Cafeteria Mormons

The first time I heard a Catholic friend refer to a fellow parishioner as a cafeteria Catholic, I had to have the term explained to me. It was used as a mild pejorative, and in a way that was meant to convey disapproval for someone who was perceived to be picking and choosing which doctrines and practices of the church to accept, in the way one would go through a cafeteria line selecting some dishes and rejecting others.

I have now also heard people talk about cafeteria Mormons, and I’ve wondered if it is legitimate for us to borrow the term. I have concluded that it is not. In the first place, it lacks the catchy alliteration the Catholics get. But there is a larger, more important reason, and it is one of the great secrets of the church. Lean in closer, and I’ll whisper in your ear.

Psst! We are ALL cafeteria Mormons.

It’s true. We believe in a religion that believes in doing, and there is so much to do that we simply cannot do it all. Today is Saturday morning, so let’s say I decide to do some missionary work with my neighbor on the golf course. Or maybe we’ll go fishing so he can help me with our food storage. Either way, I have chosen not to support my quorum in the moving project, and I have also neglected the scouts on their camp-out. If you decide to serve in the temple on Thursday night, you need to know that some of the Young Women (or their parents) will notice that you chose not to attend their talent show. Doing research in the Family History Library? Tut tut. Surely you must have known that the cub scout pinewood derby was taking place just across the hall and they could have used your support.

It is my belief that God offers us many good things through His church, and He expects us to be wise enough to choose what we need. Only a very foolish diner would load his tray with one of everything from the buffet line, and someone who insists on doing everything in the church all at once will find that the church is happy to provide a chauffered limo ride straight to the front door of the mental hospital. There is a reason the scriptures admonish us to do things in wisdom and in order, and to be careful about running too fast.

If we think of the church as a cafeteria where all are welcome to join in the meal, we can immediately put down the heavy burden of judging others. You might choose the lasagna, I might choose the salad bar, and our neighbor might bring lunch in a brown bag. Those are all good choices, and we should be able to sit at the same table and enjoy our meals and each other’s company. The apostle Paul’s admonition about the milk and the meat can also be read as an endorsement of the cafeteria model. You might be hungry for a double helping of rare prime rib, while I am only able to tolerate a small glass of skim milk. We can still sit next to each other and sustain one another, and we will have plenty of things to talk about besides what is on our respective trays. And I think we need to be especially careful with the more difficult doctrines. It seems to be simply part of the human experience that, sooner or later, we all need to take a big bite of the mystery meat. I might choose the standard, cafeteria-issued breaded surprise. You might bring a liverwurst and onion sandwich from home. It would behoove us both to charitably refrain from speculating about the origin of our dining partner’s main dish.

At general conference in October, 1953, J. Reuben Clark, a member of the First Presidency, said this:

“I believe that our Heavenly Father wants to save every one of His children. I do not think He intends to shut any of us off because of some slight transgression, some slight failure to observe some rule or regulation. There are the great elementals we must observe, but He is not going to be captious about the lesser things.” [1]

Still not convinced? Then you need to consider these words from apostle and my fellow cafeteria Mormon, Bruce R. McConkie:

You don’t have to live a life that’s truer than true. You don’t have to have an excessive zeal that becomes fanatical and unbalancing. What you do have to do is stay in the mainstream of the church – keeping the commandments, paying your tithing, serving…and loving the Lord…” [2]

So, I hope you join me in the cafeteria. Sometimes the chow ain’t bad.


[1]Conference report, 3 Oct 1953, p. 83

[2]The Probationary Test of Mortality. Devotional address given at the University of Utah institute of religion, 10 Jan 1982.


  1. Mark, I love this post.

    The analogy I always think of is mission rules. I recall more or less constant spirited discussion of various missionaries’ failues to keep various rules, large and small. There were the rule-breakers of sloth (those who camped at members’ houses and read and listended to unapproved material) and those of zeal (those who never got in on time at night, those who rushed people into baptism). Then there were a few rule fanatics who were so inflexibly rule-abiding they were impossible to work with.

    In short, I think most missionaries regularly break some rule or other, and those few who really don’t are probably breaking some higher law of humility and compassion.

    In the same way, we’re all cafeteria Mormons, both in terms of practice (as you outline above), and in terms of doctrine. No one is 100% orthodox, in part because it’s a logical impossibility; some of our doctrines have changed dramatically over time, and of course the GAs disagree with each other. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t follow them all in every particular of their beliefs. All of us have a doctrine or two we question, struggle with, or simply reject. And I’m persuaded that every real Mormons harbors in his or her breast some simply outlandish theory or other, whether a variation of the Adam-God theory or a scientifically implausible account of how dinosaur bones can be reconciled with a literal reading of Genesis or an elaborate and cherished chart of the precise priesthood keys that will be exercised during the Millennium.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Great post, Mark. It reminds me of a comic that ran in Sunstone once. Each panel showed the same man in a chair sitting in various meetings. In one a leader said “Missionary work is the heart of the Church!” and in another “Temple work is the heart of the Church!” and in another “Home teaching is the heart of the Church!” There were like six panels like that. So at the end someone asked the man what he thought of the Church, and with his head drooping and clearly overwhelmed, he replied “It’s all heart.”

    The post also reminded me of a very nice and pragmatic talk given by Dallin Oaks once. It was about how there are times and seasons for us and our service in the Church. We might be focusing on missionary work now, and later we might focus on genealogy. No one can possibly do everything all the time, and that’s perfectly fine.

  3. Eve, I’m glad you like it. And your comments about missionaries hit me a little too close to home, since I would alternate between slacker and zealot mode without ever stopping on the happy medium. If I slept in, or if we stayed too long at a member’s house, I would try to make up for it by canceling p-day, or something equally dumb. That’s one reason I’m looking forward to serving missions later in life. This time around, I finally feel like I know what I am doing.

    Thanks, Kevin. I has been my observation that wards and branches can actually benefit from people who have their pet programs. I’m glad there are people in my ward who love the youth, others who love the temple, etc.

  4. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    I don’t know; I don’t think it means what you think it means. All the things you list choosing from are activities, not doctrines. “Cafeteria Mormon” would refer to the kind of people who say “I believe the Prophet speaks for God” but then also turn around and say “there’s nothing wrong with premarital sex; the Prophet only says that because he’s an old guy.”

    What you describe Mormons doing is not choosing or accepting some doctrines over others in their lives but rather making day-to-day choices about how they will go about their pursuit of their faith. (Missionary work with friends vs. elder’s quorum stuff etc.)

  5. Our relationship to living prophets is not one in which their sayings are a smorgasbord from which we may take only that which pleases us. We are to partake of all that is placed before us, including the spinach, and to leave a clean plate! [Neal A. Maxwell, Things As They Really Are (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1978), p. 74; emphasis in original]

  6. I’ve heard the cafeteria approach to religion also explained as a buffet.

    picking and choosing which doctrines and practices of the church to accept

    I agree that for practices we have to pick and choose because there is more to be done than can be done. Therefore what we do is like being in a cafeteria, by necessity, because we can’t eat everything at once. However, as far as the doctrines that one espouses, the believer doesn’t necessarily have to pick and choose. We can be like Ned Flanders and believe everything–even those things that are contradictory.
    As I’ve grown older, I think I’ve moved from believing everything (even the lies my seminary teacher told me) to being more selective in accepting which doctrines and principles I subscribe to.

  7. Here’s the cartoon:

    The heart of the church

  8. What an awesome post, Mark! I love the analogy, and the forgiveness of our foibles is allows.

  9. PDOE, you are right, I emphasized practices more than doctrine, and I did that for two reasons. First, our doctrines are difficult to describe exactly. For instance, most of us would agree that it is a fundamental doctrine of Mormonism that a body is necessary for exaltation. Pretty straightforward, right? But what are we to think of the disembodied third member of the Godhead? It is safe to conclude that we have an incomplete understanding about the doctrine concerning our bodies, and it is therefore improper for any of us who isn’t named Gordon B. Hinckley to demand that someone else get with the program. Second, in Mormonism, I think more than in other religions, we emphasize practice more than a confession of belief. Nobody cares if I believe in the doctrines underlying the law of chastity, as long as my behavior is chaste.

    BRoz, so, what do you suggest we do? It would be uncharitable to point out that my GA outranks your GA, but that is where we are. I don’t want this to turn into a showdown where we meet on BCC’s Main street at high noon with Ensigns drawn, and a game of dueling GAs is beneath us. My overall point is this: We believe that the restoration is ongoing. And it is ongoing at different rates with different people. Let’s simply acknowledge that. When elder McConkie spoke of the mainstream of the church, I believe he wasn’t thinking about a gutterful of ankle deep water, but rather something like the Amazon or the Mississippi.

  10. Being raised a Lutheran, I can really understand this cafeteria concept. It always bugged me that there were so many doctrine people just ignored in a lot of Protestant religions. Picking and choosing what they wanted to believe and ignoring the rest. It’s one of the things that really attracted me to the church. Everything made sense.

  11. MArk-
    There are are thousands of seeming contradictions in scriputure. The truth is found in rectifying both sides with one another. Obviously, we are not expected to be perfect. But, we should be striving to be so. And we should be careful when we excuse ourselves from following the counsels of the prophets. It should only be an exception when we’re the exception. The mote that is hardest to ignore is when someone seems like they aren’t trying. The more we can align ourselves with the teaching of the prophets, the happier we will be.

    Maybe the following quote from Pres. Monson finds the right balance: “We must be true to our ideals, for ideals are like the stars: you can’t touch them with your hands, but by following them you reach your destination.” [Pres. Monson, Pathways to Perfection]

  12. Yes, I think we should bring in more scripture and the words of modern prophets in our discussions. And, we should looks to rectify the seeming contradictions because the truth is most often found in the balance.

    Im sure you have noticed that we seem to be bombarded by religious, political, and economic extremism all around us. The pendulum of public opinion seems to swing from one extreme to another. In reality both sides are right and wrong at the same time and therefore can go on debating their issues forever. However, they’ll never arrive at the truth, because it usually lies in the middle somewhere (2 Tim. 3: 7).

  13. Nice post. My main reservation is that cafeteria food is so often inedible. Perhaps we could recast it as a feast, where the implication is that the food has been prepared by people rather than machines and served fresh rather than encased in shrink wrap?

    Wasn’t that BRM quote from his heresiology on the Pace controversy?

    How true though that we all have different emphases and skills and needs for nourishment. Thanks for the reminder. I’d talk about Paul and the body of Christ, but then the mixed metaphors would end up with cannibalism.

  14. The Mormon Cafeteria, with funeral potatoes and green jell-o available at every meal. Pass the Postum, please.

    Yes, Mormonism is inherently cafeteria-style on one hand. We believe free agency was an important enough principle to lose a third part of those who could have come to this world, and so are fundamentally pro-choice as far as choices go (stripping away the political connotations of the phrase).

    On the other hand, we believe we are led by God through his appointed servants, and that we need to hear his voice through them and follow his word, subjecting our will to his and obeying his commandments. We believe that God’s house is a house of order.

    Put these together, and we have parameters (the commandments as taught by God’s chosen spokesmen) within which we are to make our own choices based on what God wants us to do, rather than what might appeal to us. It can be a little confusing (and the details certainly are) but we need to keep both parts of this in mind at the same time.

  15. What a terrific post. As a former teacher and coach, let me share the following:

    A defensive lineman (football for you heathens who hate sports) was asked what it felt like to try to tackle Barry Sanders, one of the most elusive running backs ever. His answer was, “When you miss him the first time, stay where you are. He’ll be back your way soon.”

    I believe it my job to hearken to the counsel of the Prophet to the best of my understanding. I also believe that everyone else has that same responsibility – even when the best of their understanding differs from mine. Frankly, if one of us “misses the mark”, it probably will be back our way at some point to try to tackle again a little differently – or even in the same way but more effectively.

    We are a cafeteria church for that reason: each and every one of us is responsible for our own individual understanding of the collective will expressed by our prophets and other leaders. Not only does that mean that our practices differ from person to person and life-stage to life-stage, but it also means that our doctrinal understandings and spiritual insights differ, as well.

    I have ancestors who embraced polygamy and then embraced its revocation. I have other ancestors who remained active and faithful in the church without ever accepting polygamy fully and never practicing it. That cafeteria approach produced individuals throughout an extended family who are as diverse in their practices and specific beliefs as can be – but nearly all of us are united in the core Gospel principles and the religious affiliation we espouse. We are a united smorgasbord, and we are richer for it.

  16. Mark,

    Interesting passages you quoted. I’ve never before thought of Elder McConkie and Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese in the same light, but your post made me wonder whether the similarities are not simply coincidental.

    PDoE wrote:

    What you describe Mormons doing is not choosing or accepting some doctrines over others in their lives but rather making day-to-day choices about how they will go about their pursuit of their faith.

    Probably a defect in my thinking, but I don’t see the two situations you juxtapose as dissimilar. For me, day-to-day choices about how I will go about pursuing my faith necessarily entail decisions to accept or not to accept one Church doctrine over another.

  17. For me, day-to-day choices about how I will go about pursuing my faith necessarily entail decisions to accept or not to accept one Church doctrine over another.

    if you go to the temple rather than do missionary work, it’s not that you don’t believe in missionary work anymore. you aren’t rejecting the doctrine, you are just making a choice that moment in how to spend your time. i see a big difference.

  18. While there are portions of Mormonism where we are liberty to pick and choose items of doctrine and practice to or not to implement, there are other portions where there is a fixed and clearly defined criteria of belief and behavior. I think sometimes we get in trouble when we fail to see the difference between the two. I would say Mormons, at a minimum, must believe in God, Jesus Christ, in the scriptural status of the Book of Mormon, and that families can be together for ever. Otherwise, they aren’t in the right cafeteria.

  19. 1. There seems to be a huge difference between saying, ‘I do not believe in food storage’ and ‘I believe in food storage, but I can’t quite get to it right now.’

    2. This all sounds very rosy, but even the most tolerant among us have placed some of the cafeteria items as essential. If I were to say, for instance, ‘I choose to go to church and pay my tithing, but I do not choose to restrain my temper with my wife or be friendly to black people,’ I doubt any of us would say, ‘Hey that’s cool — we’re all in the cafeteria, baby.’

    3. Most people set the requirements for basic true believers at their own behavior. On my mission, some APs and ZLs decided to get up at 6 am; this was quickly announced as a requirement for all missionaries. I might drink cola drinks, and I might think that anyone who makes a big deal of it is a zealot.

  20. Repeat after me, “I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves.” Repeat after me, “I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves.”

    I agree that a certain degree of commitment is required for baptism and a certain degree of uniformity is required for temple attendance, but even those questions and determinations are left largely up to the individual to decide as to meaning and ultimate worthiness. (Remember, the interviews are not intended as trials or outside judgments; otherwise, the Bishop would conduct all of them in a MUCH different setting and format.)

  21. Naismith says:

    We believe in a religion that believes in doing, and there is so much to do that we simply cannot do it all

    This is absolutely true. However, that reality does not force us into being cafeteria Mormons.

    Others have already mentioned the difference between choosing beliefs and choosing actions, but I think it is also important to consider HOW we make the choice of spending our time.

    To me, a cafeteria Mormon is one who chooses what they will do, pretty much as you have described. But I don’t see you mentioning prayer. Maybe it is obvious, but maybe not.

    An alternative to being a cafeteria Mormon is to be an instrument in the Lord’s hands. We can start each day with prayer and seek what the focus should be that day. We can’t do everything, but we can likely do the few things on the short list.

    And checking in each evening can help us know that our time was well spent and the Lord is pleased with our efforts, that even if we got distracted, helping a friend instead of mopping the kitchen, it was what He would do if in our position.

    When I forget who I am and try making those decisions on my own, it isn’t near as effective, and I do get frustrated.

    In my experience of being a Catholic almost as long as a Mormon, Catholics don’t teach the importance of personal revelation. It’s a gift and tool that we have.

  22. “Cafeteria Mormon” would refer to the kind of people who say “I believe the Prophet speaks for God” but then also turn around and say “there’s nothing wrong with premarital sex; the Prophet only says that because he’s an old guy.”

    In the most extreme sense, PDoE is right, and that’s how I always understood this phrase. It is pejorative when used to describe those who refuse to accept basic core doctrines while accepting others and calling themselves active members. In that sense, it is probably not true to say that we are ALL Cafeteria Mormons, though probably many of us are, depending on where you draw your line. Is that a good thing?

    Examples: A friend who remained single long after all of his associates were married rationalized engaging in premarital sex because, “all my friends are having sex and I will be able to as soon as I’m married, so I ought to be able to do it now.” He kept the word of wisdom however, because, “everyone has to do that, no matter what stage of life they are in.”

    Another friend believes in the gospel and attends church faithfuly but rejects the law of tithing and has an occasional brewski.

    I don’t have a year’s supply of food, and I’m not doing anything about it.

    Many of us (including me) attend “R rated movies. Despite accepting the counsel and directives of the prophet in other respects.

    Which of these examples are “Cafeteria Mormons?”

  23. “I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves.”

    of course. but that won’t absolve us from responsibility at the judgment day if we are picking and choosing in a way that is inconsistent with being a follower of Christ.

  24. Correct, anonon. My point, however, is that, ultimately, we are responsible for our own choices. It is up to us to try to live our lives in the best way we possibly can – not necessarily in the best way someone else can.

    I almost added, “Repeat after me: Judge not, that ye be not judged.” I believe strongly that I will be judged by the intent of my heart and my honest effort – NOT by whether or not I am able to live a certain command as well as someone else or accept a certain doctrine as easily or readily as someone else. I’m not Calvin’s puppet in God’s hands; I’m striving to be an instrument that plays Handel while squeaking like my friends in school learning to play the bagpipes. I might never make truly beautiful music to human ears, but my effort will bring forth beautiful fruit before I die.

    One of the difficulties I have seen in my callings at various levels is the tendency we humans have, especially those of us who are trying to improve and become perfect, to insist that 1) my perspective is the best perspective, or 2) my choices are the best choices, or 3) my actions are the best actions ad infinitum. Of course, I believe that there are certain foods that all “fully believing” Mormons share, but I think that our differences FAR outweigh our similarities in many ways. How else could we produce Orrin Hatch, Mitt Romney and Harry Reid – or the truly unique conglomeration of personalities and opinions that always has constituted the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles?

    Contrary to popular media opinion, I think one of the most amazing aspects of Mormonism is what an incredibly wide range of strong personalities and opinions it produces / attracts. Perhaps the “correct principles” that unite us are limited, but the result of our self-governance is an amazing tapestry.

  25. Let me make it clear now, because obviously I didn’t in the original post, that I think each of us is under obligation to follow the light of Christ that has been given to us with Nephi-like determination. This post is an attempt to point out that individuals perceive that light in variety of ways. God speaks to us according to the limits of our understanding. When we label each other as cafeteria Mormons, we are in serious risk of being like Job’s friends who thought they knew what they were talking about, but were mistaken.

  26. Wise words Mark IV,
    Motes and beams, indeed people, motes and beams.

  27. Mark,
    Thanks for mentioning Job’s friends. Now there’s an object lesson most of us completely miss.

  28. Thanks, Mark, you said it better and much more concisely than I did.

  29. Ugly Mahana says:

    Perhaps another way to phrase the idea is that we are all cafeteria sinners. None of us always chooses correctly, and we don’t choose incorrectly in the same way. Some of us prefer to ignore prophetic counsel regarding beverage choice. Others regarding number of earings. Others regarding chastity. None of us, on a personal level, should judge anyone else for his or her choice of sin.

    However, the safety of the analogy breaks down when we begin to encourage others to join us in our favorite sin. It is one thing to ignore the sabbath breaking, covetousness, or failure to pay tithing of another. It is quite another to teach openly that the prophet’s counsel regarding priesthood ordination, plural marriage, or the veracity of Christ’s resurrection is untrue. We are probably commanded to do the first, but doing the second severs the ties that define us as church and bind us together as a people.

  30. Peter LLC says:

    It is pejorative when used to describe those who refuse to accept basic core doctrines while accepting others and calling themselves active members.

    There does seem to be a reluctance to let others define themselves as they see fit.

  31. Peter LLC says:

    And what about baptized members who don’t consider themselves Mormons? That strikes me as the more significant membership problem than self-professed active members whom we are reluctant to grant full active status due to their several failings.

  32. The cafeteria does NOT serve meat, and if you attempt to bring in any you will be shut down. Have you every tried to bring up a “meat” subject in SS, RS, HP, or EQ? Stick to the book brother – we can only teach (and discuss) ‘approved’ subjects – none of which contain meat.

    Oh you can attempt the temple meat, but you’d better not discuss it outside those walls.

    My kingdom for a plateful of real food!

  33. ed: it seems to me that we have pretty much all the food here. There are good reasons for limiting sunday lessons to the lesson manuals. There’s meat there. It’s just the meat that’s on the menu, not the venison you brought from your hunting trip in Saskatchewan.

  34. Of course, I believe that there are certain foods that all “fully believing” Mormons share,

    That’s what I mean: What are those foods? Is there a list that we must have on our tray in order to be “faithful members” rather than “cafeteria Mormons?” Or are we all just hangin’ out in lunch lady land?

  35. When we label each other as cafeteria Mormons, we are in serious risk of being like Job’s friends who thought they knew what they were talking about, but were mistaken.

    OK, now I’m confused. Didn’t you label us ALL as cafeteria Mormons?

  36. we have pretty much all the food here

    I mean “here” as in here on the internet. You have all the food you could ever want, including some that will choke you. No need to serve it all up every Sunday in church.

  37. motes and beams, yup. and don’t forget that wonderful thing called the atonement. we bring our heart to the altar and that’s enough for the Lord.

  38. Maybe you haven’t noticed the other section of the Mormon Cafeteria — the one at the end of that straight and narrow path. That is the Celestial Cafeteria, where there are only two items on the menu and nothing else: bread and water, the literal flesh and blood of Christ.

    Yes, the Lord provides for lower sections of the cafeteria, terestrial and telestial sections for those who are not content feasting upon the bread of life or partaking of the water which makes them never again thirst; or for those people who feel they have to butter the bread, or season it with pepper or tabasco or other such polutants. And maybe I will come to visit yours and sample the food if I will, but you will not be able to come to mine, and mine has the best desert: fruit plucked fresh from the tree of life. You will have to be content with the pastries of man, mingled with scripture.

    You may think the limited Celestial menu is boring and you may laugh and scoff at me and my bretheren for my choice — but I would advise you to search and ponder the blueprints of the great and spacious cafetria you describe. If you look close you will see there is no foundation — there is no keystone — no Celestial soup for you!

  39. Don’t get cocky Stephen, you aint there yet.

  40. Stirling says:

    Psst! We are ALL cafeteria Mormons.

    In more ways than one. Have you ordered steak recently?

    And more significantly, from the practice of proxy temple ordinances (which became prominent fairly late in the game) to whether or not the Saints are encouraged to exercise gifts such as healing and speaking in tongues, we have quite a bit of institutional cafeteria behavior (with a healthy dollop of syncretism).

  41. I am not being cocky, only confident, as is every humble servant of the Lord who lives each day with no regrets.

    And I looked up “syncretism.” It’s the mingling part of the philosophies of men mingled with scripture. Thankfully, our Church doesn’t do that.

  42. Let me try this one more time, from a slightly different angle. I apologize if the first part seems elemental and condescending. I use it only as the set-up for the final point I have been trying to make. Also, I understand the place of both the atonement and excommunication, but I am choosing not to go into those here for the sake of brevity – at which I’m not good anyway.

    We are taught to strive for perfection, and that term is defined in the New Testament context as being “complete” or “whole”. In a culinary analogy of feasting, it might be termed being “full”. We also are taught that such a quest is impossible – that we simply cannot reach that destination. Again, using a culinary analogy, we can eat and eat and eat and eat, but we never will get full.

    My point: Ultimately, the only one who can tell what foods we are capable of digesting properly is the Lord – the one who paid to become our judge. Even we often are not truly aware of our own limitations and biases and blinders and other obstacles, much less those that others carry within them. Therefore, we can’t judge with 100% clarity whether or not someone else is living the Gospel to the best of his or her ability.

    Given that situation, why do I care what anyone else in the cafeteria is eating? First, if I believe they are eating poison, I probably will warn them of my concern. Second, if I think they are going to get sick from over-indulgence or starvation, I probably will warn them of that possibility. Third, if I think what they are eating tastes terrible, I MIGHT warn them. Everything I do is intended to help them experience the delicious taste that I feel. Once, however, I step over to them, take away their food or put my own on their plate, and insist that they eat exactly what I’m eating or get out of the cafeteria – at that moment I have crossed the fine line and done to them what I would never dream of allowing someone to do to me.

    Summary: If someone continues to attend church whose plate looks radically different than mine, and if that person does not heed my warnings if I feel prompted to give them, and if that person is not trying to force others to eat exactly what s/he is eating, then I shut up and enjoy their company – and usually end up acquiring an appreciation for a food or flavoring I had not known previously.

  43. Many LDS members who live outside UTah say they dislike living in Utah because of this very issue. They say it is very hard to ignore, what they consider to be, the great number of cafeteria Mormon’s.

    Now these well-meaning saints do not necessarily expect perfection. The mote they’d love to pluck is the seeming apathetic attitude when it comes to picking and choosing what principles they will and won’t live. I think a “I would live it if I could” attitude is what they hope evey Mormon should strive for.

    The whole bread and water analogy would go over great over a Baptist pulpit.

    Alma 5 teaches the appropriate attitude we should have with regard to this issue: “And now I ask of you, my brethren, how will any of you feel, if ye shall stand before the bar of God, having your garments stained with blood and all manner of filthiness? Behold, what will these things testify against you?”

    The Book of Mormon seems to teach that we really end up judging ourselves and all the excusses we give for not living up (striving) to what we know to be right aren’t gonna work to sooth our conscience when we are standing in front of Christ during the final judgement. The Book of Mormon instead says we will have a “bright recollection of all our guilt”

  44. You will have to be content with the pastries of man, mingled with scripture.

    “Pastries mingled with scripture” just might merit an entry in that immortal cookbook “No Man Knows My Patries: The Secret Not Sacred Recipes of Sister Enid Christensen.”

    Recipes for the cafeteria Mormon in all of us. (If you weren’t one before, you will become one upon perusal.)

  45. Hel 5:10 “And remember also the words which Amulek spake unto Zeezrom, ain the city of Ammonihah; for he said unto him that the Lord surely should come to redeem his people, but that he should not come to redeem them in their sins, but to redeem them from their sins.”

  46. I agree that we are all cafeteria (or buffet) Mormons in behavior and belief. And I think that is fine, particularly if we follow Naismith’s suggestion of doing our best in striving to obtain and follow God’s guidance as to what things we ought to do (and I would add, which teachings we should strive to understand, accept or “put on a shelf”).

  47. Eve, that is hilarious!

  48. David, please try to keep up. we’re in a cafeteria. There’s no “shelf.” It’s either on your tray or behind the counter. Sheesh.

  49. Mark!!!! It was fun to meet you at the FMH Bloggersnacker. (Now that’s a Real Man for you.) You are awesome. The buffet was almost as wonderful as the company.

  50. Similar to the cafeteria model, I also like to think of the Church as a toolbox — we can use what ever we find in it that will help our neighbors have more joy in their lives without pushing them to start using all the tools today. This line-upon-line perspective has made member-missionary work an enjoyable matter of helping my neighbors with tools they may not have, instead of trying to manipulate them into conversion conversations. After a while, they open the door to know about the source of these extra helps. No hurry, no worry.

  51. Mark,
    I agree that every Mormon is a cafeteria Mormon. Of course, I think the Liahona/Iron Rod division is complete garbage, so that might explain that (and, yes, I mean doctrinally as well as in practice).

  52. How does the temple play into all of this? Years ago when the temple was more exclusive and ecclesiastical punishments more severe, it would have been insulting to call someone a Cafeteria Mormon. Taking ones religion seriously used to be a good thing.

  53. Just to avoid misunderstanding, I take my religion very seriously. This is not the proper place, so I won’t list the callings I’ve held over the years, but I believe firmly in the restored Gospel and the structural inspiration of the Church as an organization. What bothers me has nothing to do with the Church, per se, but rather with the attitude that can arise among its members – striving to balance an ideal that must be preached with the competing realities lived by its members and investigators.

    In 1986, Elder Ballard said the following: “As members of the Church we are sometimes inclined to place labels on others. The world needs to be a place of order, and I guess things seem more orderly when people are placed in categories and stamped with labels. Some of these labels might be “inactive,” “nonmember,” “active,” “single,” “divorced,” “uninterested,” “smoker,” “drinker,” and so on. May I suggest that there is a very real danger in applying these labels to people? …Are there any of us who are so free from sin that we can afford to categorize others? Let us be careful to view our brothers and sisters as sons and daughters of God with great potential and to care for them accordingly.”

    “Cafeteria Mormon” is only a label in the sense described by Elder Ballard if we apply it to “others” – or only to a certain type of member. I like the idea that all of us are cafeteria Mormons, as to doctrinal acceptance and/or practical application, because that concept allows us to quit labeling each other and quit trying to determine someone else’s level of righteousness or worthiness. As long as someone is willing to endure to the end at my side, it’s not my job to categorize their faithfulness but simply to walk along and enjoy the companionship of the journey. Who cares if there is a scent of smoke or the reek of alcohol or no payment of tithing ad infinitum. The temple is one thing; the fellowship of the Saints is another thing entirely. Given what I have seen in my callings, I am convinced that if all of us understood what Elder Ballard meant there would be more converts flocking to the Church and fewer members drifting into inactivity – and the Church would be an even richer and more vibrant community than it already is.

  54. Ray,


  55. Anon for This One says:

    As long as there is a temple and there are temple interviews, I fail to see how we can avoid labels, judgement and exclusivity.

  56. Anon, true enough. But it’s also true that as long as there are bishoprics and stake presidencies with the exclusive authority to conduct temple interviews, I don’t see that the necessary judgments you mention end up being any of (most of) our business.

    I consider the dimensions of my personal religious cafeteria a matter between me, my bishop, and the Lord, and allow all men and women the same buffet privacy.

    So to speak.

  57. Anon for This One says:

    I sometimes feel like I’m in an alternate Mormon universe when I frequet blogs and discussions boards. It is plain to me to that the church is set up for the members to adhere to certain standards. The fact that bishops, stake presidents, RS presidents, home/visiting teachers are authorized to scrutinize and report on members’ progress does not diminish the fact that the church is not SUPPOSED to be a cafeteria affair.

    It’s true that no one can live up to the impossible demands of the Church –all of them. But it’s also true that the least cafereteria-like a member is, the better off he/she is eccelestically, socially, and ultimately (religiously).

    There simply is no “buffet privacy” in the Church. People are officially and unofficially gossiped about, censored, and tattled on. If I, as a Primary teacher and unmarried woman, sleep around with men and/or women, the bishop isn’t going to say, “There, there, sister, we are all cafeteria Mormons and I have a temper tantrum once in a while with my wife, so let’s call it even…”

  58. Anon, is it possible there’s some misunderstanding here? I’m not sure that anyone’s arguing there are no standards in the church, or even that there should be no standards in the church. Or, for that matter, that your bishop should pat your hand and call your sexual transgressions “even” with his personal temper tantrum. I think Mark’s idea here comes considerably short of complete, anarchic moral relativism.

    “There simply is no “buffet privacy” in the Church. People are officially and unofficially gossiped about, censored, and tattled on.”

    Again, true enough, unfortunately. But as I understand it, you’re a proponent of what we might call the Whole She-bang Buffet. That being the case, there’s a part of the buffet that has a few things to say about gossip, tattling, and unwarranted judgments.

    In other words, if you believe in the Whole Buffet, you can’t turn around and throw up your hands at the inevitablity of buffet-privacy violations. Buffet privacy is part of the whole buffet to which you’ve just committed yourself.

    (Whew, is this metaphor out of control. Any minute now I’m going to whip up a batch of pastries of men, mingled with scripture. Good eats!)

  59. Dear to whom It may concern:

    Can you please let me know whether or not it is alright to drink Sanka Decaf coffee? Also, I would like to know whether it is alright to drink the the following caffeine free herbal teas peppermint tea, raspberry tea, and apple cinnamon tea?

  60. Donna:

    At last, some real menu questions! I think, though, if we have concluded anything here, it’s that we are not qualified to judge the answer to those questions. We welcome you with open arms however you answer them and if you want some specific guidance you should see your bishop.

    If you just want my personal opinion…the answer to all those questions is yes.

  61. Ugly Mahana says:

    Bravo MCQ! You hit the nail on the head. As followers of Christ we are to welcome all with open arms. Binding guidance should only be given by those with authority to do so. “Anything more or less than this…”

    In my personal opinion, decaf coffee is still against the WoW. But I’m no authority…

  62. When I was three we lived in Goleta, California, and my best friend, Laurie, was an Episcopalian. I couldn’t say that word and, instead, called her a “cafeterian.” This simply must relate to this post in some way. I’ll figure it out tomorrow.

  63. I’ve always thought of cafeteria Mormons as those who pick and choose what to believe as opposed to those who pick and choose what to do at a given time.

  64. In a PEC last week, I heard this exchange – and I think it illustrates my point about attitudes and letting people govern themselves:

    Missionaries: Bro. New Convert needs a calling.

    High Priests Group Leader: He told me he is getting overwhelmed by everything he is being asked to do and needs to move at his own pace.

    Bishop: That’s fine. Ask him to attend the New Member Lessons Brother Whatever is teaching, but tell him we will not push him to move faster than he is comfortable moving. Tell him to let you know when he feels ready for a calling.

    Bishop to other attendees: Don’t ask Brother New Convert to do anything, including prayers, unless you talk with HP Group Leader first and he clears it with me. We will never try to force anyone to do anything they don’t want to do.

    I love that bishop.

  65. My father tells the story of a man in my father’s largely Mormon hometown who was married to a member, very supportive, and often attended church with her and her family. For many years, the man put off invitations to hear the lessons.

    Finally, this man confided to the local bishop that the reason he did not want to hear the lessons or join the church was that if he did so, he was afraid he would be asked to accept some heavy calling or other resonsibility. The bishop asked if the man would consider hearing the lessons if the bishopric promised that the man would never be approached about a calling unless he first told them he was ready. The man, after thinking about it a while, said that sounded reasonable.

    He heard the lessons and was baptized. True to their promise, the bishopric never approached him about any calling or other assignment. A year or so after his baptism, he approached the bishop, and told him he thought he was ready for a calling. And a calling was issued (I don’t know what it was), and the man continued faithful and growing in the church at his own rate.

    On the one hand, this treatment seems inconsistent with our cultural teachings (and the teachings of some leaders) that we are obligated to accept any and all callings, we do not seek them, we do not turn them down, we do not asked to be released. On the other hand, Elder Oaks seemed to recognize that leaders should be more sensitive to overwhelming new members:

    “This illustrates ‘the magnitude of our challenge to see that new members have a friend, a responsibility, and nourishing by the word of God,’ [Elder Oaks] said, quoting President Gordon B. Hinckley.

    “‘Notice,’ continued Elder Oaks, ‘President Hinckley did not say a calling, he said a responsibility. In other expressions, he has referred to this as an assignment. Although he did not say a calling, too often we have taken responsibility or assignment to mean a calling. Certainly a new member should eventually receive a calling, but the timing is critical.

    “Members shouldn’t be surprised, he added, that some new converts who suddenly face a strange and challenging new responsibility, without the close support of seasoned friends, simply quit coming. ‘How much better,’ he said, ‘to begin by giving new members a responsibility or an assignment, rather than a calling.'”

    Church News, July 8, 2006.

  66. I guess I am confused. Why should new members or reactivated ones modify or eschew old habits if any level of behavior is acceptable and welcome?

  67. Skip, I don’t think there is any doubt (for me at least) that we are all cafeteria Mormons who pick and choose not only what we believe, but also what we do at any given time (I am not sure you can really seperate belief from action). I also think much of this is based on varieties and conflicts of desire (which I think largely determines what we believe) — not only the conflicting desires among people in a group, but also the conflicting desires within our very selves. It always makes me wonder about the “one heart, one mind” element of the gospel.

  68. I think those are great stories but the uncontroversial idea of bringing new converts along at their own pace has little to do with the idea we are discussing.

  69. I guess I am confused. Why should new members or reactivated ones modify or eschew old habits if any level of behavior is acceptable and welcome?

    Amy, I don’t think that’s what is being suggested. Not any level. I think we make reasonable efforts to bring new members along in the hope that by taking small steps at their own speed they eventually reach full faith and fellowship. That doesn’t mean, for example, that we look the other way for a new convert that wants to continue old habits of smoking and drinking or any other basic commandment, but accepting a calling, it seems to me, may be reasonably postponed.

    I disagree with Glenn that we can’t separate belief from action. There is a substantive difference between saying “I don’t believe in the law of tithing–and consequently refuse to live it,” and saying “I believe in it, but I’m not currently living it.”

  70. MCQ, I think your tithing comment is valid. I would suggest, however, (and I could be wrong) that in the equation “I believe in the law of tithing but I’m not currently living it” there are various other potentially conflicting beliefs and desires that are, in fact, connected to the action of not paying, like perhaps “I believe that I should pay tithing but I just can’t afford it right now (and I also believe that I should stay out of debt, and I also beleive that it would be irresponsible of me to pay this money when I owe so much in medical bills, etc etc)” — the desire to remain financially solvent is stronger than the desire to pay tithing and possibly be go in to debt. I think this is a key factor — in my experience at least — to the cafeteria choice of entree de jour.

  71. Agreed Glenn. I specifically steered away from expressing any reason for the person “not living it right now.” There could be innumerable reasons, none of which you or I may regard as valid, if we were in the same situation.

    To me, though, that has little to do with the “cafeteria Mormon” issue, which is much more centrally expressed in the first example: “I don’t believe in the law of tithing–and consequently refuse to live it.” To me, that’s the only legitimate example of what we’re talking about here, and that’s why I regard statements like “We’re all cafeteria Mormons” as being a little silly. It’s only true if you think that we are all picking and choosing from the central doctrines of the church which ones we will believe or not. I don’t think many of us do that, unless you re defining “central doctrines” extremely broadly, which I do not.

    I was trying to engage discussion on this point; i.e. What is the list of central doctrines that we must all have subscribed to if we are to avoid the label of “cafeteria Mormon” Is there such a list? I guess the answer is no, or maybe no one likes the question.

    There is, of course the danger of a slippery slope if one defines some doctrines as “central” and others not, but I think most of us do this in practical terms, even if we don’t admit it.

  72. I don’t have a list for you, but maybe the biggest of the central doctrines that I hear is the “only true church” meal deal (and I recognize there are many ways to define that). Whether it is an appetizer or a main course, a lot of Mormons I speak to just can’t completely swallow it.

  73. All I am saying in comment 66 is that if we all pick and choose and thats good enough for us, despite our deeper understanding, why should we encourage converts to change their habits AT ALL? According to most on this thread, we all pick and choose, and no one meets the maximum standard anyway. Converts often sacrifice so much…but for what? They hear the gospel, then after six weeks give up smoking, drinking, premarital sex and gambling, only to find that members are nonchalant and rigorless.

  74. amy c,
    That simply isn’t true. We do have a minimum standard. I would argue that the minimum standard of belief is represented in the Articles of Faith and the belief questions asked in the temple recommend interview. Beyond those minimums, I don’t believe that we have any standards for belief, which is why I think that we are all cafeteria Mormons. If you don’t buy into those minimum standards, then you may not be in the right cafeteria.

    Regarding belief vs. action, I disagree with MCQ. I have become convinced that all actions are dependent on our belief. While there may be a semantic difference between “I do not believe in the law of tithing” and “I do not believe in following the law of tithing right now,” the result of both beliefs is the same action and our capacity for self-deception and rationalization renders discernment between those two motivating statements terribly difficult. As I have often argued, as a church we are slightly more interested in practice than in belief (depending on the practices and the beliefs), but this derives, to a great degree, that our actions are reflective of our beliefs.

  75. NoNameNedra says:

    Well, is this thread saying that we are all Cafeteria Mormons when it comes to belief? Of course, no two people believe alike.

    However, if this thread means we can be Cafeteria Mormons according to actions, then I disagree. I think that’s the point.

  76. NoNameNedra says:

    The main post started out talking abou the term Cafeteria Mormon, ostensibly referring to beliefs. Then the example given was that someone could pick and choose among a variety of commandments, counsels and activities. We already know people who pay tithing on what’s left over each month instead of on their net or gross salaries. Is this an example of Cafeteria Mormonism?

    Throughout the responses on this blog, I get a send that alternately (and even interchangeably), people are confusing the term Cafeteria Mormon with Jack Mormon, New Order Mormon, Post Mormon, and just plain Mormon.

    It’s a good thing to explore; what exactly is a Mormon? Can I believe that Joseph Smith was a charlatan rogue and still be a Mormon? Can I be an unrepentant adulterer and still be a Mormon? Is one a Mormon as long as one is baptized and nothing else matters?

    I think until the Cafeteria Mormon definition is fine tuned, people are just gonna be confused about what this whole post is about.

  77. Amy, (#73) I did not mean to imply that those with a deeper understanding pick and choose nonchalantly and in a cavalier fashion. I try to live absolutely everything I understand – and even those things I don’t understand yet. However, HOW I live those things differs considerably in many ways from how another deeply believing member sitting next to me in Sunday School or HP Group or Ward or Stake PEC or Sacrament Meeting lives those same things. Both of us believe the same basic things, but each of us lives them in a slightly different way because we understand them in a slightly different way.

    A good example is myself and a brother in my ward. We both have served in ward and stake administrative positions; we both have large, active families; we both have been members for over 30 years; we both are seen as pillars of our ward by other members; we both try to live our lives in accordance with our understanding of the restored Gospel; etc. Frankly, however, we live very different lives. We interact with our wives and children in very different ways; we pay tithing differently; we emphasize different approaches to living Gospel principles; we interact with members differently; etc. I love him dearly and have learned many things from him over the years, but without the Church I might not associate with him at all. He eats his food; I eat mine; ne’er the twain meet. (OK, we share the entree, but our desserts and spices are completely different.)

    If that is true of deeply believing members, even those with “administrative authority”, then think how true it is of new converts and those who struggle to believe everything. The permutations of believe and practice and intellectual and spiritual understanding are innumerable. Again, as long as we are eating in the same cafeteria and trying to eat everything we are able to digest, then I prefer to avoid the tendency to judge someone else’s “Mormon-ness” simply because they choose different desserts and spices. At some point in the far distant future of the after-life I believe we will reach a true unity of understanding; until then, I am content to worship with anyone who is willing to sit beside me and do the best they can regardless of our differences.

    One final comment: Given the point I believe the initial post was trying to make, I think it is counterproductive to create a list of things that all “Good Mormons” must accept and live. That’s not my responsibility, and I don’t want it. I read the original post as an expression of a desire for greater tolerance and less labeling – a statement that none of us lives what we understand fully, so we shouldn’t judge and label others who ultimately are sinners just like us. If that was not the intent, then I misunderstood.

  78. Ray, I think you’re right about the intent, and it’s a noble goal. I’m just trying to clear up some of the fuzzy definitions of the words being thrown around here. As an example from your comment, what is a “dessert” vs an “entree?” you and others who have commented here keep using terms like those in a way that seems to indicate we all understand them and agree on their definitions. All I’m trying to do is discover if that’s really the case.

  79. Naismith says:

    One consideration is that the expression “cafeteria Mormon” is already “taken,” the same way that one can no longer use the word “gay” to mean carefree or light-hearted. The term “cafeteria Mormon” is often used by NOM/third-way folks as in this essay . And I am not sure that any “minimum standards” in that context.

    If someone wants to identify themselves as a cafeteria Mormon, fine. But I wouldn’t use it to describe another person, and I don’t particularly like the rhetorical technique of declaring that “we are all….” That approach always makes me want to say, “Speak for yourself, buddy!”

    I don’t agree that we are all cafeteria Mormons.

    The reason I don’t care for the term to be applied to me is that, thinking about the things I have focussed on at various times of my life, those decisions were NOT choices per se. I did not load up my tray with a bunch of pink jello when I worked in Relief Society. Does anyone know a sane person who would choose to be a Relief Society president or bishop? (I am told such people exist, but I haven’t actually met any of them.) So it isn’t that I chose certain foods to put on my tray, but rather that I signed up for a meal plan, and showed up, and had things that were best for me plopped onto my tray (like the cafeteria in the movie THE ISLAND, perhaps).

  80. Steve Evans says:

    Naismith, the very fact that you can pick and choose what terms apply to you proves your cafeteria-ness! It is unescapable!

  81. Can I still come to the cafeteria for company, even if I’m fasting?

  82. Ok, I’m going to say it one more time: to me, the whole idea of the cafeteria is accepting or rejecting parts of the LDS belief system. To me, that has nothing to do with what callings you receive or the terms that you apply to yourself.

  83. MCQ,

    A lot of us seem to see more to the metaphor than you do.

    For myself, I’ve never been able to distinguish clearly the line between belief and practice that you seem to perceive brightly. Even so, we may still sit next to one another in Sacrament meeting.

  84. MCQ: Ok, I’m going to say it one more time: to me, the whole idea of the cafeteria is accepting or rejecting parts of the LDS belief system.

    Ok, I’m going to say it for the first time: our history demonstrates that LDS doctrine/theology/practice is a shifting phenomenon, the result of discrete individual and institutional choices made from a cafeteria of offerings.

    In my view, that doesn’t diminish the worth of the institution, but it does give reason to evaluate for one’s self specific doctrines and practices.

  85. Steve Evans says:

    Word up, Lynn, and I’ll say it for the nth time: defining what the “LDS Belief System” (TM) means is precisely a matter of picking and choosing.

  86. Eric Russell says:

    What Norbert said in 19.2.

    There’s a big difference between choosing between gross and net tithing and between paying tithing or not at all. The suggestion of a term used to describe the grayness of the former intended to be applied broadly undermines the black and whiteness of the latter. Even if some argue there is grayness in the latter, the collective term still obscures the difference of degree.

  87. I think i know what your saying, but like most of the other posters here we accept the doctrines that we are taught, it is then up to us to practice them in our lives accordingly.

    Also to post #1 Mark who stated our Doctrine changes. Our Doctrine never changes, the only thing that changes is the Application of the Doctrine.


  88. Steve: Are you registering the TM on that phrase? ‘Cause I said it first!

    I don’t disagree with what you’re saying Steve, I was just wondering how much of a consensus there is about that definition. I suspect not much.

    Greenfrog, you’re welcome on my pew anytime.

  89. Has anyone considered the analogy of the faith required to accept what is placed on your plate as an entree, even when that is exactly opposite of what was placed there the previous week? Given our belief in modern prophets and the curveballs that have been thrown over the years because of that belief, I think it is a legitimate concept.

    So, perhaps we all are cafeteria Mormons specifically because we are willing to accept what is served to us on an ever-changing entree list – then add our own desserts and spices. Just had the thought, so I haven’t considered it fully yet, but I thought it was worth putting out there. (Although I’m not sure how I feel about the picture of Elders Monson and Oaks in aprons and hairnets.)

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