This is the second installment looking at selected articles from True to the Faith (TTTF), a doctrinal booklet published by the Church last year (here’s the first post). The article on Body Piercing is three short paragraphs. “Latter-day prophets strongly discourage the piercing of the body except for medical purposes,” begins the first paragraph, and “[t]hose who choose to disregard this counsel show a lack of respect for themselves and for God.” Seems clear enough, except that “[i]f girls or women desire to have their ears pierced, they are encouraged to wear only one pair of modest earrings.” So four earrings are bad, two earrings are good. Body piercing is wrong, except when it’s not. I don’t dispute the practical necessity of “grandmothering in” the practice of women wearing a pair of earrings. It just seems to undercut the notion that body piercing per se is wrong.
God’s temple. The final paragraph of the article cites Paul’s advice to the Corinthians (“Know ye not that ye are the temple of God,” 1 Cor. 3:16) to support the idea that body piercing and Tattooing (which gets its own similar TTTF entry) are wrong. Unfortunately, Paul was talking about the church as a whole, not individuals. This is clear, I’m told, by the grammar of the underlying Greek, but it is also evident from 1 Cor. 3 as a whole: Paul, Apollos, and others labored to preach and convert, and their converts, the Corinthians, are “God’s building,” the foundation of which is Jesus Christ. The Spirit of God dwells with the church. so those who “defile the temple” are those who harm the congregation and offend the Spirit of God; the balance of Paul’s letter to the Cornithians gives some idea of how various transgressing individuals were doing exactly that. So using 1 Cor. 3:16 in this context seems like a misreading of the passage, albeit a creative and useful one.
Other sources. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism article Tattoos and Body Piercing provides the following succinct statement: “The Church teaches that tattoos and body piercing are a desecration of the human body and should be avoided. However, those with such defilation are still eligible for baptism into the Church and a temple recommend.” In theory, at least. The article also provides a handy selection of original statements by LDS leaders, starting with Pres. Hinckley’s original remarks on the topic. He is quoted as stating the official position as follows: “[T]he Church discourages tattoos. It also discourages the piercing of the body for other than medical purposes, although it takes no position on the minimal piercing of the ears by women for one pair of earrings.”
Impact? I doubt many LDS youth went in for piercing and tattoos before the recent campaign against these practices; perhaps a few who otherwise might have gone in for one or both have decided not to. If we count that as a benefit, we should also consider the cost: Hundreds or thousands of young LDS members who had existing piercing or tattoos now feel proscribed. In addition, there are potential converts to the Church who may now face a permanent stigma of sorts should they decide to join the LDS Church. Then there are the many Polynesians (both LDS and non-LDS) who have received traditional body tattoos, a mark of distinction in their traditional culture, a practice entirely unrelated to the concerns driving the current LDS response.
Conclusion. I wonder how the new policy is playing out at the local level. What is a bishop supposed to do with statements that we discourage, really discourage, tattoos and piercing, but supposedly won’t deny baptism or temple admission on that basis? Ignore the three earrings he sees on someone’s left ear? Say that is a bad thing to do and you should feel bad, but sign the temple recommend anyway? Deny a recommend not for the earrings, but for being rebellious or out of harmony with Church leaders? I would imagine that all three tactics get employed.
A final word: I personally do not recommend body piercing (due to medical risks, if nothing else) or tattooing (many who get them young later regret it). Few would argue with discouraging the practice, I think. The question here is whether it really amounts to a moral transgression, the kind of thing that is bad in itself as opposed to something that isn’t really bad in itself but is only bad because it really bothers some people. Maybe it’s not a sin, but it’s still something no good Mormon should do, like accepting public assistance or racking up credit card debt or breaking the speed limit.