Enshrined in Mormon scripture is an idea that seems to not be fully believed in practice. In D&C 121:39 we read:
“We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”
This verse seems to suggest that we should be far more suspect of authority than we tend to be culturally. That almost all men begin to exercise unrighteous dominion, when granted a little authority. Not that it is very rare or uncommon, but that almost all men do so. Almost ALL men. I’m not quite sure what to make of that. Is this verse arguing that the vast majority of leadership in the Church is exercising unrighteous dominion? Or that in the world at large the vast majority of men are exercising unrighteous dominion? The context seems to suggest more of a Church-centric reading. It is also unclear whether this is using “men” as a neutral term to refer to all people or if it is meant to only refer to men (the following verses mention priesthood, but depending on your understanding of that and how callings relate to said priesthood all members could still be being referred to).
However we read this it seems clear that unrighteous dominion is dangerous and should be pushed back against. In the face of accusations and admissions of such unrighteous dominion (ie Joseph Bishop among others), there has been a call by some to ignore these instances as aberrations and that it is best for everyone to hide them or not dwell on them. That is to say, I’ve noticed a tendency to believe that addressing directly unrighteous dominion will harm the institution of the Church, by diluting faith in its leadership. The belief seems to be that if we draw attention to and admit the fault of these individuals in leadership positions, no one will be able to trust leadership generally again (concerns along these lines motivate Pres. McKay in his quiet, behind-the-scenes dealing with Bruce R. McConkie and the initial publication of Mormon Doctrine, which due to McConkie’s later actions led to a Church-wide culture that embraced McConkie’s ideas).
This belief seems misguided to me. For one, any direct individuals harmed by the unrighteous dominion of a leader have already had their view of church leadership harmed. The only way to repair these victims of unrighteous dominion’s faith is to openly and honestly condemn the unrighteous dominion. For another, it seems unlikely that the Church as an institution can silence or bury forever every instance of unrighteous dominion (it should be noted that there are examples of the Church acting swiftly when they are made aware of unrighteous dominion by Church leaders). Again, it seems that the only way to heal from leaders exercising such unrighteous dominion is to openly and clearly condemn it whenever it occurs.
Yes, this may cause members to behave with more caution around local leaders, but that seems like something that probably should already be taking place given this scriptural idea. Perhaps we need to return to or reinterpret what it means to sustain by common consent, to empower the average member in the face of this unrighteous dominion.
If indeed it is true that almost all men begin to exercise unrighteous dominion when given only a little authority, what can we do to ensure that this doesn’t take place? What institutional measures can we put in place to protect the average member from exercises of unrighteous dominion? What can we do to help leaders practice having influence not by virtue of their priesthood, but by “persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-42)?
It seems to me that we need a two-pronged approach. That only focusing on leadership in a way to hopefully curb instances of unrighteous dominion will lack full efficacy because people will still find ways around the guidelines put in place or will just ignore them, so you must also work to empower individuals to feel like they can stick up for themselves and push back against instances of unrighteous dominion.
Again, I’m not sure exactly what needs to be done to make this happen. It seems that reinterpreting sustaining, allowing room for dissent, discussing the realities of human fallibility, having more council-based leadership, and including as diverse a set of voices in those councils as possible would all help to curb some of the unrighteous dominion that takes place. Perhaps we have exacerbated the problem by looking to leaders (local and general) for advice and counsel and help in areas outside the “spiritual” (in quotes because I am somewhat reluctant to argue that anything is inherently not spiritual). Meaning, that a bishop has in the past (and still to some extent in some areas) acted as a therapist or mental health specialist, providing insight and perspective on issues and problems outside the realm of their ecclesiastic authority (I believe that God is capable of revealing such truths to bishops and other leaders, but I also believe that God prefers to work through our own talents and abilities, meaning that He/She/They wants us to go to a licensed therapist or mental health professional for those aspects of our life and we can talk with a bishop or other leader for perspective on some of the spiritual dimensions).
Perhaps counter-intuitively, it seems to me that the best way for the institution to preserve its moral authority is to call out and distance itself from members that have abused that authority. Unrighteous dominion and the refusal (inability? reluctance?) to respond quickly, clearly, & openly is among the greatest threats to members’ belief and will continue to harm those hurt directly and indirectly by its exercise. The best way is to speak for the marginalized, to protect the innocent, to repent for mistakes and sins. The abuses are and will be known and the truth about them (whatever that may be and to whatever extent we can know it) should be spoken. As Jesus taught, the truth shall make us free.