one of my children, I would do so.”

If someone is willing to sacrifice his own child at the request of the Prophet, you can be sure that he would be willing to sacrifice the children of others (this blogger actually joked earlier in the conversation that he’d willingly sacrifice my child). While only one other person in the conversation explicitly supported his position, no one from the blog refuted him; and none were willing to come up with a position that precluded this kind of fundamentalism.

While anecdotal, I think it speaks to a more general issue—we have a problem with authority. In a more recent discussion on the same blog, I was reminded (not so gently) that Elder Oaks said, “Criticism is particularly objectionable when it is directed toward Church authorities, general or local. Jude condemns those who ‘speak evil of dignities.’ (Jude 1:8.) Evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed is in a class by itself. It is one thing to depreciate a person who exercises corporate power or even government power. It is quite another thing to criticize or depreciate a person for the performance of an office to which he or she has been called of God. It does not matter that the criticism is true. As Elder George F. Richards, President of the Council of the Twelve, said in a conference address in April 1947, ‘When we say anything bad about the leaders of the Church, whether true or false, we tend to impair their influence and their usefulness and are thus working against the Lord and his cause.’” 

The spirit of the quote is that criticism can impair the efficacy of Church leadership and prohibit them from realizing all the good they want to accomplish. At the same time, the quote displays the importance of authority in our community. Church leaders rely on authority to accomplish their aims, and authority can be more important than what is right.

Other prophets and apostles have said similar things. Bruce R. McConkie, for instance, said in General Conference, “No true Latter-day Saint will ever take a stand that is in opposition to what the Lord has revealed to those who direct the affairs of his earthly kingdom.” And this year’s manual for Priesthood and Relief Society repeated Marion G. Romney’s story (as retold by Ezra Taft Benson): “My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.”

These quotes explain that the leadership of the Church can in fact be wrong, but we should not question them. Questioning them lessens their ability to do good and signals that we are not on the Lord’s side. In this view, we will be blessed even if they are wrong. It suggests that God’s ways are not our ways, and so if something they ask seems unethical, it’s only because we cannot see as far as the watchmen on the tower can see. In this view, authority can trump what is right and good, yet nothing can trump authority.

Authority, here, has become more than a preeminent value, it has become untouchable and the basis for determining what is ultimately right and good. It has become the sacred itself; and those with authority have become the totemic bearers of the sacred.

These quotes are often tempered by members with explanations that leaders of the Church also encourage the members to think for themselves, and that disagreements with the Church should be settled in private. This latter sentiment is often expressed along the following lines: “In the Church setting, take your concerns to the leaders whose stewardship you are in: your bishop, your stake president, etc. Discuss it with them, since they have been given the authority and keys to receive revelation to guide those they lead. And if matters can’t be resolved, they may choose to take it further.”

All of this raises the issue of the limits of authority. On the one hand, authority is supreme; on the other hand, members ought to think for themselves. Addressing these competing tendencies, reminds me of this serenity prayer I wrote a couple of years ago:

God, grant me the courage to question my leaders;

the humility to accept their answers;

and the prudence to know when courage becomes arrogance, and humility becomes complaisance.

The trick is finding a balance such that within the Church we leave enough room for our leaders to effectively say, “Trust me on this one,” while also having sufficient room to think critically about claims, policies, and doctrines they make or state. As it currently stands, we give too much weight to authority.

In directly addressing the question of limits, I propose the following limitations to authority:

  1. When those in authority demand actions that seem unethical, and at the same time preclude an arena for questioning the action, authority has gone too far.
  2. When those in authority provide reasons for policy, they cannot revert to justifying the policy on the basis of authority when the reasons are questioned. Reasons are by nature publicly accessible and open for investigation.
  3. Authority cannot trump what is right solely for the sake of maintaining authority.
  4. When those in authority entirely control the parameters of scrutinizing authority, authority has gone too far.
  5. When those in authority do not believe their authority is informed by those over whom they have authority, authority has gone too far.
  6. When only those in authority can suggest limits to authority, authority has gone too far.

Authority, in many respects, is our sacred cow, or perhaps our golden calf. It must be domesticated if our religious tradition is to remain an integral part of more members’ lives. The problem that authority presents, in this context, is that it crowds out room for careful thinking, which is the very room necessary for members to choose to trust in the revelations of those in authority.