08 December 2010

Why They're Stuck

Abelard's latest post related only the latest example of how a large organization with top-down control can stifle creativity in a way that runs counter to the organization's own stated goals. This kind of thing isn't confined to the LDS Church, but it's unfortunate in any organization that tries to be devoted to purposes such as the LDS Church espouses.

Beyond that, though, I was intrigued by Abe's statements of belief that only outside pressure will cause the LDS Church to change its position on homosexuality, that it will never willingly change from within. I've had this discussion with numerous friends who think differently, but I agree with Abe. Yes, there is precedent for the Church to change as a result of internal efforts, but not on issues like this. The last issue of such theological magnitude faced by the Church was polygamy, which the Church agreed to suspend only when its very survival was at stake--due to outside pressures.

For the LDS Church to change its position on homosexuality, it'd have to re-write its current understanding of the "Plan of Salvation" more significantly than has ever been done since Joseph Smith's time. In a church led by revelation, should that be a problem?

Well, ah, yes, I think it would be. Why?

Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were radicals. They were most certainly not cautious or conservative. They shook things up in Christianity like few had ever done before. Joseph was not afraid to say "thus saith the Lord", nor Brigham either.

What do we see from the LDS Church of 2010?

As Daymon Smith recently pointed out, there actually is no such thing as "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." There is The Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns a bunch of subsidiaries like Intellectual Reserve, Inc., which owns the trademark "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" as well as copyrights to things like hymnbooks, publications, media productions, and so forth. There are other subsidiaries which own real estate, or operate businesses, etc. But believe it or not, there is actually no formal organization that itself bears the name The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

What we actually have is a family of corporations with very defined business functions. Who runs them? General Authorities who, before full-time church service, were doing what? Well, a lot of them were running corporations, or businesses, or practicing law, or engaged in other high-demand professions. Men who know how to navigate large organizations. And who run the LDS Church in the same way they ran businesses or professional practices in their prior lives. I won't go into detail, but trust me on this. I have worked closely with General Authorities and regional authorities and seen close-up how they operate. I know what I'm talking about.

This is the kind of organization that hires a PR firm to re-design its name logo to try to build more street cred amongst other Christian churches. Which surveys its members as to what they like about the divinely inspired temple ceremonies and then changes those ceremonies based on that feedback. Which concentrates authority over its official messaging in the hands of a small group of "Correlation" employees who are reportedly not above trying to tell senior leadership what they can say and how to say it, in the name of "doctrinal purity."

In short, a church run exactly like a corporation.

Now, think of the corporate business people you've known or seen. Are they radicals like Joseph Smith? Are they risk-tolerant or risk-averse? That's an easy answer. The 1978 Official Declaration extending the priesthood to all worthy men regardless of race was the first clear "thus saith the Lord" since 1890. And its text was pretty vague, even so. Now, 30+ years on, with more corporatization and Correlation having almost completely taken over the church, how risk-tolerant will top management be for any public statement about homosexuality, if they don't have a direct conduit for divine instruction that'll make any such statement fail-safe?

Not very. In fact, I submit, not at all. They're going to run as fast as they can from taking on this issue. There will be conflicting signals from individual leaders but no clear statements from the very top. Because they don't know what to do about it, and as best I can tell, there's been no new inspiration or revelation to settle the question. Nor does it seem top leadership feels much need to consider any changes, in light of Boyd Packer's speech.

This is why I think only external factors will succeed. The Church's inertia on this issue is too tied not only to cultural prejudice but to a theological construct which prevents the kind of change that needs to happen, unless some unprecedented revelation comes that shatters prior understandings. And that, my friends, is something risk-averse corporate managers--who now have complete control of the LDS Church--will never seek.


Beck said...

This post scares me to the core. All of the fiber of my being wants to deny what you say, but I can't... and that shakes me with fear.

MoHoHawaii said...

I read Daymon Smith's dissertation (archived here) about the history of correlation. It was a fascinating read and is completely consistent with the analysis of this post.

I've studied the changes in the new edition of the church handbook. The new handbook pulls back in exactly the way that you would expect for a large organization that is beginning to encounter external controversy. It simply cuts references to the most controversial bits. In the new handbook, the most significant gay-related change is that all language asking members to get involved politically against marriage equality has been removed. Instead, the handbook uses vague, awkward, almost ungrammatical language to state its position: the Church "affirms defining" marriage in a way that excludes same-sex couples.

I agree with you that what we will see over the next few years is relative silence on the topic of homosexuality from LDS leaders. The Prop 8 backlash took them by surprise. By backlash, I mean the pushback from faithful, well-connected members like Steve Young and his wife, Matt Thurston and others.

Like you, I have a lot of experience with large corporations. After a while you learn how they work. It's a model that fits this situation extremely well.

The days are numbered for the Church's senseless and counterproductive jihad against gay people. You will never again see them involved politically on this issue in a public way. They will limit their activities to those, such as financial support for the National Organization for Marriage, that cannot be traced.

Max Power said...

Which surveys its members as to what they like about the divinely inspired temple ceremonies and then changes those ceremonies based on that feedback.

Oooh! I want to hear more about this one!

Pablo said...

Henceforth and forever. Amen and amen.

The key members of the church hierarchy have painted the church into a corner and they keep applying fresh coats. If the trend holds, the paint will never dry, dooming the church to an unchanging Pleasantville existence in that corner for the foreseeable future.

Scott said...

While I think you're largely correct, I wonder if internal pressure — should it continue to grow — won't also play a role. Marlin Jensen's visit to Oakland to offer a personal apology was surely a response, however tentative (and insufficient) to dissatisfaction in the ranks.

Such dissatisfaction may not amount to much in areas other than the relatively liberal Oakland Stake, but in tandem with external pressures it can only help, IMO.

mohoguy said...

I agree with your post. The story of blacks and the priesthood is that the church leaders were clearly bigoted and changed only when they were forced by overwhelming public and internal pressure. The internal pressure has greater leverage than external pressure, which they are well accustomed to ignoring. See David O McKay and the rise of modern Mormonism by Prince and Wright for a good explanation of how the church really came to change it's policy of racial discrimination. Accepting gays will follow the same path.

Rob said...

@Max Power:

In at least one instance I know of (and I think there are more), in 1987 the Church sent out a 92 question survey to selected members to assess their feelings about and responses to the temple ceremonies then in use. Their feedback formed part of the basis for 1990's sweeping changes to the endowment.