Did I Expect Leaders to be Perfect?
Essay first posted on this site 1 June 2022
Prior to coming out as a former Mormon, I had posted a series of essays about Mormonism. What follows is for the most part what I posted back in 2009 or 2010 about Mormon time commitments. Comments in a light blue shaded box like this one are new.
Unrealistic Expectations of Perfection in the LDS Church
A Straw Man Fallacy and a Weak Argument by Analogy
Since my disaffection from the Church, some have told me they think I have unrealistic expectation of perfection from the Church and its general leaders. When someone draws this conclusion about my disaffection from the Church, I think they have at best an ambiguous idea of why I no longer believe in the Church and will no longer support it. When someone concludes that I no longer believe because of unrealistic expectations of perfection, they are likely to make a fallacious conclusion. In addition, comparing the Church to other imperfect organizations that I do support sets up a weak argument by analogy.
Straw Man Fallacy
A straw man argument is one that misrepresents a position, refutes this misrepresentation of the position, and then concludes that the real position has been refuted. This, of course, is a fallacy, because the position claimed to be refuted is different than that which has actually been refuted; the claimed target of the argument is untouched by it.
Relative to my disbelief in the Church, one straw man argument goes something like this:
- Bob expected the Church and its general leaders to be perfect or nearly so, if directed by God.
- This expectation is unrealistic; a church operated by humans is not perfect even when led by God through a prophet.
- Bob’s conclusion that God does not lead the Church is baseless.
This is an example of a straw man argument because its first premise misrepresents Bob’s expectation, its second premise attacks this misrepresentation, and its conclusion states that Bob is incorrect based on the false premise. Bob did not expect the Church or its leaders to be perfect or nearly perfect, so this argument demonstrates nothing concerning Bob’s conclusion.
Before I go on, I want to clarify that even a conclusion from a logical fallacy like this straw man argument can be correct. In other words, in spite of the fallacy, it’s possible that I did incorrectly conclude that God does not lead the Church; pointing out this logical fallacy does not mean I’ve proved the Church is false. I’ve only proved that such an argument is irrelevant to my situation.
Regardless of whether I’m right about the Church, the above straw man argument is still fallacious because the first premise is not true. I think an overwhelming preponderance of evidence confirms that my conclusions about the Church are correct, but for the sake of discussion, let’s say I’m wrong. If I’m wrong, trying to explain my error based on a false premise does not help me. I have to admit that I find such false premises frustrating. Such an argument discredits the believer’s stance. To me it seems like such a believer is unable or unwilling to understand my situation. I never said I don’t believe in the Church because it or its leaders aren’t perfect. In fact, I think it’s the other way around; I think the Church tries to portray itself as more perfect than it is.
Let me give a better idea of what I would expect from a Church with continual direct revelation from God. I wouldn’t expect perfection if the Church were true, but I would expect the Church to stand out among churches in regards to how it handles important issues and big mistakes. If God were in charge, I’d expect important issues to be set straight promptly to correct mistakes. My observation is that the Church is actually slow to correct itself. The LDS Church has issues like its past counsel on birth control, priesthood and temple ban on blacks (and doctrinal teachings justifying it), teachings and counsel about homosexuality, and formerly canonized dishonesty about polygamy, each of which took years or even decades to fix if it was fixed at all. I see other imperfect organizations that claim no divine authority or direction that are out ahead of the Church on many issues. It’s not the Church’s imperfection in these cases; it’s the Church’s consistent pattern of inability or unwillingness to admit error and change its ways.
I could understand God disregarding mistakes that hurt no one, but the examples I’ve sited and maybe many others have broken hearts and denied blessings (blessings as purported by the Church) to many individuals. The God I had put my faith in wouldn’t call leaders to have them put off correcting harmful mistakes for years or decades. In my opinion, part of why the Church puts off correcting itself for so long is its own preoccupation with perfection. I wonder if Church leaders assume former leaders got it right, so they don’t want to mess with it.
Leaders of the Church express how wonderful it is that there is ongoing revelation to add to our knowledge and make things better, even better than the previous revelations—as if the latter revelations built on the good and solid foundation of the former. The reality of the situation is that many of these latter “revelations” contradict the Church’s previous “revelations” and teachings. Many times, it’s not
line-upon-line, but rather ignore-that-a-mistake-was-made-and-replace. The mistakes in these cases are often things that were taught by general leaders as doctrine, the truth, or the will of God. If living prophets are going to continually contradict the teachings of prophets from the past, I gain no advantage in following such prophets. I’ll stick to the things I know (charity, hope, honesty, need for redemption, my family), and let the prophets worry about whether former prophets’ teachings are true or not.
If God took an active role in guiding the Church, I’d expect the leaders to try to clearly indicate when their teachings were just their opinions and when they knew the teachings were from God. Of course, mistakes would be made regarding such clarity, but I would expect that the standard would be to use extreme caution when teaching or preaching. But to me it seems the standard is for general authorities to preach as if delivering the will of the Lord every time they speak publicly. I’d also expect members to be taught responsibility in regards to leaders’ teachings. Members would be taught to be cautious about what their leaders teach—to question and critically examine every word uttered by their leaders. After all, the stakes are high (serving our fellow beings and eternal life), and we know that mistakes will be made, that these men are not perfect. Instead, members of the Church are taught, “when the prophet speaks the debate is over” (N. Eldon Tanner, “The Debate Is Over”, Ensign, Aug 1979, 2). A member’s role is to obey leaders, not question them, especially the Prophet. I find it sad that general leaders preach and counsel as if they knew they were preaching the word of God, when it’s just their opinion. If they truly believe they are mouthpieces of God, but fallible, they are acting with gross irresponsibility to preach opinion as the word of God. The way these guys preach, it seems to me like they’re the ones who have unrealistic expectations of perfection, in themselves.
Lastly, if God really did have prophets guiding a church, I could see Him allowing those prophets to make plenty of mistakes, so that He could correct the mistakes in very public ways. I’m not saying He would have to do this, but think of the effect of such corrections. Periodic public correction of human mistakes would highlight who was actually in charge. It would show that He was bridging the gap between human limitations and what needs to be done to serve humanity. Unfortunately, the mistakes made by leaders of the Church are at best only begrudgingly admitted. The leaders hide or downplay the mistakes as if they were supposed to be perfect. Again, if someone is expecting perfection from mortals, it isn’t me.
Weak Argument by Analogy
Some have compared the imperfect government of the United States to the imperfect Church and pointed out that I support the government, but not the Church. I think the conclusion is that I’m being inconsistent. This argument is an argument by analogy. An argument by analogy is only as strong as the analogy itself. I think this is a weak analogy, and therefore a weak argument. I’ll demonstrate this by contrasting the Church to the Government I support.
Yes, my government has a lot of weaknesses, problems, and imperfections. However, there’s a fundamental difference between a Church that claims absolute truth and divine authority and a government run by and for the people. When Britain claimed absolute and even divine authority over the colonies, my forefathers revolted. That revolution eventually gave us an imperfect but wonderful government that is accountable to the people. It is designed with checks and balances specifically to address the imperfection of human institutions. Our government is not a true democracy because in such, there is little to prevent the majority from ruling tyrannically over a minority. Ours is a democratic republic with a constitution that establishes certain rights and protects those rights, even for minorities. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is designed as if an omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent god were at the helm to protect its members and make corrections as needed. As a result, the Church’s governance provides no accountability of general Church leaders to the members of the Church. Members are commanded to refrain from criticizing the Church and its leadership even when mistakes have been made. I do not believe God directs the LDS Church or its leaders. Given the design of the Church’s governance, and assuming God is not at the helm, the Church and its general leaders have little accountability to anyone. Humans that are held accountable make mistakes and abuse authority (as happens in our imperfect government). With little accountability, humans can be expected to continually repeat mistakes and abuse authority unchecked by society. Sure, there are political pressures on the LDS Church to limit mistakes and abuses, but I believe most of that political pressure comes from outside the Church. The society of the members of the Church has little influence on the decisions and actions of the general leaders.
I love and support my country for various reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it’s my right and even my responsibility to criticize the country and its leaders. It is precisely because I love my country that I believe it is healthy to have a good balance that includes recognition of the country’s problems as well as its strengths. Just a few of the country’s mistakes that immediately come to mind are slavery, the Watergate scandal, repeated betrayal of Native American peoples, and placing Japanese Americans in internment camps during WWII. Not only do we not try to cover these problems up, we actually teach our young of these mistakes in school. Why do we teach such seemingly embarrassing history about our beloved country? Precisely because we love our country. If we as a nation admit the atrocities and other mistakes we made and remember them, we are much less likely to make similar mistakes. An institution that is good and strong does not need to hide or rationalize its mistakes. To the contrary, such a good institution is strengthened by the admission of and restitution for mistakes.
Let’s contrast this to the approach of the Church. When Mike Wallace asked about the Church’s racist teaching about the mark of Cain on blacks, President Hinckley said, “Look, that’s behind us. Don’t worry about those little flecks of history” (Who Are Latter-day Saints?, p. 105). The Church has never apologized for or corrected its prophets for their racist teaching, but President Hinckley would have us ignore the problem or view it as a minor issue of no present relevance. The Church teaches its members not to criticize its leaders, regardless of what mistakes have been made. Dallin H. Oaks said, “It’s wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true”. And just try to talk about the lessons we could learn from the Mountain Meadows Massacre in a Sunday School class or other church meeting. I believe there are few Mormon congregations that would tolerate such frank discussion of a Mormon atrocity within the walls of their churches. My country is strengthened when its citizens point out and remember its mistakes. Clearly the LDS Church is threatened by its mistakes and weaknesses. My country and the LDS Church differ drastically in this regard.
If a harsh dictatorship ran my country, I could not in good conscience support it. I might obey its laws and refrain from open rebellion against it, but my obedience would not be for the dictatorship; it would be for the safety and security of those I love.
To me, the Church is much too similar to this kind of harsh dictatorship. It centralizes decision-making authority. Regular membership has no say in general church affairs and marginal say in local affairs. Yes, the members raise their hand in sustaining general and other leadership, but this is not similar to the vote we have in our democratic republic. The Church has a lot more in common with the former USSR than with the country to which I pledge allegiance. Since I believe the Church is unaccountable to its members, abuses the authority given it by its members, and is just another organization of men; and since I have no hope to change the Church; I have withdrawn my support from it.
Did I Expect Leaders to be Perfect?