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Cultural Hall Outcast

Elaine B. from Boise, Idaho, writes:

I am a new convert and am confused about Mormon culture. There seem to be a lot of unwritten rules rules that I seem to keep breaking that I wasn’t taught by the missionaries and haven’t come across in gospel principles. Can you help me out?

Alison says:

Oh, Elaine! You have no idea!

Just like every country, state, city, group, and family, Mormon culture has a semi-secret list of do’s and don’ts with which you must comply ?or be shunned. This explains why the MTC has culture classes for all the greenies, why Halestorm has been a success, and why coffee table grapes were ever considered “fine decor.”

I’ll let the other two Circlettes address the moral implications of imposing non-doctrine or past doctrine into unsuspecting converts. Instead I’ll just let my mind atrophy as I ponder the many bits and pieces of culture that occur to me before I drift off into a coma. Certainly, there are variations from locale to locale, but many of these have made their way into many nations. And suffice it to say, that practice, while not doctrine or even policy does play a role in all civilized cultures. If you decide to snub it, at least be aware that there will be consequences ?and be sure they are worth it to you. Some culture is just left well enough alone.

Mormon Cultural Musings

Sunday dress, female: nice dress/skirt and blouse/dress suit; hose; heels

Sunday dress, male:
dress shirts (white if you’re cranky or passing the sacrament); tie; dress pants; dress shoes

General dress, female:
modest; sleeves; knee-length; not skin tight; no bellies; no plunging; moderate makeup; one piercing per ear; no tattoos

General dress, male: modest; sleeves, knee-length; no grunge; no earrings; no tattoos; no boxers showing; no eye-liner (Johnny Depp, take notice); short, conservative hair; no facial hair (assuming you aspire to a really high calling)

Callings: don’t aspire to one; accept all that are extended; try to get out of nursery and any calling involving a Mia Maid

Sacrament: take with right hand; pass with right hand; juggling optional

Children: have a bunch; you won’t get released, but you’ll get a lot of casseroles

Transportation: have a vehicle large enough to transport “the bunch”; SUVs provide bonus points toward exaltation

Cursing, usual: don’t do it within hearing of credible witnesses

Cursing, abnormal: Mormon swear words are not swear words at all and are acceptable in all but the most refined company

Missionaries: men, go; women, go if you feel like it; don’t wait for one, get a life instead

Ward potluck: contribute a dish (please!), anything containing gelatin is a plus; anything containing a cannery item is doubly impressive, even if it comes in dehydrated form

Word of Wisdom: abstain from coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs; abstaining from almost anything not actually listed will be considered pious by particular fringe groups; anything with mounds of refined, white sugar is good

Relocation: the Elder’s Quorum is supposed to do it, the high priests all have bad backs and/or trick knees

Kathy says:

Elaine, I would like to know some of the specific instances. To be sure, almost any culture consists of unwritten rules. But the Gospel is global and eternal, and all the laws of God are written. I believe the Church, which was once considered a Utah organization, then an Intermountain West social phenomenon, then an American Religion, is by it ?s divine nature, inclusive of all times and cultures. Even so, we can sometimes spot an LDS family a block away, and a sociologist or anthropologist could probably give us a checklist.

It would be fun, but not original, to create such a list here. There are dozens of Mormon ? jokes, just like the regional jokes that begin You know you are a __________ if: ? finding humor in our cultural idiosyncrasies. We take a lot of ribbing for our large families and vans, the tacky artifacts we used to make in Relief Society, our aggressive (but sincere) desire to share the gospel, our sweet tooth, our ongoing struggle to get our visiting and home teaching done and so forth.

But if you have felt you are breaking unwritten rules, I am concerned that you are wondering if you should be conforming, somehow, to a type ? (or stereotype ?) that is recognizable to others in the group. If you seem to do some things differently, any such difference that we feel entitled to criticize pales in comparison to the disobedience of passing judgment. I would hope we would embrace the richness of our cultural differences, and enjoy the growth we experience as we keep an open mind. Hugh B. Brown, who was President David O. McKay ?s first counselor from 1963 until 1970, was a champion of the questing spirit. ? Quoting from the passage below, he says, Be unafraid of new ideas, for they are the stepping stones of progress. ? If you are doing something your own way, Brava! Why not introduce a new “unwritten rule ? that works for you?

I doubt you are breaking any actual rules. I suspect you are, instead, breaking new ground. You are just as much a Latter-day Saint as any of the founding members, just as much as the celebrity ? members in Salt Lake City or Provo, and certainly just as much as the rest of us, your sisters. Heavenly Father loves each of us equally. Customs are man-made and circumstantial, but the Gospel is universal. Your value as an individual is much more important than the culture. ? I hope you will find your life in the Church a joyful learning experience.

We are grateful in the Church and in this great university that the freedom, dignity and integrity of the individual is basic in Church doctrine as well as in democracy. Here we are free to think and express our opinions.

Fear will not stifle thought, as is the case in some areas that have not yet emerged from the dark ages. God himself refuses to trammel man’s free agency even though its exercise sometimes teaches painful lessons. Both creative science and revealed religion find their fullest and truest expression in the climate of freedom.

I hope that you will develop the questing spirit. Be unafraid of new ideas for they are the stepping stones of progress. You will of course respect the opinions of others but be unafraid to dissent if you are informed.

Now I have mentioned freedom to express your thoughts, but I caution you that your thoughts and expressions must meet competition in the market place of thought, and in that competition truth will emerge triumphant. Only error needs to fear freedom of expression. Seek truth in all fields, and in that search you will need at least three virtues; courage, zest, and modesty. The ancients put that thought in the form of a prayer. They said, “From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth, from the laziness that is content with half truth, from the arrogance that thinks it has all truth O God of truth deliver us.” Hugh B. Brown, Man and What He May Become

[Editor's note: Alison made the grave mistake of creating her list before having been informed by Kathy that such an exercise would be "unoriginal." She, and we, apologize for her lack of sound judgment.]

Tracy says:

So right, Elaine! Our faith, beliefs, and practices permeate every aspect of our lives.

And as you pointed out, not every little detail is brought up during the discussions.

We covered a similar topic awhile back, addressing the subject of Mormon culture and how sometimes, it’s difficult to determine what is culture or common practice as opposed to actual doctrine and prophetic instruction.

It’s not uncommon at all for newly baptized members to feel a little awkward and out of place when it comes to knowing the minutia of Mormon methods. But I hope it brings you some relief to hear that no one expects you to understand everything. Well, at least I hope no one does! Since you say you “seem to keep breaking” the “rules,” I wonder if maybe someone in your ward is giving you a hard time. I hope that’s not the case. Even those of us who’ve been members for our entire lives continue to learn and understand more and more as we study, learn, and grow. And I’ve been surprised how many life-long members apparently misunderstand very key doctrines. So surely, no one should expect a new member to know and understand the plethora of doctrines and practices that make up our unique faith.

Really, most of these things are written. I’d say that actually, there are very few that aren’t written. It’s just that they aren’t written in a concise form all the “rules” in a little booklet would make it easier than having them written here and there throughout the scriptures, church curriculum, prophetic discourses and conference addresses.

Though there are doctrines and practices that are set in stone and not open to personal interpretation, with the things that aren’t, there may be a difference of opinion. The difference often comes when some people live “the letter of the law,” while others live what they feel is “the spirit of the law”. There are a few things that are often debated, as to whether or not a particular belief or practice is actually a “rule.”

When I think of an unwritten rule, the perpetual battle between caffeinated and non-caffeinated drinks comes immediately to mind. One could say that in general, Mormons don’t drink caffeine. But, there are plenty of faithful LDS members who drink caffeinated sodas, because as they’ll tell you, “it doesn’t keep you out of the temple.” And truthfully, no one has ever said, “Thou shalt not drink regular Pepsi” from a conference pulpit, and you won’t find mention of caffeine in any church curriculum. So when things like this come up, personal study and prayer is your best guide.

Personally, I use the “better safe than sorry” approach to this particular debate. During a visit to the Church Headquarters building in Salt Lake City, I noted that all the soda machines contained only non-caffeinated drinks. In fact, that was the first time I’d ever seen Dr. Pepper without the caffeine! (…and there was great joy in the land!) I noticed the same thing at the Missionary Training Center in Provo and at BYU. (Although, that was in 1989 and I’ve heard that you can now buy a regular Coke on campus. Anyone know if that’s true?)

A few years later, Mike Wallace interviewed President Hinckley on 60 Minutes. During the interview President Hinckley acknowledged that it isn’t easy to follow the Mormon faith, and called it “the most demanding religion in America”.” The conversation continued:

Gordon B. Hinckley: It is demanding. And that’s one of the things that attracts people to this church. It, it stands as an anchor in a world of shifting values.

Mike Wallace: No alcohol, no tobacco, no coffee, no tea, not even caffeinated soft drinks ?

Gordon B. Hinckley: Right.

Mike Wallace: ?eat meat sparingly, exercise ?

Gordon B. Hinckley: Right.

Mike Wallace: ?get plenty of sleep.

Gordon B. Hinckley: Right. It’s wonderful!

Between that and what I saw (rather, didn’t see) at Church Headquarters, the MTC and on BYU campus, I was convinced. But it is true that drinking “leaded soda” as my hubby calls it, (who also happens to be a partaker) doesn’t keep someone out of the temple. I’d be willing to bet (we don’t really bet, either) that 50% of all members drink soda with higher octane levels. It’s a subject that basically boils down to an individual’s personal interpretation of the doctrine and how he believes it should be applied in his life.

When it comes to questions about the “rules,” whether it concerns the Word of Wisdom, dress standards, morality, etc., (what does being “chaste” entail, exactly?), a good place to start is with your Relief Society president, visiting teachers, home teachers, bishop or a trusted, and active LDS friend.

Another good source is the church web site. You can type in a word or short phrase into the site’s search engine and a list of articles, conference talks and church curriculum that mention the topic will pop up.

While it does take time to learn the ropes (or shall I make up a Mormon reference and say “learn the rod”?) hopefully you’ll find that often the various aspects of your new faith will come naturally after awhile.

Whatever your specific concerns may be, please remember that you can always ask someone. And if you have a few things that you’d like to ask about in particular, we at Mormon Momma can probably give you some answers and gospel references.

As a sidenote to all the long-time members, I hope that we all are compassionate and patient as we welcome a new member into the fold. When we notice that a newly baptized member may not understand or know about a particular practice, we need to carefully consider what we should say, how we should say it, and if we should say anything at all. Most often, things like everyday dress standards, Sunday dress, the proper language of prayer and things of this sort are learned simply by observance, making it very important that we set a good example. These things will usually be picked up without us having to say anything.

Answering this question has given me an idea I need to write a book. Something that every new member should be given upon their baptism, and even long-time members would benefit from a refresher course sometimes. I could call it The In’s and Out’s of Being Mormon or something like that. It could list all the little things that aren’t covered during the discussions. You know:

  • Having a baby means at least three days of donated casseroles
  • Cannery potato pearls are the best instant potatoes on the planet
  • Mormon women are not oppressed!
  • The Elder’s Quorum is not a moving company
  • It’s “Books of Mormon”, not “Book of Mormons”
  • Yes, we are allowed to dance, and women can wear make-up
  • Hanging out in the mother’s lounge or foyer all through Sunday School does not count as Visiting or Home Teaching
  • Crocheting leprosy bandages is not required for membership
  • We don’t sacrifice virgins in our Temples, we marry them
  • Green Jello is it’s own food group

Hey, this could be fun!

[Editor's note: Apparently Tracy wrote her response before (a) she realized it was not original and (b) she realized it was redundant. (Is that redundant?)]

Alison says:

  1. No, you can’t buy regular Coke at BYU, but you can buy Sanka at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Go figure.
  2. How about Mormonism for Dummies?
  3. 60 minutes is not the forum to disseminate doctrine to members. Oh, and watch for the edits. Fun!
  • Five casseroles, minimum. What is wrong with you Texans?
  • Isn’t “best instant potatoes” an oxymoron?
  • I am oppressed! (Or is that oppressive ?)
  • Why not? They aren’t busy preparing their Sunday lessons ?
  • Would you call multiples Cats in the Hat?
  • Shoot, why didn’t anyone tell me that? I know I would have beat Sharlene in Miss Utah Valley with Max Factor on my side.
  • True. It only works in the library.
  • Yea, you can knit loom hats, instead.
  • “Is that where they sacrifice the animals?” (Actual quote while pointing below the baptismal font of a touring couple during the Orlando Temple open house)
  • As is chocolate

{ 5 comments… add one }

  • Reader Comment July 1, 2007, 4:10 pm

    Cherie from Iowa, writes:

    I’m laughing so hard from the “swear words.” What the flippin’ fetch is a “seaterend”?

    My advice is for Elaine to relax, keep her eyes open, ask questions, and ignore anyone who’s so uptight that they are rude. We all have our problems. Just accept that some people are rude.

  • Alison Moore Smith July 1, 2007, 4:11 pm

    Cherie, having never heard it in proper context, I’m guessing it’s the end you put down on your seat(er).

  • Reader Comment July 1, 2007, 4:11 pm

    P.L. Thompson writes:

    Another unspoken “rule” is that we are generally expected to limit our church comments to those things that are relatively uplifting and positive. We can ask questions and express concerns, but probably don’t need to bring up polygamy and/or native American DNA more than twice each Sunday.

  • Rachel July 9, 2007, 9:33 pm

    Shoot, why didn ?t anyone tell me that? I know I would have beat Sharlene in Miss Utah Valley with Max Factor on my side.

    Is that where they sacrifice the animals? ? (Actual quote while pointing below the baptismal font of a touring couple during the Orlando Temple open house)

    Ho-ly cow! I am totally ROTFL!

    Ah, that’s good stuff, good stuff . . .

  • Sharilee10 July 10, 2007, 11:19 am

    I love the ‘sacrifice the animals’!! Isn’t is fun to think about what people have heard about us!?! I wonder if they are ever disappointed to find out that we are just regular people, perhaps a bit odd and unique, but we still put our pants on one leg at a time.

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