The Mormon “We” Problem

It’s that time of the week again… I get to pick a post I’ve written in the hopes that some of you will read it. The pick this week was an idea I had that didn’t stimulate the type of discussion I was hoping for the first time around. So either it’s a dud or I didn’t have the golden crowd I do now. Here goes the second try:

As Logan and I dove deep into our conversation on appropriate music, I began formulating my own theory and have decided to name it the Mormon "We" Problem. I like to think of it is a paradox, but it may not quite be that. I’d appreciate anyone’s feedback as I try and articulate something that is more of a thought and less of a researched, proven fact.

It all started when I asked a simple question of "What music should we boycott?" To which Logan responded, "You seem to operate on the assumption that some music should be boycotted."

My next thought was, "My main point is that although I don’t have a very good set of criteria for boycotting music somehow I still do boycott music based on musicians actions (like Marilyn Manson) and I wonder if I should do it more." To which Logan replied, "By equating everything you reject with a "rule" — or "standard", or whatever you want to call it — you are saying that if you don’t like it, nobody can."

We go on (like we usually do) not only here but via email. But these few quotes should be enough to set the scene for the Mormon "We" Problem:

I really do agree with Logan in that members of our Church continually need to be slapped around into making their own decisions rather than relying so heavily on "the brethren". But can you blame them (us)? "We" believe heavily in modern revelation. "We" abstain from such specific substances as alcohol, coffee, and tobacco. "We" also wear funny underwear. "We", as members of the Church, to a certain degree, live our lives so specifically tied to certain standards, that it’s not crazy to think that "we" search for standards in many other aspects of our living.

The brethren, of course, only spell out what they feel is needed to be spelled out and leave the rest in our hands. But when I say, "spell out", I mean things like the WofW. Obviously, never has a GA said over the pulpit, "Here is a list of music groups [or movies] to avoid in order to be a better person." That would be preposterous. But yet "we" still find a way to discuss these specifics in our own spheres because "we" do want to be better people.

But now comes the tricky part. When "we" discuss appropriate media, it is extremely easy for one of "us" to find "the answer" and assume that it applies to everyone just like abstinence from alcohol and wearing garments does. Logan has called me on this a few times even though I never specifically said something like, "I have come to believe X to be true for me, so it must follow that it is true for you". Where X is avoiding a certain type of music. But wait! That’s exactly the formula we use in the discussions when teaching the Mormon-curious. It’s no wonder we implicitly think that way with other aspects of our living!

But Logan still has every right to pick on me because he’s so sick and tired of living in an environment where personal decisions become extrapolated in order to provide a Church-wide pseudo-policy. Thus, Logan tries to nip these thoughts in the bud, before they can develop and annoy him further (which is helpful to me, as well).

But the question of the day is, how do we reconcile the specifics of things like the WofW or the garments we wear with the day-to-day individualistic personal decision-making? The paradox is that especially for a church that collectively believes in modern revelation, it’s just too easy to assume "we" believe a whole ton of other stuff together as well. How can we better catch ourselves before we start making lists of ways Mormons "should" live (even though a mini-list has already been started a.k.a. the WofW)? How do we deal with the Mormon "We" Problem?


  1. The “we” problem has two sides to it. The first you already stated, and that I might re-phrase by saying that as a comunity we can not be totalized or reduced to a singular monolithic group of alike thinking individuals. The other side of the “we” problem is how comunities claim authority. Some types of Christians speak about having a “bible beliving” world view or of having “biblical values.” In context it is clear that the “we” or these cases the “us” is articulated in order to exclude a “them” and to claim sole authority to interpert the bible. Certainly Mormons participate in both aspects of the “we” problem.

    In the way you describe it I have a hard time seeing exactly where the paradox lies. Doesn’t the concept of individual agency take over where doctrine leaves off, meaning that there really is no paradox? (I probably don’t understand your point.)

    Of course, some Mormons have no problems making the lists you are talking about, just look at the writting on the Miridian web site, formulaic, perscriptive, reductive, totalizing, superficial, and far more political than spiritual. I for one don’t worry about their perscriptives or their assumption of the “we” except for the fact that they make the rest of us look bad. But since folks outside of the church don’t read that drivel they aren’t hurting anyone.

  2. Tom Manney says:

    Right or wrong, I think I tend to revel in the notion that there exists a gray area on the continuum between the forbidden and the encouraged. It’s the one area where I feel that I am free to exercise the god-given gift of discernment instead of having to be told what to do. It’s the pleasure of exploring uncharted lands.

    And I’ve found that, sometimes, discernment isn’t recongizing what’s wrong when the world says it’s right — sometimes it’s recognizing what’s right when the world or overzealous “we” types in the Church declare something to be wrong. Of course that kind of thinking can be a dangerous thing if taken too far. But that’s the thrill of it. I guess there is an odd part of me that likes cheap spiritual thrills. :D

  3. Bob Caswell says:

    Thank you for some good responses!

    Fluxus, my point hinges on this, “I have come to believe X to be true for me, so it must follow that it is true for you.” This is the missionary method and is at the core of the Mormon way of spreading the Gospel. I think it’s a fine enough method for the basic principles of the Gospel. The problem lies in that it turns into a horrible method once used in uncharted waters. The paradox is that since no direction (that I’m aware of) has been given as to how to spread the word about your endorsed political candidate (let’s say, as an example), Mormons assume they can use the missionary pattern for every aspect of their living. I think they can for some aspects of their living, but am frustrated with their reliance on it outside of the basics (even though I understand it; in a way, we’ve set ourselves up. If this is a good thing when used with sharing basic principles, why then would anyone think it’s bad in any other context?)

    Tom, when you say, “It’s the one area where I feel that I am free to exercise the god-given gift of discernment instead of having to be told what to do.” I’m with you! But am I the only one who has to consciously suppress my desire to share my discernment with others (because of my upbringing in this Church)?

  4. When I enter into grand statements of “we”, whether it refers to boycotting anything in the media, social actions etc. I am usually refering to society as a whole, not just the community of LDS. I believe it is important to note that difference because I do not often base my “we” statements on gospel revelation, although revelation from the bretheren may influence my feelings on some issues.

    I often fall into the trap of thinking that if I feel something a certain way others must too. While I strongly believe that some of those positions come from a very rational place, there are some I can honestly say don’t, but I still believe “we” should act in some way.

    As for your mentioning of media and music, I believe the closest thing to a list of songs and artists is from the For Strenght of Youth. It counsels us to be wary of media and how it makes us feel. It doesn’t spell out a hard and fast rule but challenges us to think for ourselves and determine how different media, music and entertainment make us feel. Our decision to avoid such should be based on those feelings and we should only seek after positive and uplifting sources.

    For me the Overture of 1812 is very uplifting. There are elements of it that some might find agressive or violent even rock-ish. But I find it uplifting, overcoming challenges, rising to expectations and patriotic even. I feel those are good while others may see it as bad. They should avoid it while I should not. That is how I think “we” should try to approach most of our descisions.

  5. I think this might be one of life’s fundamental paradoxes. We want to feel included and accepted in a group, to be like the people we’re like. We also want to distinguish ourselves from others and achieve recognition and validation as an individual.

    I doubt there’s an easy answer. In fact I think learning to balance the two is one of the things life is about.

  6. I remember this post! It inspired a blog posting out of me, too!


  7. Tom Manney says:

    It has been asserted from Tabernacle/Conference Center pulpits that other churches are not bad, that they lead people toward salvation even if they can’t actually provide it. Considering that, throughout history, God’s chosen people have always been an extreme minority of the world population, it stands to reason that many of these poeple who were born in, say, China or Catholic nations needed the kind faith offered there. Or maybe it doesn’t stand to reason, but that’s always been my hunch. My point is that, although everyone needs the Gospel eventually, I’m not sure everyone needs it now. And if they don’t need it now, then even the Gospel isn’t universally applicable.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that people are so diverse that I’m not sure any commandment is universally true in all times and all places. It was even okay for Nephi to kill a defenseless drunk. Of course, it’s pretty much impossible to imagine an occasion where, say, adultery would ever be appropriate, so I guess the paradox is still out there. But maybe it’s less of an issue than we think it is.

    I’m pretty committed to the notion that, because people are so different, almost anything that might be right for one person might not be right for another. And suddenly the theme song to “Diff’rent Strokes” is playing in my head…

  8. Tom Manney says:

    In fact, just to stir the pot a bit, that’s pretty much my attitude about homosexuality. I really can’t escape the conclusion that attraction is mostly hard-wired. And if so, then even though I’m not attracted to other men, I’m not comfortable denying others the right to marry people of their own gender. There might not be a place for such things in the Celestial Kingdom, but we’re not there yet, are we?

  9. Bob Caswell says:

    Tom, thanks for your thoughts on this thread and others; it’s comments like yours that I’ve hoped a blog like this would instigate.

  10. As far as the Church goes, in principle, it should be pretty clear what “we” means in any particular situation: the scope of commandments received by revelation is determined by stewardships.

    It’s that “in principle” thing that gets us. Actually, the whole rules/principles thing is what gets us. I recall my mission. At the beginning of my mission, the mission rules were relatively simple. By the end, there was a couple of pages of specific dos and don’ts — no shirtless sunbathing on P-Day, no singing karaoke, the kinds of rules that were specific enough that you knew someone had done whatever it was that was being prohibited.

    The problem on a mission, of course, is that although there are generally accepted principles for how missionaries behave, individual interpretations of how those principles should be lived establish precedents as to how those principles should be put into practice, and in cases where those principles are interpreted to allow behavior that most, if not all, thoughtful missionaries would deem inappropriate, to let such behavior go unremarked sets a dangerous precedent.

    Of course, we’re not missionaries living mission rules, but the same general dynamic is at play.

  11. Tom Manney says:

    Well thank you, Bob, that’s really nice. I’m very grateful for BCC. I’m the only the active liberal Mormon in my town of six wards that I know (I know of at least one other, an indomitable old Berkeley grad who doesn’t take crap from anyone, but she’s about 40 years older than me, in another ward, and I don’t know her personally), so it’s nice to have a place to say what I really think and feel and to learn from others whose intellects and insights greatly surpass my own.

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