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.

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”?
Antoine Taveneaux, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASan_Diego_Mormon_Temple17.jpg

Mormon Culture: What is it?

Mormon culture is simply the culture shared by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But this blog will mostly focus on American Mormon culture because while some aspects of Mormon culture carry over into other places, much of the Mormon culture I’ll be dealing with in this blog has to do with American Mormon culture.

And just like any other culture, it’s more pronounced in places that are more concentrated with people of the group. Without hard data, you can probably guess where Mormon culture is most prevalent: Utah and Idaho. But here’s the hard data anyway:

This map shows the percentage of adults who are Mormon in each state. Follow the link to see the percentages per state. (Pew Research Center)

So what makes up culture? In sociology, there are elements that make up a culture: symbols, language, norms, rituals, artifacts, values.

Symbols

An example of a symbol is giving a thumbs up, which means “good,” whereas in Australia its meaning is akin to flipping someone off.

In Mormon culture, we have symbols too. For example, why do Mormons like beehives so much? They’re on the doors to the temple, you can buy them on jewelry at Deseret Book, and they’re the theme of Mormon-related businesses (just look up utah beehive stores on Google).

Apparently the symbol comes from the early Saints latching onto the idea of beehives representing hard work and unity, according to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

Language

Branch, stake, sweet spirit, mia maids, eight-cow wife, investigator, vote of thanks, primary voice, companion, tender mercies, extend a calling, home teaching, MRS degree, ox in the mire, Jello. These words and others probably trip you up if you’re not in the know about Mormon culture. LDS Living even put out an article on “12 Funny Mormon Lingo Mix-Ups” to show Mormons have their own language full of jargon.

Here’s some other religious vocabulary from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Another fun fact: Back in the day Brigham Young tried to institute the Deseret alphabet as a way to teach people to write English. Sad fact: it didn’t work out. But because people are cool, there’s an online translator. Let the passing of secret notes begin.

Norms

Norms are “standards and expectations for behaving,” according to the book Sociology: Understanding and Changing the Social World. I think the “bad rep” that Mormon culture gets has do with the norms: women as the perfect homemakers, multiple ear piercings as being edgy (and to some rebellious), swearing as a deterrent for marrying someone, and the list goes on.

Just search #MormonCulture on Twitter, and you’ll see some more examples.

Rituals

Since Mormons are obviously a religiously-based culture, there are religious rituals, but there are rituals beyond the religious ones.

Think about a missionary’s experience. When they leave, there’s usually a “going away” talk and an open house type event where people go to the future missionary’s home to wish them good luck. When the missionary comes home from their mission, the ritual people (typically) follow is greeting the missionary at the airport with a welcome sign, followed by a “homecoming” talk the next Sunday.

Sociology professor Armand Mauss said “trek” — where the youth dress up like pioneers and pull handcarts for a couple of days to recreate the experience of pioneer ancestors — is another ritual observance. He said activities like these help the community to “reaffirm one’s allegiance to one’s heritage.”

artifacts

Boy, do Mormons have artifacts. There’s even a whole museum dedicated to church history.

In Jeffrey R. Holland’s October 2009 General Conference talk, he brought out the Book of Mormon that Hyrum Smith read from just before him and Joseph went to Carthage. (Go to 7:03 in the video.)

Scholar Wilfried Decoo, in his article, Mormon Identity and Culture, also noted Mormons have artifacts like young women’s medallions, CTR-rings, and temple statuettes.

VALUES

Mormons are known for valuing education (with universities and other schools they’ve set up over the years in other countries), hard work, and families, among other things.

Something interesting I found in my research was a quote from the book, “Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century.” The writer, Claudia Bushman, says she’s a California Mormon and then talks about how her values were different than those of Utah Mormons: “California Mormons were more independent than Utah Mormons; they were grateful for the distance that separated the from Salt Lake City. They paid less homage to old church fails. They were less pious, less judgmental, more aware of living in and negotiating with the secular world.”

It’s interesting to note that even within American Mormon culture, there may be some variation due to geographic location.

last words

So Mormon culture exists, but what are the experiences associated with the culture? You’ll have to keep up with my weekly posts to find out.