An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for January, 2010

On a Scale of 1-10, My Ward Status is 1 ½

Who tops the status ladder in an LDS ward? Certainly ward leaders like the bishop and Relief Society president, stake presidency members—and wives of male leaders occupy top rungs. Husbands do not receive status from a wife’s position. In Utah where wards have a homogenous socio-economic makeup, financial well-being plays a minor role. In more diverse wards, worldly success factors into ward status. Mormons like to believe that prosperity is the result of church activity although that may be a chicken/egg riddle. Is it, perhaps, easier to be active in a ward that recognizes your outside achievements?

Large, active families fill the middle rungs of the ward status ladder for good reason.  They provide two adults to serve in callings and bright-eyed children to fill Primary and youth classes and eventually missions (boys). Older couples who raised their families in the ward retain the status they earned during younger years. Empty-nesters who move into a ward are a boon if young and healthy enough to lend a hand in the auxiliaries. Retirees lacking the energy for active ward service at least help fill the benches on Sundays and may boost the genealogy and temple attendance statistics.

Single moms occupy the lowest rung on the ward social ladder. Even reasonably charitable brothers see SMs as a ward liability—they generally need help with moves, household repairs, yard work, and even a male influence for their sons. Divorcees bring no husband to share ward priesthood labor and their chances of remarrying are relatively slim. If they’re attractive, married sisters may perceive them as potential threats. And the stigma of “She couldn’t keep her husband” persists on many levels.

 Divorced men face little stigma as long as they maintain church activity. Mormon men generally don’t stay single for long. Even if his wife left for good reason, a male with a temple recommend attracts Mormon girls like Sarah Palin attracts Conservatives.

Unmarried women over 30 are a step above single moms on the status ladder. They are often the most dedicated auxiliary workers. But an element of pity separates them from their married sisters. In our ward two single women in their 30s with excellent jobs were included with the widows on the Christmas gift basket list.

Unmarried males over 30 have less status than their single sisters, but more than single moms. They are faulted for not marrying and assuming family responsibilities.  If bachelorhood persists, the suspicion of being a closet gay arises.

When we moved into our present ward a year and a half ago, we informed the bishop and RS president on their initial visits that we weren’t regular church attenders, and we’ve kept our promise. We do attend socials when invited and participate in service projects.  While we can’t commit to three hours of tedium every Sunday, at least we don’t make demands on busy ward members’ time and energy. I think the biggest problem our ward members have with us is that we don’t appear to be missing any great blessings from our minimal church activity. I see us as a 2—other ward members might lower that a couple of notches.

Oh Say What Is True

The Bloggernacle has been full of suggestions for teaching church classes as curriculum for 2010 unfolds. I have only one suggestion for teachers of gospel classes—don’t tell stories that aren’t true or use examples that defy logic—no matter how well they support your gospel point. For example, the story of the French Dauphin who was a young child when his parents were killed. The Revolutionaries supposedly wanted to keep the Dauphin from ever becoming king without killing him, so as a child, he was plied with every sensual indulgence, so he would grow up too debauched to take the throne. The Dauphin, knowing he was the son of a king, resisted all attempts to degrade him. The moral, of course, is that knowing we are children of the King gives us power to resist temptation.

I first heard this story related by Vaughan Featherstone in General Conference and swallowed it without thinking that being morally degenerate has never precluded a royal in France or any other country from assuming the throne. The story showed up in a Gospel Doctrine manual a few years later. My daughter, who has a minor in French, taught the Young Singles Gospel Doctrine class and told me the Dauphin story has no factual basis. From all historical accounts, the Dauphin was placed with people who were kind to him. The GD teacher in my ward used the story in class and I told her quietly afterward that the story was untrue. “I know,” she said. “Most of the stories we tell aren’t true.”

The gospel is too important to be taught with falsehoods. Certainly it isn’t bearing false witness to repeat a story we believe to be true even if it is not. But instructors should make an effort to check reliability or at least examine the logic of examples they use. Dave, a young friend, told me about a GD lesson he taught. The Stake President was present and Dave asked how much time he spent on this calling and how much he got paid. Then Dave questioned ward leaders about their time commitments to the church and their pay. He announced to the class, “The Church must be true. Why else would these people spend hours each week for no pay?” Now, Dave’s example works for people who have no friends outside the LDS community. But anyone acquainted with other churches knows the clergy doesn’t do everything. Non-LDS churches depend on unpaid volunteers to staff their programs. Good people also work without pay in non-religious service organizations. Unpaid labor is not a strong pillar for a Mormon testimony.

I hate embarrassing a teacher, but some errors are too egregious to ignore—like the Relief Society instructor who announced:  “We get married for eternity. The World gets married planning to get a divorce if it doesn’t work out.” Mormons should be able to extol the benefits of eternal marriage without making untrue remarks about people of other faiths.

Of course, no instructor in a church class can be totally free of errors in teaching, no matter how carefully she follows the manual. Maybe the problem isn’t instructors as much as the image of the class as a set of empty vessels and the teacher as the font of wisdom. Wouldn’t it be more meaningful to have teachers lead their classes in reading and honestly discussing the scriptures rather than lecturing, asking predictable questions, and waiting for recitation of “correct” answers? Maybe we’d even remember the lessons after class and apply the principles to our lives.

I Loved Teaching Gospel Doctrine

Sunday School is the program most often suggested for dropping if the three-hour block is ever shortened to two. But for a long time, Gospel Doctrine was my favorite church class. In the ‘70s the church inaugurated a six-year in-depth study course for the scriptures. We spent two years studying the Old Testament, two years studying the New, and a year each on the D&C and Book of Mormon. The OT came alive to me for the first time as we delved into the history of the ancient Hebrews.

I was fortunate enough to be called as Gospel Doctrine teacher when instructors were allowed to use resources besides the manual and the Ensign. I purchased the Institute manuals, Josephus, and a history and geography of the Holy Land. The LDS edition of the Bible had been published that year and the maps, topical guide and Bible Dictionary unlocked the door to the candy shop. Knowing that few members did outside reading, I gave class time for members to read pertinent passages silently before each discussion. After the first class, everybody brought scriptures. I read footnotes and commentary from the LDS edition, and after Christmas most of the members sported the new scriptures.

Sometimes my enthusiasm for scripture study overcame good judgment. I don’t pay much attention to words with modern connotations differing from those of King James’ time such as “ass” for donkey, so I hadn’t flagged 1 Sam:25:22 and I called on Sister Proper to read a passage that included the phrase “any that pisseth against the wall” to describe all males. Sister Proper hesitated at the Anglo word, took a deep breath, and bravely read the verse as written. What could I say? Ignoring the shock and awe of the righteous and the controlled snorts from the rest, I continued the lesson.

A New Testament lesson also caught me by surprise. While teaching Acts, I was inspired with a great analogy to illuminate the conflict between apostles who required new converts to observe circumcision and Paul who believed Jewish laws were irrelevant to gentile converts. “Just suppose we’d heard a message from the First Presidency today saying the Word of Wisdom has been rescinded.” I looked at the SS President, a safe bet, and asked, “Don, would you stop at a 7-11 for a pack of Pall Malls on the way home?”  Don’s face reddened as if I’d just told him his fly was unzipped, and he said, “Yes.” Apparently my inspiration hadn’t come from the Holy Ghost. The following day Don’s wife told me he’d quit smoking to marry her, and his brand of choice had been Pall Mall. “How did Sister Johnson know?” he asked.

Teaching Gospel Doctrine was more fun than eating a whole sheet of warm chocolate chip cookies. For a few years after being released from this calling, I studied each lesson and sat on the front row in Sunday School, ready to share my astute insights. Then the doctrine of “milk before meat” compressed the study of the Bible into two years instead of four, and historical context for scriptures was considered irrelevant. Now my vote is for eliminating the SS portion of the block.

Prospering in the Land

Are Mormons more avid consumers than other Americans? Materialistic has joined the list of pejoratives which critics level against the Saints.  Hearing Mormons censured for materialism jolts me because throughout most of my life, the church emphasized thrift. When my Seattle Relief Society organized a rummage sale to raise funds many years ago, I wondered who would come. The Mormon slogan at that time was “Use it up, make do, do without.” Who would want to buy worn out stuff Mormons finally discarded?

But somewhere along the line, we Mormons acquired the national taste for newer, bigger and better. Our old Sandy ward of ‘60s and ‘70s homes began losing member as families moved to newer housing developments across the valley. Mostly non-members bought the existing homes. Finally our ward was combined with another. The same thing happened in neighboring stakes. While the number of Mormons in SL Valley increased, the number of Mormons in older neighborhoods decreased.

When George and I returned to the Wasatch Front two years ago, we rented a townhouse in Draper. The farms we remembered along 126th South had been replaced by a stretch of shopping malls and fast food outlets. We could visit every major big box store within a mile of our house. Tai Pan and IKEA were only a few miles away. “Does anybody here do anything besides shop?” I asked. Apparently not. Although the townhouses in our development were spacious, every opened garage revealed shelves rising to the roof, crammed with plastic storage tubs. By all appearances, the Saints were prospering in the land.

A recent blog speculated that it is easier for Mormons to live a provident lifestyle in California than in Utah Valley. That was not true for our eldest daughter and her teacher husband. While living in the SF Bay area and saving for a home, they were the only Mormons living in an apartment complex of mostly minorities. Although both were employed, ward members knocked on their door a couple of days before Thanksgiving and presented them with a turkey. Choosing to live within their means was perceived as poverty by members of this affluent ward.

Our current Bountiful ward of ‘40s and ‘50s houses is full of wonderful families who chose older homes with yards big enough for kids and gardens. The RS sponsors clothing swaps. Garden produce and outgrown baby equipment are regularly exchanged. Keeping up with the Joneses is easy here since, except for used book stores, the Joneses hate shopping.

Mormons who choose to live within their means can be found—although possibly not in new housing developments. And that will probably change if the economy continues its stall. Certainly we’re hearing the call for careful management from the pulpit once again. The Book of Mormon does promise prosperity to those who keep the commandments, but it doesn’t define prosperity. Perhaps the proper definition of prosperity is “sufficient for our needs.”

Women Against Women

More than thirty years after the ERA controversy, American women have gained the right to participate in occupations formerly closed to them and to more equal education opportunities—yet, we are judged by our faces and figures more than ever before. The need to be validated by male attention has preschool girls learning provocative dance steps, middle school girls displaying bare mid-drifts and any cleavage nature has provided, and high school girls opting for breast enhancement if nature was stingy.

While I appreciate the desire to have a nice guy around, I feel concern for the apathy women show toward the opportunities we have gained and for the push-back against further progress. I hate the fact that feminism is considered a dirty word conjuring visions of mannish women out to emasculate every male within knife range. A few years ago, I tried to get Herland, a 1915 novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, approved for use with my 9th grade English classes in suburban Salt Lake City. Parents accused me of being a feminist with the same tone Glenn Beck pronounces “communist” and “socialist.” It didn’t matter that Herland was written at a time when American women had few legal rights, and Gilman aimed to correct archaic practices such as restrictive clothing, lack of physical exercise, and limited educational opportunities for girls and women. It didn’t matter that the book was an imaginative creation of a world without disease, poverty and crime and would give students the opportunity to discuss relevant social problems. According to the parents on the approval committee, reading a book advocating equal opportunities for women would undermine their family values. Obviously, I, a married, active LDS woman with five children of my own, had a social agenda contrary to the values of this Utah community.

Boyd K. Packer made “feminism” equivalent to the other F word in a speech to the All-Church Coordinating Committee in 1993.  In that speech he listed feminism as one of the three dangers to the LDS Church, along with homosexuals and intellectuals. Packer gave no details on how the feminist movement threatened the church. He did address the issue of working mothers and said while some were justified, the church should not provide “license to the many who are not.” Although few Mormons today recall that speech, the perception that the church is officially opposed to all feminist issues persists and makes Mormon women hesitant to support any women’s issues. Then, of course, Rush Limbaugh coined the phrase “Feminazi” to add a right-wing political dimension. Interesting that women let men define the issues for them.

Fear that we may lose a golden past that never existed also plays a part in women’s attitudes. It’s easy for younger women to believe that people were happier back in the 1950s when all the mothers stayed home and dads earned the living. Personally, I didn’t know too many families in the ‘50s with June Cleaver type mothers. My mother and aunt worked in our family grocery business as my grandmother had before them. Quite a few of my friends’ mothers worked outside the home at least part time. Yet, the dream of returning to the happier days of the past persists—accompanied by the notion that keeping women’s wages low and not providing decent child care and maternity leave somehow benefits families.

Why don’t women speak out for benefits for themselves and other women? Women who landed a great provider usually don’t see their stake in the struggle—unless a sister or daughter is less fortunate. Maybe it’s time to value all women as sisters and daughters.

YW Personal Progress

YW Personal Progress    1/01/10

Personal progress, albeit with different names, has been part of the YW program for decades. And the main focus has always been on preparing LDS girls for homemaking roles. My mother’s Beehive book from the 1930s listed goals for beautifying the home including planting vines around the outhouse. Either Mother was a slacker or she lacked a green thumb. I remember the old outhouse by Grandma’s corral and a luxuriant growth of greenery never disguised its function.

When I entered the Beehive program the summer after 6th grade, our teacher presented each of us with a blue felt banderol (we said bandalo, but spell checker provides this spelling).  We were instructed in blind stitching so we could sew the ends together and wear it across our chests from left shoulder to right hip. As we accomplished each Beehive goal, we would receive a felt emblem to sew onto the banderol to show the world, or at least our ward, our success. Filling the band with awards would promote us to Honor Bees. The first emblem for our band was one we would create ourselves—our personal symbol. The rest of that Mutual class time was devoted to choosing, designing, cutting and sewing our personal emblem. My friends busied themselves drawing and cutting blossoms, trees, and song birds. I had never thought of myself in non-human imagery and had no idea what to choose. Not that it would matter. I had no ability to draw, so nothing I chose and constructed would be recognizable. I finally cut a piece red felt and stitched it in place, answering, “A red gooney bird” to anyone who asked about my symbol. No further emblems ever graced my banderol. Externally created goals meant nothing  to my 12-year-old self.

        By the time my daughters reached YW age, Personal Progress expanded to include frequent goal-setting meetings with advisers. Although multiple goals were possible using the YW Values, the emphasis on lessons—especially for the Laurel age group—was on achieving the “divine role” of marriage and motherhood. Our eldest daughter, Lolly, loudly denied any desire to marry and have children. The YW president asked me one day if Lolly’s denial might not be based on a fear that she wouldn’t have the opportunity to marry. Bingo! Our daughters didn’t date much in high school. Girls without boyfriends appear a bit pathetic if their stated goal is marriage.

While the content of the 2010 YW Personal Progress program doesn’t look too different from previous programs, the packaging may present a problem. A description of 21st century girls as “pink” and “soft” and listing “wife, mother and homemaker” as the only career choices may have as much appeal as a bowl of strawberry Jello nestled among tapenade, sushi, lamb-filled gyros and tiramisu at a smorgasbord . An unintended consequence may be the disengagement of girls who aren’t dating or who don’t identify with pink and softness. Since school and other secular activities provide worthwhile guidance for adolescent girls, non-involvement with YW Personal Progress may not be individually negative. The institution, however, will suffer a loss if the program turns bright girls completely away from the LDS Church .

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