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?  

Tell me:

  • 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?