An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for November, 2011

“Not by Commandment or Constraint”

One constructive step the Church could take to retain members and possibly lessen the perception of Mormons as odd, would be to return to the original intent of D&C 89, the Word of Wisdom given as a principle with promise—“not by commandment or constraint.”  According to Mormon historian, Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young took a firmer stance against hot drinks, interpreting them as tea and coffee, for economic reasons—to keep money from flowing out of state to purchase items not locally produced. Tobacco use was probably relegated to sin status for the same reason. Alcohol, of course, could be produced locally and a wine mission of Swiss converts was sent to St. George to grow grapes and produce a beverage which was not restricted to Gentiles.

The later Mormon view of tobacco and alcohol, even coffee and tea use, not just as a health issue but as sin, makes it difficult for those who indulge in their use to participate in Church activity—and too often causes family friction as well.

Most Americans are aware of health reasons for caring about what we consume. Plenty of medical evidence exists for abstaining from tobacco. Even moderate social drinking has negative health implications for some people. Green tea has healthful benefits, but caffeine raises blood pressure levels.

People who eat and drink things that negatively impact their health generally feel guilt from themselves, their doctors, friends, and the media without adding Church condemnation to the mix. Besides, the Word of Wisdom is selectively applied. Animal flesh, according to the D&C, is to be eaten sparingly—and only in winter—but I haven’t heard of any 300 pound members with arteries clogged from bacon grease and Big Macs being denied admittance to temples. And the heavy use of caffeinated beverages by members makes Mormon disapproval of coffee and tea appear hypocritical to non-Mo associates.

Raising kids to believe violating the Word of Wisdom is a sin creates two problems—intolerance by those who follow that teaching, and resentment from those who don’t.

Since our immediate family includes both drinkers and teetotalers, I feel a sensible rule is that we don’t have alcohol served in our home at gatherings with children. I would not object to those who enjoy a glass of wine with a meal partaking. The problem I have is that drinking more than that often relaxes language and behavior into modes inappropriate around children.

Because we raised our children with the drinking-is-breaking-a-commandment mindset, our Mormon daughter does not want wine served in her children’s presence. Some of our non-Mo kids see the rule against alcohol as a belated attempt at parental control. Both groups negotiate for us to take their side—an unfortunate situation that could have been avoided by sticking with the original meaning of D&C 89:2.

Religion at Work

Dr. Brenda Williams, an MD in Sumter, SC and her husband, Dr. Joe Williams, an internist, operate a clinic in their city from which no one is turned away. Besides the clinic, they run a program which helps released prison inmates find work and provides homes for needy members of their community. Using their own money, the Williams purchase distressed houses and pay for repair work. Applicants for a free house must agree to do four hours of community service each week, attend church weekly, and get their high school diplomas.

Both Williams are religious—their philosophy of helping the less fortunate is similar to what is taught in most churches—they just do more of it. Dr. Joe Williams offers this comment on their commitment:

I for one believe that this is the best country in the world. I believe that we all have to figure out a way to make it better.

Few people have the energy and means to relieve suffering and improve the community to the extent the Williams do. For most of us, supporting people who are actively engaged in a good cause is our role rather than starting our own program. But I really like the thought that we all need to work to make our country, to make the world, better. Engaging in positive action to improve bad situations makes more sense than spewing rhetoric against whomever or whatever we think is to blame for current problems.

Click herefor a link to a PBS segment on the Williams and their work.

Sunday December 25, 2011

I grew up in a very different Mormon Church than the one existing today. Being an active Mormon in the ‘50s meant not drinking or smoking, attending Sunday meetings occasionally, sending the kids to after-school Primary, and having the family sealed in the temple before you died.

My dad’s Provo grocery store was open on Sundays and all but the most devout of our neighbors stopped in for a carton of milk, loaf of bread or necessary ingredient for Sunday dinner. When Christmas fell on Sunday, we didn’t notice the difference.

By the early ‘60s, the Church entered retrenchment mode. December 25, 1960 fell on a Sunday. Was it just our ward or was there a general Church announcement that Sabbath observance precluded holiday festivities? Santa should delay his visit until Monday, the legal holiday. The women in our ward went ballistic, making profound statements like, “Christmas has been on December 25 for 2,000 years. The Church can’t change it now.”

I don’t know if any of our ward members asked Santa to delay his visit 24 hours. Since our family didn’t attend meetings regularly, it didn’t matter much to us.

The next couple of times December 25 occurred on a Sunday, I recall Improvement Era and then Ensign articles extolling the advantage of having two days for Christmas—Sunday for the religious observance and Monday for Santa’s gifts. We never asked our kids to wait until Monday to open gifts. The thrill of Santa’s visit on Christmas Eve and waking up early to see what Santa brought was a tradition too magic to alter.

By the late ‘70s, I think Church leaders had abandoned any idea of delaying Santa when Christmas fell on Sunday. The meeting schedule on Christmas Sundays was shortened to one-hour—mostly the sacrament service and singing carols—a rather nice way to observe the day before visiting friends and family.

This year my nine-year-old granddaughter informed me that since Christmas is on a Sunday, they might wait until Monday to open their gifts. And I’m wondering—Is this official Church policy or have her parents decided current Church rules and regulations aren’t restrictive enough?

Imploded Mormons

Monday I wrote about the idea of Mormons leavening the rest of the country. Today I want to address the issue of Mormons isolating themselves from outside ideas. A nugget of wisdom from a favorite book, Levi Peterson’s The Backslider, states:

 Mormons are sellers, not buyers. They don’t import religion. They just export it.

While I agree that Mormons have some worthwhile ideas to share—such as setting aside one night a week to spend with family—I think Mormon leadership could benefit by looking at how other religions handle current issues and importing their good ideas.

Sam Brunson at Times and Seasons  has a recent blog discussing the huge difference in the official Mormon statement on politics with the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ statement. The Mormon statement, which we hear read over the pulpit before every election, affirms the church’s neutrality (which nobody really believes) and encourages members to vote. In contrast, the Catholic Bishops’ statement outlines social and political responsibilities for Catholics.

One statement I particularly like is the following: 

Catholics may choose different ways to respond to compelling social problems, but we cannot differ on our moral obligation to help build a more just and peaceful world through morally acceptable means, so that the weak and vulnerable are protected and human rights and dignity are defended.

This statement is a gem. It outlines members’ responsibility while allowing them agency in choosing how to fulfill it. I don’t recall ever hearing a General Conference sermon giving Mormons a moral obligation to solve social problems and to work on creating a more just, peaceful world that protects the vulnerable and defends human dignity. Mormon sermons tend to focus on obeying leaders and commandments and on missionary work—the assumption being that Church authorities will direct us on taking social action—and that once everyone is a Mormon, social ills will disappear.

Maybe the flat, even negative growth of the Church in the U.S. in recent years will motivate leaders to look outside our own boundaries for ways to motivate Mormons to seek the higher path.

Who Needs Leavening?

Last week our Molly daughter, Lolly, said she’d heard a Church speaker wish the concentration of Mormons along the Wasatch Front and in and around Mesa, AZ could be split up to “leaven” the rest of the country. Interesting idea—and I immediately saw the benefits to the Mormons involved. Isolation from other cultures, which is how most Mormons in concentrated areas live, leads to stagnation. History shows that nations that come into contact with other cultures through conquest or trade make great leaps forward in their own culture. Ideas, like hybrid plants, benefit from cross-fertilization.

But the hubris of the notion that the rest of the country needs the “leavening” of Mormons troubles me. How will spreading more Mormons around solve the ills our nation currently faces?  Problems like political polarization, unemployment, poverty, violence, drugs, immigration, and education declines.

Certainly, if Utah had solved all these problems, we might have hope that spreading Mormons around would benefit the whole country. As things now stand, I’m not sure that exporting more right-wing Republicans from Utah would solve the country’s political polarization. The Church employs a lot of people in Utah, but isn’t large enough to extend that employment benefit to other states. Likewise, the Church welfare system isn’t large enough even to help all Mormon Utahns in need of food and shelter—and certainly not with health care. Utah divorce rates are about the same as those of other states. Plenty of Mormon single moms and their kids live in poverty. Violence and drug abuse are high in Utah—even among active Church members. The Church has taken a humane position on illegal immigration—but a sizeable number of active members oppose the Church position—and the state legislature passed a harsh immigration bill this year. Education attainments in Utah schools are now challenged by budget cuts and the ongoing call for privatization by legislators with financial stakes in the issue.

Possibly Utah and Mesa Mormons are the ones needing the leavening effect of exposure to people of other faiths.

Dad Was Right–Partly

Does it matter whether you believe in God, heaven, and hell or conclude that this life is it and we’re pretty much on our own? My dad thought it did. “If people don’t believe in God, what’s to keep them from killing other people and taking what they want?” he asked. And he had a point—some people are held in check only by promise of heaven or threat of hell

A flaw in Dad’s premise, though, is the number of professed believers who still kill and plunder—both as criminal individuals and as warmongering nations. Dad’s philosophy did not take into account the human propensity to rationalize bad behavior—sometimes even justifying violence as a way of pleasing God.

Dad was a kind, generous man, but he let his true-believer mask slip with George once—admitting that, “Even if Mormonism’s not true, it’s a good way to live.” Dad mowed widows’ lawns, hoed weeds, trimmed shrubbery, and hauled away trash—refusing to accept pay beyond a plate of cookies. He put in long hours at the church welfare farm and cannery to help the poor. Besides paying Church offerings, Dad slipped a little cash into the hands of single mothers and other people struggling to make ends meet or to recover from personal disasters like fire. He routinely performed acts of kindness without a certitude that his Mormon faith was true.

While Dad had no problem living the Golden Rule without expectation of eternal reward or punishment, he couldn’t believe that other people will behave well without a carrot/stick motivation— and for some people—that is true. I do wish Dad’s world had been a little larger than his Provo neighborhood. I wish he could have met some of the many people who live benevolently without religious belief.

Religion or Spiritual Growth?

Religion and Ethics, my favorite PBS program, aired a segment on Catholic priest and author, Father Richard Rohr, this week. In his interview, Father Rohr mentioned parents who insist their children attend Mass each Sunday, but sit there themselves, “bored to death . . . hat[ing] every minute of it and walk[ing] out early . . . the kids know by three, ‘This is not a good thing to go to Mass.’”

Somehow I find it comforting to learn that Mormons aren’t the only ones who find church meetings tedious. Check out the program here to find an honest discussion of the difference between religion and spiritual awareness.

The God of Non-measurable Goals

Last week, Lolly and Doc made the 1 ½  hour trip to Bountiful and dropped the kids off with us while they did their monthly temple session. They didn’t stay overnight because they wanted to beat the snowstorm home. We worried about them leaving late at night to drive through the mountains in bad weather, but knew nothing we could say would deflect them from their goal.

It made me think of an experience years ago when we lived 2 ½ hours from the Provo Temple. A few women in our ward planned temple days every few months—arranging for child care, driving to Provo, doing two sessions, eating lunch, and doing a third session before returning home. One November day, we noticed it had started snowing after lunch. We heard a man say he’d just driven down from Salt Lake and a major snowstorm was coming from the north. Dorothy, the driver for our group, asked what we wanted to do. She wanted to stay for another session because she had committed to doing 11 temple sessions that year and knew she wouldn’t make it back to the temple in December.

We stayed for the third session and exited the temple in a raging blizzard. We made it safely to within two miles from our town where we had to make a left turn onto the home stretch. The car refused to turn, skidded from the road, coasted down a steep hill, and stopped before entering the Sevier River. Fortunately, no one was injured.

Had God been asked if it were more important for us to fulfill a certain number of temple sessions or to return home to our families before the snow worsened, what would he have answered?

Focusing on attaining measurable goals of church participation demonstrates that we can succeed at attaining measurable goals. I’m not sure that it proves anything about our spirituality. If I were God, I would be concerned about the suffering in the world. I would judge my children—not by how many temple sessions or church meetings they attend, not by how much tithing they pay, and not by callings they hold and magnify. I would ask whether they are alleviating suffering or adding to it.

Upon Reflection

In the writing class George and I attend, our instructor assigned us to write a dialogue between a talking horse and bear that meet on a deserted road at midnight and encounter a storm. Next, we were to write a moral for our story—essentially creating a fable. Then Ms Instructor pushed us a step further and asked us to write two or three different morals that could apply to our story. Most of us found our first morals tended to be clichés. As we pushed ourselves to create new morals—basically, to find the point to our stories—we came up with fresh insights.

One member of the group suggested we should have started with the moral—then written a story to support it. Hasn’t she heard enough Church lessons and talks to know that starting with the moral and concocting or choosing illustrative anecdotes is the surest way to lifeless, didactic rhetoric?

General Conference saddens me because bright men (and two women) with varied life experiences, in most cases deliver trite, repetitive discourse on one of 20 or more rotated topics: faith, repentance, the restoration, the Book of Mormon, priesthood, the atonement, etc. I long to hear something fresh and meaningful—a new insight the speaker has gained from life experience.

 How would it be to hear an anecdote such as an encounter with an arrogant TSA agent in an airport and hear the speaker reflect upon the involvement of his ego in his actions and reactions with other people? Or hear the victim of a stress-related illness such as colitis or ulcers consider the pros and cons of continual striving.

Same thing with lesson manuals—open up the field of topics to include issues relevant to contemporary Mormons—divorce, blended families, making wise choices in a world filled with worthwhile ways to use our time, energy, and money. Issues that have more than one solution.

The argument for keeping tight control over what is preached and taught within the Mormon fold in order to “keep the doctrine pure” is flawed. Far out and outdated notions abound in Mormon discourse under the present system. Opening discussion to relevant topics would not eliminate speculation and disinformation, but at least the rambling would be on more interesting topics—and might promote personal reflection and application to members’ lives.

Every Member of the Ward–Minus 2

At our Relief Society dinner last week, the ladies discussed the Bishop’s challenge for every ward member to read the Book of Mormon straight through by the end of the year. One sister complained that she had almost finished reading it through and wanted to finish the New Testament instead of starting over on the Book of Mormon right now. I suggested she consider that she had read ahead, and move on. But no, every member of the ward has to read the whole book starting this month.

I don’t know why our bishop chose this goal. The Book of Mormon is the Gospel Doctrine study course for next year, so jamming a complete reading in right now seems unnecessary. But Mormon bishops love giving arbitrary challenges. In the ‘70s they frequently asked ward members to live off their food storage for a week and then report their testimonies of following church counsel in sacrament meeting talks.

Not that I have anything against reading the Book of Mormon. I’ve read it multiple times over the years, although I never received the witness promised in Moroni 10:4. Once I quit focusing on the plot and characters, which never seemed very real to me, and focused on spiritual truths, I enjoyed the book more. I have to admit that most of the spiritual insights I like in the Book of Mormon are also found in the Bible. But some basic Christian teachings are most beautifully expressed in the Book of Mormon such as King Benjamin’s instructions about caring for the poor:

for are we not all beggars? . . .  And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God. . . . (Mos. 4:16-22)

What I object to about the challenges given in Mormon wards to read the Book of Mormon in a small window of time is that the proposal seldom addresses the book’s content. Instead, blessings are promised to those who sacrifice their time to accomplish the goal—and loss of blessings is hinted at for those who fail.

Testimonies born by those who comply are never about understandings gained. Instead, they focus on minor miracles that occurred because of their obedience:  “My parents were baptized;” “I got a job;” “I’m not pregnant,”  “My husband cancelled his subscription to Playboy;” “I found those missing car keys.”

Call me old-fashioned, but I think the value of a book is the wisdom learned from the content. I think it is possible to gain insights from the Book of Mormon that can help a person improve their lives, but this book is not a quick, easy read. It requires the serious attention which a year-long Sunday School course of study facilitates. Challenges for an entire ward to race through the book within a few weeks reduces scripture reading to rubbing a talisman—“Obey your leaders, speed-read through the book, and your luck will change.”

That’s why two ward members will not rise to this year’s challenge. Sure hope the wind doesn’t take the roof off our chapel this winter. George and I might be blamed.

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