Ending the “Culture vs. Doctrine” Distinction

This last Sunday, I was fortunate to hop on the train to church with a good friend of mine in the ward. As happens with us, the conversation turned to questions of the LDS Church and experiences of people living on the margins. This conversation happened to revolve around our shared disdain towards “Single-Adult” (SA) wards or even “Young Single-Adult” YSA wards. [That subject alone can fill the pages of many a blog post.]

My friend discussed how the Church doesn’t know what to do with single members and puts them in SA wards as if it was a forgotten backroom storage unit. And whether or not you agree with that designation, it made me think:

It’s become the norm in the church to relegate anything undesirable to this amorphous thing called “culture”. As a sociologist, I recognize how awfully nondescript this term can be. A fun project for the future might be analyzing how Mormons use culture and what they think it means. However, I might take a stab at what it might be (although this is notably premature as I have done nothing analytical to arrive at this conclusion-it’s simply a hunch).

Culture: the elements of the religion that are changeable, undesirable, and do not come from God; loosely understood mostly as the local customs of action, speech, and norms. For example:

  • Not being able to say “no” to a calling
  • The teaching of chastity by using a “used” candybar
  • Over-the-top lesson preparations for Sunday School or Relief Society
  • What activities are allowed on the Sabbath

There are obviously many, many more that we can add to this list. However, it has become a past-time of mainstream Mormonism to talk about the culture/doctrine divide. Just google “mormon culture vs. doctrine” and you will find a plethora of opinions that have used the comparison to disregard something in Mormonism. “Culture” is Mormonism’s new bad guy – the Joker to our Batman or the communism to our McCarthyism. One blogger in 2013 wrote a post describing a lesson in a BYU Doctrine and Covenants class about the topic. Even the conservative Mormon blogosphere has taken Mormon Culture to task. Greg Trimble’s “The Coming Revolution of Mormonism” has been shared over 160,000 times! Trimble explores a rejection of Mormon culture, which he identifies as the cause of hate and exclusion in the Church, and envisions a marvelous future of love and acceptance. (This is ironic, in my opinion, when he wrote a month later against being accepting of homosexuals in a piece entitled “Quit Acting like Christ was Accepting of Everyone and Everything”. Undoubtedly, he would respond that he does not reject gay people, but rejects their lifestyle or some other ridiculous moniker, but I digress at this point.) The point is, the tendency to take something you don’t like and call “cultural foul” is rampant in Mormon culture today. <- See what I did there?

Now, I’m not nearly the first person to dismiss the culture/doctrine distinction. In 2005, a ByCommonConsent author wrote:

I want to submit that, when we Church members draw distinctions between “doctrine” and “culture,” we often aren’t really saying anything of substance.  We fool ourselves into thinking we’re drawing an important distinction, when in fact we’re just assigning a word to a category of belief, activity or dogma we find distasteful.  We also often avoid the unpleasant task of confronting the source(s) of the particular beliefs of actions in question.

Yet, it’s become a past-time of Mormonism to continue this divide. In my humble and hastily written and thought-through opinion, there are (at least) two problems with the apologetic employment of culture vs. doctrine.

Before I discuss those two problems, I’ve been asked to clarify a distinction between Church culture and Society’s culture that influences the Church. In the Western context, this is often the same: as the LDS Church grew within the US Protestant culture, it has adopted many of its norms, structures, and beliefs. This is so much so, that some Mormons in the US are completely unaware at how much the Mormon Church is an American Church. However, many Mormons – especially in the Global South – have had to grapple with the “Americanness” of the Mormon Church. (For those interested in this, I’d invite to listen to Gina Colvin’s podcast A Thoughtful Faith.) What has become what we call “Church culture” is almost inevitably a mixture of doctrinal interpretations and American culture. It’s much harder to distinguish cultural influences than “philosophies of men” when mixed with scripture – yet, these are just as problematic.

So, my two problems of our employment of culture vs. doctrine:

1. – Mormonism’s understanding and use of culture is enormously limited and misguided.

When “culture” is employed in Sunday School or on the blogs, it treats it as these local beliefs, actions, or mannerisms: the intangible aspects of social life. However, this definition has many limitations. Culture, at least sociologically, also includes institutional structure, rules, symbols, and even logic. Going back to the conversation with my friend that prompted this post, SA and YSA wards are not doctrinally-based. Even though the LDS Church has a core doctrine of eternal marriage, it is not a necessity to structure our worship communities along marriage demographics. One could conceive of having integrated wards (integrated in regards to marriage status), yet still having stake sponsored “mix and mingles” or single “FHE”s. Even the three hour Church service is a cultural creation. Just because our doctrine requires Church members to “meet oft”, it does not dictate how, where, etc.

The rules of the Church also have a cultural attribution. Look at the Word of Wisdom. Although there are occasional mentions of the “eat meat sparingly” aspect of the WoW, it is not a requirement for temple worship. I have never heard–feel free to prove me wrong–of a bishop or stake president denying a recommend for over-eating meat. I would assume that a large portion of active US Mormons would be in jeopardy. Yet, the abstinence of alcohol, tobacco, and elicit drugs (which, Joseph Smith, Jr. only regulated these loosely) is strictly enforced. And we’ve all heard stories where a bishop in ward Z was less strict than bishop in ward A.

We could also talk about policy in this regard, which is conveniently left out of discussions when talking about doctrine vs. culture. No one wants a discussion of the November 5 policy in Church – but they don’t have to! Doctrine vs. culture doesn’t allow it – policy is off the table. But, if we understand that policies are a cultural element of every institution, it comes back into the table. If we provisionally accept that heterosexual marriage is a pure and unchangeable doctrine of the LDS Church (which many don’t accept), it does NOT follow that same-sex married couples must be excommunicated. The extreme distress by your average Mormons following the leak of the handbook change (LGBTQ+ or not) is evidence of that. Most people were not expecting it to happen. Yet, after two weeks of grappling with it, your conservative blogosphere found ways to rationalize it (even though it took over two months for an apostle to claim that it was based on revelation, and this was only in a devotional).

And as an easy example of culturally influenced symbols in the Church, we can look at none other than our representations of Christ in our paintings and photographs. The LDS Church’s depictions of Christ are incredibly white. We even have a Mormon fable of the Church accepting Del Parson’s Red-Robed Jesus as the most accurate image of Christ. Reproductions of whiteness of our Savior have many problematic effects (yet another blog post, but it has been treated else like this recent one by BCC).

Most of these cultural elements have their place in American culture as well. European and white-American Christian churches are unlikely to showcase any picture of a Christ that is not white – just look at the centuries of religious paintings in Europe. The way that the LDS Church discusses LGBTQ people and their “struggles” is very similar to many Protestant religions. “Same-sex attraction” as a descriptor of sexuality in place of “gay” had been used among many protestant churches. It was also Protestantism that started separating the distinction between behavior and attraction for their gay members in order to condemn sexual acts, yet still make the argument that they were not homophobic. The abstinence from tobacco/alcohol are one aspect that Mormonism has pushed back against the rest of the world, despite evidence that moderation for alcohol and coffee is not necessarily a health issue. Yet, as some argue, the Word of Wisdom (and specifically the parts dealing with drinking and not meat) is still a strong part of the rules of the Church because it acts as a distinguishing feature from the rest of the US.

Notice how a better understanding of what could be cultural in Mormonism opens up clear action plans to diminish the problematic effects: change the ward systems so as not to separate married from single members; address the inconsistencies of rules that prevent temple and other forms of worship; provide for more multicultural symbolism in Church art and literature. By providing a more nuanced understanding of culture, we can even provide better plans to eliminate the problematic influence. And this leads to a sinister problem that we have with talking about “culture” –

2. – It has done nothing but placate Mormons to ignore things that are real problems.

Why has culture become the Mormon scapegoat? This attribution of problems allows us to dump it onto an invisible monster that we can do nothing about. The vagueness of “culture” (without any consideration of structure, policy, norms, rules, etc.) makes us unable to react against it. We can point out problems – but then it is just up to us to ignore it.

I’d invite readers to think back on the last time their ward identified some “thing” they didn’t like as “culture”, set a plan to eliminate it, and eventually did eliminate it. Because far too often, my wards have identified problematic cultural elements and then within the same lesson have born testimony for that cultural element. For example, we had an Elders Quorum lesson on prayer. Person A commented using the common cliche: “I feel that when God doesn’t respond to our prayer, that it’s because he trusts us to make the right decision.” Person B, however, said that was a cultural idea and not founded in doctrine. Person B then described how trying to guess why God doesn’t respond to our prayers can be problematic and we should stop creating these justifications. [This is another topic that could fill many a blog post.] Most of the class nodded in agreement. Yet, not 10 minutes later, Person C made a comment saying: “I’ve always believed that when God doesn’t respond to our prayer, it’s because he trusts us to make the right decision.” Most of the class nodded in agreement.

Regardless on whether you agree with Person B’s disagreement with that cliche, this cycle happens all the time. More often than not–in my experience–when a problematic cultural element is discussed in Sunday School or another class, it is mostly referred to in the following way: “I used to have a really hard time understanding and accepting X issue in Church history, but then I realized that it was just cultural problem and I don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

This is something I hear often by conservative LGBTQ+ members of the Mormon religion when they talk about Spencer W. Kimball’s horrifying descriptions of homosexuality in Miracle of Forgiveness. His claims that masturbation caused homosexuality and would lead to bestiality were not fairly common beliefs of homosexuality in the 60s – an example of American culture that influenced the Church. And if you look at comment threads on Deseret News – you’ll find that some Mormons still ascribe to this. An American cultural belief, not founded in doctrine, was espoused and given authority by a prophet and inscribed in the faith of your average members. Although often appalled by it, conservative gay Mormons chalk it up to the culture of the times and then talk about how wonderful the new mormonandgay.org website is and how far we’ve come. But there are some questions that need to be asked based on Kimball’s comments that we never discuss:

  • What changed that made Kimball’s comments no longer accepted doctrine, but merely a cultural slip?
  • How do we know NOW when a prophet is making claims based on culture rather than revelation?
  • How can we ensure doctrine alone is coming from the general or ward pulpits?
  • What do we do when something is clearly cultural?
  • What other treatments of LGBTQ people now are actually just cultural beliefs rather than real doctrine?

Instead of having these serious discussions in our wards, far too often we simply label problems as “culture” and remind ourselves not to worry ourselves – God will sort everything out. Because it’s necessary, I repeat the observation made in the BCC article:

We fool ourselves into thinking we’re drawing an important distinction, when in fact we’re just assigning a word to a category of belief, activity or dogma we find distasteful.  We also often avoid the unpleasant task of confronting the source(s) of the particular beliefs of actions in question.


So, to recap:

Our use of culture as the amorphous term to describe things in the Church that we find problematic is itself problematic. We need to break from the tendency of attributing things we don’t like to “culture” and find their root cause: be it in Church structure, rules, history, norms, symbols, and more. Once we give a form to culture, rather than ascribe it to some confusing, untouchable “thing”, we can actually improve how we worship. Accepting this will require a harder path of discipleship: to recognize the problems while still believing in core of the Gospel and the Church’s place in it. Yet, as I’ve described in another post, I think this is the Christian way.


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