Mormon Culture: Unwritten Rules

Every culture has some unwritten rules. Often, these are called norms, of which there are two types: folkways and mores (pronunciation).

A folkway is “a custom or belief common to members of a society or culture.” And a more is “A set of moral norms or customs derived from generally accepted practices. Mores derive from the established practices of a society rather than its written laws.”

The unwritten rules are the mores. What are some of the ones that exist in the Mormon church?

  • Must women wear skirts at church?
  • Do deacons have to wear white shirts to serve the sacrament?
  • If you don’t live mission rules for the rest of your life, are you living a lower law?

The reason these are mores is people attach moral meanings to these unwritten rules, and therefore people treat the inability to follow these unwritten rules with social consequences.

BYU professor James Faulconer wrote a paper called “Why a Mormon Won’t Drink Coffee but Might Have a Coke: The Aethological Character of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” He basically makes the claim that Mormonism is not a theology because the teachings evolve because people give continuing revelation preference over a set of unchanging beliefs. He uses the Word of Wisdom to illustrate his point. He said the Word of Wisdom said to avoid “hot drinks,” which was defined as coffee and tea. But someone one day interpreted that to mean caffeinated drinks. He then explains that some people choose to drink decaffeinated coffee because they believe the issue with the “hot drinks” is about the caffeine.

But Faulconer says that even if the prophet were to “declare caffeine forbidden tomorrow,” he has no standing on which to say “hot drinks” means caffeine. Basically, he says that we can make up reason why things are the way they are, and we can make up reasons why we think these unwritten rules of Mormonism are valid, but in the end, that explanation could change with modern revelation. So the thing to do is not try to use theology, or doctrine, to try and explain reasons why we should live an unwritten rule of Mormonism.

I’m not saying people should just do whatever they want because things might change; and that’s not what Faulconer said. What I think he  was saying was that in the cases of things that aren’t spelled out, we shouldn’t try to make things up and pass them off as doctrine.

In 1917, David O. McKay’s book “Ancient Apostles” was published as one  of the first Sunday school lesson manuals. This started the time of written curriculum in the church.

In scholar Wilfried Decoo’s paper, “In Search of Mormon Identity: Mormon Culture, Gospel Culture, and an American Worldwide Church,” he said the church wanted a certain type of “uniformity” that was enforced with the 1960s creation of worldwide correlation, which standardized training and lesson material in the church. These materials, he said, “reinforces this trend toward a common lifestyle.”

He goes on to say that lifestyle “extends to physical appearance via dress and grooming standards.” He then cited advice given by various church leaders that lend to this, promoting mean wear white shirts and ties and have missionary haircuts. “Of course, not all members conform to this lifestyle,” Decoo writes. “But it is telling that anyone who deviates, even without breaking any commandment like wearing piercings or not dressing up properly for Sunday meetings catches the eye as ‘peculiar’ within the ‘peculiar people.'”

And that brings up an important point. Just because someone doesn’t conform to the Mormon stereotype doesn’t mean they’re doing anything wrong or breaking commandments. And even if they are, it’s not anyone’s place to judge.

Here are some perceived unwritten rules of Mormonism I’ve heard people complain about:

  • Only RMs are marriage material
  • Policies in the church are absolute and final (i.e. certain guidelines for modesty don’t apply to cultural dress)
  • Mormon women have to be stay at home moms
  • Mormons women cannot be feminists

questions to consider:

  • What other unwritten rules can you think of?
  • Are they based on doctrine or cultural or personal interpretations?
  • Are you wrongly judging people based on these unwritten rules?

Mormon Culture: #MormonCulture on Twitter

Is “Mormon culture” a bad thing? Before looking into this subject as something to write on, I pretty much only heard the term “Mormon culture” with a negative connotation. Just ask someone how they feel about Mormon culture, and they’ll probably have some pent up angst about the topic. (I’ve been telling people about this blog, and I get exasperated responses every time).

I think it’s important to realize though that there are some positive things about Mormon culture. I was once talking to a friend who had met with the missionaries a couple times while at BYU. She said she liked learning about the church and interacting with the kind people. That was a great perspective for me to hear. I think that falls into the idea of the values of Mormon culture. Mormons value some great things, like “brotherly kindness” and caring for your neighbor.

In an article by scholar Wilfried Decoo, he cites a reference from 1903 that says “the culture of Mormonism” has the following accomplishments: health, education, the missionary system, unpaid clergy, and the charity system.

Decoo said that as time went on, the meaning of the term changed, and in the 70s, “Mormon culture” became a term that encompassed much more: religiosity, morality, family, health, dedication and involvement, education, work, material objects (ex: recognition medallions), jargon. On the negative side was “critique of the social pressure to conform, the insularity toward non-Mormons, the distrust of feminism, and the condemning attitude toward homosexual behavior.”

When I looked up #MormonCulture on Twitter, I got tweets from both camps. There were funny ones that just comment on the culture, there were positive ones, and there were annoyed ones. Take  a look:

Isn’t it funny that this happens? Often we just fall into certain rituals.

Mormons value family, and sometimes that leaks over into what seems like an obsession.

Mormons love their Mormon-related products.

This is a sad one that’s seeped into Mormon culture. In the Book of Mormon, there is a group of people called the Lamanites. The scripture says, “And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression and their rebellion against their brethren.” But luckily doctrine teaches that all are alike unto God. So there seems to be some sort of disconnect between the two in some people’s minds.

Missionaries are taught to be exactly obedient.

There seems to be a sentiment that women’s voices are not heard as much in the church. There has been more effort in recent years to change that.

Mormons have certain norms, and one of them is a belief (of some) that Mormons don’t drink coffee because of the caffeine — so some also don’t drink caffeinated soda. Drinking coffee is against the Word of Wisdom, which is a health code commandment.

Here’s a positive one. Youth in the church go to the temple with their youth groups.

Mormons are concentrated in Utah and Idaho.

Here’s an interesting aspect of Mormon culture that’s probably related to values. Mormons value humility and abhor pride, but in doing so often end up practicing a sort of false humility.