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.

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