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.


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.


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.


Filed under Mormonism

4 responses to “Two things the Mormons are doing right

  1. Excellent post – which I have linked-to.

    One point: you say that what attracts most people’s sympathetic attention to Mormonism is that “they don’t swear, don’t have premarital sex, pay a full tithe, and keep the Sabbath day holy” – and that was true of me; except that perhaps it was even more the marriage-family orientation; and (scientifically) the larger than replacment families in a modern economically successful groups (and especially among the wealthiest and most-educated Mormons)which made me start looking at Mormonism in detail.

    But all that is rather dry; and what kept me interested, and took me further into Mormonism, was not just or only good behaviour, but

    1. The everyday spirituality of devout Mormons – the Christ-centred and prayerful life, the sense of a living and actively intervening God in personal contact with each Christian, granting revelations; and a church likewise.


    2. The positive, hopeful, cheerful, *energizing* quality of Mormon spirituality; which makes such a contrast to the most devout type of Catholic (Eastern and Western) spirituality – and which is so appealing (and helpful) to someone who (like myself) is prone to the sins of sluggishness, despair, and Eeyore-like morosity!

    Looking at the history of the LDS church over the past 180 years in contrast with the trajectories of Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism and the other various large Reformed churches over the same period; it really does look as if there was a *Restoration* of the Gospel; exactly as Joseph Smith claimed.

  2. @WmJas – “So what are the Mormons doing right? The answer is unlikely to be found in Mormon doctrine itself, I think.”

    I used to think this, but have gradually changed my mind over the past year or so.

    I think the metaphysics and theology of the Restored Gospel is probably essential to the Mormons having resisted many of the worst aspects of modernity. For example, the way that marriage and family have become more and more central to Mormon life is underpinned by the distinctive aspects of Mormon theology – and indeed this aspect took several decades to ripen (as the implications became more apparent).

    (e.g. In pioneer days the missionaries were often married men (perhaps with several wives and huge families) – so the most devout Mormon households were often fatherless for long periods – up to years at a time. This kind of potentially family-damaging ‘calling’ would (I think) be almost inconceivable in today’s more family-focused LDS church.)

    I am not sure exactly what the most significant aspects are, but I think that it is some of the features which differentiate Mormonism from mainstream Christianity which may be, in fact, essential (over the long haul) underpinnings of the most impressive differences in behaviour – and that the organizational aspects which you describe would not be able to stand firm against pressure, if it were not for things like the distinctive plan of salvation, free agency, pre-mortal spirit life, eternal marriage and families, multi-level theosis, the possibility of progression after death, modern revelation, living prophets and so on.

    These distinctive doctrines (or some of them) seem to provide the strength and energy which drive the good social structures and practices. I wonder how much of the social structure and personal behaviour mainstream Christianity could replicate without these (or some of these) distinctive doctrines?

    For example, I find it impossible to imagine the LDS capitulating to the current push for redefinition of marriage, because of the doctrinal centrality of marriage; but all too easy to imagine all the large mainstream Christian churches compromising and diluting marriage since, in the end and at bottom line, they regard salvation as individual hence marriage as expendable. And if marriage is as important as I think it probably is, this would be a decisive, qualitative difference.

  3. Your post made me laugh, since I am currently working on a post for my Mormon blog that advocates election by lot instead of by voting and uses the Church’s calling system as the jumping off point.

    I don’t see any necessary fit between doctrine and practice, but when you think about replicating the two Mormon systems you identify in some other religious setting, you see how hard it would be to recreate the Mormon system without also recreating the Mormon doctrine. The calling system, for instance, is hard to conceive without the peculiar Mormon synthesis between the the Protestant priesthood of all believers and the Catholic ordained priesthood.

  4. Pingback: On the Origin of Mormonism by Means of Natural Selection | Junior Ganymede

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