The “Culture” Cop-Out

Your fellow Church-members are really ticking you off.  Sister So-and-So is making the same tired comments in Sunday School that you’ve heard a thousand times before.  Brother Whats-his-Name is advocating the same silly understanding of Doctrine X, Policy Y or Scriptural Interpretation Z that more enlightened Mormons (like you) discarded years ago.  Your co-religionists, as a group, are pre-occupied with some silly notions that they’d quickly jettison, if only they understood the Gospel better.

But what should you do?  You could take them all to task of course, but that would make you look uppity, judgmental, self-righteous.  It also wouldn’t win you many friends at Church.  And to think that so many of your brothers and sisters are confused only serves to raise troubling questions:  What does it mean that so many fellow Mormons don’t understand the Gospel?  Is there something wrong with the Gospel?  Is there something wrong with the way it’s being taught?  Or is it something else?

Then it hits you.  Why, there’s a simple explanation for all the false notions circulating in the Church!  The answer is that Mormonism has a “culture” that exists independent of the “doctrine.”  And to the extent that you see manifestations of belief, arguments or actions that don’t fit with your (correct) perception of Mormon teachings, you can rest assured that you are just seeing Mormon “culture” at work.  Ah, that silly “culture”!  It’s safe to disparage it, of course, because it isn’t the “real deal.”  It’s not like you’re actually criticizing something important like “the Church,” or “the Gospel.”

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.  Perhaps many of the things that are bothering us aren’t “doctrinal,” per se (whatever that means), but perhaps they flow logically from our “doctrines.”  If something is ingrained in Mormon “culture,” what are the chances that it stems from historical LDS teachings that have currency precisely because they have had (past or present) authoritative support?  The chances are pretty good, in my estimation.

I’ve never been fond of invoking the “doctrine/culture” distinction, because at bottom, I don’t think its analytically helpful in sorting out the nature of Mormon beliefs and practices.  Thoughts?


  1. Aaron,

    Your suggestion is that differentiating between doctrine and culture is a purely subjective activity. But it doesn’t have to be. There is in fact a difference between church doctrine and culture, and it can be outlined with research.

  2. Aaron, while agreeing that we sometimes push LDS practices we don’t like into a “culture” compartment, I believe there is some basis for a culture/doctrine distinction, especially for a global church. When leaders are faced with writing a set of LDS policies and procedures for LDS congregations is mainland China or India, the distinction between which LDS practices are doctrinal and which practices are simply cultural becomes critical. No doubt the challenge of coordinating overseas congregations has already been a source of reflection along this line.

    I think there’s a parallel in the Jerusalem Conference recounted in Acts, where early apostles and other leaders grappled with the question of which beliefs and practices were essential to developing Christianity and which were simply carryovers from Jewish culture. The rather bold decision was that many practices that had appeared to be Christian were in fact simply discardable Jewish cultural practices.

  3. Aaron, my impression from reading your post is you are not saying there is not any cultural aspect to Mormonism, but you are saying we too often push things into this category of “mormon culture” that shouldnt be there as a convenient means of dealing with things we find irritating. If its “mormon culture” and not “mormon doctrine” then we can more easily disagree without being anathema. No?

  4. Thanks a lot, Aaron.

    I need to be able to keep that distinction to preserve my sanity. Don’t start undermining it!

    Now I’ll have to come up with a more thoughtful, robust explanation for believing things that are different than almost every member I meet at Church.

  5. Your comments make me think. I have dealt w/ members that drive me crazy – but they used to. I came to realize everyone is different, all on different paths, with different understandings. It now gives me comfort to see all the differences among members; we not all the same as we sometimes fear, but are more diverse than we sometimes are able to appreciate. I know see those moments w/ “crazy” members as ways to practice pure religion.

    In terms of culture vs. doctrine, I no longer see a dictonomy. As an undergraduate in Anthrop. I come to see most everything in terms of culture – but that is because I am defining the word “culture” far differently than what your post suggests. (I don’t want to go into details, ’cause I’m late for work, and it would take to long at this moment.) But that’s just another different opinion.

  6. I’ve struggled with this issue so much. Some of our doctrine is so loosey-goosey, that I think we try to make up for a lack of clarity by forcing everyone into a lock step cookie-cutter understanding of the gospel. And this tendency spills over into expectations about appearances and personalities as well. Sure, there is room for everyone in the church, but unless your family looks and acts like the Brady Bunch, you’re going to be held up as a less than ideal example of how things should be, and treated like cousin Oliver.

  7. danithew says:

    Culture has its basis in shared historical traditions and experiences … and as the Church grows, its membership naturally comes to encompass a broader set of historical traditions and experiences. The distinction becomes vivid to me when I hear a speaker make generalizations about “our pioneer heritage” — a nod to ancestral heritage that is no longer shared by a majority of LDS members.

    Utah’s unique brand of political conservatism is a culturally distinct characteristic. The need to distinguish between Utah LDS political culture and the LDS religion is needed because some assume that political conservatism is more than merely acceptable to the gospel — that it is representative of the gospel.

  8. You guys, forgive me if I’ve missed the point entirely, I don’t understand a lot of these terms. But I live in southern Utah, and I believe that there is a culture entirely unrelated to the commandments or the doctrines of the gospel. I’ve argued with friends that there is a social hierarchy based upon religion that has little to do with precepts.

    People are revered based upon their callings and we love it (not openly) when the mighty are fallen, when they get excommunicated for cheating on their spouses or the like. The gospel is lost on a lot of us, including me, as we compare based upon our conformity.

    A psychology professor once said in class here, “there is power in conforming to the norms and mores of the society in which we live.”
    He was absolutely right.

    I resent that. I’ve also found that the more I allow myself to be who I am, at the same time trying to be the best Christian I can, others are more relaxed around me and we are better friends. And I feel closer to God.

  9. Nate Oman says:

    Aaron: As you guessed, I basically agree with you completely. It seems to me that the only way of making the culture/doctrine distinction meaningful is to either come up with some theory that allows you to identify church doctrine independent of your personal predilictions, or alternatively, giving up completely on the authority of the Church, and viewing Mormonism as simply another spiritual buffet from which one can create one’s preferred entree. Obviously, I think that the first solution is infinitely better than the second one, but it is intellectually much more difficult.

  10. But Nate, I seem to remember having a conversation with you about how very little of our doctrine is actually concrete, and how that is a strength of the church. (If I’m putting words in your mouth, then I’m feeling a strange, heady sensation of power, but really should apologize.)

    I think that an alternative to viewing the gospel as a buffet is to recognize and hold fast to clearly explicated scriptural doctrine, and study, but not get too attached to, other more ancillary topics. I think there is something to be said of holding on to saving principles and using your head and the guidance of the spirit on other things.

  11. Aaron Brown says:

    Quick point: I’m not saying that members of the Church should stop trying to draw distinctions between what matters and what doesn’t, or between what is integral to the Gospel, versus what is peripheral. I think there are some instances where the use of “culture” as a descriptive term can make sense. I’m just saying that I don’t think most invocations of “culture” and “doctrine” in LDS discourse really do the job they’re invoked to do. I think we deal all too often in euphemisms for “teachings I like” and “teachings I don’t,” rather than doing the hard work of trying to sort out what’s authoritative and what isn’t (based on whatever criteria you want to use), and rather than confronting the potentially uncomfortable truth that much of what we don’t like in Mormon “culture” is a logical outgrowth from historical teachings that have been pretty authoritative.

    I pretty much agree with everything Nate Oman has ever had to say on this (and related) topics, but I suspect he already knew that.

    Aaron B

  12. Aaron, I agree with you and Nate — but then how do you want to approach the “teachings I like/don’t like” perspective? Culture was a pretty good form of shorthand, IMHO, for that type of thing.

  13. Aaron,

    I also largely agree with your point. If we really examine the issue, we learn it’s a bit too complicated to separate doctrine and culture and be done with it. There’s examples of when the culture has radically influenced and even changed the doctrine (Word of Wisdom) and also when the reverse is true (Mormon tendency to be politically conservative).

    It doesn’t work to breathe a sigh of relief, say the Gospel is true, and go on our merry way. We need to define what “the Gospel” is and determine where it comes from. If it comes from a cultural influence (such as current attitudes towards Jesus), does it not qualify as the Gospel?

  14. Sometimes I get really tired of hearing “The members are not perfect, but the church is.” The church IS it’s members and therefore the church isn’t perfect either. Just because Christ guides the church doesn’t mean that there aren’t thousands of men and women who are doing an awful lot of guiding themselves.

  15. Aaron Brown says:

    Steve — I submit that it could theoretically be a good short-hand (as many other distinctions also could be) if we actually used the term in a careful, systematic way. The problem is, we don’t (in my opinion). So I’m always left scratching my head when someone dismisses something as “culture.” “Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t” I always find myself saying. “What do you mean by “doctrine,” and what do you mean by “culture”?”…. etc.

    Nate had a good post on the question of how to approach the general issue of what is (or should be) “authoritative” in Mormonism. “On Authority,” I believe it was called (too lazy to link). Notably, the post gave no clear answers, but just framed the issues/questions.

    Aaron B

  16. Nate Oman says:

    Here is a link to the post from T&S:

    On Authority

  17. Nate Oman says:

    Karen: I am not sure what you mean by “concrete.” (Or rather, I am not sure what I meant by concrete.) It seems to me that we have a couple of issues going on at once. First, there is the brute question of authority, namely does the Church provide us with privileged access to the divine. Second, there is the question of how one identifies authoritative pronouncements (assuming that one subscribes to some theory of authority, which is by no means a foregone conclusion; many Mormon intellectuals have “solved” this problem by giving up all claims to authority). Third, there is the question of how we deal with change in authoritative prounouncments (assuming that we both believe in authority and believe that we can identify it.) Finally, there is the question of whether or not there are better or worse ways of finding answers on those issues where we don’t have authoritative answers.

  18. First, thanks for the post. I’ve been wrestling with this, generally alone, and this shows that the darkness might just be a bag over my own head, rather than the sun ceasing to rise. . .

    One thing from my own addled musings that is slightly divergent from your post; and I thought might ‘leaven’ the discussion a bit (else I remain silent in the presence of much smarter commenters) is that when I struggled to find the terms for the dichotomy, I came, rather quickly to the word clan, rather than culture.

    Ducking quickly to avoid the darts already in flight; my point is that there is a political dimension involved that is what causes that actual stress. It’s not the fact that Bro X. sees the nature of time differently than you, or the simple fact that the relief society president thinks you’re far too liberal to be trusted that is the problem. That’s cultural.

    It’s the fact that pointing out that current WoW practice is based on the thinnest of justifications, and yet one can be barred from the temple for deviating from it; or the fact that writing about a MIH that is clearly implicit in the canonized scripture can get you excommunicated that is the problem. That is the power dynamic of the clan.

    Don’t want to be too Leninist here, just wanted to throw a little spin into the discussion.

  19. I think there is a distinction between doctrine and culture, and I think it’s fine if people draw the line in different places, as long as the line doesn’t get drawn in ways that conflict with actual current teachings of our prophets, seers and revelators.

    Much of our culture may very well have doctrinal roots. That doesn’t make that cultural aspect a part of our doctrine, though. Doctrine in the LDS Church evolves with time. A cultural practice may simply be that doctrine’s last gasp before it departs entirely from Mormon life.

    An example is the popularity of Uno. Uno owes its popularity entirely to the reference to the evils of face cards made by Joseph Fielding Smith (I think it was him) before he became a prophet. Considering face cards evil was doctrine for a brief period of time, now it is cultural, and eventually it will die out entirely. It should be replaced by the doctrine that gambling is evil, which is much more correct than thinking that playing solitaire is the first step on the road to personal destruction.

  20. danithew says:

    XON, forgive my ignorance. What does MIH stand for? I’m still guessing.

  21. Randy B. says:

    Janey, I don’t think it’s that easy. How certain are you that the notion that “face cards are evil” was in fact church doctrine? What was it about JFS’s pronouncements that made his view doctrine for the entire church? How do you account for divergent view? Along these same lines, how certain are you that this doctrine has in fact changed? Who changed it? Is it enough that no GA has been explicit on this point in some time? Does church doctrine wither away if it does not get repeated enough? How long do we have to wait? I’m sure there are several other questions to be raised here, but I have to get back to writing my brief.

  22. Mother in Heaven

  23. Greg Call says:

    I agree fully with Aaron and Nate’s point on a philosophical level. But when an investigator says to me “Brother X told me I had to stop drinking Coke” or “Sister Y said that I was praying incorrectly,” I still reply with some version of the “culture/doctrine copout.” I don’t think it is necessarily a bad shorthand for: “in my view, that person’s belief is no longer (or never was) the authoritative position.”

  24. alamojag says:


    If I remember correctly, the “face cards are evil” came from a series of questions and answers published in the Improvement Era, written by Joesph Fielding Smith. They were published in book form as “Answers to Gospel Questions,” though, to my reading, they were more non-answers. Most of the answers started out with a variation of “if the people asking the question really understood the scriptures, they would have this question, but since it keeps coming up, I will answer it anyway.” “Face cards are evil” was a shorthand of one of those famous Answers.

    Although, for what it is worth, another one of those answers speculated that man would never land on the moon. The earth was created for man, and it was blasphemy akin to the Tower of Babel for us to want to travel in space.

  25. danithew says:

    I have been pondering this matter a little more and it is a difficult question to resolve. I like Greg Call’s comment because of his distinction between the philosophical and practical approaches to the question and the Coca-Cola example he provides.

    I don’t think that in the Coca-Cola example, the distinction is a cop-out. For one thing, it doesn’t really matter all that much if a member of the LDS Church drinks Coca-Cola. Some might desire to expend the effort to take the analytical high-road on that issue … but its hard to convince me that it matters all that much.

    Perhaps we need a specific example of a perspective or a decision of importance where the cultural vs. doctrinal distinction would be insufficient and would obviously be a cop-out. Also, we’ll need to know how (using that specific example) a person might take a better analytical approach instead.

  26. Randy B. says:


    I’ve read JFS’s denouncement of face cards. His book Answers to Gospel Questions is sitting on my living room shelves. My question to Janey goes more to what Nate calls the “Rule of Recognition.” That is, how can we be certain that JFS’s statements constitute church doctrine? Was it enough that he said it at all? That is, is everything he said official church doctrine. (I sure hope not.) Or was it necessary that he preface his statement with “Thus saith the Lord”? Does it matter that other GAs did not/do not share the same view? On the other hand, does it matter than no GA (at least that I am aware of) has repudiated in an equally public way JFS’s opinion of face cards. You are also right to note that we will have to come to grips with some rather odd views that have been expressed by JFS and others. Unfortunately, I think it is a lot easier to come up with questions here than to provide answers.

  27. Randy B. – it’s all much easier than you’re making it out to be. You just need to ask me, and as long as you don’t need any details or documentation or logic, you can rely on my answers.

    See, the idea that face cards were evil was doctrine because people thought it was doctrine. So it became entrenched in the culture as well. Then people realized that it wasn’t really as doctrinal as they first thought it was. Rooting it out of the culture has been much more difficult, but it’s fading (even though my sister-in-law will still not play face cards but sits in the other room when we deal a hand of gin rummy).

    But no, the evilness of face cards was never canonized by common consent of the members, so you are right that it may never have been doctrine.

  28. Randy B. says:

    The thing is, I don’t think it would be all that difficult to make a well-reasoned argument that Mormon doctrine does in fact ban face cards. Certainly several people hold this view (including your sister-in-law, some good friends in our old ward, and the people who ransaked my dad’s apartment at BYU so many years ago to confiscate his deck of cards).

    In the end, I think Nate and Aaron are right –relying on the culture/doctrine distinction does not help us much here. (That said, I think I’ll continue to use Greg’s approach in fielding questions.)

  29. danithew says:

    I thought it was in Bruce R. McConkie’s “Mormon Doctrine” that I read (many years ago) about the idea that “a priesthood holder should never even touch face cards.” At least that is how I remember the quote. I could be wrong. If it is there, some would consider that authoritative enough. Others would probably smirk.

  30. alamojag says:

    Randy B,

    It wasn’t so much that it was JSF that said face cards were evil that made people believe it was doctrine, it was the forum in which his views were published. The Improvement Era, as an official organ of the Church, was considered authoritative. Although the fact that it included advertising may have led to some misperceptions….

  31. Randy B. says:


    That’s exactly the point. Can we not trust church publications to tell us what church doctrine is?

    On the other hand, how much authority should we give church magazine copy editors in shaping church doctrine?

    Again, more questions than answers.

  32. Bob Caswell says:

    “Perhaps we need a specific example of a perspective or a decision of importance where the cultural vs. doctrinal distinction would be insufficient and would obviously be a cop-out.”

    Yeah, Aaron, I need an answer to danithew’s question before I stop using Greg’s approach with newbies in the Church (or anyone for that matter). Here’s a quick list of things that I have historically considered to be “Mormon culture”:

    Face Cards
    Two Earrings (in one ear)
    Rated R Movies

    So if “culture” is a cop out, then I’d like to be clued in on what they are. I, at least, don’t think they are doctrine. I’m sure there’s a possibility that they are something else (neither culture nor doctrine or perhaps we could go the spectrum route and say they’re each a mix weighted differently). But what else to call them? If “integral” and “peripheral” are much better, then I’ll start using those terms. But the trouble is, I don’t think some of them are even peripherally that important. “Teachings I like” and “teachings I don’t like” maybe is the case sometimes, though I don’t really like certain aspects of the Word of Wisdom and still consider it “doctrine.” Also, I really like certain casseroles though I’m fine with their lowly state of “culture.”

    Basically, sacrificing some sort of philosophical purity to use a practical distinction doesn’t break my heart.

  33. To me there is no question that there is a mormon culture that exists independent of mormon doctrine.

    Our missionaries return and confidently proclaim that they have gone to foreign lands and convinced the inhabitants of “the incorrectness of the traditions of their forefathers”. This implies that not only did they preach the gospel to people and introduce them to our doctrine, but they also noted deficiencies in the other’s culture that required tweaking and correction. These same missionaries come home and continue to celebrate Christmas, Halloween, St. Patricks day, Valentines day, etc., and studiously avoid black cats and walking under ladders, completely oblivious to the irony.

    There are cultural practices that have been ingrained in mormon society that have come to identify us as much as our belief in a distinct doctrine. Some of these practices have been derived from a doctrinal base, and others have not. The ones that have not come from many sources including local cultures and norms that are independent of mormon society, but have been adapted in and accepted as part of the “code”. Deviation from the “code” brings derision and scorn, in the same way that drinking a can of Bud in Elders quorum would.

  34. Yeebrah says:

    I’d like to add a few ‘mormon cultural items’ to Randy B’s list:

    – taking the sacrament with the right hand
    – priesthood bearers only wearing white dress shirts
    – being clean shaven to serve as a temple worker

    Even if the leadership handbooks council towards these actions – are they to be considered truly doctrinal, or merely guidelines to facilitate a desired image or ‘culture’? If they are indeed doctrine, and to be considered direction from the LORD, why not include them as new sections in the D&C?

  35. Yeebrah says:

    oops…I was adding to Bob Caswell’s list, not Randy B’s – Sorry!! :0)

  36. 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.

    I don’t understand what the h you’re talking about Aaron. Isn’t a “belief, activity or dogma” culture?

    I’m with Bob (and Yeebrah). These listed items would be laughed at in other countries/cultures (white shirts for the priesthood in the highlands of Guatemala where they wear bright tipika patterns, no R-rated movies in countries that don’t have the same or even have a rating system, etc.) and if that’s the case, how can we still call them some derivative of doctrine rather than culture? That’s like saying we shouldn’t call a Christmas tree “cultural” because it derives from doctrine.

  37. Nate Oman says:

    Rusty and Bob: I think that you are missing Aaron’s point. The claim is not that there is not distinction between culture and doctrine, or that there are not some things that are core and others that are peripheral. Nor, I take it, is he even arguing that one shouldn’t use this distinction as a rough-and-ready way of dealing with particular concerns.

    Rather, I take it that the point is that when used in this way “culture” is a label that is doing no actual intellectual work. It does not provide us with a methodology for deterimining what is doctrine and what is culture, but simply acts as a place holder for whatever implicit methodology it is that we are employing. It is fine to use the label as a rough shorthand for our conclusions and intuitions, but at some point we are going to have to get beyond the labels and actually think about what it is that we are saying. At this point, “culture” ceases to be a concept that has a huge amount of usefulness.

  38. danithew says:

    I was going to make a comment about the concept of culture being “useful” but not “meaningful.” But I think it might now appear to be a criticism of Nate’s comment, which I hadn’t read when I thought it up.

  39. Nate Oman says:

    danithew: I would think that criticizing one of my comments ought to be a reason for posting something, rather than a reason for not posting…

  40. Bob Caswell says:

    Nate (and maybe Aaron?)-

    Ah, so I think I’m to understand this as sort of a reiteration of Millet’s “What is our doctrine?” shpeal. But your “no actual intelectual work” is really only a very small part of the problem as I see it. Even if “the work” were to be done, can it mean much? I mean, Bruce R. McConkie already tried (and I know you’ve made your peace with him; I enjoyed that post) but it’s really not that authoritative for many reasons (being a sole author speaking for all of Mormonism might be one of the problems among the many).

    But before defining our doctrine, we have to define WHO can define it, but then WHO defines WHO? You can’t win. So as long as there is practically no chance of this sort of thing happening, I don’t see the alternative as a cop out.

  41. Aaron Brown says:

    Nate is basically right, except I also think the “doctrine” v. “culture” distinction, as employed by many Church members, doesn’t even work well in practice as a “rough-and-ready way of dealing with particular concerns.” Imagine the following scenarios, in which I am approached by new convert “Bob,” who asks me the following questions:

    (1) “Aaron, why is it that so many Mormons consume inordinately large quantities of ice cream and jello with shaved carrots in it? Do all new Mormons need adjust their diets to conform to this practice?”
    (2) “Aaron, why do so many Mormons refuse to drink caffeinated soft drinks, and why do they tell me I shouldn’t drink them either?”
    (3) “Aaron, why did the Gospel Doctrine teacher on Sunday say that evolution is “of the Devil”? Do all good Mormons have to believe that?
    (4) “Aaron, why do my fellow ward members always say that the Prophet is not limited by men’s reasoning in science, philosophy or any other field, and to the extent there is a conflict, I can rest assured the Prophet is always right?”
    (5) “Aaron, why aren’t Mormon men allowed to wear earrings, and why aren’t Mormon women allowed to have more than one piercing per ear?”
    (6) “Aaron, why couldn’t Blacks have the priesthood until 1978?”

    I get the feeling, from many of the commenters here, that the “right” answer to each of Bob’s questions would be as follows:

    (1) “Oh Bob, that’s not Mormon doctrine. It’s just Mormon culture.”
    (2) “Oh Bob, that’s not Mormon doctrine. It’s just Mormon culture.”
    (3) “Oh Bob, that’s not Mormon doctrine. It’s just Mormon culture.”
    (4) “Oh Bob, that’s not Mormon doctrine. It’s just Mormon culture.”
    (5) “Oh Bob, that’s not Mormon doctrine. It’s just Mormon culture.”
    (6) “Oh Bob, that wasn’t Mormon doctrine. It was just Mormon culture.”

    But surely these are bad answers to all the questions, except possibly for #1. To simply explain away the subjects of Bob’s other questions as being mere manifestations of “culture” seems grossly inadequate. At a minimum, I think one should at least acknowledge that:

    (2) This belief has some (albeit limited) authoritative support, and also seems intuitively correct to many Mormons who figure (rightly or wrongly) that certain provisions of the Word of Wisdom imply a “100% abstinence from caffeine” rule.
    (3) This belief has had considerable authoritative support (McConkie, J. F. Smith, et al.), and is accordingly widespread among Church members (particularly of a certain generation), although the Church has refused to formally endorse it, and there is definitely some counter-authority.
    (4) This belief comes right out of a fair reading of Ezra Taft Benson’s famous “14 Fundamentals” talk, even though its rhetoric is uncommonly extreme, and this reading is demonstratively false historically.
    (5) This practice stems from a very specific, recent injunction from President Hinkley.
    (6) This practice, whether you want to say it was “doctrinal” or not, and whether or not its origins stemmed in part from the “culture” of a certain era, was certainly believed to be and referred to as “doctrinal” for much of LDS History.

    I realize not everyone can be an expert on every aspect of Church belief and policy (I’m certainly not), and context often requires simple answers. And of course, if one defines the word “culture” expansively as “any belief or practice that has currency in Mormonism and that falls short of being “doctrine,” then I guess to label everything “culture” is technically correct. But this strikes me as a lazy, sloppy, and useless way to talk about the world of Mormon beliefs and practices. I suspect it may also have the negative practical effect of setting up Bob to learn about the source or precedent behind these “cultural” manifestations later on, and to conclude that the well-meaning member to whom he first posed his questions was incorrect.

    Aaron B

  42. Aaron Brown says:


    You seem to think that as long as there is ultimate uncertainly as to what constitutes “doctrine,” we’re left with no choice but to constantly invoke the “culture” category. That doesn’t follow. I’m not arguing that no distinctions should be drawn between various levels of authoritativeness. I’m arguing (among other things) that we need to have a little more sophisticated categorization scheme that deals with varying levels of authoritativeness and that doesn’t throw everything into the dustbin of “culture.” The category is simply too broad and meaningless to have any explanatory value.

    Aaron B

  43. danithew says:

    I think Aaron B. is illustrating what I meant to talk about in saying that the “doctrinal vs. cultural” is useful but not meaningful. By saying that something is “cultural” we are in effect saying that a particular perspective or decision is optional or subjective, that “the final word” hasn’t been given. Nate uses the word authority to describe this problem.

    Obviously questions such as caffeinated drinks, evolution, earrings, why blacks couldn’t get the priesthood until 1979, etc. all fall under an area where LDS people can (to a certain extent) judge for themselves and draw their own conclusions. Some LDS members have very strong opinions regarding these issues, but differences of opinion are currently acceptable within the Church.

    It is then useful for many at that point to sum the problem up by saying: “This is a cultural rather than a doctrinal issue.” But it is not meaningful. Clearly, as Aaron B. is pointing out, there could be a much fuller (if not doctrinally decisive) discussion of a particular issue.

    The main thing I notice with many of these “cultural” issues is that they don’t seem to weigh greatly on our salvation and it is possible to debate them all day long with someone who has different opinions. It may be “lazy and sloppy” not to go the distance on issues such as evolution or the question of why blacks didn’t get the priesthood until 1979 … or it may be a matter of efficiency and interest. I might not care all that much about the issue of evolution. Perhaps I’m content to believe that God was greatly involved in the creation, however it came about. Perhaps other doctrines or questions interest me more at this time and I’m willing to put the issue of evolution on the back burner.

    At the same time, Aaron could be entirely right about laziness or sloppiness. If we were willing to get on our knees and pray about any questions we have, maybe we could get personal answers quickly and then move on. For some reason the following verses came to mind:

    3 Nephi 15:16-18
    16 This much did the Father command me, that I should tell unto them:
    17 That other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
    18 And now, because of stiffneckedness and unbelief they understood not my word; therefore I was commanded to say no more of the Father concerning this thing unto them.

    Clearly there are times when the Lord has provided bits and pieces of information and has held back more revelation from his disciples because they were not inquisitive enough or assumed they already understood what was being said to them. Maybe in a sense that is what Aaron is pointing at. He certainly is suggesting that the “culture cop-out” is a place of cessation of inquiry.

  44. Bob Caswell says:

    “…a little more sophisticated categorization…that doesn’t throw everything into the dustbin of “culture.””


    How do we make sure that this added sophistication doesn’t just create more dustbins? In other words, to a certain extent, I’m skeptical that some sort of system of classification is going to make the situation any better.

    I have a feeling that some type of official categorization (or whatever it would end up being) might just make it more complicated as we continue to have these discussions. We’d find items that don’t fit anywhere and thus would resort to perpetual category creation, which ultimately would land us right back where we started: use a quick and dirty approach (such as doctrine vs. culture, but perhaps there’s a better simple approach) or treat each item on a case by case basis independently of other items.

    Or are you arguing that the quick and dirty approach ultimately needs to be done away with (I don’t think you are, but again, I don’t think sophistication is going to make it go away either)?

  45. Aaron Brown says:


    I DO think that multiple dustbins is preferable to one dustbin. You may have a point in that any categorization scheme we come up with is going to fall short of describing reality because (among other reasons) we’ll always be able to find Mormon teachings or practices that don’t fit our conceptual straightjackets. But I think a more nuanced, complex system would definitely be “better” than the simple on-off, black-white, yes-no “doctrine-culture” dichotomy than everyone likes to employ. I don’t think asking for a little more nuance should be too intellectually challenging, provided Church members were to engage in some basic, preliminary discussions of categories. (Maybe my real beef is with our wholesale failure to do this as members en masse).

    But even if I grant the simplicity and ease of reducing Mormon teachings into merely two categories, I would still prefer something like “authoritative vs. non-authoritative.” Or, assuming we were to collectively adopt an agreed-upon rule of recognition (a huge, implausible assumption) as to what “really matters” vs. what “really doesn’t,” I would prefer “canonized vs. non-canonized” or something similar, rather than silly invocations of “culture.” To my ear, the word “culture” suggests an indigenous, grass-roots norm or practice whose origin may be unknown, is probably merely sociologically interesting if it is knowable, and that has little relationship to actual Mormon truth claims. But so many of the things people call “culture” are so much more than this (even granting I agree that they aren’t ultimately authoritative).

    In short, even if everyone sticks to a simple, two-pronged categorization scheme as they describe Mormon beliefs, I would prefer they use a word other than “culture” to describe one side of the scheme. I think the term has too much baggage, and is potentially confusing as a category.

    Aaron B

  46. Bob Caswell says:


    I think I’m with you now, although I’m still interested in what would constitute Mormon culture even if the doctrine/culture dichotomy were to disappear. You are right, though, that the term has too much baggage. Negative connotations especially began to seep out when the word (culture) is combined with “Mormon.”

    One more question… Your idea of a “a more nuanced, complex system” is intriguing, though I wonder to what extend it’s value compares to the value of just promoting the “case by case” analysis more (especially considering that your idea has potentially high upfront costs whereas the other idea really doesn’t). Is one better than the other? I don’t know.

  47. Aaron,
    Thanks for comment 45. This makes much better sense now.

  48. Okay, this is late in the game, but I just have to clarify one thing. In one of the earliest comments, Dave discusses:

    “some basis for a culture/doctrine distinction, especially for a global church. When leaders are faced with writing a set of LDS policies and procedures for LDS congregations is mainland China or India, the distinction between which LDS practices are doctrinal and which practices are simply cultural becomes critical. No doubt the challenge of coordinating overseas congregations has already been a source of reflection along this line.”

    As somebody who has spent a considerable portion of his adult life in overseas wards and branches, I can tell you that nobody in the Church organization seems to be losing sleep over this. There is little or no consideration for local cultural variations in anything from correlated class content to meeting schedules or dating customs.

    Essentially, the message is this: there *is* one “true” LDS culture. Smacks of doctrinal implications to me. Richard G. Scott’s 1998 talk on “removing barriers to happiness” seems to support this view.

  49. Seth Rogers says:

    The problem is that while you can argue the “no more than one piercing in each ear” thing is “cultural” not “doctrinal” …

    We also believe in some troublesome doctrines about continuing revelation and obedience to current priesthood leaders (including living prophets, of course).

    So I hate to break it to you but … the earring rule currently IS doctrinal and probably will remain so for a decade or two until some later prophet decides it isn’t a big deal anymore.

    So … while I feel entirely fine with ignoring Joseph Fielding Smith’s take on the innate evil of face cards, I am not similarly OK with ignoring recent instructions from Gordon B. Hinckley given over the pulpit.

    In the LDS faith, cultural oddities can and do acheive doctrinal status. But that isn’t a good reason for ignoring living prophets.

    These distinctions are confusing even for those of us who grew up in the church.

    Imagine how confusing our “doctrine” is for Evangelicals.

    I’d like to throw in another example that nobody has mentioned:
    A current reading of church doctrine doesn’t support the idea that you can “work your way into heaven.” Yet most members I knew still seemed to believe it anyway.

    This seems a little more problematic to me than trivial stuff like bans on coffee.

  50. Bob Caswell says:

    Seth Rogers,

    You’ll have to give me a bit more on the “work your way into heaven” thing “most” members seem to believe. I’m not sure what that is but am intrigued if it is truly a “most” members’ thing.

    Also, could you clarify on your statute of limitations? What about Benson’s rated-R shpeal spoken to the youth in a priesthood session? That was two prophets ago, so is it more like “recent” instruction or like Joseph Fielding Smith instruction?

    In any event, I disagree about the earrings. You can join the Church, attend the temple, and function in every way possible within this context and have as many earrings as you’d like. I know, I know, “…but the Prophet said…” At least for me, prophetic counsel does not necessarily automatically constitute doctrine. That’s why I’m glad we have the two words for distinction effect: “counsel” and “doctrine.”

  51. Seth Rogers says:

    As far as the “work your way into heaven” thing …

    My experience is largely limited to Utah Mormons and BYU religion classes, although I have also seen the assumptions manifested in the couple non-Utah wards I’ve lived in.

    Even Stephen R. Robinson’s “parable of the bicycle” shows an interpretation of the grace vs. works contradiction that I’m not sure I agree with doctrinally. I tend to agree with Craig Blomberg’s criticism of that parable in the book “How Wide the Divide.”

    As far as the “statute of limitations” on statements from General Authorities …

    Honestly, I have no idea. I think the topic could translate into a good scholarly book in its own right. But this evolution of the doctrine via the mandate of “living prophets” is crucial to understanding what the Mormon church really is.

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