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Ladies and Gentlemen…The President

October 24, 2007

by John C.

I suppose that if one is going to discuss unrighteous dominion, one had better also describe righteous dominion. What on earth might that be? We are, in our western democratic mindset, unfamiliar with whatever that might be. Dominion, when held, must be maintained by coercion, whether physical or psychic. Therefore, it is always unrighteous, always unjust. Nonetheless, the idea is there, implicit in scripture. It must mean something and we, apparently, should understand it.

Often, our discussions of this topic revolve around the potential meanings of the term “to preside.” That term, forever memorialized in the Proclamation on the Family, is what the father is supposed to do in the home, alongside protecting and providing. This is meant to give the father some guidance regarding how to behave in the family and what the Lord expects of him in that setting. Plenty of ink has been spilled (or digitally reproduced) in the effort to determine the limits of preside. This post is yet another attempt, but I am approaching the idea from a new angle (for me). While in the past, I have tried to define “presiding” by what it cannot be (based on how our leaders describe the ideal husband/wife/father/mother/parent/child relationship), I am going to turn to other contemporary uses of “presiding” in order to look for clues.

That’s right, today we are talking politics.

The President of the United States of America is, one might assume, presiding over all American citizens. He is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, so there is your protecting. He gives the federal budget to Congress, so there is your providing. So what exactly else does his presiding consist of?

To quote our current President, “Leadership,” which we all know he provides in spades. What on earth might that be? I think that it is reasonable to argue that it means that the presider provides goals and ideas about how the nation should view itself moreso than anything else. The finest presidential moments are not wars, nor are they budgets: they are speeches. Those presidents that linger in memory are generally those that had a way with words (Washington, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan). Of course, others are more famous for their policies than their rhetoric, but they tend to be the exception. They aren’t generally turned to when we are trying to assess where we are as a nation (the one possible exception is Truman, but his notoriety is aided by a recent, well-written biography). The Presidents that really matter to us are those that gave us our idea of ourselves. Even President Bush’s finest moment is a rhetorical one; a man talking to rescue workers through a bullhorn, telling them we will make it. At that moment, we all believed in George W. Bush, because we wanted to.

And that’s the thing: presidents preside by persuading. When Bush failed to live up to that moment with the bullhorn, a strong Democrat presence was voted into the legislature. When any president fails to convince the people that he genuinely has their best interest at heart, opposition parties are voted into power (or enough power) to thwart his own. The only exceptions to this are dictatorships, where the opposition is shot. I hope we can all agree that is a bad model for family and church relations and just move on.
In families, the same basic principles hold true. If the family feels like the president is overstepping his power, they revolt. An opposition party may take over. They may just make the president a lame duck, ignoring every presidential proclamation. The truth of the matter is that there will always be a president, but there is no reason to assume that it will be the father. The father often abdicates his authority, seeking to escape it in work, addiction, or indifference. Presidents preside because the people ask them to, which makes the people the ultimate arbiters of presidential power.

We don’t like this sort of talk in the church. Men have the priesthood because God gave it to them. Bishops and Stake Presidents are meant to be top-down representatives of the church to the people, not vice versa. If we are to understand presiding as a primarily administrative endeavor, the importance of popular support is all the more important. It is the easiest thing in the world to render the power of an unrighteous bishop useless: stop attending church. The vast majority who leave the church have discovered this great truth. A bishop without the support of his congregation is a bad bishop, whether or not the institutional church continues to support him.

Look at it this way. We believe that, in some form, the bishop is responsible for the people in his area. I have even been told that the bishop is responsible for the non-members in his area, not just those affiliated with the church. If a person is meant to be responsible, in part, for your welfare, is there any more effective way to render his responsibility moot as regards you than to simply and resolutely ignore everything that they have to say to you? Those who preside, preside at the behest of their constituents. It is never the other way around. This is where the principle of “by common consent” is applicable. When we raise our hand to sustain that calling, we are saying that we will support that soul in that calling, whether over us or not. Without our support, the calling is rendered moot. The one called had best go about creating an atmosphere where they can be trusted, or they will not be able to fulfill their sacred responsibilities.

Ultimately, the reason, I believe, that any dominion becomes unrighteous is linked to the reason why the Lord permitted the persecution of the Saints in Missouri. If you believe deference is your due, but you don’t live the sort of life wherein people would want to defer to you, leaning of your chosen status will not get you very far. People will vote with their feet, their guns, or their divorce papers. Presidents work at the will of the people and so do leaders in the church.

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