Jana Riess: LDS leaders may be seeing the erosion of their traditional power

What’s at stake when conservative members begin to see following the prophet as a matter of individual conscience on an issue-by-issue basis?

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) President Russell M. Nelson, center, greets President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, while followed by President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, and Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, in 2019.

In the past week, I’ve watched with interest as some Latter-day Saints, especially conservative ones, have resisted the church’s advice to embrace COVID-19 vaccinations. These are rumblings, not open rebellions, but they come on the heels of other recent pushback from conservatives.

Like when top leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publicly congratulated Joe Biden for winning the presidential election: It should have been a pro forma news release, but the anger from disappointed Donald Trump supporters was swift and severe. Despite having no evidence of fraud or wrongdoing, they believed the election results should be overturned and were also angry when the church reminded members earlier this month of President Dallin Oaks’ General Conference statement about accepting the results of peaceful elections.

Open discussion of, and even resistance to, church guidance is hardly new. Liberals have been doing it for decades (and some of us have the hate mail to prove it). What’s new is that I see this coming from some of the church’s most ardent follow-the-prophet supporters in the U.S.

What’s at stake when orthodox Latter-day Saints begin to see following the prophet as a matter of individual conscience on an issue-by-issue basis?

I don’t see any massive or dramatic change yet, but these dynamics reflect a broader shift that’s happening with institutions across the board, not just religious ones. Americans, particularly younger ones, are wary of following institutional authority simply for the sake of loyalty. Latter-day Saints as a whole are, compared to others, still quite traditional in privileging obedience to authority, but younger members are not the same as their parents and grandparents. For them, institutional authority is not as effective as personal relationships.

This raises some questions about the future of power in the LDS Church. Institutional power is not going to go away, but I can see more tensions ahead.

First, some definitions, for which I’m drawing heavily from Andy Crouch’s excellent book “Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power.”

That subtitle is no accident. Our first mistake is treating “power” like a dirty word. Power, he says, is a holy gift that we abuse — or ignore — at our peril. Power is something worth praying about, worth stewarding, because it is capable of changing the world — and changing the world is what Christians are called to do. The fact that many Christians now express open discomfort with the idea of seeking or holding power reflects how poorly we have handled power through the centuries. Many times burned (or responsible for burning others), we’ve learned to be leery of power and its seductions.

Some people deal with this discomfort by investing in “low power” structures, which seek to render the trappings of power largely invisible. Think of Steve Jobs (R.I.P.) in his approachable black turtleneck or Jeff Bezos continuing to drive a Honda Accord long after becoming a billionaire: The most powerful people in the world, in “low power” structures, try to appear like everybody else.

Even the expression the “trappings of power” can teach us something: People with highly visible power can become trapped by the customs and distance that keep that power in place. If you don’t believe me, think of what would happen if church President Russell M. Nelson tried to go to Costco on a Saturday morning in Salt Lake City.

In evangelical churches, Crouch says you can perceive different generations of leadership just in the ways pastors dress and comport themselves. In the 1970s and 1980s, pastors donned conservative suits and gladly accepted honorary doctorates that seemed to bolster their worldly street cred. But today’s religious leaders have traded those in for khaki pants, discreet headset microphones, and open-door office hours. Where movie stars of yesteryear cultivated an aura of mystique through carefully crafted messaging, star power today is measured in Insta followers and the vulnerability of habitual self-disclosure.

But make no mistake: This is still power. In fact, the “low power structure” is actually more dangerous because it’s such a compelling facade; these configurations look transparent but are anything but. The powerful themselves are often fooled into believing they wield little power simply because they have resisted many of its outward trappings.

Think of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle renouncing their royal titles and incomes last year. Although they are openly resisting leadership roles in a traditional power structure that apparently proved stifling, they will never be permitted to disappear. They still have power, and plenty of it, outside of the “high power structure” of the royal family.

In terms of power structures, the LDS Church is more like the royal family than it is like a contemporary evangelical megachurch. There is a clear hierarchy, with a next-in-line flow chart and carefully delineated protocols for leaders’ behavior and dress. At General Conference, this protocol is on vivid display. Every male leader wears the requisite uniform of dark coat, white shirt and restrained necktie and sits in an assigned seat according to his place in the line of succession. A royal coronation could not be more conventionally ordered.

Most importantly, leaders score rhetorical points by drawing from other LDS leaders’ speeches, reifying the internal power structure every time they quote current or past presidents of the church while only rarely citing people outside that narrow channel of leadership.

The language of priesthood “keys” extends from this traditional power structure and approach; by definition, not everyone can have a key, which highlights the difference between those who wield power and those who do not. If power were universally accessible, there would be no need for keys because the symbolic “door” would already be unlocked. The language pinpoints an almost ontological divide separating those who hold keys from those who don’t and trades in the hint of secrecy, which is another long-standing tool used to underscore a high power structure.

What happens over time with LDS power in the U.S. context will be fascinating to observe. I don’t anticipate that pushback even from a growing number of conservative members will be enough to transform a traditional “high power” structure that is so deeply entrenched. We’re not likely to see a come-as-you-are General Conference.

What is more likely is an inexorable, if unconscious, adoption of the post-Vatican II Catholic model: a leadership that continues to make pronouncements in the manner of a traditional power structure and a membership that increasingly disregards them.