I was recently listening to an interview with Jim Bennett (on Mormonism Live!) in which he described what he considered to be the biggest problem currently facing the Church. I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist of it was that leader worship is our biggest hurdle. Funny thing is, as a currently active, card-carrying Church member, Jim wasn’t really willing to place the blame for that toxicity in our church culture at the feet of the leaders who are its recipients; rather, he implied that the members were worshipping them against their will. The reason that’s “funny” is because it sure sounds a lot like what happens in every autocracy; you can’t criticize the “dear leader” without running afoul of the institution. The fact that he wasn’t willing to blame them for encouraging leader worship is fairly good evidence that they are responsible for it.

Just to clarify, I’m aware that the word “simp” colloquially refers to a man who continues to pursue a woman who has rejected him. Even if she ignores him, he continues to try to garner her favor. There’s a parallel here, even if I am stretching the use of the word. As the simp continues to simp even when the girl is unaware that he exists, so the Church member simp who may or may not have even met the object of their worship will continue to fangirl about that leader unrequited. Nobody benefits from this. It’s embarrassing for everyone, including those watching it.

Completely separately, I saw a Tweet outlining reasons people are leaving religion in general, but specifically applicable to the LDS Church as well:

  • Church history / polygamy truths
  • Sex abuse cover ups
  • Homophobia / racism / misogyny
  • Financial hoarding
  • Factual fallacies in scritpure

These are all reasons people cite, but I suspect it also has to do with our view of the church as a source of truth (and leaders as its primary conduit) rather than seeing Church as a community of disciples. It’s why so many testimonies sound something like “I know this church is true and I’m so grateful for our living prophet” instead of “I’m grateful for being part of a community committed to following Jesus’ teachings. I’m so glad we get to work together to improve lives and help the poor and marginalized.” I may have occasionally heard a testimony that sounds like the latter, but 95+% of them sound like the former.

In a recent Latter-day Struggles podcast, they were discussing a phenomemon that many of us have observed: that often, people who leave the Church when they determine that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be will immediately replace Church dogma with ex-Mormon dogma. They go from one position of believing they are right and have all the answers to another position of believing they are right and have all the answers. And let’s be honest, the Church does basically claim to be right and to have all the answers, or at least its leaders and manuals do, to the point that we are unwilling to point out the obvious errors of previous leaders. Being in a community because we think it’s the “right” one or the “best” one is not a great spiritual practice. The podcast referred to this as religious supremacy. When you belong to a Church because you believe it’s the best one, the most right, you might be more interested in being right than in doing right. You might be worshiping your own “rightness” rather than Jesus.

The problem of leader worship is a problem some other Churches (and other organizations) have. It’s obviously not unique to the Church, and even if our leaders actively discouraged leader worship, as some have in the past (the current ones evidently do not), there are many Church members who would still go on promoting leader worship. A few examples that come readily to mind:

  • When a Relief Society teacher asked the open question “What’s the most valuable thing we get from the Church?” I was coming up with a thought, something around the value of personal revelation, when a different sister chimed in with “Prophets and apostles to tell us what’s right and what God wants us to do.” That would have been about 5 billionth on my list. Maybe lower.
  • When we were trying to decide which talks to use for upcoming Relief Society lessons, one sister said that she vehemently disagreed with the other comments because we should “only” be talking about talks given by the apostles, none of the women, and we should focus especially on the first presidency talks. In her view, the higher up the ladder the person was, the more worth listening to they were. When the group disagreed with her she stormed out and tattled to the bishop to try to get her way.

While leader worship is definitely harmful to members in terms of unrealistic expectations, poor moral reasoning, and creating cognitive dissonance due to limited human understanding when blunders happen (as they do and will frequently), the leaders themselves suffer from lack of personal growth due to an unwillingness to challenge their bad ideas or blind spots, and a higher likelihood of making mistakes that can have dire consequences. It’s also not good for anyone’s soul to be treated as a celebrity or demi-god; it’s hard enough for humans to be humble and realistic about ourselves without having people fawn all over our every ridiculous notion. I was quoted once in sacrament meeting by someone who didn’t know I wrote it (a blog post I did on fasting about a decade ago), and it was pretty gratifying for about five minutes. Imagine if you were quoted constantly at Church as if you were the smartest and best person in the whole Church. That’s some heady stuff. It’s also doing nothing for those of us watching it.

Almost worse than the blunders made due to hubris and arrogance, among which I have to include our zig-zagging policies on LGBTQ members, are the simps among us. I recently heard a talk in which the speaker gushed about her “friend, Jeffrey Holland” as if she was his school chum. I mean, maybe she was (I honestly don’t know why she kept saying it), but really who cares? What’s with the name dropping? I have met many Church members who just can’t help themselves with the ridiculous celebrity crushes on the world’s least interesting people. How is this a thing? Even if you were actual friends with some celebrity who was actually interesting, what’s that to me? Why should I care?

Looking back at the above tweeted list of reasons people leave the Church, all of them seem to be exacerbated by leader worship. If we were a community of Christian disciples, discussing and dealing with these issues wouldn’t be a direct threat to any leader’s authority. We could talk about the problems with polygamy if we didn’t have to dance around the fact that many of our leaders’ ancestors practiced it, and two of them do currently, at least in terms of marital sealings. We could even come up with better sealing policies if we operated as a democratic body as many other churches do, rather than receiving policies from on high. The more involvement from lay members, the less pressure on leaders to come up with the best ideas and execute them perfectly. The more we would all have to seek inspiration to make the Church a more effective way to become Christlike. Would it be chaos? Would there be disagreements? There always have been in Christianity. That’s part of discipleship. When you quit allowing for discussion, you know you’ve lost the way. The discussion is what’s kept Christianity in business for two thousand years.

There’s a scene at the beginning of The Last Emperor in which the child who is now the emperor defecates into a silver bowl. The eunuch who is assisting him takes the bowl away, and when he is alone he inhales the fragrance from the bowl with a look of rapture on his face. The emperor is his god. He is the emperor’s close servant, a high honor. This is how I feel when I see people simping Church leaders like this. I would hope the leaders find it repulsive, because the alternative is that they like it. Liking this type of fealty is not a good look.

Personally, though, I think I am slightly less bothered by the leaders allowing for this leader worship than I am by the members who engage in it. These simps among us are the ones preparing the content for church meetings, and an increasing percent of that content seems to be quoting unremarkable things said in General Conference as if these things are life-altering epiphanies rather than threadbare pablum. Even worse are the members who talk more emotionally about church leaders (yet always somehow humble-bragging in the process about some association with the leader) than they do about actual Jesus. I didn’t sign up for this. I’m not sniffing the silver bowl. That’s nasty.

  • Do you agree with Jim that leader worship is the biggest problem facing the church or do you think it’s something else?
  • Do you think leaders discourage leader worship or encourage it? Explain your answer.
  • How do you remedy the tendency of members to become simps?
  • How do you avoid simphood?