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Power and paradox in the LDS Church

PROVO, Utah — Mormons often hold two contrasting attitudes about power, according to Richard L. Bushman, the Howard W. Hunter professor of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University (Calif.). They can distrust power in the hands of government and seek its restraint. Yet, they simultaneously trust the authority of their church leaders. Bushman told a capacity crowd at BYU's Church History Symposium on Friday, Feb. 26, how Joseph Smith devised a unique church organization that places controls on abuse of power by merging the prophetic and the bureaucratic. "Mormons live with an anomalous, and seemingly contradictory, structure of charismatic bureaucracy," Bushman said. It recasts the problem of power that plagued other religious organizations. According to Bushman, German sociologist Max Weber saw three ways that authority can be accepted by groups: charismatic (divine revelation), traditional (monarchies) and bureaucratic (rational structure). Charismatic groups often suffer from abuse of power or collapse once their leader dies. A group may survive, however, if it transforms into a bureaucratic organization without charismatic leadership. Unlike Weber's model, Bushman said, Joseph Smith created a hybrid of charismatic and bureaucratic. He didn't seek to keep all charismatic power to himself, but to have it spread throughout The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in its various offices. "Joseph did not reserve prophetic gifts to himself as a person, he assigned them to an office," Bushman said. "Mormons have altered Weber's view of charisma as pertaining to exceptional powers and have instead striven to make them common. Every church officer at every level is to seek the gift of revelation." But the concept of charismatic or revelatory authority — even if it is attached to an office — seems to contradict the values of a democratic government, according to Bushman. Power in democratic societies is seen as an ever-expanding force that should be constrained. In the LDS Church, however, power is seen as a good thing. "We obey the prophets as they obey God — reverently, humbly, gratefully," Bushman said. "Mormons are scarcely conscious of the dangers of church power. Occasional abuses are thought of as anomalies to be quickly corrected." No visible restraints on hierarchal authority troubles democratic critics, but Bushman thinks there are restraints. "I would argue that the preeminent check on church power is charisma itself," Bushman said, "Paradoxically, the very fact that seems to underlie authoritarianism in the church is the chief restraint on power." The basis of authority in the LDS Church, according to Bushman, is the belief that people are given positions by revelation. That belief also raises huge expectations on the part of the people and places a strong check on the person who accepts a position. Bushman quoted a letter by Joseph Smith on abuse of power: "We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. " Joseph Smith's solution was a set of values for leadership, including persuasion, patience, kindness and love. These moral values are what legitimize the authority, according to Bushman. They are part of the expectation by Mormons that their leaders are called of God. "These expectations act as a far more powerful check on authority than any constitutional limitation," Bushman said. "One needs only to compare the record of abuses in the church to the same record in any branch of civic government to recognize the effectiveness of the moral terms of power." Bushman's presentation was part of a one-day symposium on the history of the LDS Church's organization and administration. Scholars spoke on topics ranging from development of church quorums to record-keeping and from children's organizations to hymn-book development. Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone, an emeritus member of the church's Quorums of the Seventy, was the concluding keynote speaker. Further information about the symposium can be found at