The Military & Schoolhouse Models in Mormonism

Apr 22, 2016
8 min read

I really liked this post from the guys over at Junior Ganymede. When I saw the title and began reading it I thought I knew where the author was taking the subject but I was pleasantly surprised to see how this topic went in a direction I didn’t expect. I have my own thoughts about these things but found this such an interesting post, I had to share it.

There is going to be a part two, so give this one a read and leave your comments below, let’s talk about this.

While once trying to explain to a non-Mormon friend why missionaries had such a strict dress code, I talked about showing respect for others, about norms of economic equality between rich and poor missionaries, but none of it seemed to register. Finally I said, “Look, becoming a missionary is like joining the Army. They have a collective goal, and everything is focused on that goal, to the point where things that you might otherwise find bothersome really don’t matter. If you are so concerned about individuality that you resent having to wear a uniform, then you are probably out of place there.” That made sense to him.

That sparked a years-long reflection on my part about how many aspects of Christianity in general, and Mormonism in particular, make more sense if you remember the words of the hymn, “We are all enlisted ’til the conflict is o’er.” As I’ll explain in more detail below, points of doctrine or Church history that might be troubling and confusing become less so when one realizes that we are in a spiritual war.

This post was originally going to be titled “The Military Metaphor of Mormonism,” but it dawned on me that our ancient and latter-day prophets, when they speak of spiritual war, or battle, or of “hosts” or angels, never intended it as a metaphor. We ARE in a war, with real combatants and real stakes. The fact that it is a spiritual war rather than a physical one does not make it any less real. “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matt. 10:28. So it’s really a “military mental model,” by which I mean that if you are in a war, you must think of it as such. War introduces contingencies and complications that result in a different moral calculus than that of peacetime.

There is a competing mental model of Mormonism, which has its own legitimate reasons for existing, and which is probably more popular than the military model. I’ll refer to it as the “schoolhouse model.” This is the mental model in which mortality is sort of like a giant high school where we are primarily here for self-improvement, and where the ultimate goal is to get good grades and hopefully be one of 50 million or so people tied for valedictorian. Follow instructions properly, and failure is basically impossible.

I’ll briefly summarize some differences between the military and schoolhouse models.

In the military model:

  • there is one overarching goal (“Win the war”), and all other goals are subservient to the first
  • what we are commanded to do can change on a dime depending on shifting circumstances, even from one action to its exact opposite
  • we have a duty to subordinate individual needs and desires to our mission
  • the actions of others, whether enemies or allies, can frustrate our accomplishment of our war aims without regard to fairness
  • that goes double for dumb luck, good or bad
  • principal question: “What is our mission and how do we accomplish it?”

In the schoolhouse model:

  • we are taught many things, but only tested on the really important ones
  • goals are highly specific and spelled out years in advance, and it’s very unlikely that they will change between matriculation and graduation
  • grades are individual, everyone has an equal opportunity to get an A
  • we are graded only on our individual merits, and in fact “effort” often plays a bigger role in our grades than does our actual learning
  • “bad luck” barely even exists; if you’ve put in the effort, the teacher will allow you to make up that test you missed when your bus was late, and grades can be minutely finessed student-by-student for reasons of fairness
  • principal question: “Will this be on the test?”

Yes, I’m stacking the deck here against the schoolhouse model. I concede that it exists because there is some truth to it. We are here on Earth partly to learn and to be “tested.” All of us depend on a merciful Teacher to bump us up one or two or seventy letter grades in the final judgment. And the two mental models are not entirely mutually exclusive. Even the military has schools, after all.

But the schoolhouse model is inadequate on its own. As I noted above, there are lots of aspects of Mormonism that simply make more sense in the military model. I will list some below, and where necessary I’ll point out where the schoolhouse model comes up short.

1) Why would the commandments change over time?

The military model differentiates between commandments that are essential to the Gospel, like loving your neighbor, and those that are based on contingent circumstances that vary over time. Let’s take the Word of Wisdom as an example. Should it trouble us that temple attendance depends on adherence to the Word of Wisdom, while at the same time the scriptures contain multiple references to Christ and his disciples drinking wine?

A Mormon adhering to the schoolhouse model might say that, you know, based on this one Greek translation that I can’t possibly understand because I don’t read Ancient Greek, it was really just fresh grape juice that Christ was drinking (surely you’ve heard that one before, right?). After all, it would be unfair to give a poor grade to a Latter-Day Saint for failing to follow a commandment that Christ Himself did not follow, given that He got straight A’s. The other extreme (schoolhouse dropout?) would be to say that obviously the WofW can’t be very important if Christ didn’t follow it.

The military model resolves the problem by noting that just because a commandment is specific to our time and place does not mean it isn’t vitally important. Terrain changes, enemies change tactics, and what was vitally important to the mission yesterday becomes detrimental today. In the case of the WofW, it seems to me that the advent of the Industrial Revolution made it far, far easier for the average person to indulge his addictions. How much Bud Light could an Ancient Israelite produce with only an hour’s labor? The fact is, none of us know precisely why the WofW is emphasized in the latter days, but there’s no reason to assume that because it hasn’t always been thus emphasized, it isn’t a “real” commandment.

2) What is the value of obedience to priesthood leaders, when we all know they make mistakes? If I disagree with them, and I’m pretty sure I’m right based on the scriptures, etc., why am I expected to obey?

Take an unquestionably great military leader, such as George Washington. Did he make mistakes? Of course. Did that in any way reduce his authority to command his troops? Of course not. Now, a priesthood leader may act in a manner so completely out of line with the Gospel that it becomes sinful to obey him. The same is true of military leaders, who may be acting outside their lawful authority. In either case, mere disagreement is not a sufficient grounds for insubordination. By all means counsel with leaders, but the mistakes are theirs to make unless they violate God’s law.

3) Am I really going to be kept out of heaven for drinking coffee/wearing a bikini/watching vulgar movies? Is God really that uptight?

In the schoolhouse model, this is a coherent complaint, because in the schoolhouse model the requirements (i.e., commandments), exist essentially for the purpose of grading (i.e., judging) one student against the rest. “Come on, I did every other assignment and got A’s all the way across. You’re going to fail me for this?”

But in the military model it’s a silly question. “I’m really going to get killed for not wearing my helmet during our transport to the base?” Maybe you will, maybe you won’t; depends whether you get attacked along the way or hit a roadside bomb. The rule is there to protect you, not to evaluate you. There will likely be many bikini-wearers in the Kingdom of Heaven (well, former bikini-wearers). But not everyone who makes the choice to dress immodestly will find that decision to be so free of spiritual consequences, as “way leads on to way.”

It’s not fair. One guy never wears his helmet and never gets hit. The other takes it off just for a second to wipe his sweat and takes a bullet. That’s war.

I have many more examples, but they’ll have to wait for a part two because it’s late and I have a job. Feel free to offer your own in the comments. Just one note in conclusion:

Maybe the biggest strength of the military model is how it explains aspects of the gospel that in a non-martial context might be unjust. War justifies all kinds of uncomfortable accommodations with reality. A perceived weakness of the military model could be that it justifies too much, that everything becomes permissible so long as you justify it as part of the war effort. I’ll only point out that no serious moral philosopher contends that everything is permissible in war, and of course the same goes for spiritual warfare. War complicates the moral calculus, it does not obviate it. In fact, it is the schoolhouse model that attempts to remove complicated moral calculus by reducing salvation to instruction-following; just follow the syllabus, complete the reading assignments, come to the voluntary review sessions, and you’ll pass.

And if all of this talk of “contingencies” has you wondering if I think we could lose our spiritual war in the end, let me say, with apologies to Hilaire Belloc,

Whatever happens, we have got
The Holy Ghost, and they have not. 


  1. Let’s combine the two metaphors and say that we’re attending a military academy.

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