A reader writes:
Oh dear. I imagine a good many other Mormons or lapsed Mormons like me have already written in to point out the embarrassing error made by Howard P. Kainz. Anyone who understands Mormonism knows that being a "high priest in the order of Melchizedek" ain't very "high" at all. Every Mormon boy is ordained a high priest at the age (if memory serves) of 18. (You get to be a Deacon and hold the "Aaronic priesthood" at age 12 – that is if you happened to have been born a boy and not a girl.)
Within Mormonism, being a mere high priest is actually kind of lowly.
If you are just a high priest, you can't go on a mission (you need be ordained an Elder to do that). You certainly can't be a Bishop or a Stake President. Those positions are all much higher callings (even as the Bishop still holds the Melchizedek priesthood). So to my ears, Kainz whole analysis of why voters aren't gaping with alarm at the prospect of a Mormon high priest in the White House sounds fatally confused.
The lack of alarm about Romney's "high priest" status is not because that office is so beyond the pale of Christianity that no one fixates on his office they way they would if it were a "Christian" high office like a Priest or Bishop. It's because the broader public seems to understand what Kainz doesn't seem to grasp: that Romney is not a career pastor or ecclesiastic office holder. He has a secular career (Bain executive, and then one of those GOP "I-Am-Not-A-Politician" politicians). The service he has provided as a Mormon Bishop and then Stake President has always been part-time and unpaid. There is no professional clergy in the LDS church; only "General Authorities" (the core ecclesiastical authorities in Salt Lake City) are given any salary.
I'm pretty astonished that Kainz would write a column without consulting a single Mormon.
The comparison to bishops and priests from other Christian faiths is an apples to oranges comparison. Almost all actively practicing males older than 16 in the Mormon church are called "priests," and a large portion of actively practicing older males are "high priests." If you meet a man over 50 who has been active in the LDS church, there is a very high probability that he is a "high priest," and nobody thinks of it as a big deal – except, apparently, non-Mormons (understandably, given the terminology). Harry Reid is almost certainly a "priest," and I would not be surprised if he were also a "high priest" (but I don't know).
Also, Romney is not a bishop. He was a bishop. He no longer holds a leadership position in the church. As you know, those assignments are temporary – we don't have professional clergy except at very high levels. That's another reason that the comparison with other faiths is meaningless. Romney has no official influence over other Mormons. He has no official influence over other church leaders (and he never had official influence over national or worldwide church leaders). And, due to the transitory nature of leadership assignments, there are thousands – probably tens of thousands – of Mormons who have served at the same leadership level as Romney at some time. This makes all the talk of his supposed high level in the church pretty absurd.
P.S. I think the last time an actual high official in the LDS church occupied national office was Senator Reed Smoot from 1903-1933, who was an Apostle (one of 15 members of the worldwide leadership body of the church). He gave us the infamous Smoot-Hawley tariff (as one of my BYU econ professors used to say, the Smoot-Hawley tariff is proof that "our" apostles aren't infallible). The Church now has strict limits on the political activities of its high leadership; you can bet that a Mormon with actual national or international ecclesiastical authority will not run for office again.
Another crunches numbers:
The most recent statistic that the LDS church reported (this was in 1984 when the church membership was half as large as it is now) was that there were 198,000 high priests. So there are surely over 300,000 high priests now currently in the church. In fact, you have to be a High Priest in order to be a Bishop (the article said that Romney was "not only a bishop, but a high priest"). 300,000 doesn't exactly make the high priest order "sui generis" and the "highest echelon within the religion".
The best way to understand how high Mitt Romney got in the church is to understand that he was a stake president. There are currently ~ 3,000 LDS stakes in the world and a stake president serves for ~10 years. Therefore, Romney has served in the LDS church in a calling that is unique to maybe 10,000-15,000 living church members. So, yes, he has held fairly high positions in the church, but definitely not the "upper echelons".
Update from another reader, who clarifies the first:
He or she is confusing the position of priest in the Aaronic priesthood with the position of high priest in the Melchizedek priesthood. The hierarchy of LDS priesthood goes like this: Aaronic Priesthood: offices of deacon, teacher, priest. These are usually young men 12-19, though not always. Melchizedek priesthood: elder, high priest, seventy, patriarch, apostle. These are always grown men. The reader is right about it not being of any particular import – most LDS males are either elders or high priests – but it's definitely not something teenagers have and it is about the highest level of priesthood a LDS male will ever hold.