So what do we do when we disagree with friends and family over an issue?
Well, let's see. If only there was a silver bullet we could use to always win an argument.
Oh, wait, there is!
By appealing to authority!
"When the prophet speaks, the debate is over."
See? (I just proved my point.)
The 4 Pitfalls of Appealing to Authority
There are four significant problems with appealing to an Authority Figure to resolve an issue:
1.Fallibility of Authority.
The Authority Figure may err (example: race and the priesthood). That's right, we're all human. Even prophets have been proven to err from time to time.
In fact, we find numerous examples of Authority Figures who do not agree between themselves (like whether it's okay to use the name "Mormon").
This is a problem we always have with experts ― you can always find other experts who disagree.
So by appealing to authority, we're actually (ironically) creating more contention as we escalate the disagreement up the food chain, invoking others' names in defense of our position in a "Battle of the Experts" (or as I like to play, Battle of the Prophets).
This leaves the underlying disagreement unresolved.
2.External vs. Internal Change.
If the debate ends after an Authority Figure speaks, does it resolve the underlying conflict?
A generation after Roe v. Wade, did the Supreme Court's decision settle the issue of abortion for the country?
Even if the parties make peace outwardly, have their hearts changed? While it may temporarily achieve an absence of conflict, the problem hasn't gone away and may blow up into a bigger problem down the road when the cease-fire ends.
3. Authority Promotes Judgmentalism.
Once an Authority Figure has spoken, it creates division between their followers. Why? Because after the Authority renders a final decision, you'll find ill-will among their followers increasing, driven by the division of the group into those who obey the Authority's counsel and those who do not.
For example, if the Prophet says, "Wear a mask" and someone doesn't, then the adherents feel justified in judging those who don't wear a face covering as being "out of order" or accuse them of "not following the Prophet."
Lines are drawn. We stop being precious to each other, and instead become pieces on a chessboard, taking sides.
4.Authority is Fragmentary.
The effectiveness of an Authority Figure's ability to settle a dispute lies in the amount of deference the parties give to the Authority Figure.
The problem is when there are multiple Authority Figures. Whose authority is greater than whose? If someone supports Donald Trump and uses him as an Authority Figure, and their neighbor uses Barack Obama as their Authority Figure, then they'll get nowhere because they don't share a common Authority Figure.
Well, that's why we create hierarchies.
And . . . Knock Out.
Bolstering Authority . . . For Dummies®
Leaders are aware of the fragility of their authority.
Since their authority affords them special status, privileges, and opportunities, they create systems to protect their authority against erosion.
Let's look at some of the ways leaders try to address the problems listed above in #1 - #4, above.
1. RESPONSE: Fallibility of Leader's Authority.
The Catholics wrote the textbook on the "infallibility" of the Pope. The LDS Church similarly teaches that the Prophet can never "lead us astray."
In order to solve the problem of competing authority, authoritarian systems establish hierarchies so there is always a well-defined Top Dog or Supreme Leader.
You'll find in these systems that Authority Figures use surrogates to protect their plausible deniability. Case in point: the Church's Handbook being anonymously written.
In addition, we see the growth of tribalism wherein Authority Figures try to create an "us vs. them" mentality. This is important in creating distrust of any authority outside of the hierarchy.
We also observe Authority Figures creating group dynamics like "the only true Church." While this may create solidarity among their adherents, it ultimately contributes to greater contention as a whole, since you have warring factions who both feel like they're right.
We end up with a society that objectifies our personal worth based on group identity.
2. RESPONSE: External vs. Internal.
What is the response of Authority Figures to the struggle between external control vs. individual freedom?
Well, they have to double down on organizational controls in order to promote the "public" good (read: good for those in charge).
When we elevate the "public good," "public welfare," or "public safety" above personal liberty, then we are free only insofar as our leaders allow.
This creates systems that reward conformity and virtue signaling. But it also results in an impoverished culture where appearances become more important than real intent; where individuals become cogs in a wheel whose value is measured in how much they contribute to the "greater" or "public" good of the organization (read: to those who are in charge).
And if a person rocks the boat and is not beneficial to the leadership, then they are cut loose. ("Throw them overboard, in the name of Protecting the Authority.") Because, you see, a person's worth is never greater than a leader's authority.
3. RESPONSE: Authority Promotes Judgmentalism.
Maybe you've got tanks and missiles and apache helicopters to maintain your authority by force. But for most us, we don't have direct control over others.
So how do leaders maintain their authority without guns?
Well, one of best ways is to recruit the Hitler Youth to tattle on their parents and neighbors. It creates a system of self-enforcement and self-surveillance where eyes-on-the-ground "return and report" against those who are testing boundaries and criticizing leadership.
This creates an orderly system, but at what cost? Where people have to censor their words and behaviors lest they be marked as disloyal to the party and get sent to the Gulag?
Better to keep silent; better to stay away from the enemies-of-the-people (read: "sinners") lest we get sideways of leadership.
And so we create a false orthodoxy that prevents authentic speech and action because (if you're like me) you'd rather play along than get in trouble.
So we pretend.
We pretend everything is fine when it is not. We pretend our systems are good when they are not. We pretend our leaders are right when they are not. We pretend we are happy when we are not.
But if we speak up, what will happen to us? If we leave the system, what will become of us?
Well, we've all seen how our faith-fellows have been treated by the hierarchy when they push against the boundaries, haven't we? We've seen that those who speak out honestly get ostracized, blacklisted, or even excommunicated.
Better keep our heads down. (Why does it sometimes feel like we belong to a pack of wolves more than to a flock of sheep?)
4. RESPONSE: Authority is Fragmentary.
The Framers of the Constitution knew authority was toxic. So what did they do? They chopped up and spread authority as wide as possible ― splitting it between dual sovereigns (federal and state) and among multiple branches (executive, legislative, and judiciary) ― and yet we see the opposite today.
Why is that?
Why do we see systems consolidating authority into fewer and fewer people?
As power concentrates at the top, it creates a hierarchy in which the leaders become increasingly distant from their followers, who are unable to interact with those with power to any meaningful degree.
HANDBOOK Sec. 38.8.26
"Church members are discouraged from calling, emailing, or writing letters to General Authorities about doctrinal questions, personal challenges, or requests. Responding personally would make it difficult for General Authorities to fulfill their duties."
Yikes. Good thing Jesus doesn't follow the Handbook. Maybe He'll have time to answer my questions.
Communism and Authority
Why would religion seek to implement the practices of communism, when communism has historically been so antagonistic toward religion freedom?
Is it because both communism and religion share an interest in maintaining a strong, authoritarian structure?
There are several troubling trends that indicate the Church is following in the footsteps of communism. Don't freak out, but consider a couple of examples:
1. Disenfranchisement. - Recall that when leaders get nearly 100% of the votes they are usually dictators?
- For example, a few years ago the "President" of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, was reelected with 97% of the popular vote. No one was surprised. This was not a landslide election ― it was a fixed election.
- In 2014, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un won 100% of the vote (so I guess he could help Berdimuhamedov close the 3% gap). The North Korean propaganda machine went to work, describing how the country was "seething with election atmosphere" on election day and, remarkably, Every. Single. Registered. Elector voted for Kim. Wow!
- You may be wondering, "Why do dictators hold elections at all?" Well, because it gives the appearance of legitimacy to their rule (even if we're all in on the joke). And because they don't really care about their international perception since they control the government-run media.
In the Church, our current practice of "common consent" is not so different from the way Kim Jong Un gets elected Supreme Ruler:
a. The people didn't choose Kim. b. The people are powerless to replace Kim. c. But the people get to cast their votes for Kim because . . . well, because that's what they're told to do by those in Authority.
You might be thinking, "But Tim! Our leaders are chosen by God Himself."
Circa 34 A.D. "Yes, the same could be said of Caiaphas."
"We can sustain the General Authorities and our local leaders and officers in several ways:
- By our faith and prayers in their behalf. - By following their counsel. - By helping when they ask us. - By accepting callings they extend to us.
Sustaining our leaders is evidence of our goodwill, faith, and fellowship."
(Ensign, March 2012, "We Sustain Our Leaders," https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2012/03/we-sustain-our-leaders?lang=eng)
By the way, the beloved Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un only has a net worth of $5 Billion. Not bad for a 39 year old, but he's not even in the big leagues yet.
Cult of Personality
"A cult of personality arises when a leader is represented as larger-than-life through imagery and words of uncritical praise and flattery.
"Leaders are often depicted as superhuman, courageous, wise, and incapable of error, [which makes it] less likely followers will criticize or question their policies or challenge their power."
On the books, we have an appellate process by which those who are disciplined may appeal to a higher authority (all the way up to the First Presidency!). Yes, it's still there in the Handbook, although I am not sure why they haven't removed it since it's not used (like laws that criminalize adultery).
Handbook, Section 32.13: Appeal of a Decision.
"A member may appeal the decision of a stake membership council by writing a letter to the First Presidency within 30 days. The member gives the letter to the stake president to submit to the First Presidency."
- Yet Every. Single. One. who has appealed their discipline in modern history to the 1st Presidency has had their appeal summarily denied and the lower decision rubber-stamped. (This would be like a judge having a 100% conviction rate. Would you want to be tried in his court?)
- This shows that while we maintain an illusion of due process (which all authoritarian regimes relish), in reality it is a mechanism to protect the leaders rather than the members.
Whose Side Are We On?
During the Civil War, someone from the North said to President Lincoln that they sure hoped God was on their side.
President Lincoln responded to the comment, "Sir, my greatest concern is to be on God's side."
In my last post, I mentioned that we should be witnesses of Christ, not witnesses of ourselves.
How can we be witnesses of Christ if we're always yapping about our authority?
If the scriptures have taught me anything, it is that we need to stop worrying about whether we're "in step" with our leaders and instead worry about whether we're "in step" with our Great High Priest. Look to Christ and live.