Taking a rational, temperate approach to following our leaders

October 19, 2007

In evaluating Mitt Romney’s qualifications for the U.S. presidency, one of the questions that sometimes comes up is what he would do were the President of the Church to give him specific instructions regarding how to act as President of the United States. Given Romney’s presumed conviction that Gordon B. Hinckley is a prophet of God, it’s easy to envision a situation in which his religious loyalties come into direct conflict with his presidential duties. What if President Hinckley called him up and ordered him to veto a particular piece of legislation? Or to use military force with Iran? Or to push for the legalization of polygamy? Citizens voicing this concern understandably want some kind of explanation as to how Romney would handle this dilemma.

This concern irks your average Mormon. As we all know, President Hinckley would never use his ecclesiastical authority to improperly influence a Mormon politician. He understands the importance of keeping Church and State separate, and would honor President Romney’s autonomy and discretion as leader of this nation. As one Mormon I know put it, theorizing that our prophet would give orders to a Mormon President is like theorizing that the sun won’t rise tomorrow.

While I’m quite confident that President Hinckley would not exert an undue or improper influence on Romney or any other LDS politician, I don’t think that people are unjustified in raising the concern. I mean, were President Hinckley or one of his successors to specifically urge an LDS politician to act or to vote in a certain manner, it wouldn’t be the first time a Mormon prophet has done it.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson proposed the repeal of a right-to-work provision contained in the Taft-Hartley Act. President David O. McKay felt strongly about right-to-work laws, as he believed that they preserved the worker’s free agency. He therefore saw the proposed legislation as a moral threat to laborers’ God-given liberty. After discussing the matter with his counselors, President McKay, acting on President N. Eldon Tanner’s suggestion, decided that the First Presidency should write a letter to the eleven LDS members of Congress, urging them to vote against the change in law.

The letter received a less than warm reception from some of its recipients. Senator Frank E. Moss, a Democratic Senator from Utah, publicly responded to the letter: “I am rather surprised to learn that the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has chosen to speak on a legislative and political matter. . . . It has been my position, and I thought it was the position of the Church, that the Church should stand aloof in matters of political controversy where members of the Church disagree by reason of honest difference of belief as to what political or governmental action is desirable. . . . As a Senator, I will form my judgment and I will vote my honest conviction in accordance with my conscience.”[1]

Shortly thereafter, Senator Moss joined with four other LDS Democrats in Congress in sending a letter to the First Presidency, stating that they would not heed its counsel in this matter. The letter included the following statement: “While we respect and revere the offices held by the members of the First Presidency of the Church, we cannot yield to others our responsibilities to our constituency, nor can we delegate our own free agency to any but ourselves.”[2]

I think this example nicely illustrates that there are (or should be, anyway) limits on the deference we give to the counsel of Church leaders. While we may revere them as the representatives of God and the conveyers of His will, we should not indiscriminately accept or follow every word they speak.

For one, there are circumstances (such as those just described) in which Church leaders’ counsel is unwarranted. Sometimes well-meaning leaders accidentally overstep their bounds and intrude upon areas that are best left to the members’ discretion.

Additionally, as human beings, Church leaders are just as prone to error as we are, and we should be aware of this reality when contemplating and evaluating their advice. As Joseph Smith taught after one of his prophecies failed, “Some revelations are from God: some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil.”[3]

Finally, there are often exceptions to the general counsel that our leaders give, and it is our prerogative and responsibility to investigate those exceptions on our own. On this subject, Dallin H. Oaks has said: “As a General Authority, I have the responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules. For example, we believe the commandment is not violated by killing pursuant to a lawful order in an armed conflict. But don’t ask me to give an opinion on your exception. I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord.”[4]

Sustaining our leaders does not demand that we uncritically accept and follow every word they speak. I believe that the Doctrine and Covenants provides some insight as to what sustaining entails. In Section 6, Oliver Cowdery is instructed to “stand by my servant Joseph, faithfully” (v. 18). In the next verse, however, he is told to “[a]dmonish him in his faults, and also receive admonition of him. Be patient; be sober; be temperate; have patience, faith, hope and charity” (v. 19; emphasis added).

Oliver was to stand by Joseph, faithfully, and to exercise temperance, faith, hope, and charity in their interactions. However, this did not preclude the responsibility to “[a]dmonish [Joseph] in his faults.” In other words, while we should support and stand by our imperfect leaders in a spirit of patience and charity, sustaining them does not demand that we ignore or gloss over their follies. The Christlike thing to do would be to “admonish” them and assist them in overcoming their imperfections, just as they do for us, keeping in mind the virtues of temperance, patience, and charity.

The Book of Mormon suggests another helpful manner by which we might approach our leaders’ shortcomings: “Condemn [them] not because of [their] imperfection . . . but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you [their] imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than [they] have been” (Mormon 9:31). Certainly we should be slow to find fault and to condemn, but that does not mean that we gloss over or condone that which is wrong.

The consequences of unquestioning obedience may be dire. Only a few weeks ago, we commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which tragedy, as Elder Eyring pointed out, was orchestrated by “local leaders.”

In light of past experience, one would hope that when we are asked what we would do were the Prophet to ask us to murder or commit some other atrocity (however unlikely that possibility may be), we would not feel obligated to rely on the uncomfortable non-answer that “the Prophet wouldn’t ask me to do that.” Notwithstanding our duty to support our leaders, it is our moral obligation to take a thoughtful, temperate approach to their counsel, and our right to follow their counsel only inasmuch as personal conscience permits.

[1] Gregory Prince, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, p. 326.
[2] Ibid.
[3] David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, p. 31.
[4] “Dating Versus Hanging Out,” Ensign, June 2006 (emphasis in original).


  1. If Romney acts as Sen. Moss did during his presidency then I won’t worry

  2. What do you think ‘admonishing our leaders’ means? Does it apply to us today? If so, to what extent? I’m trying to picture 13 million people thinking they know what they prophet really should be saying, and all sending letters accordingly. That seems a bit chaotic to me, to say the least. Giving feedback to a local leader I can see, but I just don’t think any of us is in a position to really admonish our general leaders. We have a different church than they did in those early days, when someone could just have a chat with the prophet because he was right around the corner, and at church on Sunday.


  3. Yeah, I agree that the “admonish” thing is probably only practical with respect to local leaders. The GAs probably get more than enough mail as it is.

  4. Great post! It’s well-informed, well-reasoned, and well-written. Thanks for spending the time to put it together so well.

    I think the take-aways from this post is that you should always judge a leader’s counsel for yourself – don’t simply “act on faith” if you feel that the counsel was out of line. As far as the “admonishing” thing goes, I see no reason that you shouldn’t write your GAs if you feel strongly about something they said. 13 million letters would be a very strong impetus for any GA to re-evaluate. You can view that as either chaotic or constructive.

  5. Oh, this blog article speaks peace to my troubled soul!

  6. Apparently Romney reads VSOM: Romney Says He Won’t ‘Take Orders’ From Church.

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