An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

This week’s Religion and Ethics program on PBS featured an analysis of Pope Francis’s stirring speeches in Brazil. Rev. Thomas Reese, SJ was asked if the Pope’s focus on concern for the poor might be a result of the large number of Catholics in Latin America converting to Evangelical faiths. He answered affirmatively: “We[’ve tended] to teach people the catechism instead of teaching about Jesus and the gospel message of compassion, love, and justice.”

Like their Catholic cousins, Mormon leaders tend to emphasize a catechism of Mormon doctrine rather than the gospel of Jesus. A glance at the 2012 manual of 24 lessons for Priesthood/Relief Society classes shows three lessons focused on Jesus’s teachings: “Love Thy Neighbour as Thyself,” “The Power of Kindness,” and “Of You It Is Required to Forgive.” Four lessons are devoted to sharing the Mormon gospel. The remaining lessons are about doctrines such as priesthood and living Mormon teachings such as sustaining leaders and doing temple work. The 2013 manual has as few lessons on Jesus’s teachings, less emphasis on missionary work, and more emphasis on the next life.  

Conference addresses show a similar pattern. Of the 58 topics listed for the April 2013 General Conference, only 17 dealt with basic teachings of Jesus: Peace, faith, forgiveness, gratitude, hope, humility, discipleship, and love. I hoped to find integrity and honesty in the three addresses listed under morality, but all three were basically about chastity.

A few years ago, the threefold mission of the Church, Proclaim the Gospel, Perfect the Saints, and Redeem the Dead, was expanded to include a fourth mandate, Care for the Poor. Nobody listening to General Conference or attending Church meetings in 2013 would be aware of that. The April General Conference had six addresses about missionary work, one about genealogy and four about temples. Perfecting the Saints appears to be mostly about urging members to be active Mormons. Clearly, proclaiming the gospel and redeeming the dead are more important than caring for the poor, a topic missing from the lists.

Mormon leaders concerned about the significant dropout rate of Mormon members might do well to listen to the Pope.  Activation will not be resolved by fellowshipping alone—and certainly not for members who dropped out to seek basic Christian values elsewhere.

In his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh lists the Five Remembrances which the Buddha recommends reciting everyday:

1)    I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

2)    I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health.

3)    I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

4)    All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

5)    My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.

Facing the reality of mortality is not easy. We all want to be young, healthy, and alive forever. We want to believe people who assure us that, if we are good enough, God will bless us with life, health and vitality for ourselves and our loved ones.

When I was a younger and more devout Mormon, I interpreted the Last Days rhetoric of the Church and D&C 43:32 and 63:51 to conclude that the Second Coming would be in my lifetime. I would be changed from mortality to immortality in the twinkling of an eye. What a comfort to believe I would not have to undergo impaired old age and painful death. I was not alone in this belief.

I no longer cling to this idea. Experience has taught me that God seldom intervenes when even very good people who receive priesthood blessings and ward fasts and prayers become ill and die.

George and I have been married for many years, and we’ve both changed a great deal. Our children have grown and changed their religious views. I could make myself miserable if I believed my eternal reward was based on all of us maintaining the faith of our childhood.

A measure of Buddhist philosophy might help aging Mormons and those with loved ones who no longer accept the family faith to cope with reality.


I live in a Utah suburban community that provides irrigation water at a flat rate charge to residents. We recently received a notice from our water board that, because of the drought, we must either conserve water or risk running out. The notice particularly addressed residents who drench their lawns daily for fear they are not getting their fair share of the water if they don’t. We’ve been told since spring about the water shortage, but I still see neighbors unwilling to curb their own usage for the good of the community.

I thought about them last night, when I attended a town hall meeting in a nearby city. Residents there are trying to force a medical waste incinerator to curb emissions of toxins including dioxin which is linked to autism in children, other birth defects, cancers—and which concentrates in breast milk.

The spokesperson for the incinerator company protected her job with a glib presentation. She obviously  failed to connect with the young families in attendance. Few people outside this city attended to support their neighbors or to protect their own health. Apparently, residents of other communities are unaware that air pollution does not respect municipal boundaries.

Air pollution is a good example of the Buddhist teaching that all living and non-living things are interconnected. What affects one affects us all.

Mormons have a history of community-mindedness—including the Law of Consecration and the United Order. We still have institutional programs to help the unfortunate—fast offerings, the welfare program, and humanitarian aid. But we seem to have lost the spirit of cooperation—even sacrifice of personal interest—in order to benefit others. What we have, in too many cases, is the attitude that people outside our own group don’t count.

I hear older Mormons complain about being taxed to pay for schools when they have no children who will benefit. Others think it’s unfair to pay for public transportation and recreation facilities they don’t use. Some Mormons advocate abolishing all government social programs. In their view, the poor—including children and the incapacitated—should care for themselves. Granted, all social welfare programs—including those of the LDS Church—could use improvement, but abolishing them to let the needy fend for themselves lacks compassion.

Decades of conference addresses and lesson manuals warning us of the wickedness of the world may be creating Mormon insensitivity to suffering and needs outside our own small group. Maybe it’s time for General Conference addresses to focus less on chastity, sharing the gospel, and the danger of slipping into Satan’s power, and to preach the gospel of love instead. Maybe it’s time to extend Mormon family values to include all of God’s children—even those we may not admire and those who will likely never accept our faith.

Surprise Convert

My brother Dooby developed contempt for Mormonism from his childhood experience with active Mormons including our stepmother, who indulged a grudge against him, and our dad, who was blind to the pain his son suffered. Dooby extended his feelings about Mormonism to all religions and enjoyed making atheist statements which shocked our relatives. His first marriage to a devout Mormon ended in divorce, and Doob vowed to do everything possible to undermine the Mormon beliefs of his children.

Dooby’s influence with his daughters’ belief system was minimal. Eventually, he married Kato, a practicing Buddhist, began practicing meditation and yoga, and spoke against religion less frequently.  Despite his mellowing, I never expected Dooby to become a believing Christian.

Maybe, I should have seen it coming. A few years ago Dooby decided he needed a Bible since literature is so full of biblical illusions. Then he began advocating for Intelligent Design to be taught in public school science classes. I believed his interest in the issue was mostly political and found it odd to be arguing against Intelligent Design with a confirmed agnostic. Still, Doob surprised me when he said he was taking instruction in Catholicism.

“I’ve been looking for a church for awhile. I knew I couldn’t attend one that had cars with Obama stickers in the parking lot, so the Unitarians were out. I checked out the parking lot at St. Olaf’s, saw no bumper stickers, and went in.”

After a year of instruction, Dooby was baptized. “They made me a deal I couldn’t refuse. When they said I would be forgiven for all my sins, for every bad thing I’ve ever done, and go to Heaven when I died, I was in. I did think about getting a load of Viagra and committing a bunch more sins first, but Kato said with a load of Viagra I might not live long enough to get baptized.”

Dooby didn’t rush into his baptism decision. After a year of instruction, he understands the doctrine and traditions to which he has committed. Catholicism seems to be working for Dooby. He likes and respects his priest and the parishioners he has met. He is currently dealing with his recent cancer diagnosis and treatment with reasonable serenity.

I suspect the early teaching in religion Dooby received from our mother and from Jr. Sunday School and Primary kicked in. I rather think God is pleased that Doob is receiving peace from the Catholic fold. Surely, an all-knowing God knows that not all people respond to the same faith tradition.

My brother Dooby and I found our dad’s will while snooping through his closet a couple of years after our mother died. We learned that Dad had willed us to Uncle Duemore and Aunt Prudence. Uncle Duemore was Dad’s responsible older brother and business partner—and even less fun-loving than our dad. Their family never went on vacations. Our cousins spent Saturday mornings and all summer vacation doing household chores. Not a life we cared to share.

 As an adult I understand Dad’s logic. His parents were too old and ill to raise grandkids in the event of his demise. On our mother’s side of the family, Grandma Gryper lived with Aunt Loosey and crippled Aunt Arta. Aunt Loosey was a single mom with no job who eked out a living by milking cows on what was left of the family farm. She and Grandma lacked even the most rudimentary housekeeping skills and had no money sense. We would have had love, but lacked such necessities as clean clothes and regular meals. It would have been fun while it lasted, but they would have blown through Dad’s financial assets within a year.

Dooby and I thought Dad should have left us to Aunt Charity and Uncle Happy. They took their kids on vacations to California or Yellowstone every year and went camping every weekend. Living with them would be a vast improvement over life with our workaholic dad. As kids, we didn’t realize that Aunt Charity’s health was too poor to take on a larger family—and that their camp trailer didn’t have room for three extra kids.

Fortunately, Dad did not die and leave us orphaned. Throughout my kids’ childhood I fear what might happen to them should we die. George’s parents were deceased. My stepmother disliked me and my children. None of our siblings was in a position to take care of our kids.

I’m sure I never spoke to my kids about this fear, but our daughter Lolly inherited it. She and Doc decided to appoint guardians for their four kids in the event of accidental death. Doc’s parents were in poor health, so he wanted his brother and sister-in-law, who had four kids of their own, to take on the job. Being a man, Doc has no idea that few women would be delighted to double the size of her family with kids not her own. Lolly was more realistic and asked my opinion.

Neither George nor I are spring chickens, but I said that in the event of a tragedy, we could move close to one of her sisters and care for the kids jointly. A mother’s sister with no children is more likely to give kids the love they need than a sister-in-law with her own family. Lolly hesitated. She knew the kids would be taken to church every Sunday with her in-laws. Our daughters and we are freethinkers, but would not undermine their parents’ wishes.

In my book, love is more essential to a child’s well-being than regular church attendance. I’ve never dared ask about Lolly and Doc’s final decision. I just pray for their health and well-being.

Crisis Religion

On a recent PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly program about the perceived lessening of Buddhist faith in Thailand, Justin McDaniel, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, made the following statement: “I’ve never heard any professional religious person, rabbi, monk, priest, imam ever say everything is fine. You know, it’s always we’re in a state of crisis, and we’re in a state of crisis so you should be coming more, and you should be giving more money, you should be becoming a monk or you should be reading more books.”

It might have comforted me to know that Mormons aren’t alone in hearing fear talk from the pulpit. Instead, I thought—No wonder so many churches are losing membership.

The world is often a worrisome place. Who wants to hear about more problems on Sunday? Well, some people—the kind who eat up the Sunday morning TV talk shows—enjoy fear talk. Crisis rhetoric succeeds by presenting a single, simplistic alternative: “Vote my party into office and the country will be safe and prosperous.” “Join my church and God will bless you.”

I have heard about the world’s escalating wickedness and the need to prepare for the Second Coming my whole church-going life. I am weary of the message. I no longer believe the world will be a better place if I invite non-member friends to hear the missionary discussions.

Currently, I find a church which urges members to care for our earth and suits their actions to their words—as the Unitarians have done by moving investments away from fossil fuel companies—more inspiring than one that tells me how dangerous the world is, how actively Satan tries to lead people astray, and how the solution is to spend more time in Church meetings. I prefer groups such as Zen Buddhists, that encourage meditation and introspection rather than blind obedience.

I don’t tune into Sunday morning talk shows that rev up anger and fear in order to increase their ratings and I don’t participate in churches that do the same.

Michael J. Stevens has a great article, “Passive-aggression Among the Latter-day Saints,” in the current Sunstone issue. Stevens, a professor of management and business administration at Weber State University, has used a survey which shows a person’s preferred way of resolving conflict with his college students in the Midwest, in Texas, and in Utah. He found that Mormon students raised along the Wasatch Front choose avoidance as their preferred style of conflict resolution. Their score for avoidance  was more than two standard deviations higher than those of his students from other regions. Avoidance was the least popular choice for students from other areas:

Avoidance of conflict falls into the label of passive-aggressiveness. I’ve not been offended when a few associates have given me that label. I figure it’s better to avoid unpleasant people and situations than to waste energy in fights I’m not going to win.  However, Stevens points out that passive-aggressiveness has a darker side. It can also manifest as contempt. He lists other negatives:

. . . hiding one’s true thoughts, feelings, or emotions; suppressing, setting aside, or ignoring issues that otherwise should be addressed; postponing or ignoring decisions; resisting change and otherwise championing the status quo; citing rules, policies, procedures, or higher authority as both a defensive and offensive tactic; and providing little meaningful or worthwhile feedback.

Stevens attributes the high incidence of passive-aggressive conflict resolution to three things in Mormon culture: equating disagreement with contention, emphasis on obedience, and extreme deference to Church leaders.

Stevens’ study raises some interesting questions about how passive-aggressiveness affects Mormon life. Does it create harmony within families—or does it create tension from living with unresolved problems? How does avoidance of conflict influence Utah culture? Is Utah a more pleasant, peaceful place than the rest of the country—or do negatives such as resistance to change, relying on authority, and contempt for other points of view prevail?

Holy Envy

The current issue of Exponent II magazine has a wonderful article by Robert Rees, inaccurately titled “Small Things: Thoughts on Mormon Feminism.” I say inaccurately titled because Rees’ essay is not limited to feminism. In this piece, Rees shares his experiences in teaching courses on Mormonism at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. As they learn about Mormonism, his students find many things they like, even envy, about our faith including:

extensive participation of our members . . . in leadership and other callings, our concept of eternal marriage and family relationships, our welfare system, our ability to foster charitable giving, the principle of continuing revelation, and our training of young children to speak, study the scriptures, and pray.

As he visits services at non-LDS churches, Rees also finds traditions he wishes we could include in Mormon worship such as celebration of Holy Week before Easter, focus on social justice, full fellowship of gays and lesbians, and equal treatment of women. Rees concludes his piece by suggesting the Church consider including traditions from other faiths in our worship.

I thought about Rees’ expanded vision of Mormon worship last Sunday as I enjoyed a service at First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake. Unitarians do not work to expand their membership or to gain a reward in the next world. Their emphasis is on improving themselves and the world. The sermon, based on the 7th principle of Unitarianism: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” has relevance to a Mormon audience. The Reverend Tom Goldsmith discussed the interconnectedness of ourselves with each part of the universe. He said respect for other people is essential because what benefits others benefits ourselves and what harms others harms ourselves. He connected Jesus’ teachings to love our enemies, to love our neighbors, and to love God with the unity of all things.

I would like to hear more Mormon talk about caring for others just because it’s the right thing to do rather than for hope of an eternal reward. I would like to hear more about living in harmony with those not of our faith because living in harmony is good—not because we hope to convert them. We Mormons could also stand to be admonished for our materialism and urged to better conserve God’s creation.

Another thing I envy about Unitarian services is the open canon. Sermons are not limited to scriptures and  Unitarian publications. Goldsmith told a Hindu story and quoted Thich Nhat Hanh as well as Jesus in his remarks. The music canon is also inclusive. The choir sang a Welsh carol and a rocking spiritual, “Let All Our Hearts” by Jim Scott I think Mormon meetings would be less boring and more spiritual if we searched beyond the Mormon fold for music and inspiring messages.

 Joseph Smith taught:

 We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true “Mormons.”

I’m glad Exponent II has published Robert Rees’ suggestion that Mormons take a look at how other churches worship. Sometimes God inspires us through other people rather than by direct revelation.

Moral Certainty

A friend sent me this quotation from H.L. Mencken after she heard Boyd K. Packer’s recent conference address:

Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on, “I am not too sure.”

Mencken’s wisdom made me realize that what I find objectionable about conference addresses (aside from the repetition) is the speakers’ certitude that they are speaking for God. I know this certitude, in a world of rapid change, is comforting to many people. It just doesn’t work for me.

Human beings often have experiences for which no rational explanation exists. Some people experience a power outside themselves providing, without conscious thought, the right words or actions. Other people have felt a premonition to move away from a place before an accident occurs.

 When our daughter, Aroo, was 18-months-old, she developed a severe case of viral croup. We took her to the hospital where she was treated. We returned, kept her in a steam tent, and administered medication. That night, her breathing became labored again. Our home teacher gave her a priesthood blessing and her breathing returned to normal almost instantly. Coincidence or divine intervention? We have no way of proving either.

 I have no quarrel with people who believe what cannot be proven.  I do have a problem with people who insist their beliefs are true and that everyone else should believe the same way.

Jihadists and Christian Crusaders are poster children for the worst kind of religious certitude, but some contemporary atheists are also becoming examples of strident intolerance. I read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene several years ago and was impressed by Dawkins’ brilliant mind and lucid explanations of complex science. I enjoyed the clever analogy against the argument that the existence of God cannot be disproven which Dawkins gave in a radio interview. He described a giant teapot revolving around the sun. It’s too small to be seen by any kind of telescope, so we can neither prove nor disprove that it exists.

Possibly because of his concern for the push to teach creationism and intelligent design in public school science classes, Dawkins has become quite harsh in his criticism of religion—calling faith “the great cop-out.” I agree with Dawkins that religious beliefs cannot be proven and should not be forced onto others, but it seems to me that he has crossed the line and become guilty of the certitude and intolerance of which he accuses the religious.

The Old Testament is full of prophets who roar with moral certainty. I prefer the New Testament and Jesus’s example of humility—as well as Mencken’s motto, “I am not too sure.”

Robbing Agency

Watching a documentary, A Life Apart: Hasidism in America, recently I was reminded of polygamous Mormon-splinter groups which also set themselves apart from mainstream American culture—living in separate enclaves, dressing distinctively, and educating their children outside public schools.

According to the film, Hasids see themselves as God’s chosen (even over other Jews), and have little desire to mix with “lesser’ peoples. Similarly, polygamists teach their children the outside world is dangerously evil and God will protect them only if they remove themselves from the world and follow their leaders implicitly.

Hasid’s refusal to allow their children to attend universities bars their entrance into occupations requiring a college degree—effectively limiting them to low-paid jobs. Choosing a low-paid occupation is an adult’s right. Limiting children’s educational opportunities so they can’t qualify for occupations of their choice is wrong.

 I have no problem with adults choosing to live their religion outside the mainstream, but it is wrong for parents to deny children education. Prohibiting an education which gives kids the skills to survive outside the religious community deprives them of their agency.

Unfortunately, many mainstream Mormon parents also limit their children’s education—although to a much lesser degree. As a junior high teacher in Utah, I often heard parents who were registering their children for high school tell me that seminary was number one priority. Four years of seminary was more important than taking calculus or other Advanced Placement classes.

Mormon parents also often fixate on BYU and its Idaho and Hawaii campuses as the only “safe” places for higher education. They discourage their children from applying to “secular” institutions where they might earn scholarships or be better prepared for their chosen fields.

Our daughter served as YW president in their upstate New York ward. Not all the bright girls with good grades and test scores were accepted into BYU or could afford the cost. Regardless of the Institute programs available at New York State universities, for their families, BYU was the only university where the girls would be sheltered from secular teachings and non-Mormon friends. Instead of pursuing  education, these girls took low-paying jobs hoping to eventually attend BYU—or to miraculously meet and marry a returned missionary.

In the first half of the 20th century, Mormon leaders emphasized education and achievement. Talented Mormon men seized opportunities to leave the security of Zion and pursue education in universities outside the Mormon Corridor. Many remained to work outside Utah. Some, like Willard Marriott, George Romney, Henry Eyring (Sr.), Harvey Fletcher, and Philo Farnsworth became nationally prominent. The dispersion of talented, committed Mormons to various parts of the country helped the Church grow beyond a small, regional organization.

Unfortunately, that pursuit of excellence is missing from contemporary Mormon rhetoric and culture. Too many contemporary Mormons have retreated into an inward-looking culture that fears outside influences. Families that prioritize seminary over education and BYU over all other universities run the risk of limiting their children’s future choices. And a church with few successful, accomplished members will find itself less able to attract converts.  

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