Daily Archives: April 22, 2013

Two things the Mormons are doing right

Recent posts at Bruce Charlton’s blog (this one, for example) have dealt with the idea that Mormonism is currently producing more “good fruits” (in terms of the devoutness of its members, the integrity of its leaders, and its resistance to corruption and liberalization) than are the other major branches of the Christian family of religions — and that Catholics and Protestants ought therefore to set their theological objections to Mormonism to one side, approach that religion with respect, and try to learn from its successes. As an ex-Mormon with Christian sympathies, I obviously find this discussion interesting.

So what are the Mormons doing right? The answer is unlikely to be found in Mormon doctrine itself, I think. A theme which keeps turning up in the conversation Dr. Charlton has started is that Mormonism is consistently better in practice than in theory, and that its often unusual and (from the point of view of other Christians) objectionable doctrine is a red herring. For example, in theory Mormonism is considerably more liberal than Catholicism on issues of sexual morality — but in practice, most Mormons actually follow their moral code, whereas most Catholics do not. In practice, what makes Mormons different from most other Christian groups is not so much their unorthodox theology as the fact that they don’t swear, don’t have premarital sex, pay a full tithe, and keep the Sabbath day holy.

So, aside from doctrine, what is unique to Mormonism that might account for its success? Two things come to mind.

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The church and the temple

One unique feature of Mormonism is that it offers two distinct levels of participation: the church and the temple.

The church is similar to other churches. Regularly scheduled weekly services are held which are open to everyone, both members and non-members, and maintaining membership in the church is very easy. Once you’ve been baptized, you have to try pretty hard if you want to be kicked out. (I found this out when I tried to leave the church in 2002. Even writing to church headquarters and explicitly renouncing my membership didn’t do the trick.) Church members are “disfellowshipped” (put on probation) or excommunicated (expelled) only for extremely serious sins such as murder or adultery, or for public and unrepentant opposition to the church itself or to its core doctrines. Except for these extreme cases, the church welcomes the participation even of people whose lives fall far short of its standards.

The temple is something else entirely. There is no schedule; members attend whenever and however often they like, mostly individually or in small groups which they organize themselves. If the nearest temple is far away, the local ward (congregation) may organize monthly temple trips so as to allow for carpooling — but these trips are still “extracurricular” in nature. A good member is expected to attend church every week, but there is no corresponding expectation that one participate in every temple trip. Given that you can attend the temple anytime you want, with or without other members, most of the other ward members won’t even know how often you attend, or even whether you attend at all.

Unlike the church, which is open to the public, the temple has very strict standards for admission. Temple patrons must show a “temple recommend” at the door in order to be admitted. This is a card certifying the member’s worthiness to attend the temple, which must be renewed periodically. A person seeking a temple recommend must be interviewed by the bishop (pastor) and stake president (like a Catholic bishop), and must assert that he believes key Mormon doctrines, accepts the authority of church leaders, is chaste, is honest, pays a full tithe, doesn’t drink or smoke, and so on.

Of course some hypocrites will lie through their teeth and attend the temple unworthily, but the system is so structured as to minimize that kind of thing. The unscheduled, extracurricular nature of temple participation makes it relatively easy for a member with worthiness issues to discreetly stop attending the temple for a while until the issues have been resolved. (Temple attendance can be contrasted with the Eucharist, called simply “the sacrament” by Mormons. Because the latter is administered publicly at weekly services which members are expected to attend, non-participation is much more public and obvious. I suspect Mormons take the sacrament unworthily far more often than they attend the temple unworthily.)

No system is perfect, but overall I think the two-tier church-and-temple system is an effective way of maintaining high standards while not putting undue social pressure on those who struggle with living up to those standards. Consider someone who is basically a good Mormon but struggles with some relatively common sin — pornography, say, or not paying a full tithe. If the whole church insisted on temple-level standards, such a person would either have to leave the church — with all the personal and social disruption that implies — or else live in a state of increasingly cynical hypocrisy. If, on the other hand, there were no temple at all, he might easily become complacent and feel that his current way of life is “good enough.” Under the church-and-temple system, though he can maintain normal social participation in the church while at the same time receiving a very clear message that his current way of life is not acceptable and that he is called to live up to a higher standard. Even if he should choose the path of hypocrisy, maintaining temple-level participation unworthily, the system of temple recommend interviews forces him to confront that hypocrisy; it replaces the easy, diffuse hypocrisy of “keeping up appearances” with the black-and-white dishonesty of looking the bishop in the eye and lying to him — something which is sure to prick the conscience of even the most jaded sinner, nudging him in the direction of repentance.

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The calling system

The uniqueness of the Mormon system of “callings” was brought home to me recently while I was thinking not about religion but about politics — about the redeeming features of democracy and how they might be incorporated into a basically monarchic system of government. It occurred to me that this is precisely what the Mormons have done.

The appeal of democracy is the idea that governing the polity is everyone’s responsibility, that (ideally) every citizen is involved and invested and has a voice in the process. Its downside is that it tries to realize that ideal by means of mass voting — a system in which each citizen’s individual contribution is minuscule to the point of meaninglessness. In the name of making everyone responsible and letting everyone make important decisions, democracy gives us a system in which no one is responsible and important decisions are made by an algorithm.

The democratic approach to giving power and responsibility to the citizenry reminds me of the Mohist approach to love. Mozi taught that love and benevolence ought to be universal and absolutely impartial — that even one’s friends, family members, and fellow-countrymen ought not to receive preferential treatment. Confucius, a wiser Chinese philosopher than Mozi, made “treating relatives as relatives” a cornerstone of his ethical teachings. The Mohist doctrine is superficially appealing, but Confucianism recognizes the fact that having the full love and loyalty of even just one person is of far more value than having an infinitesimal fraction of the love and loyalty of every person on the planet. The same principle applies to power and responsibility. It’s far more meaningful to have full responsibility for one small thing than to share a tiny fraction of the responsibility for many big things.

Thus, in the ideal polity, instead of holding mass elections and maintaining the fiction that each citizen is making big important decisions such as appointing presidents and the like, the government would give each citizen a far smaller sphere of responsibility but make him really and truly responsible in that sphere.

The Mormon church comes very close to realizing such a polity with its system of “callings.” A calling is specific responsibility — such as maintaining membership records, teaching a Sunday school class, or being the bishop of a congregation — which is extended to a church member by his superiors, and typically every active member is given a calling. Callings are unpaid positions in which one typically serves for a few years, upon which one is “released” from one’s old calling and given a new one. Individual members have no say in what callings they receive; they can only accept or reject such callings as their leaders see fit to extend — and it is generally understood that one should accept all callings unless there is some compelling reason not to do so. No one ever volunteers for a calling, nor does voting play any role in the process of assigning callings. After a calling has been extended and accepted, the newly called person is presented to the congregation for a “sustaining vote,” but this is more like the “speak now or forever hold your peace” bit of a traditional wedding ceremony than like an actual election. The voting is virtually always unanimous in the affirmative. If someone did object, I suppose the bishop would speak with him privately and perhaps (if he had a valid objection) consider withdrawing the calling, but he would not be obligated to do so. In other words, the Mormons use voting the way voting ought to be used — as a source of potentially useful information which the leader can take into account, not as a substitute for decision-making.

Though totally non-democratic in its structure, the calling system has some appealingly “democratic” effects. Any “ordinary” member might find himself suddenly elevated to the bishopric or higher, only to return Cincinnatus-like to a much lower position after a few short years. Running the church is everyone’s job, and everyone is involved and invested — and that involvement takes the form of real, meaningful, clearly defined individual responsibilities. And the church accomplishes this all within the context of a unified top-down “monarchic” organization, leaving its polity uncompromised by the permanent state of limited civil war which is true democracy.

I’m not sure how effectively the Mormon system could be adapted to a secular polity, but it certainly seems to be a highly effective way of running a church. The members are motivated to stay involved because they have responsibilities and their involvement matters.

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