Romney’s Faith, Front And Center, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Aug 29 2012 @ 5:22pm


A reader writes:

Your reader doesn’t have the facts quite right.  A "bishop" in the LDS church does head up a ward, but a ward is like a congregation or single church, not a diocese.  The LDS parallel to a diocese is a "stake", which is a geographical group of wards.

A breakdown of the LDS hierarchy here. Another reader:

As someone who grew up in the LDS church, but is no longer practicing, I think you're making too big of a deal out of MOST of Romney's positions in his church. The LDS church is very much a "people's church" in its organizational structure, and at local levels leadership is all voluntary and rotating. My uncle is currently the "bishop" of his LDS ward. But it is not his "job" — he sells real estate for a living. He does it part-time, he is unpaid, and he will only be bishop for a few years before it is handed to someone else in his ward. His ward has maybe 200 regular attendees. His church building has three or four wards, and each ward has its own bishop.

The term "high priest" is a grandiose title. They are not "priests" in the traditional sense that a Catholic would relate to. Each ward has several — usually they're older men who have been devout members of the church for a long time, and/or have a long family history in the church, like Romney.

If you're going to continue this discussion, I would focus on Romney's time as Stake President.

THAT is a prestigious senior position, especially in a major city like Boston, and much bigger than being a ward bishop. As stake president, he would have been a very visible and powerful member of the church in his area, overseeing several church buildings and all of their wards. He also would have been far more involved in the politics of the church at that level, and in the church's relationship with the citizens of Boston, where he presided.

Another offers more perspective through numbers:

I've never considered Romney's role as a bishop as very extraordinary.  Considering the fact that there are 28,784 wards (or branches) in the world, it follows that there are 28,784 bishops (or branch presidents) in the world at any given time.  A bishops serves for more or less five years.  It then follows that over the past 60 years (or over the time of Mitt's lifetime) there have been an estimated 345,408 bishops.  That's about 5% of the current male Mormon population.  While it probably is a high estimate … that doesn't make it all that uncommon.

The highest and most influential position Mitt Romney has held is Stake President (of which there are currently 2,946 worldwide).  But the media talks about bishop and the Dish is now talking about high priest.  I imagine this is because those titles sound more religious and familiar than stake president.


Your question about whether previous candidates for president have had such a high religious office is simply irrelevant.  The term "high priest" in the LDS church doesn't mean what it means elsewhere.  While becoming a high priest can go along with a high-impact church calling (such as being a bishop or stake president), it is often something that is extended to men as they age within the church, a sign of maturity or seniority. 

In my congregation (in Palo Alto, CA) as in most others, the majority of men over age 50 are high priests, and very few of them would have served as bishop or stake president.  My father became a high priest at about age 50, when he became a counselor in a bishopric of a ward for single adults – far from being a power player in the church.   And once you become a high priest, you stay it for life, regardless of what positions you subsequently hold.  After serving as a bishop, you might be called to become a primary teacher (for children) or a choir director in the congregation.  You stay a high priest, but all that really means is that you go to a different meeting during the third hour of church – a meeting that primarily consists of old men having a gospel discussion – and help the bishop provide spiritual and physical support for the ward members.  I can't know for sure, but my guess would be that all practicing male Mormons in the public arena (people like Harry Reid) are probably high priests.

I read with interest all of your commentary on Mormons, and I feel that in general you have a tendency to view as inherently sinister things that I feel are not.  You always misunderstand in one direction.  I am curious about a few things: 1) Have you ever been to LDS services, and if so, how did you find them to be?; 2) When you have questions about aspects of the LDS faith (the meaning of certain terms, or the relative importance of theological tenets, for example) whom do you ask?  Do you have any Mormon contacts that you bounce your questions off of?  I agree with you that there are some terms in common use in the church that sound scary and/or high-fallutin – things like high priest, high council, stake president.  It might serve you well to talk to a practicing Mormon about things like that, someone who can translate Mormon-speak into normal English.

(Chart from