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: “Mormons and Gays” to “Mormon and Gay”

What’s the difference between saying “Mormons and Gays” and “Mormon and Gay”? Actually, quite a lot. It’s a shift from “us” and “them” language to “us” language.

In 2012, the LDS church launched a website called Mormons and Gays (this link will take you to the old website). In October 2016, the LDS Church changed their site to Mormon and Gay. An article from the Mormon Newsroom says, “The new appellation, ‘Mormon and Gay,’ reflects the reality that a person doesn’t need to choose between these two identities — one can, in fact, be gay and live faithful to the teachings of Christ.”

This is a mentality that has changed over time. Back in the day, people used to hear that someone was gay, and that person’s membership status would be reevaluated. But today, the cultural meaning of the term “gay” is different. The term “gay” is a sexual orientation term.

Here’s what the current website says about the terminology:

“Same-sex attraction (SSA) refers to emotional, physical, romantic, or sexual attraction to a person of the same gender. If you experience same-sex attraction, you may or may not choose to use a sexual orientation label to describe yourself. Either way, same-sex attraction is a technical term describing the experience without imposing a label. This website uses this term to be inclusive of people who are not comfortable using a label, not to deny the existence of a gay, lesbian, or bisexual identity.”

We can see that the language is shifting. And Elder Holland in the October 2015 session of General Conference talked about a young man with same-sex attraction.

If you are a member of the church, and probably if you’re not a member of church, you probably know there’s still a stigma associated with being LGBTQ+ and being Mormon.

Sociologist Ryan Cragun said the following are stigmatized in the church: being gender queer (the idea that people aren’t just female/feminine or male/masculine), being lesbian/gay/bisexual, advocating gender equality in the LDS church.

He said he thinks that the church has changed the way they talk about gays because of a “combination of internal and external pressures.”

external

How society talks about gays has changed over time. Cragun said “gays were heavily criticized and demonized” in the 1950s, but that has since changed and “being gay/lesbian has become normalized outside the church,” which he said has “led to external pressure for the Church leaders to tone down their rhetoric against gays and lesbians.”

internal

Cragun said nowadays, many members have family who are gay, which is contributing to the change in the ways people talk about gays. “It is much harder to be critical and to demonize family than it is anonymous others,” Cragun said. Because there is “increased contact,” Cragun said it is “forcing many Mormons to reconsider their prejudices.”

possible solutions

educate yourself and stop judging

I’ve grown up with some close family friends who are LGBTQ+, which has often made me question a lot of what people in the church say regarding LBGTQ+ issues. I remember people saying that people aren’t really gay, that they pretend. And since I’ve talked to people about their experiences being LGBTQ+, I’ve realized that I have not had the experiences that they’ve had and there are things I won’t be able to understand. So my first piece of advice is that you should talk to someone who’s LGBTQ+ before you decide to judge them.

Cragun also said it’s important for people to learn about what it means to be LGBTQ+ so they can have an understanding  of how common gender and sexual minorities are.

put yourself in their shoes and love them

When you talk to people who identify as LGBTQ+ and hear their stories, really listen. But then put yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself how they feel to be Mormon and gay. Have compassion and love people.

I can’t begin to understand what people who identify as LGBTQ+ in the church feel or go through. But what I do know is that I love them for the wonderful people they are.

questions to consider

  • Have you ever talked to an LGBTQ+ individual about their experience being LGBTQ+ and coming out?
  • Have you ever imagined what it would be like to feel like your religion is at odds with automatics feelings you have?
  • Have you ever imagined what it would feel like to not be able to feel true to yourself?
  • Do you judge other people for being LGBTQ+? Do you like it when people judge you?

Mormon Culture: “Us” and “Them” Mentality

Sometimes you’ll hear an “us” and “them” mentality in religious rhetoric; the same is true for Mormon rhetoric.

In sociology, there’s a concept of the in-group and the out-group. If you feel you’re part of a group, you are the in-group. Whoever the in-group is “competing” with is the out-group.

In the April 2017 General Conference, Neil L. Anderson said, “Those of the world have difficulty with accountability to God — like a child who parties in his parents’ home while they are out of town, enjoying the ruckus, refusing to think about the consequences when the parents return 24 hours later.”

This phraseology “those of the world” puts members of the church into the category of the in-group pitted against the out-group, or “those of the world.”

The way this social construct plays out is situational and personal. I will explain.

There is a common phrase in the church that goes “be in the world but not of the world.” I’m not sure where it originated, but here’s a talk from the mid-1970s that talks about it. This mentality mirrors an “us” and “them” or “in-group” and “out-group” mentality. The problem occurs when those from the in-group treat those in the out-group as though they are blatantly part of the out-group. The reason this is a problem is scriptures says God is no respecter of persons, which means he sees us all the same. And if God does that, shouldn’t we as well?

Because Mormons are in somewhat of a social minority, it’s easy to see there’s some type of division. Sociologist Armand Mauss said he grew up in California where he didn’t have any Mormon friends in high school. “I periodically encountered not only ignorance but outright prejudice about Mormons from my non-Mormon friends and acquaintances,” he said. “I was always highly conscious of being ‘different’ and periodically having to ‘account for’ it.”

On the other side, anthropology professor Erin E. Stiles was one of the few non-Mormons at her school in a small town in Utah, but she said it didn’t bother her. She said there were some differences between her family and others’, such as her mom wore crosses and drank coffee. She also thought playing the piano was a Mormon thing. And I laughed a little when she said, “My dad had a beard, and my mom didn’t wear much makeup or have big hair, so a lot of my friends thought my parents were hippies (they were not).”

Some of the things she mentioned weren’t really my experiences as a Mormon from Washington, so I thought it was a little funny. My dad has pretty much always had facial hair, and I don’t actually know that many women from my home ward who wore a lot of makeup or had big hair. But I definitely know the stereotype Stiles mentioned.

Scholar Wilfried Decoo in his paper “In Search of Mormon Identity: Mormon Culture, Gospel Culture, and an American Worldwide Church,” writes that in the history of the church, there have been leaders who have shifted “culture of the world” from a positive meaning to a negative meaning.

He said the church’s perspective of not wanting to use “extraneous sources when teaching courses in the church” (from the correlation movement), while it was meant to “make a curriculum that can be used anywhere in the world, under any cultural or political circumstance, so that the only culture we’re bound by is the culture of the gospel,” it had another side effect. Decoo said it led to an isolation that “fosters deep distrust toward the world.” The positive side of the isolation is it stresses exceptionalism (“a chosen generation”) and exemplarism (“a light unto the world”). He said the negative side to isolation is it makes people think of “the rest of the world as evil and threatening.”

And I see that all the time. At church I often hear people talk about how evil this world is.

Personally, I found that I missed out on blessing a lot of people’s lives when I separated myself from people just because I thought they were in the “them” category.

On the positive end of the spectrum for church teachings of “us” and “them,” President Hinckley often encouraged that people bring the good they have and let the church add to it. That kind of language is inviting and welcoming, not divisive.

overcoming the divisive thinking

Susan Whitbourne, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst wrote an article for Psychology Today that talks about the concept of in-groups and out-groups. She gives five suggestions for combating the divisive nature of thinking in the in-group and out-group mentality.

  1. Realize that your in-group and out-group status could change depending on the situation. One day you’re going to sin, so are you going to then be part of the “those of the world” group and therefore out of the in-group?
  2. Put yourself in the shoes of someone in the out-group. Just imagine what it’s like to join the Mormon church and have no clue what people are talking about with all the jargon and cultural practices. Someone even wrote a book for converts so they can figure out how to navigate the culture.
  3. Look for commonalities. Those who are of other religions or are non-religious still hold some of the same values as you. You just have to be open to looking for them.
  4. Be confident about your identity. Whitbourne says if you’re confident about your identity, you’re less likely to criticize someone else’s. You can also root yourself more in Christ than in cultural things (the ability to make a good casserole is nothing compared to the ability to be like Christ). Because belief in Christ is what makes you a Mormon — not your ability to make a good contribution to the ward cook-off.
  5. Teach others how to overcome the “us” and “them” mentality. When you hear people using divisive language, speak out.

Something Stiles was able to do was find commonalities with her Mormon neighbors. She said she liked that “so many kids took school seriously, were not too wild, and enjoyed their family life.”

questions to consider

  • Am I being divisive in my thinking with Mormons and non-Mormons?
  • Am I being divisive in my thinking within the Mormon community? Am I grouping members of the church into “righteous” and “non-righteous” categories? “Kid goes on a mission” and “kid doesn’t go on a mission”? “Married” and “single”? “Gets married in the temple” and “doesn’t get married in the temple”?
  • Are we loving one another?
  • Am I actively trying to close the divide?
  • Aren’t we all children of God? And don’t you want to bring everyone into the church? Are you making them feel like they’ll be comfortable with joining the church? Or are you making them feel like they are “them” and not “us”?

Mormon Culture: Modesty and Bikinis

Here’s a message I got the other day from a friend: “I just really don’t understand why my midriff causes so much uproar from other people. It’s like my belly button is somehow so much more inappropriate or sexual than some guy’s belly button.”

What do you think of that? I personally don’t think there’s anything sexy about a bellybutton, but maybe other people do? Comment and let me know so I can get the facts straight.

Scott Gordon, the President of FairMormon, a non-profit “dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of LDS doctrine, belief and practice,” told me in an email, “Bare midriff for men or women is the same.” In regards to modesty, he said, “I think you are correct to note that the focus on modesty seems to be our young women. One can argue that is because they have the most difficulties with it, but I suspect much comes from cultural bias.”

About a year ago, I read an article by an LDS mother who said teaching modesty is sometimes done in a way that’s harmful. And recently I read one called “Stop Teaching Your Daughter to be Modest” by Baily Suzio.

In Suzio’s article, she said “Measuring skirt length and tank top straps will not free girls from being objects of lust but it will make them self-conscious.”

She goes on to say “causing them to want to hide their bodies and to blame themselves for another’s sin, that is not honoring the image of God in each and every woman.” This comment comes from the idea that women who dress revealingly cause men to sin in their thoughts or actions. And it’s a problem that society — and people in the church — use as reason to tell young women to dress a certain way.

Editorial moment by me: If a woman is dressed in something “revealing,” she is not asking to be raped. And men who use a woman’s dress as an excuse for raping her need to spend time in prison. So society, do not teach your boys that women are the problem. Teach your boys to respect women no matter what they wear.

Back to non-opinon …

While the teaching to be modest has been in the For the Strength of Youth since it was first introduced, with different times and fads, the church has modified the dress standards in the pamphlet. You can read the differences over the years in the links below:

  • Here’s the current version of the For the Strength of Youth
  • Here’s the 2012 version of the For the Strength of Youth
  • Here’s the 1990 version of the For the Strength of Youth
  • Here’s the 1972 version of the For the Strength of Youth
  • Here’s the 1965 version of the For the Strength of Youth

An interesting change that’s happened over time is the reference of swim suits in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet. The early versions didn’t mention swim suits, but the 1972 version says not to wear bathing suits that show a bare midriff. But the 1990 version doesn’t mention it. The 1990 version mentions that you shouldn’t wear an immodest bathing suit, but doesn’t specify what that means. The 2001 and 2012 versions don’t even mention swim suits. So which “rule” are people to follow when it comes to swim suits? I guess we have to figure it out on our own.

But just a story first. I was with some people and someone we knew posted a photo of herself kayaking with friends, and she was wearing a bikini. Someone who I was with said something like, “Oh, but she was such a good missionary.” Last time I checked, wearing a bikini doesn’t mean you were a bad missionary, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. I think people are  too often too quick to judge people’s righteousness on what people are wearing. Is that okay?

The For the Strength of Youth says the following of modesty: “Prophets of God have continually counseled His children to dress modestly. When you are well groomed and modestly dressed, you invite the companionship of the Spirit and you can be a good influence on others. Your dress and grooming influence the way you and others act.”

Scholar Rosemary Avance did a study on the interpretation of modesty in the LDS church. She says the body has been sexualized, and so modesty is sometimes seen as “tool for aiding in the control of lustful desires.” She then says that this thought leads immodesty to be treated as a “sexual, female sin,” which makes women responsible for the purity of both women and men.

In a New Era article from 2006, nothing is mentioned of the young men’s dress; however, the authors say the following to young women: “As you dress and behave modestly, you can have a great impact on young men. Your modest actions and dress will help them control their thoughts and focus on virtue and that which is wholesome.”

Now, I want you to consider this question. Is it okay to tell women that they are at fault if men can’t “control their thoughts”? Just saying.

On the other hand, Avance makes an interesting point: that in saying this, church members are also saying men don’t have the ability to exercise self-control. So not only are we blaming women if a man can’t control his thoughts, but we are also saying men aren’t able to exert self-control. Is that a good thing?

Yes, the church has always counseled people to dress modestly, but the way each person chooses to dress modestly is their choice, and it’s not anyone’s place to judge how someone chooses to dress modestly.

Some questions to consider

  • Do I judge people on what they wear rather focusing on who they are?
  • Am I teaching about modesty in a way that’s about respecting our bodies or in a way that makes people feel ashamed of their bodies?

another opinon

After telling my friend about this Mormon culture blog I was writing, he sent me a Facebook post written by a member of the church. It had over 12,000 reactions, over 9,000 shares, and over 1,800 comments. As you read it, remember that it doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone, but it might make you ask yourself some new questions about how you assess modesty and judge others.

 

Jesse King’s blog on Mormon Culture

“Mormon culture.” Tell me what you think when you hear that. Is it negative? Positive? Neutral? Do you have something to say about it? Well comment and tell me!

“Culture affects every aspect of religious acceptance,” said Julie J. Nichols in a book review for “Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century.” “The ignorance or refusal of leaders to address the complex interplay between culture and gospel, between social attitudes and potential for spiritual growth, needs careful remediation. Research—here and abroad—can help.”

There’s a difference between culture and the gospel. The culture of Mormonism is human-made to fit this earth life. The gospel is eternal — that there is a God who loves us, created this earth, and wants us to return to him through principles of faith and repentance.

Over the next few months, I’ll be posting on Mormon culture, so get ready for some good reads. I’ve done a bunch of interviews and a bunch of research, but I’ve also added some of my expert Mormon insights (by expert, I just mean that I’m a Mormon). They say journalism is biased nowadays, but I’d like to let you know that I’m a Mormon, and I’m going to have some biases. I’ve done my best to try to give the other side of the story when possible and clearly indicate when I’m giving my opinion.

You don’t have to agree with everything I say though — and you probably won’t. And at times you might see some bias seep through. Call me out on it, and I’ll be happy to address the topic. I think something we need to learn to do in our society is have healthy conversations about things. Bring out the uncomfortable topics. It’s okay to disagree with people, because then we can learn different points of view. And that will make us better, more understanding people. There are just some things I feel strongly about — like just because a Mormon girl wears shorts and a tank top doesn’t mean she’s a skank (heard that from someone the other day).

In this blog, I’m going to ask hard questions, things you may not have considered. And I want these questions to strengthen your ability to act as a disciple of Christ, to think of others how Christ and God think of them. Your job on this earth is not to judge (except to some extent if you are a bishop — but even then it’s different). We are all just humans struggling here on earth, and the last thing we need is to pull each other down. So I hope from reading this blog you learn other people’s perspectives and can therefore be a better servant of God.

The most important reason for this blog is to help you and I learn to question ourselves when we are being judgmental and instead learn to love, uplift, and serve. This blog is about looking at the root of our Mormon culture problems. And though some things might be unreconcilable, we can take our faith and serve and love the best we can.

Now, you’re going to encounter some uncomfortable things I’m sure, but I want you to remember that a testimony of the truth comes through prayer and witness of the Holy Ghost.

And don’t forget to always read the Book of Mormon every day because it’s true, and I promise it will help you understand the all the things that frustrate you about life. If you stop reading it, I have no promises for you. And that’s my testimony perseverance hook because questions can learn to doubt or faith, and I hope you let the questions I’ll be presenting to you lead you to more faith.