Mormon Culture: Stigmas

Let’s talk about people who didn’t serve missions. Is it okay to have a negative reaction towards them because they decided not to serve missions — whether they be female or male? Nope.

I’ll never forget a story I heard about a young man who decided to return to the LDS Church after years of being inactive. He went to do his home teaching, and the sister he taught said she would never date a guy who wasn’t a return missionary. And he was so hurt, not having served a mission himself, that he decided he was no longer going to go to church. I mean, if people are going to judge his marriage-worthiness based on whether or not he went on a mission — and he didn’t — that’d be pretty hard. And while people could say this or that about his reaction, the point is that it’s not okay to make people feel like they aren’t good enough somehow.

So there’s a stigma about people who haven’t served missions. Should that change?

A stigma is “a strong lack of respect for a person or a group of people or a bad opinion of them because they have done something society does not approve of,” according to the Cambridge dictionary.

So what is the root of the stigma about those who don’t serve missions? It comes with priesthood leaders saying it’s a priesthood holder’s duty to serve a mission. So people judge young men who decided not to serve a mission.

And there are stigmas around people who smoke, drink, and dress differently. You ever heard of G-checking? Yeah, don’t do that. If you don’t know what it is, good — at least you won’t know about yet another way to be judgmental.

Patrick Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, said stigmas exist in every culture. They come about when people don’t conform to the norms, or what’s “socially acceptable” in the culture. And Mormons are no different. They’ve in essence agreed upon certain things as being acceptable in their culture. Some of it comes from authority (scripture, prophets, church leaders) and some come from informal places (a congregation).

Something that sparked my interest was an interview with Mason I read about how there’s a stigma associated with doubt in the church. You see, I learned that doubt isn’t a bad thing, because in my life, it’s led me to find more truth. Even just the other week, I told the whole Relief Society that I used to have doubts about the temple and a bunch of other stuff. I told them this because I wanted them to get over the stigma that doubt is bad. I think people are afraid to talk about doubt, but everyone experiences it. And if we don’t talk about it, how are we supposed to accept it and consequently find some way to solve it? But those are just my thoughts.

“Mormonism has such a strong culture of spiritual knowledge,” Mason told me when I interviewed him. He went on to say that because people feel they have a witness of truth from the Holy Spirit, they can say “I know.” But what happens when people can’t say “I know”? Mason said when someone can’t say “I know” or questions something they once knew or something the community “knows,” it “violate[s] some of the agreed-upon norms.” And no culture feels comfortable when their socially accepted behaviors are violated.

There are of course benefits to being part of a community though (let’s not be Debbie Downers). I’m sure if you’re part of the Mormon community, it brings you friendship and support. If you ever move to a new city, you already have a built in community that you’ll feel you’re a part of. You can rally your new Elder’s Quorum to help you move, even though you don’t know any of them. It’s really quite nice to know that no matter where you go in the world, you’ll have an automatic support group.

But going back to the part people don’t talk about … why do people freak out when others “violate” the norms. “In Mormonism,” Mason said, “there are other kinds of obligations as well in terms of not embarrassing the community.” Now there’s an interesting idea. He said because of Mormonism’s history of feeling like a minority and feeling persecuted, “there’s a kind of protective quality to the community, and anybody who is seen as threatening the community from within, that’s oftentimes the most dangerous thing.”

So now that we’ve talked about how there are all these stigmas and that’s just how it is because of culture, I hope you’re not just wanting to throw your hands up in the air and give up on everything. I kind of get that way sometimes, so I know what it’s like. So instead, here’s some productive advice.

How do we deal with feeling like our behaviors are being stigmatized? Mason said there are two sides to this:

On the one hand

The community needs to think about how it will not leave people feeling judged or marginalized, especially if these people sincerely want to participate in the community. But Mason also says the community is allowed to “police their borders” if someone is being hostile.

Think back to the story about the guy who didn’t serve a mission but was sincere in trying to do his part in the church by doing his home teaching. If you are in the community and you are treating people differently because of a stigma, maybe you should think about if you are leaving people feeling judged or marginalized (because I’m sure you wouldn’t like it if someone did that to you).

On the other hand

No one is forcing anyone to be Mormon, and being part of the community means there’s a structure in place with leaders, scripture, and history behind it.

“If you’re not conforming, you need to realize you’re out of conformity and can hope for generosity and understanding and charity, but also humility and not force [your] views on the community,” Mason said.

Last words

Now here’s my little opinion on all of this. No one likes to feel judged or marginalized, but people are going to judge and marginalize — in all cultures you’ll encounter. But each of us can make a conscious effort to get over the idea that everyone’s going to do things exactly how we want them to. Just love people like Christ does, and you’ll be fine. Have dinner with the publicans and try to love them rather than judge them. If you can do that, you’ve just become a little bit more like Christ.

Some questions to consider

  • What are some other stigmas that we see in the church?
  • What do non-Mormons think of Mormons?
  • What needs to change so that people don’t harshly judge others?
  • How do you treat others when they behave in a way you disagree with?
  • Do you have the right to judge people based on their behavior? Should you be worrying about what you can improve on instead?

comment about how mormons are to other

Anthropology professor Erin E. Stiles grew up in a small Utah town and was one of the only non-Mormons at her school. She said she had “a wonderful time” growing up in Utah. She had an extremely glowing review.

But I also asked her to tell me about some of the perceived negative aspects or stigmas she noticed. She said she it seemed like it would be hard for LGBTQ+ kids and adults in the Mormon community, and “it can also be hard if people decide to leave the church.” She also said she thinks some non-Mormons think Mormons are docile and “willing to follow church leadership without thinking.”

I asked her “How do you think people in general view Mormons?” These were her answers: family-oriented, white, church-going, clean-living, Republican, conservative, educated, conventional/old-fashioned gender roles, not LGBTQ friendly.

If you disagree with any of those adjectives, ask yourself, “Why could people perceive us that way? Do I want to change that? How can I?”