When I was much younger, I worked at a company with a strong sales focus. We constantly had potential clients touring our call center, and every employee was supposed to be “sales-ready” for these visits. The company also had many ideas that are now out of fashion, that were even at the time quite conservative. For example, the company had a strict dress code that prohibited jeans except on specially designated “dress down days.” Hair color could not be “extreme” which meant it was fine to color your hair, but only with colors that occurred naturally in human hair: no magenta, blue, or green. All of this was part of the culture of performing a professional and conservative image so that no potential clients would be scared off. This was important because we had over 200% attrition, and many of our hires were pretty unprofessional. If the rules hadn’t been strict, who knows what people would have worn, done and said in front of potential clients whose own corporate cultures might have been very conservative. This all made sense to me at the time because it was so similar to the Church’s philosophy about missionary dress and comportment. Performative conservatism made good business sense.
Around this same time, Pres. Hinckley made an offhand comment that women should only wear one pair of earrings, and I thought “Maybe people in my corporate job, like kindly Pres. Hinckley, will think I’m too radical if I wear more than one earring.” I had worn three hoops in each ear throughout my mission and college years at BYU–how radical was that, exactly? Statement jewelry was starting to become the fashion in corporate, and I used to wear flashier-looking single pairs of earrings in high school, so I decided maybe his advice was worth heeding because others, particularly older conservative business people, might make incorrect and dismissive assumptions about me if my fashion choices were too “extreme.” Maybe older people would think my jewelry meant I was juvenile or unprofessional. Maybe it would hold me back in my career. So I made the choice at that time to switch to more striking single pair of earrings.
Imagine my dismay when I overhead someone describing me as “exactly obedient” for changing my earrings. The implication was that rather than having my own reasons for my choices, I was willing to defer to “the Brethren” in matters that are completely outside their wheelhouse (women’s fashion, for crying out loud!), just to show my fealty to them. I considered my choice to be a higher principle than that. I listened to his advice, considered his comments in the context of that moment in time and how I, as a woman in a conservative business environment, was scrutinized and perceived, and I made the choice that I thought would lead to better career opportunities. Opportunistic, I may have been. Blindly obedient? Never! Being called obedient for doing that nearly made me put my old earrings back in, even though I was kind of tired of that look by then.
There’s a phrase in Buddhism: “If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill the Buddha.” It means that we should be wary of our very human need for approval from authority figures and teachers, and that we need to find and develop our own moral compass to grow and to achieve our potential. If you constantly rely on others to teach you what is right, you will never be able to practice moral agency because you don’t have the basis for making those decisions. If all your own instincts have to be suborned to what an authority or a community thinks, you aren’t really making choices at all. You are just living in fear of being perceived as wrong. Eventually, we must all become our own teacher.
If I had removed my earrings strictly because Hinckley said so without evaluating for myself what I thought my rationale would be, that would be an appeal to authority. Maybe I shouldn’t have bothered to overthink it. It probably didn’t really matter, I can say with the additional 20+ years of hindsight. When I changed companies 8 years later to a much more reputable organization, those overt conservative norms were completely not a thing. Just being a Church leader, even if all leadership adds weight to the considerations your opinions receive, doesn’t make someone an authority on every topic. Women’s fashion is an obvious area that feels like a stretch for our elderly male leaders (some of whom have some unfortunate opinions about women’s appearance).
I’d like to think Church leaders have life experience that does give them wisdom on aspects of human nature and cultural trends, which I’m sure is often the case, but they are going to be less likely to have a great understand of things that they haven’t really experienced. For example, they haven’t been business leaders in 1990 or 2020. They haven’t been women in business. Their wisdom in these areas may be limited. If Church leaders said they thought natural childbirth was the only “godly” way to give birth, I would sure hope a bunch of women in the Church who have actually given birth would raise an eyebrow at that (not that everyone uses pain medication–personal choice is key). If they wanted to make a pronouncement like that, I would have been happily heretical. Similarly, I trust the lived experiences of black people more than Church leaders to determine whether the Church culture and/or teachings are racist. I trust LGBT people to describe their lived experience more than I trust Church leaders to understand it. I also trust women more than I trust men to know what it’s like to be a woman.
We use appeal to authority in life because we can’t literally know everything, and we have to know a lot more things than we can personally know. Do you believe in things you can’t see? Even people who don’t believe in religion do. I believe Covid exists. I believe germs can be spread through contact and droplets. I believe that if I get a vaccine, I will be safer from disease. I believe that if I leave raw chicken on the counter for too long that it would make me sick if I cook it and eat it. I believe that nuclear waste is dangerous and takes a really long time to degrade. I believe that climate change is real. I believe that the earth is millions of years old. I believe that dinosaurs are now extinct, but they used to roam the planet. I believe that the sun is too hot to touch. I believe that the pills I take every day are preventing me from getting blood clots.
These are all beliefs that I have despite not being an expert myself. I have to rely on the expertise of others, and to do that, I have to figure out whose expertise I trust on which things. Recently a friend admonished everyone on Facebook to do their own research before getting the Covid vaccine, claiming that she had, and she wouldn’t be getting it any time soon. She and I are both drawing different conclusions, and both of us are relying on an appeal to authority. I can’t say what her sources are because I clearly don’t include them in my own research. I believe in Dr. Fauci’s ability, and that of other epidemiologists, to determine whether or not vaccines are effective and safe than I trust my own ability as an English major and former business executive to do so. I assume she’s reading some articles that are from sources she trusts, and maybe she’s also talking to like-minded friends who agree with those opinions.
While I was thrilled that Pres. Nelson very publicly got the vaccine, it didn’t change my opinion of the vaccine at all. He’s older than the lady in Titanic, and he’s a doctor, so I was not at all surprised he got it. I was a little disappointed to realize that the reason I felt it was important was that appeal to authority is so important for so many people within the Church. It can substitute for more authoritative sources like scientists. It can even replace a conscience. And the more people who get the vaccine, the better for all of us getting back to normal life again as risk in the community goes down.
I remember reading a post back in 2008 asking whether commenters would pack mud in jars in their basements if asked to do so by Church leaders without being given any rationale. There could certainly be valid reasons for doing such an odd thing, even unseen prophetic reasons such as bolstering a wall that is vulnerable to a future natural disaster. So why is it so critical that we obey absent any reason to do so? Why is this the way we are taught to think as Mormons? Why is it so important that we click our heels together crisply and say “yes, sir!” to every random human command we are given? That may be how to run a military, but I question that it’s how to develop humans into gods. If that’s all it takes to be a god, then I assume planets come in a kit from some cosmic IKEA, and all we have to do is follow the instructions exactly. Hopefully they aren’t in Swedish.
Assuming that every stray opinion a Church leader has is God’s own truth is morally fraught. It also feels like a category error. We think that just because Church leaders are an authority, that they are prophetically able to apply their authority to every possible topic, something that is simply unrealistic. Prophetic authority is to Mormons what Biblical inerrancy is to Evangelicals. If I want to know about economics, I read what various economists have written. I don’t read General Conference talks. If I want to learn about climate change, I read what climatologists have written, not Church leaders.
- How do you consider Church leaders’ advice or opinions in areas that you don’t consider them to be expert?
- Do you believe it’s a feature or a bug for Church members to be obedient to everything Church leaders say, even in areas that aren’t related to religion?
- What side effects do you see when members are too reliant on authority for moral decision making?
- Would you want to live on the planet of a god who only followed orders?