The topic of the fallibility of the President of the LDS Church, while ostensibly clear, becomes ambiguous in application. I posit that when it comes to the leadership’s views on politics, the membership, encouraged by the teachings of leaders, regards the President as infallible.
Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency wrote in 1912: “No President of the Church has claimed infallibility1.” FAIR has an entry in their wiki2 roundly refuting the assertions of critics that Mormons treat the President of the Church as infallible. The Doctrine & Covenants makes explicit that “There is not any person belonging to the church who is exempt from this [disciplinary] council of the church3;” even the President can transgress. Neil L. Andersen taught in General Conference in 2012 that “The leaders of the Church are honest but imperfect men4.” Given all these pronouncements about the fallibility of the President, one might think that statements like “When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done5” would find no traction among the membership, or that discussions among the faithful would not be ended with an appeal to what the President thinks. But the notion persists among Mormons that the opinions of Church leaders are never to be questioned.
There are teachings that seem to challenge the official position regarding the President’s fallibility. In a popular anecdote, Marion G. Romney recounts that Heber J. Grant advised him: ”My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it… But you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray6.” There are a few peculiar things about Pres. Grant’s assertion. It not only appears to contradict the official position that the President can make mistakes but also implies that the Lord might infringe on the President’s agency; how exactly would the Lord keep the President from leading the people astray? Furthermore, if the second part of the statement is true then the first part is moot. It becomes even more puzzling why he included that moot hypothetical when considering the dubious ethics of the statement–why would the Lord bless someone for doing something that is wrong regardless of who said to do it?
The background of this anecdote is that President Grant had received criticism in 1936 for publishing a front-page editorial in the Deseret News accusing Franklin D. Roosevelt of “knowingly promoting unconstitutional laws and… advocating communism7.” His assertion that the membership of the Church should follow the President because the Lord would bless them if he were wrong, even though the Lord would never allow him to be wrong, was a defense of his assumed right to speak on political matters. The rhetorical lengths he went to are indicative of the primacy of compliance over personal understanding.
The other commonly cited defense of the absolute safety of following “The Prophet8” also comes out of another situation in which the leadership saw the membership’s obedience to be a temporal necessity. When Wilford Woodruff introduced the first Official Declaration, which ended (at least publicly and in this life) the practice of plural marriage, he prefaced the change with this assurance: “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty9.” Note the impending temporal consequences of refusing to end the practice, stated right in OD1: “If we had not stopped it, you would have had no use for … any of the men in this temple at Logan; for all ordinances would be stopped throughout the land of Zion. Confusion would reign throughout Israel, and many men would be made prisoners. This trouble would have come upon the whole Church, and we should have been compelled to stop the practice10.” Given the consequences of the saints’ failing to comply with the cessation of an accepted doctrine, Pres. Woodruff inscribed an appeal to the impossibility of his teaching something wrong.
As an apostle, Ezra Taft Benson, in a controversial devotional at BYU11 for which he later had to make an explanation to the seventies (and which was exhumed recently in a general conference talk), made the most explicit connection between the President’s right to speak on politics and his inability to err. In the “Fourteen Fundamentals of Following the Prophet” (again, would that all Jehovah’s people were prophets…), he reiterates the point several times: “The prophet can receive revelation on any matter, temporal or spiritual,” and “The prophet may advise on civic matters.” He quotes Harold B. Lee as saying “You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may conflict with your political views. It may contradict your social views… Your safety and ours depends upon whether or not we follow.” He criticizes the “so-called experts of political science [who] want the prophet to keep still on politics.” Most poignantly, he recounts Marion G. Romney’s story about a man who is upset about some of the things that Heber J. Grant had said in conference. After this man said that he had immigrated to the US because Wilford Woodruff had told him to come, Pres. Romney asks him if he believes Heber J. Grant is a prophet. “His answer, ‘I think he ought to keep his mouth shut about old-age assistance.’” Here is Benson’s sentence for such disagreement: “Now I tell you that a man in his position is on the way to apostasy. He is forfeiting his chances for eternal life. So is everyone who cannot follow the living prophet of God.” In this worldview, there is precious little room for error on the part of the members. The slightest disagreement with the brethren on a political matter is the path to apostasy.
President Benson was notable for being a vocal member of the rightwing John Birch Society and a virulent opponent of communism and everything perceived to be in league with communist revolutionaries–he claimed that the civil rights movement was being used as a “communist program for revolution12” and fretted in a letter to J. Edgar Hoover that the communists were using Dwight D. Eisenhower as a kind of useful idiot13. He was fond of intertwining contemporary politics and scriptural lessons, perhaps more so than any other president. Given his perspective that the threat of communism was an imminent and devious threat, I find it no coincidence that he has delivered the firmest defense of the safety of following the President’s political directives.
My personal experience with the rigidity of following the Prophet came most dishearteningly from my senior year at BYU when the university accepted Dick Cheney’s solicitation to speak at my graduation ceremony. While not every BYU student is so immature as to suppose that since the President of the Church sits on the board of the university that every decision down to the decaffeinated sodas in the cafeteria carries God’s divine seal of approval, those voices dominated the discussion about the appropriateness of having a war profiteer speak at a Church-owned university. I was sincerely baffled to hear my peers at a very selective, accredited university squelch all conversation about a topic because it was tangentially connected to a man who was above questioning, not to mention in a religion where inquiry and verification direct from God play such an integral role in the foundational narrative. To my mind, a correction from the administration was due in order to reinforce the value of educated, thoughtful discussion. None came.
Proposition 8 in California in 2008 became, church-wide, a line in the sand. Religious pressure to get on board, across the country, was intense. One’s feelings on gay marriage in California somehow became indicative of one’s commitment to the “Gospel.” I don’t recall, for example, Pres. Hinckley’s forbidding of gambling achieving the same “good Mormon” litmus test status.
Apologists point to the existence of the “honest but imperfect men” statements as though they negate the the other statements which assert the Lord’s unwillingness to let the Prophet err. They do not. The two conflicting ideas exist largely separate, compartmentalized by their different applications like a sword and a shield. When heterodox Mormons need to be put back in line, doubting the Prophet is the road to apostasy. When critics bring up the racist views of past leaders, the Prophet is fallible.
But there is a bleed between these points of view. The statements about the Prophet never leading the people astray, born out of political expediency, have, in the doctrinal arena, facilitated witch hunts, prompted purges, suppressed meaningful discourse and created a climate of stifling orthodoxy. My hope is that the bleed can go the other way, with the fungibility of the doctrine influencing the Church’s politics, back towards the sentiment of Joseph Smith: “I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammelled. It does not prove a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine14.”
1 Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15 no. 11 (September 1912)
3 D&C 107:81 - 84
4 "Trial of Your Faith," Ensign, November 2012
5 Improvement Era, June 1945
6 Conference Report, October 1960, p. 78
7 D. Michael Quinn, J. Reuben Clark: The Church Years, p. 75
8 Numbers 11:29: “Would that all Jehovah’s people were prophets”
9 Sixty-first Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, October 6, 1890, Salt Lake City, Utah. Reported in Deseret Evening News,October 11, 1890, p. 2
10 Cache Stake Conference, Logan, Utah, Sunday, November 1, 1891. Reported in Deseret Weekly, November 14, 1891
11 Address given Tuesday, February 26, 1980 at Brigham Young University
12 “Civil Rights: Tool of Communist Deception,” September 29, 1967
14 History of the Church 5:340