How Does the Brethren’s Worldview Influence Church Policy?

I’ll confess upfront I’m posting this for selfish reasons. I’m considering a paper for Sunstone and want to feel out some ideas. I’d even like to hear if people think I’m on to something or if I’m over-analyzing as usual.

This latest letter from the First Presidency announcing that garments can only be purchased with a temple recommend or a valid i.d. (to confirm one is an endowed member) seems to have added to a growing list of policy decisions that come from a very specific, narrow perspective. What I mean is, although the Church is a worldwide organization, many decisions are made based on the problems faced only in the Great Salt Lake valley. But those decisions are still imposed on the global Church.

For example, when President Hinckley announced changes to the missionary program, including the way farewells are handled, I was overjoyed. Growing up in Holladay (a suburb of Salt Lake), I felt like every other week we were hearing from weepy mothers telling stories about how their son or daughter drew all over the kitchen wall with markers when they were five and how they were going to miss them so much and so on and so on. But then I read an article by Peggy Stack in the Salt Lake Tribune that opened my eyes beyond my own Utah experience. A woman in a small branch in Wisconsin had recently had her home remodeled to host her son’s farewell. He was the first missionary their tiny branch would have in some 25 years. She expressed disappointment at the policy but admitted she would obey. I can’t explain how powerfully this story hit me. It felt like the whole Church was being affected because the east bench of Salt Lake City had more missionaries than the Sacrament meetings could handle.

This one example perhaps has the most negative ramifications. Others aren’t necessarily negative or bad, but still seem to reflect the perspective of Utah Mormons, rather than a worldwide Church. Other examples include:

* Renewing Temple recommends every two years because bishops and stake presidents are spending so much time doing it, according to President Hinckley. Surely a branch president in Denmark (where the new temple has only 1,000 people in the entire district) isn’t overburdened with requests for recommend interviews.

* The recent letter stating members should not quote from notes or statements made by Church leaders at regional or local conferences. This seems like a direct reaction to Elder Perry’s comments in the Kuna, Idaho Stake conference, that spread over email and the Internet. Granted, the Internet is global, but I find it hard to believe it would have been seen as a pressing issue if the Brethren lived in Peru. Most of the emails and discussion seem to have been localized in Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and California.

* The above mentioned letter on garments. Would this be an issue if the Deseret News weren’t running stories on garments for sale on eBay, or if Lonnie Persifull weren’t waving garments in front of General Conference-goers? I suspect members in Japan haven’t heard anything about these issues that likely prompted the policy change.

* Rhetoric surrounding the media. Many times (including recent conference addresses by Elder Ballard and President Hinckley) Church leaders address movies, TV shows, concerts, etc. that are only available in Utah or the United States. Members in South Africa will be entirely unaware that there is a controversy surrounding these issues.

* Just as with above, the same is true surrounding the intense rhetoric about gay marriage.

What think ye? Are policies that are only necessary for the Great Basin unfairly being imposed on the whole Church? Is this an absolute non-issue? In what ways is the Church doing better in recognizing local customs and culture?

Comments

  1. “Besides sitting through irrelevant announcements, John, how to the members of the international church suffer for the creation of Utah-centric policies?”

    See, perhaps not very often. But I do think there are examples, including issues of music in Church, polygamy, and things that others have mentioned. Those are clearly Utah-centric traditions and policies that are imposed on other cultures.

    I suppose the big one for me remains the missionary farewell issue. It seems like something that was so unnecessary outside of the Salt Lake valley. Sure, there might be another congregation here or there that’s bombarded with missionaries and their families each Sunday, but by and large this wasn’t an issue anywhere else in the Church. And now families have to forfeit a tradition they may have really looked forward to.

    But I think overall, Nate, Julie, and others are correct. There are other policies that exist solely for those outside of the Intermountain west.

    I think a very interesting project might be to see if Church leaders who were raised outside of Utah or spent considerable time living out of the western U.S. have different rhetoric or perspectives than those born and raised in Utah. Howard W. Hunter, for example, lived in S. California. Does that influence have anything to do with the fact that he’s the only G.A. to have married a divorced woman? (Just an example – I’m not suggesting evidence of the parallel is there.)

  2. “Does that influence have anything to do with the fact that he’s the only G.A. to have married a divorced woman?”

    What! Surely this is not true, especially given the number of 19th century GA marriages ;->. I know for a fact that Parley P. Pratt had a divorced wife ;-> (Her ex-husband later shot Parley up the road from where I live.)

  3. Along the lines suggested by Steve, what about restrictions concerning earings, tatoos, and body piercings?

  4. Ann: Whether or not she had a formal divorce is an interesting question. My understanding is that her husband tried to get her locked up in an insane asylum in San Francisco when she converted to Mormonism and then divorced her in order to get custody of their children. I have to admitt, however, that it has been a while since I read anything on this (there is a pretty good article in BYU Studies from the late 1970s, I think), so I could be wrong.

  5. zeezrom says:

    Debating the merits or demerits of the policy limiting the scope of mission farewells begs the issue John is raising. Regardless of the merits, the fact is that the stated reason for the policy was that farewells were overwhelming the Sacrament Meeting schedule — an issue that with few exceptions is only relevant in Utah. The Utah-centric nature of church governance goes far beyond John’s topical examples:

    (1) Early morning seminary. Utah teenagers get seminary everyday with released time. The decision is made that all LDS teenagers must have seminary every day, resulting in hundreds of thousands of youth and parents endangering their health, safety, and incurring vast expense to go to seminary at ungodly early hours in the morning. (For example, research is unanimous that teenagers need much more sleep than they get as it is, without subtracting an additional two or three hours in the pre-dawn hours). Why not keep the home study seminary option for places where early morning seminary requires hours of driving in the dark every day?

    (2) Art and architecture. Art in churches and temples is limited to standardized copies of Harry Anderson and Harry Anderson-style art that fairly reeks of mid-American, middle class East Bench taste. What is so evil about indigenous locally produced art? And why is it necessary that a Utah construction firm and Utah-trained or based building professionals be involved in designing and building of churches in Tennessee, Trinidad, and Taiwan?

    (3) The 3 hour block. The stated reason for the 3 hour block when it was introduced was as an energy saving measure. While true that that was more relevant to U.S. Mormons outside of Utah than in Utah, rigidly continuing it ignores the needs of cultures where having lots of church meetings are the cultural norm, e.g. Africa and Polynesia.

    (4) Dress standards. The stated reason for requiring or encouraging white shirts and no facial hair for men is to conform to the appearance of respected men of the community. That is certainly not true outside of Utah (and maybe some parts of the South) yet these appearance requirements continue to be rigidly promoted throughout the world (and their persistence in Utah is probably simply a self-reinforcing cycle). In many cultures, these Utah-originated dress standards actually contradict the appearance of respected men of the community; e.g. the preference for moustaches on adult men in Latin America and India or the universal acceptance of colored dress shirts on Wall Street and in the City (London).

    (5) Missionary programs. While this is just slowly finally beginning to change, I can not imagine that the get-the-numbers, quickie baptism programs that dominated the Church’s missionary work for decades would have persisted as long as they did if Church leaders had any personal experience with the burdens of leading mission field wards and branches with high inactivity and home teaching routes that covered hou

  6. Does anyone know whether Utah-centric policies are read over pulpits in Taiwan? Do the brethren have any kind of limiting system, by which they may decide that a certain announcement only needs to be read in America, Utah, or Salt Lake City? I’m guessing the garment purchasing thing wasn’t read all across the world, and if it did, it didn’t need to be.

    John’s quibble with policy is in effect really a quibble with people hearing announcements they don’t need to hear. When the policy has only local effect, it only needs to be locally announced. Besides sitting through irrelevant announcements, John, how to the members of the international church suffer for the creation of Utah-centric policies?

  7. First, I’ll second Nate’s comment on quantifiability. Without an easily quantifiable problem, you need to have a way of approaching the issue that doesn’t amount to a string of anecdotal comments. You need a model.

    One idea is to give serious discussion up front to an institutional model of policymaking: how does the Church make and publish policy; and how should the Church make and publish policy. Then specific policy examples will fit into a general model rather than just be unconnected anecdotal events or episodes.

    An alternative approach would be to take one policymaking episode and really dig into it deeply. This requires access to better information than the average member can get their hands on–the Church works hard to hide the details of its policymaking apparatus. If it turns out a global policy against missionary farewells (perhaps the dumbest policy decision I’ve seen in a long time) was prompted by one GA sitting through one too many missionary farewells in Sandy, Utah, then you’ve got a pretty good article built on one case study alone.

  8. For the record, the letter on the new garment purchasing policy has not been read in my ward in Brisbane, Australia.

  9. zeezrom says:

    hours of travel and tens of families because of numerous poorly-prepared quickly baptised new members.

    Note that these are all policies that can and do change, I am not questioning any doctrine here. I accept that the Church is slow and cautious, and that that has advantages. Nothing is sillier than people trying to make the truths of the ages trendy. However, I do not feel obligated to defend that the fact that many current Church policies seem to be explainable by the fact that the 4 most senior church leaders are all men who have never lived outside of Utah except for missions (which can be a Utah bubble) nor do I feel obligated to deny my hope that some policies will be amended in the future by Church leaders who have a broader life experience for leading a worldwide Church.

  10. How can farewells or Sunday missionary “receptions” possibly be construed as inconsistent with even the most conservative Mormon version of Sunday rules?

    Sure, Mom talks about her departing missionary rather than “the Gospel.” Just like half the other speakers in church tell people stories about Uncle Fred or their favorite GA. Sure, people drink root beer, munch chips, and talk to fellow Mormons at the post-meeting reception at someone’s house. ???This infringes “the spirit of Sunday” how exactly??? Is there any Mormon parent that teaches their kids they can’t drink, eat, or talk on Sunday?

    I’ve never seen any “official” statement suggesting that anything about farewells was inconsistent with the Mormon idea of Sunday, only that they wanted to keep Sacrament Meeting from getting too filled up with farewells. Wouldn’t want to deprive attending congregants from all that marvelously inspiring discourse one hears in Sacrament Meeting.

  11. Frank McIntyre says:

    I grew up in Kansas and was not impressed with farewells as a tradition. They suffered from the problems Julie noted. There were similar issues in California, but the announcement came out shortly after we got there, so the problem was mitigated.

    Farewell open houses are, as far as I can tell, parties. They aren’t Sabbath material and yet they typically happen on Sunday. Although there are legions of exceptions of good farewells, as a Church we’re better off without them.

    Note that families can still gather together and missionaries still talk when they leave, it is the pageantry that has been reigned in.

  12. Julie in Austin says:

    I have lived in TX and CA, but I support the no-farewell policy. While I have never been in a ward with nine consecutive weeks of farewells, *each* farewell was often an inappropriate eulogy of the missionary.

    (With one exception: I clearly remember a mother talking about driving her son into the city to buy a suit. On the way home, he hemmed and hawed about having something to tell her. She worried that he was about to tell her that he was gay. Finally: “Mom, I think . . I don’t quit know how to say this . . . but . . . I may be a Democrat.”)

    The farewells often involved gatherings that were not conducive to the sabbath, in other words, Mom skipping Relief Society to dash home and chop up vegetables.

    What I am trying to say here is that I don’t think the primary function of this policy is to protect Utah wards from the all-farewell-all-the-time approach to sacrament meeting. The tradition itself had become a problem.

  13. Julie in Austin says:

    I think, with a little digging, you could just as easily point to policy changes that mostly affect those saints out of the Intermountain West. Two examples off the top of my head:

    (1) The worldwide p’hood training broadcasts (such as the one this Saturday). I read the transcript of the last one, and I seriously doubt they are for the benefit of the East Benchers, but rather those trying to run local units with little Church experience.

    (2) Sending 2 of the 12 ‘into the field.’ Again, not a policy for the benefit of the Utah Mormons but the third-worlders.

    (Older example might be the three-hour block schedule.)

    I suspect that if I lived abroad, I would be able to identify dozens of other policies that seemed desgined ‘just for us.’ I am not so much disputing your thesis that certain policies exist for the benefit of the saints living near HQ, but I also suspect that other policies exist for the benefit of saints scattered.

  14. I thought that Parley P. Pratt’s (plural) “divorced” wife was not divorced, but left her husband and married Parley. Call it a common-law divorce, I guess.

  15. I’m with Dave on this one. And again, you only have people hopping from one farewell party to the next every Sunday in the Salt Lake valley. I find it hard to believe that this mother in Wisconsin was somehow betraying a gospel principle by inviting family and friends to a gathering in her home to say goodbye to her son. No one else in the branch had done it for 25 years, and probably wouldn’t be for another 25.

  16. John H.: Quantifying whether this is a problem is difficult. For what it is worth, I think that if you look at most of the Church’s priorities they are geared toward the Church off of the Wasatch Front. To add to the examples of Julie, I would point toward the simple fact of how the Church spends its money. Things like minitemples and heavily subsidized local units are not designed for Utah.

    Furthermore, to a certain extent it seems that you concerns with the potential Utah centricness of certain policies is itself Utah centric. For example, the garment policy seems like laregely a non-issue outside of Utah either way. There is no Beehive clothing in Little Rock, and when I lived in DC and Boston the only place that you could buy garmets was inside the temple itself. Asking for a temple recommend when I stop by on my next temple trip is not going to be a big issue.

    Finally, I wonder to what extent you hearing Utah centered rhetoric more often is simply a product of you being in Utah. There are many statements made by Church leaders, etc. that get “play” in Utah that we in the hinterlands, simply never hear about. Hence, we are not aware of how insensitive the Brethren are being towards us. Instead the GAs show up and tell us that we ought to be driving to Memphis to go to the temple more often.

  17. Frank McIntyre says:

    John,

    Of your examples, which ones impose a burden on international or non-Western Saints yet provide no benefit? The Church’s well-known angst about missionary farewells stretches back to before my 1994 (non-Utah) farewell. I think hinterlands might benefit from abiding this counsel even if Utahns benefit even more.

    Garments are non-starter.

    Temple recommend interviews every two years— to the extent local leaders did not need the change, the change does not really affect them. They gave few before, they give few now.

    Distributing talks seems like an obvious extension of a standard Church approach to extemporaneous speech. The policy should apply just the same in Japan as here.

    Comments about the media are often as lost on me (in Utah) as anybody in Japan.

    I second Julie’s comment about other policies being non-Utah centric. I would also note that, for every baseball story in general conference, there are several stories about humble people in distant lands doing cool things or having amazing experiences.

  18. Kristine says:

    John, another idea to complicate your musings: one of the women I worked with at the Smith Institute last summer did a really great paper on the demise of the RS magazine and subsequent (and partly consequent) rise of the international magazines. That was an example of things working in exactly the opposite way of what you’re thinking about–the needs of the international church led to the end of the RS magazine, which was felt as a great loss mostly by Wasatch front women. The examples you mention are more interesting if they’re carefully located in the larger story of the back and forth pulling and tugging as the church tries to stretch itself into something truly international.

  19. Julie in Austin says:

    Kristine–

    I’m going to quibble a little with that. One of my prized possessions is a 1954-55 bound copy of the RS Magazine. The women who Loved, loved, loved, couldn’t live without it were the Utah expats, sent to the ends of the US because of husband’s job, school, etc. The were thrilled to be able to keep up with RS in their spread out branches.

    This doesn’t change your larger point, but I was so awed by the gushing letters to the editor–with addresses in New Jersey, Florida, etc., that I just wanted to mention this.

  20. Perhaps with the “new” missionary policy…farewell’s will be done again by “enterprising” led-by-the-spirit missionaries who seem them as opportunities to teach the gospel to non-member family members & friends?

  21. Sorry, I meant recent G.A. – within the past 50 years.

  22. The following is off-topic: I love farewells. It’s not that I don’t think that they could be reformed, but I really, really, love them. Perhaps this may be due to the fact that I haven’t seen one in years, and the only ones that I have seen have been family members. I hope to see them return in some form.

  23. christa says:

    While I’m unfamiliar and definitely not prepared to comment on most of the topics zeezrom brought up, I do want to defend early morning seminary.

    Early morning seminary transformed my life. Throughout highschool, it’s been an invaluable part of my day. When I didn’t go, there was an entirely different atmosphere about me. Being able to feel the Spirit each morning helped me be kinder, more tolerant, and more willing to help others. I love sleep just as much [if not far more] than any other highschooler, but even tho I may beg Mom to sleep in every now and then, I’m more than willing to give up an extra hour to go to seminary.

    Granted, my church building is about 7 minutes from my house. But the few families in my area’s wards who live more than 30+ minutes away from the nearest seminary class [whether that be the chapel or a teacher's home] do have home study seminary available to them and meet before Wednesday night Mutual to discuss that week’s lessons.

    I’m sure there are extreme situations like those you refer to. But after missing 6 weeks of seminary [for the school's early morning driver's ed classes] my freshman year, and seeing how much I’d changed for the worse without having the influence of seminary, both my parents [who loved to comment on my more sarcastic countenance] and I am convinced that missing 90 minutes of sleep each morning is a small trade off for getting to really study the scriptures each morning. I know this sounds like a seminary video, but as I approach my senior year I can see how much influence for good seminary has on high school students and how much that is needed, especially in places outside the wasatch front where highschoolers have to field questions both hard and ludicrous ["Do Mormons get their own planet when they die?" "Are all Mormons really blonde?"].

    Once again, you’re probably referring to situations much more extreme than mine, but I still wouldn’t trade Seminary for sleep any day.

  24. Would the restrictions against polygamy in nations where the practice is lawful constitute a Utah- (or U.S.-) centric policy?

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