There’s a strange theme in Mormonism in which expertise in a specific field makes a person’s ideas suspect. Experts are considered dangerous in that they might disagree with leaders who don’t have such expertise. Consider the following from the Fourteen Fundamentals, a talk written by Ezra Taft Benson:

Fifth: The prophet is not required to have any particular earthly training or diplomas to speak on any subject or act on any matter at any time.

Sometimes there are those who feel their earthly knowledge on a certain subject is superior to the heavenly knowledge which God gives to his prophet on the same subject. They feel the prophet must have the same earthly credentials or training which they have had before they will accept anything the prophet has to say that might contradict their earthly schooling. How much earthly schooling did Joseph Smith have? Yet he gave revelations on all kinds of subjects. We haven’t yet had a prophet who earned a doctorate degree in any subject. We encourage earthly knowledge in many areas, but remember if there is ever a conflict between earthly knowledge and the words of the prophet, you stand with the prophet and you’ll be blessed and time will show you have done the right thing.

The 1980 talk was controversial because as noted in this article by the Salt Lake Tribune, then Church President Spencer Kimball took exception to it:

Spencer felt concern about the talk, wanting to protect the church against being misunderstood as espousing ultraconservative politics or an unthinking “follow the leader” mentality. The First Presidency called Elder Benson in to discuss what he had said and asked him to make explanation to the full Quorum of the Twelve [Apostles] and other general authorities. Elder Benson told them that he meant only to “underscore President Kimball’s prophetic call.”

Honestly, his defense should be considered a case in point and the chief reason to disavow the talk! It’s designed to promote Authority Fallacy:

Appeal to authority is a common type of fallacy, or an argument bosased on unsound logic. When writers or speakers use appeal to authority, they are claiming that something must be true because it is believed by someone who said to be an “authority” on the subject.

What’s ironic is that the Church’s anti-“experts” stance sounds as though it would be a good way to counteract appeal to authority, but instead it substitutes a religious leader and spiritual knowledge for those with actual knowledge or expertise in a subject. Ergo, if the prophet speaks, the thinking is done, even if the prophet doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This is an issue Leonard Arrington clearly identified as a problem for early Utah settlers in his book Great Basin Kingdom. He noted the repeated, systematic failures of several early Utah enterprises across different industries including sugar production and iron mining. In Great Basin Kingdom, Arrington pulled no punches:

That in each case the church eventually assumed responsibility and control was due partly to the lack of private capital, and partly to the belief that all institutions in Mormondom ought to be under the influence of the Priesthood. While this assured a concentration of efforts in building the Kingdom, it also involved the danger of tying the hands of the “experts” who were engaged in the active management of these enterprises. Brigham Young and his appointed lay leaders were outstanding colonizers, and there can be no doubt that they were dedicated to the Kingdom, but the more the specialists depended on them for leadership, the more the specialized industries were apt to suffer from inexpert direction . . .

What’s worse, when this failure to rely on actual experts resulted in economic collapse of these efforts, the response was not humility but hubris:

The church hierarchy responded to the failures–and to the consequent privations caused by them–by blaming the people rather than the flawed economic system that the leaders themselves had established: “the failure of the people to do what they had been commanded; namely, cease to patronize the [non-Mormon] merchants and establish home industries.”

Wow. I wish as a small business owner I had that kind of power to blame customers if they choose a competitor. It’s not MY fault for providing a less satisfactory product. It’s theirs for failing to buy mine anyway. Those who disagreed with these economic policies were excommunicated for it. From the Arrington biography:

Economic policy was a matter of dogma and thus was above criticism.

Thankfully, this is no longer the case.  The church doesn’t excommunicate people for refusing to shop at City Creek Mall, and even vocally disagreeing with the gentrification strategy is not grounds for church discipline. However, the idea that Church leaders should be treated as trusted experts on every topic, even when the experts disagree with them, is certainly still prevalent and dangerous, just as Spencer Kimball worried it would be (but apparently dropped it when it was his own authority being bolstered).

Recently, several of the temples in the southeastern US have undergone a required renovation requiring closure and expense. Why did this happen? Mold problems due to using building methods that are sound for the cool, arid Wasatch-front but not wise for the hot, humid southeastern US. It is incredibly unlikely that anyone in the quorum of the twelve even weighed in on this or would have disagreed that building in a different climate should call for other plans. So how did this happen?

The act of deference to authority is so ingrained in church organization that it’s easier to stop thinking entirely, to wait to be told what to do. But that’s not building up our strength as a people or individuals. It weakens Mormons who do so to the point that they lose the talent they were given by burying their meager talent in the ground rather than investing in learning and curiosity.

In later life, Arrington was concerned about the church’s attitude toward scholars. He wrote to the church to seek a scholarly journal to be published by the Church:

“The Church has made little or no provision for the use of its intellectuals. They may teach at BYU, of course, or within the Church Educational System, or at such ‘Mormon’ schools as Utah State University, but their training and scholarship have no been utilized to any significant degree in the councils of the Church. They are seldom given high positions of authority; they are seldom consulted on policies in which they are regarded as experts and specialists.” Those who chose employment within the Church Educational System faced likely degradation of their intellectual curiosity, for “the Institute system tends to stress testimony-bearing rather than reason and scholarship, and Institute instructors are encouraged to use only ‘testimony building’ books for texts and reading assignments. Many of us think we detect an ‘anti-intellectual’ trend in the Seminary system, and it is often from the ranks of this group that Institute teachers are selected.”

In a later example in the biography, the story of the Hoffman forgeries is discussed. Craig Jensen, the BYU Library conservator was upset over these controversial documents not being more carefully authenticated. Rick Grunder was quoted as saying:

“Craig was angry . . . he was really upset that more wasn’t being done to authenticate them. Well, when you want it to be true–or if, like the Salamander Letter, you don’t want it to be true but you’re afraid it is–you probably don’t want to bring a lot of experts in. And they didn’t.”

This posits a scenario in which refusal to consult with experts is a form of denial, a way to ignore unwelcome facts in favor of opinions, a cynical view, but perhaps it’s informative in this case. Authority fallacy creates lazy thinking and lack of responsibility for outcomes because rather than learning or being curious, all one must do is follow orders and defer the responsibility for outcomes upward. And yet over-reliance on experts is not the solution either. Experts often have their own cult following which results in the same issues: lazy thinking, deferring one’s own study of a matter to others, etc.

It’s easy to imagine that Church leaders eat this up with a spoon. After all, their random crap opinions are the ones being touted as gold. Who wouldn’t love that kind of uncritical adoration? Well, one person who apparently didn’t universally love it is President Packer, at least in one instance I’m aware of. A friend of mine was overseeing a Church meeting in Britain with some members of the Twelve addressing local leaders. One of the more junior members of the Twelve wanted to give an answer to a question that had been raised by a local leader, and he was stopped by President Packer who cautioned him that every stray opinion he shared had the potential to be taken as a new “commandment” or a “thus sayeth the Lord,” and he needed to be very careful in his eagerness and willingness to answer every question or every request for direction from Salt Lake. An important caution, indeed.

  • Do you think the anti-“experts” trend is improving or getting worse with time? Why?
  • Does this focus on considering Church leaders experts in matters beyond their ken stem from ultra-conservative political views (Kimball’s fear) or some other reason?
  • Do Church leaders encourage this kind of deferential thinking or discourage it? Why or why not?
  • Are average church members more intolerant of disagreement with Church leaders than Church leaders are?

Discuss.