I want to discuss a phenomenon in church culture that I’m going to term the “conservative trump card.” By this term, I’m referring to our tendency to acquiesce to the views of the most religiously “conservative” person in the room. Since conservative is hard to define, I’ll give some examples I have come across in the last few weeks:
- If one person is uncomfortable doing visiting teaching one month over lunch instead of at the home, it must be done at home.
- If one person is uncomfortable having ward parties on the weekend of a fast Sunday, they can’t happen that weekend.
- If one person is uncomfortable talking about feminist issues at church, they can’t be discussed.
- If one person is uncomfortable with caffeinated soda, it can’t be served.
- If one person disapproves of the Simpsons in class, no one else can feel comfortable admitting they’ve seen every episode.
I want to be clear on one thing: I respect and affirm the right of each person to have a view on these topics. But what makes me uncomfortable is the unspoken expectation that the most conservative view dictates everyone’s conduct in church settings.
It perplexes me why any of us think that others should conform to our personal opinions and preferences when they lack a clear doctrinal basis or LDS consensus. Indeed, I think that this expectation often creates a negative environment. Because people feel that they can’t step on the toes of the most conservative person, other people’s ideas become marginalized in discussions and activity choices. This tendency becomes damaging when it leads to clichés developing among members or culture reflecting the most conservative part of the ward. It leads to frustration and feelings of exclusion. Although these cultural practices strike me as insignificant in the larger gospel scheme, they seem to have a disproportionate weight in turning people away from church.
Church settings might be unique in that perhaps we find our fellow member’s behavior threatening if it does not comply with cultural practices that we see as part of our church practice. But, it is not clear to me that all of these practices are worth preserving or that members behaving differently should really threaten someone else’s belief.
So why not more flexibility in church settings? Why not more acceptance of a range of practices and ideas? Why do conservative views seem to carry the day? Would it really damage youth to know that activity standards vary across Mormon households? I remember being shocked to learn that other YW watched R rated movies with their parents’ permission when I couldn’t. But, really, why was I so surprised?* Would we be better off if we didn’t insist on preserving an image (perhaps illusion?) of a united front on cultural practices that are not essential to the gospel?
* One legitimate argument I see for letting the conservative view carry the day is in the context of youth activities: We shouldn’t put kids in the position of choosing between parents and church activities. But I think this is a limited instance, unique to children and sponsored activities. Nevertheless, even children need to learn to use their own agency to remove themselves from things they do not want to participate in without expecting others to conform to their standards.