At the last LDS General Conference, Elder Claudio R. M. Costa gave a talk entitled Obedience to the Prophets. This talk was basically a rehashing of an address that Ezra Taft Benson gave at BYU in 1980 and later republished in the Ensign [note: the link I provided is actually a Liahona article; the Liahona is the international version of the Ensign]. Benson's talk, The Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet, outlines in detail what members of the LDS church believe about prophets.
This post might require some background information for readers not familiar with Latter-Day-Saint theology. Belief in a modern prophet is a fundamental aspect of LDS faith. The structure of the religious organization and theology is very focused on the existence of a single person who speaks for God and holds all priesthood authority. In Latter-Day-Saint theology, Christ gave some of his authority to his apostles in the form of "priesthood keys." However, these keys died with the apostles (with the exception of John the Beloved, who is believed to have been given immortality). As a result, the world was plunged into an 1800-year "Great Apostasy", when the true church of God and the priesthood keys of authority were not on the earth.
Mormons believe that these keys of authority were restored in the 19th Century when Joseph Smith, under the direction of God, restored the true church to the earth. The LDS doctrine of the priesthood is very detailed, and I'm not going to go into much of that in this post. Suffice it to say that in Latter-Day-Saint theology, the full set of priesthood keys belong to the prophet and president of the church, passed down in a direct line from Joseph Smith to the present prophet,Thomas S. Monson.
Now, with that out of the way, I shall commence my analysis of the LDS conception of prophets as outlined by Benson and quoted by Costa.
1. The prophet is the only man who speaks for the Lord in everything.
This point is pretty self-explanatory. As I explained above, Mormons believe that the prophet is God's representative on earth, and that he is God's only official representative. Unlike most of the other fundamentals, this one doesn't really bother me. If there really were a prophet, of course he would speak for God in everything. The trouble is that if the Mormon prophet really does speak for God in everything, then God must be schizophrenic or something. Or else he just likes to play mind games. Either way.
2. The living prophet is more vital to us than the standard works.
Now things get more interesting. The living prophet is more vital to us than the standard works are? That's awfully convenient. By this reasoning, the prophet can say anything, even if it's contrary to canon, and expect to have his words treated as doctrine. I find this disturbing, as it essentially gives the prophet absolute spiritual authority. If the prophet came to a married woman in the church and said, "God told me that you are supposed to be my wife, and that an angel with a flaming sword would kill me if I didn't marry you," the woman's natural inclination would be to point out that Exodus 20:14 says, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." However, under this doctrine-- the ability of the prophet to contradict the standard works-- the woman has no such recourse.
For those unfamiliar with Mormon history, this scenario sounds preposterous. But it is precisely what happened to Mary Rollins Lightner (married to Adam Lightner), Zina Huntington Jacobs(married to Henry Jacobs), and many other women. (Note: I will go into more detail on polygamy in a future blog post, as it was a huge conundrum for me during my time as a believer and one of the many things that led me out of the church. For now, the sources I've provided will do to make my point.)
Polygamy is just one of many instances in Mormon history where the prophet told members to do things that no moral person would ever do of their own accord. Steven Weinberg nailed it when he said, "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and bad people doing evil things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion." Danites . . . Mountain Meadows . . . blood atonement . . . the rabbit hole goes deeper and deeper the more you look. And everything in that rabbit hole has been condoned by a prophet at some point in the Mormon church's history.
I think I've mentioned that I tend to be suspicious of authority. It's a well-known, documented fact that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Nowhere is this more true than with religion. When you have a person declaring that they are the ultimate authority on all matters temporal and spiritual, that their word is always final, and that neither individual reason, democratic process, nor canonical documents can overwrite his word, you have a dangerous tyrant on your hands. I don't care if he is religious, political, social, intellectual, or what-have-you. Power corrupts. And religious power is even more dangerous, because it claims to have authority over your mind, your soul, and your eternity. This problem is evident throughout European history in the struggles for the papacy, and the attempts by many popes to wield both secular and religious authority.
3. The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet.
This one strikes me as a clear case of the LDS leaders, to use the vernacular, covering their butts. If we accept the above concept as true, then all the contradictions in church leadership over the years are nicely glossed over. Brigham Young's Adam-God doctrine? We don't believe that anymore, and the fact that Brigham Young taught it is irrelevant. A living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet.
Now, I'll concede that, practically speaking, it's a lot more valuable to have a living guy who speaks for God now than a dead one who spoke for God two hundred years ago. The concept of an open canon isn't what bothers me. What bothers me is the way this concept is used in the LDS church-- to deceive people and to downplay very real problems.
The way I see it, either truth does not change, or truth is relative. I find the idea of relative truth to be incomprehensible and repulsive. Truth does not change; only our perception of it does. So, when you have a prophet who expands on something an earlier prophet says, or who reveals new doctrine, that's all well and good. But what about when a later prophet blatantly contradicts an earlier one? Adam-God is a great example, but what about polygamy? What about blacks and the priesthood and the Curse of Cain? What about blood atonement? All these things were taught as doctrine-- vital doctrine, doctrine that was supposed to be universal and necessary for the salvation of all people. Yet all of them were later repealed. How does this square with Fundamental #4-- the doctrine that the prophet will never lead the church astray? Either the truth changed, and truth is therefore relative, or else one or both prophets were leading the church astray after all.
Perhaps I'm reading too much into this one; somehow, however, I don't think so. When I've brought up things like Adam-God, polygamy, Curse of Cain, etc., the people I have spoken to have been unable to disprove that earlier prophets did, in fact, teach those things. At this point, I am told one of two things. Option #1: A living prophet is more important than a dead one. Option #2: Even if the prophet is sometimes wrong, God will bless you for your obedience and punish the bad prophet for any crimes you may commit. I've already dealt with Option #1. Option #2 has two serious problems with it. Firstly, it directly contradicts Official Declaration #1, which is canonized scripture. (Oh, wait-- the prophet is more vital to us than the scriptures are. Never mind.) Secondly, and more importantly in my book, obedience does not negate individual responsibility. If someone tells me to do something that I know is wrong, and I do it, that does not absolve my moral responsibility. Option #2 is a total cop-out. It is an excuse to not think.
So-- back to "a living prophet is more important than a dead prophet." This concept is nothing but the Mormon version of the Memory Hole in Orwell's 1984.
4. The prophet will never lead the church astray.
The thing about absolutes is . . . they're kind of absolute. That "the prophet will NEVER lead the church astray" is a pretty big claim, especially when prophets have contradicted each other on major issues (as I've described above; I don't think I need to reiterate). The only way to reconcile this is to accept the concept of relative truth. Maybe that works for some people. I find it unconscionable.
Yet again, this gives members an excuse to turn off their brains. If the prophet says something that seems wrong, or just plain doesn't make sense, members aren't allowed to question. Oh, sure, they're supposed to go "pray for a witness." But they're not allowed to actually doubt the prophet. They're supposed to ask for confirmation. This, of course, invites confirmation bias and introduces the concept of thoughtcrime.
I'll say it right out-- I hold the human mind to be among the most sacred of all things. Independent reasoning is a priceless gift. Anyone or anything that tries to take that away is evil. I can't stress this enough. This is thought control, and it is evil.
5. The prophet is not required to have any particular earthly training or credentials to speak on any subject or act on any matter at any time.
I find this one interesting. It's what I'd expect from a real prophet. So here's my question. If the prophet can speak on any subject or act on any matter at any time, then why doesn't he? Why doesn't the Mormon church have an official position on evolution-- why do they defer to the experts? Evolution is a huge stumbling block for many members. You'd think that if the prophet had any real authority to speak on any matter, he would say something. You'd think that the LDS church would be way ahead of the rest of the world in scientific knowledge and social awareness. Yet they didn't let blacks have the priesthood until it was politically expedient for them to do so. They fought the Equal Rights Amendment tooth and nail. They have never been about progress. They have always placed paramount importance on maintenance of the status quo. I'm not saying that all change from the status quo is good, but it also seems absurd that the status quo should automatically be the "right" way. And it seems that something as basic as human rights should be right up the Mormon church's alley. If God as conceived by Mormons really does love all of his children regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, or any other factor, then why does it appear that he's a racist, chauvinistic businessman with something to lose from progress?
If the prophet can speak on anything, why doesn't he tell us how to cure cancer? Why doesn't he tell us how to cure AIDS? Why does it seem that he doesn't use his pipeline to God to alleviate human suffering instead of as a political tool that often increases it??
6. The prophet does not have to say “Thus Saith the Lord” to give us scripture.
I'll admit, I got a chuckle out of this one. When I began my intellectual journey out of the church, I was directed to several LDS apologetic sources such as FAIR and FARMS. When it came to things like Brigham Young's Adam-God doctrine and Joseph Smith's false prophecies (e.g., temple in Missouri, second coming in 1890), the main argument that these apologetic sources employed was that these prophets were only "speaking as a man." This "fundamental"-- the prophet speaking as a prophet whenever he opens his mouth-- destroys that argument. Ironically, as I was writing this blog post, I went to look up some of the apologetic articles that employed this argument in order to link to them, but lo and behold! The "speaking as a man" argument had entirely vanished without a trace! The Mormon memory hole is alive and well. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia-- but I digress.
Aside from the resultant memory hole phenomenon, this fundamental brings up some interesting questions. If everything that comes out of the prophet's mouth is scripture, why doesn't the prophet give us more scripture? Why is it that when a prophet or an apostle publishes a book, the book contains a disclaimer stating that its contents are not official church doctrine? Why is it that General Conference contains little or no new information-- just the same old recycled messages on such dead horses as faith, obedience, tithing, and families? If the Mormon prophet is a real prophet, he sure doesn't act like these fourteen fundamentals say he should.
7. The prophet tells us what we need to know, not always what we want to know.
I suppose that this is where the doctrine of "true, but not useful" comes from. One question: does this justify lying for the Lord?
I imagine a believing Mormon would look at this fundamental and think, "oh, this just means that people don't like to be told that they're sinning." And that's fine. If Mormonism was true, and if I believed in sin, I'd expect the prophet to warn people against sin. And that does definitely go on in the church-- all those girls and women wearing flip-flops to church are sinners and must repent. Okay, fine. But that doesn't negate the fact that this concept gives church leaders an excuse to hide, manipulate, and obfuscate information that is not "useful" to the church. I guess honesty and transparency don't apply to prophets.
8. The prophet is not limited by men’s reasoning.
I suppose this renders my whole argument invalid, doesn't it? But wait-- I am no man! There's no mention of woman's reasoning! In that case, I shall proceed.
9. The prophet can receive revelation on any matter, temporal or spiritual.
I think things are starting to get redundant-- this is basically the same as #5. And it brings up the same question. Why doesn't he? It also, I think, gives one man way too much power. Even if you really believe that he's a prophet, the Old Testament example of Balaam shows that even prophets can be corrupted by power and money. The lack of checks and balances of power in the Mormon church concerns me.
10. The prophet may advise on civic matters.
Ah, here we come to another minefield. I don't want to bring up any politically charged issues-- I'd hate to bring Prop 8 into this-- but this concept comes uncomfortably close to theocracy. How is this different from the medieval popes and all the problems that their corruption caused?
11. The two groups who have the greatest difficulty in following the prophet are the proud who are learned and the proud who are rich.
I find it interesting that Benson specifically pointed out "the proud who are learned and the proud who are rich," instead of just saying "the prideful." "The proud who are rich" is an obvious reference to Christ and the rich young man-- a cliche, if you like. There are also numerous references throughout the Book of Mormon to the proud rich. I'm not going to say much about that; I think it's a two-dimensional dead horse, but I don't find it terribly interesting.
I suppose that many believing Mormon readers would say that I am among the "proud who are learned." I've certainly made it clear that I value the human mind more than so-called "spiritual witnesses," and any observer will note that I have a propensity to use such things as evidence and logical reasoning. I wouldn't say I'm proud-- I think that faith is the real pride (see "Oh Say What is Truth"). I'll take criticism, of course, but the jab at "the proud who are learned" just seems so obvious to me. But then again, it's true that intellectuals are one of the greatest threats to the church, along with feminists and homosexuals.
12. The prophet will not necessarily be popular with the world or the worldly.
I see this as a defense mechanism. The Mormon church's PR is awful, and this is an easy line for members and leaders to spout when the rest of the world starts criticizing-- I mean, persecuting them. I guess I'm just cynical about the LDS church at this point.
13. The prophet and his counselors make up the First Presidency—the highest quorum in the Church.
This is just a definition. Not terribly interesting. Whatever.
14. The prophet and the presidency—the living prophet and the First Presidency—follow them and be blessed—reject them and suffer.
You hear that? Be obedient and be blessed, or think for yourself and suffer! This is just hyperbole and fear tactics. And, unfortunately, it seems to work.