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?