Root cause analysis is a common practice in business, particularly in tech industries. As the name suggests, it involves identifying the root cause of a problem or error so that the problem can be corrected (and prevented). I’ve heard it described as peeling back the layers of the onion until you get to the core where there is no other cause of the cause that caused all of the other causes that led to the problem on the surface. Sometimes root causes are fairly obvious. Sometimes it takes a lot of digging and a lot of red herrings or other events that may be correlated but don’t cause each other. Sometimes identifying a root cause links seemingly unrelated events or issues together.
I was thinking about root cause analysis yesterday after Angela post on leader worship. She posed the question of whether leader worship is the single biggest problem in the Church; in my view, it’s certainly one of the biggest if not the biggest. The way that many of us assess the value of an idea based on the priesthood rank of the person who proposed is rather than on its own merit causes a lot of bad decisionmaking.
But overall, the question got me thinking about how if it is the single biggest problem in the Church (or even if it’s not), what is the actual cause of that problem. Is leader worship the root cause of many of the other problems? Or do it and other problems stem from some other root cause? Or is it an important cause along the causal chain but not the root?
There were a lot of good answers:
- Leader worship is part of Western culture. The LDS brand is LDS leader worship, but it is a broader cultural problem.
- The teaching of prophetic infallibility / doctrinal inerrancy is the major problem.
- Leader worship originates in what we claim makes us unique as Christians: the restoration of priesthood authority. As the differences between us and other Christian religions shrinks, appeals to “but we are the ones with authority” continue and perhaps intensify.
- The real problem results from a lack of transparency (and sometimes deceit) about Church history and internal workings, which prevents people from making informed decisions.
- The root of the problem (my contribution, which I am rethinking, but in any event it’s what I commented on Angela’s post) is that we believe in works not grace. We have to earn salvation. And the way we earn salvation is by doing what our leaders tell us to do and jumping through the hoops we need to jump through. And THAT encourages the leader worship (on both ends) and inserts them as intermediaries between us and God.
This all got me thinking about two “root cause” experiences I had during my faith deconstruction that really shifted my view on things in a major way.
First, I had been in a slow-burn faith deconstruction / crisis / transition / whatever you want to call it for about ten years when the POX was reversed. I had several years previously concluded that Church leadership was misguided and wrong about gay marriage and was probably also wrong about polygamy and women in the priesthood, but that these issues were “ancillary” and that if I just focused on the basics of the gospel – faith, Jesus, the atonement, the actual “gospel” – I could put the other stuff on a shelf and hope that someday the things that bothered me would change. That’s not to say I thought those things were unimportant – they were tremendously important – but that I could still find the good at the core and hope that Church leaders were who they said they were (prophets) even if prophets can sometimes get things wrong.
With that in mind, I decided to listen to Nelson’s explanation of the POX and POX reversal and try to really give him the benefit of the doubt that he and other leaders were doing their best and acting in good faith. So I listened to his BYU devotional The Love and Laws of God hoping to get a better understanding of where leaders were coming from (whether or not I agreed with them).
It didn’t help. In fact, what I realized was something that fundamentally shifted my view of the Church and its leadership.
I realized while listening to Nelson’s description of God, and how we have certain rules in place that we need to obey so that we can return to live with God, that the issue of gay marriage (and others) weren’t in fact peripheral at all. They were actually the fruits of a central, serious problem: that our Church teaches that we earn our way back to God through obeying the rules. It is that fundamental understanding of God and the atonement and the plan of salvation that leads to the misguided and harmful idea that for a gay person to gain exaltation, she needs to follow certain rules that require her to remain celibate for her whole life.
And I simply cannot believe in a God who would only let some of His children come back someday. What parent would tell a beloved child, “Sorry, you didn’t follow all of my rules. You cannot return home.”
And if I cannot trust that someone who claims to be a prophet is teaching correct principles about the very nature of God–well, I don’t know what is more fundamental than that. I don’t know what a prophet is worth if I can’t trust them to tell me about the nature of God.
Second, around the same time, I listened to an interview that RFM did with Philip McLemore. McLemore had been a CES director and apologist for the Church, and assisted in writing a number of apologetic responses to problems. At one point, however, he realized after trying to plug so many different holes and answer so many different questions and problems: What if there are not actually lots of different problems in an otherwise solid organization? What if there’s actually only one problem, and that one problem explains every single other problem? I’m paraphrasing, it’s been a while since I listened to the episode, but that hit me pretty hard and really shifted my view.
What if …
I’m not really trying to convince anyone that those conclusions are correct and I wouldn’t even call them conclusions — more like “considerations.” Just illustrating how peeling back a few more layers of the onion to look at root causes and possible explanations pretty radically shifted the way I saw the Church and thought about problems.
A root cause of many Church issues is, in my view, a false notion of the nature of God which sets up a system of requirements and boxes to check and then props up the leaders who teach us those requirements and claim to have the authority to check the boxes.
But that still leaves us with identifying the root cause for that belief. And the root cause of that belief may be that it was constructed by well-meaning but ultimately very human men (white men), with no greater connection to God or wisdom than anyone else might have, made God in their image and constructed a version of eternity that fits with their worldviews (eternal white supremacist polygamy, anyone?). Is that the root of it all?
- If you take some of the problems you see in Church, can you peel it back as far as you possibly can? What do you come up with?
- Have you had an experience–whether at Church or in another situation–where you realized that a bunch of little problems you were trying to triage and thought were independent actually stemmed from one underlying problem?
Okay, my root cause would be that I don’t believe that modern prophets, seers, and revelators are prophesying, seeing, and revelate-ing. I like Christianity and want to believe in the basic tenets. I can believe in inspiration granted to those trying to do their best. We can call my ideas for my Primary calling inspiration. The local bishop is a good man trying to help the ward while also being an engineer, and I can hope that he’s being inspired in his efforts. But I don’t see prophesy coming from our prophets. Historically, I see reasons to distrust the corporation.
To answer your second question, yes. I had a conversation with a bishop a couple of years ago and the pieces clicked into place. I was naïve during Hinkley; I liked Monson encouraging love and service. I don’t like Nelson. I don’t believe that he’s any better than the pope or the good-hearted head of any faith or my dad, yet millions claim he’s the true and living prophet. I can’t agree.
I agree with your last paragraph and would go one level deeper. I think the root cause is the ego. We like to feel special, chosen, better-than, saved. We like to construct realities that preserve our sense of individualness, the “cult of innocence”, our culture of certainty. Faith and humility – the kind of humility that admits we might not have the answers – is a ton harder than wrestling and choosing for ourselves. So we attach to ideas, frameworks, people, leaders, rules to take away the fear and uncertainty and hard work. And because those things (including leaders) make us feel safe, we idolize them. Eventually, we worship them.
The ego will do whatever it can to feel good and safe.
I was reading in the Baghavad Gita last night this profound wisdom: those who seek heaven and it’s celestial pleasures will obtain them for a time, but they are ultimately sent back to life to be reborn, until they can finally learn to let go of what they are chasing so hard after. Even if that thing we are chasing is Heaven.
“A root cause of many Church issues is, in my view, a false notion of the nature of God which sets up a system of requirements and boxes to check and then props up the leaders who teach us those requirements and claim to have the authority to check the boxes.
But that still leaves us with identifying the root cause for that belief. And the root cause of that belief may be that it was constructed by well-meaning but ultimately very human men (white men), with no greater connection to God or wisdom than anyone else might have, made God in their image and constructed a version of eternity that fits with their worldviews (eternal white supremacist polygamy, anyone?). Is that the root of it all?”
The root goes way back beyond the start of mormonism to the earliest days of Christianity. checkboxes and requirements don’t start showing up until the Roman Empire adopts Christianity as well as the militaristic medieval states that were formed after its collapse. How do you make religion with spiritual principles about love, peace, pacifism, and egalitarian living fit into a social order, that, by definition is hierarchical, violent, and exploitative? You do that by having a professional clergy who claims authority over access to and official interpretation of said spiritual principles. The check boxes and requirements are the way to make sure that regular people conforming to what the clergy (and by extension, the state) want you do, and their jobs are supported by tithes, which happen to be a requirement to get into that afterlife of peace of and love and whatever.
The story of Christianity is the story of people fighting over which checkboxes and requirements matter, all of which though are just means to get people to behave in a way that benefits those who sit at the top of the violent and exploitative hierarchical socioeconomic structures.
@purple_flurp, that’s an excellent point. I often remind myself (and others) that Mormonism’s problems are not unique to it. They stem from Western culture & Christianity generally & Greek and Roman philosophy & racism & sexism that long predated the Church. So thank you for pointing that out.
So perhaps the kind of root of the problem or at least reason we can’t change is because we’ve somehow exalted those ever-so-worldly philosophies and called them doctrine.
I think with every root cause analysis there’s the risk of pulling back too far or not far enough when considering context. For example, yes, Christianity is hella sexist with few exceptions, but not all Christian sects practiced polygamy. That’s a pretty unique sexist practice in Mormonism. So there were things that Mormonism inherited along with the rest of Christianity, and then there were things it added (sometimes calling it restoration, other times calling it revelation), and some of the things it added created additional problems that are unique to this sect. And then the people in the Church become another facet of the problems: they bring in what they bring in (Brigham Young brought the Ham doctrine in from his pre-Mormon protestantism), and they align with the people they agree with (conservatives align with modern day GOP and Evangelicals in ways that would have been unheard of a few decades ago), and that shapes the future of the Church also, both from within and from without.
Like one problem is that we have a lay clergy and revile experts, scholars and other faiths, so we have a kind of anti-intellectual approach to religion making. We’re not great at epistomology, but we’re also bad at it in our own unique way.
oof, angela, love that! You’re right. Everything can be traced way far back, but I think the more useful question is more what is in our span of control to an extent.
A business evaluating a root cause doesn’t want to trace things back to things totally outside its control – that wouldn’t be a useful exercise in terms of solving the problem or understanding the unique way it surfaced in the business.
i.e., sexism predated the Church, the Church inherited it and didn’t invent it, BUT the Church could stop saying that sexism is God’s plan. It’s continued perpetuation of that falsehood continues to harm.
Very thought-provoking post. I liked lh’s comment about the ego and the desire to be special and chosen, and I want to link it to the second to last paragraph, which says:
“A root cause of many Church issues is, in my view, a false notion of the nature of God which sets up a system of requirements and boxes to check and then props up the leaders who teach us those requirements and claim to have the authority to check the boxes.”
The leaders want to believe they know the way back to God; they’re so special and chosen that we have to look to them for ultimate salvation.
even more egoistic – Mormonism isn’t seeking its way back to God in order to worship him forever, but to become like him. Other Christians don’t believe we inherit worlds and become gods ourselves, but Mormonism does. We’re so special that some day we’ll have a whole planet of beings worshipping US.
@Elisa, excellent thoughts and great questions. My thoughts align with yours, and I’ll express them in a slightly different way.
I have often wondered why the church is drawn to taking on the onus of proclaiming that we know The Truth. I know there are obvious answers to this question, but also obvious are the many problem associated with bearing that burden. Ultimately, leaders are left to ask followers to overlook much, not to ask questions, to do as they say (i.e. Obedience). Leader worship is inevitable because the one truth onus is impossible to bear.
I’ve often wondered how different our church would be if it and its leaders were to adopt a more Cartesian approach to our religious claims. What if we applied principles of radical skepticism even more broadly? Descartes’ method, after all, was aimed at sorting out what is knowable from that which is illusion and artifact. (And in mathematics he demonstrated the synthesis of his method quantitatively.) This approach, articulated by enlightenment philosophy, is a method of truth seeking, not disproving for the sake of being a spoiler, but putting claims through rigorous analysis because that is what moves us closer to the truth, to reality. Root cause analysis falls squarely within this tradition and method of thinking. I’m not trying to replace religious faith with humanism. I think you can anchor yourself in faith in God and in moral virtues as a premise, and push forward with root cause analysis or with any approach that employs the principles of systematic doubt as a way of finding godly truth and sorting it from cultural chaff.
Of course, taking on a Cartesian approach, essentially flipping the onus from one of “we have The Truth” to “we are working to vet and discover our truth,” would require a different profile of church leader. I think if our approach were to be flipped and we had leadership who were fundamentally reoriented to be more dubious of themselves and our claims, we may well see spiritual humility instead of spiritual narcissism. I think we would see more time and effort placed on theology instead of devotional sermonizing. I think our current system of judgment would stop and be replaced by pastoral care. I think we would see more effort to care for and give aid to the needy. I think we would see less of a focus on purity and “worthiness” (works) and more priority placed on personal growth and discovery, moral development and closeness to God. We would certainly see less leader worship.
I feel qualified only to name what experience has shown to be the root problem of my own mistakes and biggest regrets both in and out of the church; the lack of critical thinking. Spirituality, faith, intuition, the gut, whatever you want to call it, all have their value, but when we absolve our responsibility to think about things because of these things, serious mistakes will follow.
I’d argue the church encourages walking by faith, giving extra props to obedience when we don’t fully understand why, so yeah, there’s possibly a dearth of critical thinking in your average member, ward, stake, Q15.
The way I interpret your question is: what one thing would help most of the problems disappear? For me, most of the problems disappeared when I stopped viewing the LDS church as “The One True Church”, and started viewing it as “One small piece of the kingdom of God.” It’s there to help and serve us, rather than us being here to serve it.
I think the Kingdom of God is so much bigger than any of us understand. TRUTH is dispersed throughout all of the world’s religions, and the TRUTH can be found in each one of us. We have divine DNA within us, and if we live true to ourselves, we will become what we need to be. (So in reality, I believe that no religion is necessary). I think that may have been one of the messages that Jesus was trying to teach us.
I think that the Church is a good thing, and I fully believe that those who remain faithful to the church will be well off in the next life- but I don’t think it’s the only path to being well off in the next life. Once I viewed it as “Oh, this is one valid path that people can take, but it’s not the only path,” Most of the problems of the church went away for me. So I view that as the “root cause of the problem”.
Yeah I can’t say that the emphasis of grace over works is likely the root here.
There are plenty of churches that emphasize grace over works that are no less patriarchal, 2SLGBTQ+ -phobic, racially-just, nor less inclined towards a ‘prosperity gospel’ mindset.
The problem with searching for any ‘root cause’ in a problem is that most harmful systems have multiple causes. It might be beneficial to tackle one at a time or examine a variable independent from its covariables but we should be wary of any salvic snake oil which remedies far fewer ailments than advertised.
It’s legitimate to contend that a particular solution usually tends to be most useful against a particular kind of problem in a particular context. But I fear we are trying to ‘cure’ or ‘fix’ Mormonism here and I’m not convinced that a switch from works to grace would do as much as advertised here.
No *more racially just.
This is what happens when trying to discuss institutional problems within the church.
They are legion.
@canadian dude that’s a good point. Fwiw I’m not trying to “fix” the church. It was more that it was beneficial to me to see that things I thought were peripheral and could be taken care of easily with minor modifications aren’t actually peripheral and my whole worldview is fundamentally different from what Nelson teaches. It changed the way I saw my relationship with and desire to invest in the church.
I’m not sure the root problem is a false notion of the nature of God. I mean, all we really have to go on are notions about the nature of God largely constructed from proclaimed revelation (perhaps no more than imagination, for all we can know) received by flawed, largely self-interested human beings. There’s not much there to build a foundation on. There is no source outside of self-interested individuals from which to construct an idea about the nature of God.
I find myself nodding in agreement with purple_flurp’s religion-is-a-bunch-of-check-boxes framing. I think it is. The question is why does that work? Because life is uncertain and it ends, and that makes humans insecure. Rather than deal directly with the insecurity (a mostly Buddhist approach), Christianity tells people they can feel secure in the knowledge that they are right and need not fear death. Christian religions firmly plan themselves between people and God and say you have to go through this very human organization to access deity. Again, agreeing with purple_flurp, I think the church’s general problem is the same as with all Christian religions–that it intercedes. The Mormon church’s specific problem, as I think many have already stated or implied, is the insistence on being the only valid source of truth, which creates all kinds of circular logic and twisted reasoning required to keep the church itself at the center of individual members’ beliefs. It’s the Christian problem on steroids, perhaps.
This was a great contribution to the previous conversation. It is an interesting puzzle to solve, and I agree that the church has a significant problem in how it conceptualizes God.
I would argue that fixation on authority would be the root cause. Only in the sense that it forecloses the ability to really discuss theology within the church and requires the suppression of opposing points of view. Your average gospel doctrine class couldn’t even entertain the discussions needed to parse the works/grace distinction the OP brings up. This is by design, and hearkens back to the authority issues raised in the beginning of the church. The church sees a threat in the theological exploration of members. This is why Renlund’s Heavenly Mother talk was all about authority and hardly even discussed theology.
So, in my opinion, the need for obedience and rule following spans from the need to respect the authority of institutional revelations. I think this also explains why Mormonism sided with works even though it grew out of a Protestant context. I might be biased and wrong, however, because I don’t enjoy the traditional grace/works distinction and debate.
I know for myself it all began with polygamy. Reading Emma, Mormon Enigma in the late 80s really shook me up but somehow over the years I was able to put that on a shelf and didn’t peel it all back until I started looking much closer at the church’s stance on LGBTQ issues. Prop 8 and a nephew coming out sent me on a pathway to deconstruct everything. Another is racism and the whiteness of everything – can’t we please just have a Jewish Jesus in our churches?
I hate the leader worship, but it might also be because of how I believe now but possibly not just that because I still have very fond feelings for Presidents Hinkley, Monson and McKay. I told a former bishop following a TR interview and discussion over my concerns, that every time I see a picture of DHO that I want to punch him in the face. A kind of deer in the headlights look came over his face but he still handed over the TR. Nelson makes me think of Mr Burns from Simpson, and I can no longer get that image out of my mind. And there are a growing number of G15 on my loss of respect for list. Needless to say I no longer watch GC 🥴
@Janey – Looking again at your questions – I have to say yes and yes. Realizing it goes all the way back to Joseph Smith. My heart still hurts for Emma and all those women coerced to suffer through the pain of polygamy.
I’ve appreciated both the post and the comments especially the notion of spiritual/institutional humility. My simple contribution to the discussion would be this:
1) What if we could move from the definite article to the indefinite article, that is, why not “a true and living church” rather than “the true and living church” and let the chips fall where the may.
2) What if we let Elder Talmage overrule Elder McConkie and have the doctrine of “progression between kingdoms” celebrated instead of castigated. That paradigm shift might just also strike at a root and take some crazy pressure off our cultural shoulders in which we seem to constantly push ourselves for perfectionism in this mortal existence.
@Elisa, that’s fair and makes sense, though the same kind of introspection you’re engaging with in the article would be necessary if one were to try to reform Mormonism.
Ever since June of 2020 when I got a bad case of Covid and became a Longhauler’ I’ve had plenty of time to study church history and polygamy in depth. (Note: none of the books have been written by antiMormon authors.) In my opinion I feel that many of the root causes of the church’s problems stem right back to Joseph Smith himself. He had to be the leader of every organization wherever the church was located. He was prophet, mayor, leader of the Masonic Lodge, newspaper editor, president of the School of the Prophets, Quorum of the Anointed, the Council of the 50, the leader of the Nauvoo Legion (his own private militia), ran for US president and more. It’s a wonder that he had any time to run the church! He loved the adulation that his followers gave him and was hurt when members and nonmembers alike didn’t also recognize his “wonderfulness” and specialness because he was THE PROPHET. I purposely wrote that title in all caps because that’s how he saw himself. HE alone knew all of the answers, and although there are sections in the D&C that show God’s displeasure with him, in truth he didn’t like to have anyone else in any of the rest of those groups or the church in general question him or call him out. (See Oliver Cowdry and William Law.) That hubris rubbed off on the members of the church. Even with the church having begun during the Second Great Awakening, the absolute certainty that church members had (and still have) that our church is the one and only true church and that all others are abominations didn’t exactly win friends and positively influence other people. It rightly comes off as extremely arrogant. The True Church of Jesus Christ should be made up of humble people who do their best to follow in the footsteps of the Savior and who love and serve their fellow humans in word and deed.
On top of this all Joseph continually lied during the time he practiced polygamy, not just to the public and Emma but to his myriad wives. How could you trust someone who preached monogamy but who secretly practiced polygamy? How could you trust someone who said that he obeyed the laws of the land but gave his blessings to the Danites, who smashed up a printing press because it contained views of him that he didn’t like and who commanded the men of the church to vote only one way in order to cut the best deals with the local and state government officials? He had promised all of his wives that he would make sure that they were to always be taken care of by the church because of their special status as his wives. Even when he was alive these poor women were forced to write letters begging for help to pay their bills and buy adequate food and clothing. Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball et al carried on that odious tradition of relinquishing their care up until and even after the end of polygamy. What Joseph was doing in private was not a good look for the leader of a church. My heart goes out especially to Emma who must’ve wondered who and what her husband had become.
Then there were the hierarchies in his various groups. Joseph loved hierarchies with him at the top. Only his best and most trusted pals and their wives got to be a part of the Quorum of the Anointed. Look at the way the pulpits in the Kirtland Temple were placed. Hierarchy there too. The leadership of the church and of Nauvoo was pretty much a good old boys group. Even the original Relief Society was made up of the creme de la crème of Nauvoo womanhood who were the wives, sisters, mothers and daughters of Joseph’s inner circle. Of course Emma had to run the RS because even then Joseph had to be in control. Hierarchies were built into the church almost from the very beginning. And nepotism and “friend of a friend” networks became the ruling bodies of the church. In nearly 193 years the story has remained pretty much the same except now there’s a 1950’s corporate business model and culture that has been imposed on top of the existing structure. And then we wonder why the church is losing members right and left.
“What if we could move from the definite article to the indefinite article, that is, why not “a true and living church” rather than “the true and living church” and let the chips fall where the may.”
Richard, I appreciate the sentiment but I’m not sure how deserving we are of the title even with the indefinite article. We play fast and loose with the truth and I’m not sure anyone who’s heard our congregational singing would describe us as “living.”
I’ve been reading “No Man Knows My History” by Fawn Brodie and its become pretty obvious that the biggest sin in the church has always been getting sideways with the Prophet. That was the only reason people were excommunicated from the very beginning of the church. It didn’t matter what else they did as long they were in Joseph’s good graces, but the second they crossed him, accused him of adultery, of misusing their funds, or trying to seduce them, their wife, or their daughter, that’s when the excommunications happened. Leader worship has been built into this faith from the very beginning. Its why the church is still around. I don’t think this church can survive without it.
Here’s my root analysis:
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The root problem is that the Mormon God is a human being. Human beings are the highest order of beings in the Mormon cosmology.
Great post, Elisa. I like Canadian Dude’s point (if I’m understanding it right) that it’s hard to get to a root cause when you have causes that reinforce one another, so it’s hard to tell which is the original first cause. For example, I think of leader distance from members and leader worship by members as reciprocally causing each other. The more distant leaders become from most members, the easier it is for us to not see their everyday humanness, and therefore, the easier it is to worship them. But the more leaders are worshiped by members, the more they’re likely prone to keep their distance from the membership to keep that worship alive. I’m not sure which was first.
I think I’m with Poor Wayfaring Stranger (and others) on the idea that unchecked authority seems close to the root even if it’s not the root. Joseph, as PWS points out so well, didn’t handle well the idea of anyone else around him getting any of his authority. He didn’t let Hiram Page’s peepstone stand because his peepstone was the one that counted. And this echoes all the way down to the present, where we have Elder Renlund telling us in Conference that it’s fine for us to have our own peepstones (okay, maybe he used the term “personal revelation”), but if they don’t agree with the Brethren’s peepstones (er, revelation), then they’re by definition invalid.
The reason I think authority is so central is that authority is typically limited in scope or in time. The GAs have fought to make sure that there’s no limit to their authority in scope, but also by having the Q15 appointed for life, they’ve made sure to not have it be limited in time either, to the degree they can. By avoiding or preventing checks on their authority, they’ve put themselves in a position to make horrible mistakes without getting any feedback beforehand or pushback afterward. And this leads to all kinds of downstream issues, from the Policy of Exclusion to the refusal to reconsider the female priesthood ban, to the continual scolding of even poor people for not paying “the Lord” (i.e., the Church) sufficient tithes. If the GAs’ authority were limited in scope by more feedback, or if they could be dropped from the Q15 early if they supported too outrageous positions (as determined by whatever criterion external to them), they might be better behaved. But as it is, the only limit on what they can assert or require comes down to members’ willingness to disobey or leave. And on that topic, while I totally disagreed with all the Trumpites who decided that masking or vaxxing for COVID were a bridge too far, I do like that the Q15 got to see a limit on their authority, a think they typically take great pains to avoid experiencing.