Here in America, the emerging politics of civil disorder and insurrection now seem to be displacing the calmer days of counting votes and acknowledging results. The current ugly transition quite overshadows just about any other blog topic, and it’s getting uglier. At the CNN home page this morning, the three top headlines splashed across the page are:
- A disastrous end to a shocking presidency.
- FBI warns “armed protests” planned at all 50 state capitols and DC.
- House to vote on resolution calling to remove Trump from office by the 25th Amendment.
It’s not clear to what extent Pres. Trump is pulling the strings on this disorder and armed chaos targeting Washington, D.C., and the states, versus his simply having unleashed angry forces he cannot control. We’re still in the middle of this mess, or even still at the beginning, and it’s hard to tell what comes next. Personally, I’m confident the US government will bend but not break. When things have finally calmed down and we get through this messy and violent transition of power, there will certainly be some significant changes to government security measures, ratcheting up the post-9/11 security changes already in place. Washington, D.C., will never be the same. Presidential elections will never be the same. Presidential transitions will never be the same.
Why are transitions of power relevant? They are times of vulnerability and weakness for a government and country, of potential rebellion (as so often happened when a monarch died) and of opportunities for opponents both internal and external to make bold moves. So let’s talk about transitions of power in America and in the Church.
Two and a Half Months
Some years ago, I was in France during a presidential election. The results were announced that night, and the next day the papers showed a photograph of the new president marching up the steps to take office and begin leading the country. That was rather surprising to me. Here in America, there is a long two and a half month gap between election day (the Tuesday following the first Monday in November) and Inauguration Day, January 20. Before 1937, it happened even later, in March. One thing we are learning is that this long gap gives an unprincipled sitting president the opportunity to use the power of his office to undermine the election of a successor. An easy change to safeguard the results of a free and fair election from this sort of meddling is to shorten that gap. Maybe the formal inauguration should happen in the Oval Office on the second Tuesday after the first Monday in November, after which the new President immediately takes office. Let January 20 be a traditional public celebration, but avoid the long lame duck presidency. Two and a half months is just too long a period now that the United States has moved into its Time of Troubles. We have shortened that transition period before. It’s time to shorten it again.
Another casualty of the Trump Rebellion will likely be the Electoral College. Until recently, I was a defender of the College. I can still explain the reasons why it should be retained and why electing a president on a straight popular vote is a bad idea. But Trump has shown how an unprincipled and opportunistic president and party can use the formal procedures of the Electoral College system to undermine a free and fair election. It’s like a security weakness in Microsoft Windows: once it has been identified and publicized, it must be fixed quickly or it will be employed to bad ends by bad hackers. The Electoral College system now looks like a systemic weakness, not a positive feature, and everyone now knows it. One consequence, if it is scrapped in favor of a straight national popular vote, would be that Republicans might not win another presidential election for decades (that’s assuming there is still a Republican Party in 2024). This is an ironic example of unintended consequences for Republicans. I suspect that in 2024, when Kamala Harris runs against Ted Cruz, we would all be happier if she took office a week after the election rather than give Mr. Cruz two and a half months to pull another Trump act, but do it better and maybe even pull it off.
Over the next year or two, expect a flood of books and academic articles trying to analyze what went wrong with the US government and this US election and how to fix it. Expect big changes. Government security arrangements will never be the same. Washington, D.C. will never be the same. Presidential elections will never be the same. Presidential transitions will never be the same. The first glaring view of this will be January 20, when the Inauguration Day proceedings will include thousands of National Guard troops surrounding the White House and the Capitol. Pres. Trump has indicated he will not attend. (This has been interpreted by some as a signal to right-wing militias and other assorted political thugs that any attack on the proceedings will not endanger Mr. Trump.)
Now, because this is a blog devoted to LDS discussions, not political discussions, let’s also look at the transition of power in the LDS Church when a President of the Church dies. In the modern era, it takes about three days. During that period, the President of the Quorum of the Twelve (the oldest living apostle, or more technically the apostle with the longest continuous tenure in the quorum, generally the oldest apostle) governs the Church. The enlarged quorum (the counselors to the deceased President having slid back into their seniority spots in the quorum) then elects the senior apostle as the next President of the Church in a reformed First Presidency. Theoretically, they could select a different apostle or even a non-apostle to be the President, but practically this is unlikely to happen in a Church that has been run exclusively by apostles since 1844.
There are some positive features to this system. Continuity. Predictability. A predetermined presidential successor eliminates any possibility of politicking for this or that apostle to succeed to the office. Think of the old pragmatic engineering test for whether a prototype works or not: Plug it in and see if it starts smoking. The current LDS succession system has the virtue of working well (more or less) for a century and a half.
There are some negative features to this system as well, perhaps more evident now than in prior years. It now guarantees a new president well advanced in years, a state that is generally associated with mental decline. No chance for a young (like fifties or sixties) leader who might bring new ideas or a new initiative to the organization. Like what happens when a new CEO is selected or a new head coach is hired or a new president is elected. It’s a system that almost guarantees maintaining the status quo and resisting substantive change in doctrine and practice until there are no other options. The Church is always thirty years behind the times. Senior leadership in their eighties and nineties is the primary reason. Every other institution in society is led by those in their fifties and sixties, or younger.
No 25th Amendment
There is lots of talk of invoking the 25th Amendment as a means to remove Pres. Trump from office prior to his planned (hey, it’s not a sure thing) departure from office at noon on January 20th. Now the 25th Amendment was designed to deal with an incapacitated President, not a rogue President, so it’s not really the right tool to remove Trump from office. The proper tool is impeachment, and maybe it will work this time, depending on whether Republican senators look to their oath of office or their political and personal interests this time around. But hey, in a legal dispute an attorney uses whatever legal tools are available to further the legitimate interests of the client, even if they aren’t the perfectly designed legal tool. You use what you got. If it can be argued that President Trump is no longer capable of discharging the duties of the President, then the 25th Amendment can be invoked — even if he is willfully incapacitated (he doesn’t seem to have the slightest interest in governing the country at the moment, even as 5000 people a day die from Covid) rather than physiologically or mentally incapacitated.
In the Church, there is no equivalent of the 25th Amendment. There is no established procedure or precedent for removing a sitting President for incapacity. There are some passages in the D&C that talk about how a council of high priests can sit as a church court over the President of the Church for misconduct, but that is not particularly relevant in the present-day Church. And with LDS Presidents getting older and older at the time they take office, this problem (of an incapacitated President, with no accepted procedure for removing him from office) will get worse. We are fortunate at the moment to have President Nelson, who seems to be mentally sharp and reasonably energetic at age 96, two years into his presidency, just as we were fortunate to have an old but sharp and capable President Hinckley for a number of years.
What happens to power when the President is incapacitated? An alternative way to phrase this question is, Who runs the Church when the President is incapacitated? For day-to-day administrative tasks and routine First Presidency decisions, it’s the counselors. For day-to-day tasks and responsibilities discharged by the Twelve, it’s the senior members of the Twelve and the President or acting President. The President of the Twelve, as the designated successor, becomes more powerful when the President is incapacitated. This was evident in November 2015, when President Monson was in decline and Apostle Nelson, President of the Twelve, took the lead in putting forth the new LDS policy declaring anyone in a same-sex marriage was, by definition, in apostasy and subject to church discipline. In cases where the presumptive successor to an incapacitated President is one of the counselors in the First Presidency, the tension between the (acting) President of the Twelve and the current FP counselors is less charged. The bottom line is that when the President of the Church is incapacitated, there is an informal but actual transition of power to the FP counselors and the Twelve, particularly the President of the Twelve. When a new and capable President takes office, the power quickly returns to the person of the President.
No other institution in society can function for years on end with an incapacitated person at the head of the organization. This curious fact requires some discussion. One reason the LDS Church can get away with this is because the President of the Church … doesn’t really do anything. The Church can run just fine for years on autopilot, so to speak, because big decisions, policy or organizational or doctrinal changes, don’t really happen very often. The institutional and organizational emphasis on continuity and staying the course is so strong that doing tomorrow what we did today and did yesterday is a strong default mode that rarely gets disturbed. And, for the Church, it works okay for awhile.
A second reason the Church can get away with this is the senior leadership is very good at *pretending* the incapacitated President is nevertheless, somehow, still calling the shots. To do otherwise would require an explanation of who is actually running the Church if it’s not the President, and no one wants to publicly address that question, so it’s a very convenient fiction to maintain. Just like with finances, this is the opposite of transparency. This means there are times, sometimes lasting for years, when the membership of the Church doesn’t really know who is running the Church (who is making decisions, who is controlling the money, who is calling new GAs, and so forth). Not that the mainstream membership seems to care, or even realize this might be a problem. Ignorance is bliss, for a while anyway.
I’m happy to acknowledge this hasn’t really become a problem for the Church in the recent past. But it could be. Imagine say fifteen years from now with an incapacitated President of the Church. At the Newsroom appears a statement from the First Presidency that same-sex couples who have been previously married by a civil authority can now be sealed in LDS temples, if the bishop gives a recommend for that purpose certifying they are otherwise in good standing. Three days later, the President of the Twelve, who was on a trip to India when the announcement was made and returned immediately, issues a statement that the FP statement “is being reviewed by the Quorum of the Twelve.” Rumors emerge in the press that the FP statement was championed by the counselors but not approved by the Twelve, who weren’t even aware of it, and that there is deep disagreement among the apostles as to the validity of the Statement. The President of the Church is in a hospital bed, receiving full-time care and not communicating with the public.
You can see what a mess this can potentially become. It wouldn’t be hard to come up with a policy to solve this dilemma. Here, I’ll take a shot: “If a President of the Church is incapacitated to the extent he can no longer discharge his duties and responsibilities, the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles may convene a meeting of the Quorum, including apostles serving as members of the First Presidency. If there is unanimous agreement that the President can no longer function in his office, then the President will be granted emeritus status and the Quorum will subsequently meet to choose by revelation a new President of the Church.“
It has been 176 years since the LDS Church has had a disputed succession to leadership, so we (the Church) are actually doing pretty well. We are right in the middle of a disputed transfer of power in the United States, so we (citizens of the United States) are not doing well at all in this moment. Let’s hope January 20th turns out to be uneventful, apart from inaugurating Joe Biden as President of the United States. There are plenty of other serious problems that our national energy and attention should be directed to.
As a reminder of happier times, when Presidents took office and left office with the full dignity that the occasion calls for, let me add a photo of President Obama as he boarded Marine One for the last time as he exited the Inauguration Day proceedings eight years ago. This is a nice bookend to the image at the top of this post. There is still hope.