Links Between Theology, Behavior, and Reform

Hal Boyd wrote a piece for the Atlantic this morning that gently (i.e. in a most Mormon-like way) probed the hypocrisy and limitations of praising Mormon behavior while mocking Mormon belief.  He suggested that the relationship between a rigorous theology complete with behavioral expectations is closely linked to the admirable behaviors being praised by outside voices (most recently, the prominent condemnation of Roy Moore by Senator Flake, Evan McMullin, and Mitt Romney).  The piece can be read here.

The piece troubles me–in all the best ways.

I’m  troubled that this kind of praising evaluation always leads to self-justification and retrenchment in our community.  I’ve already seen this article show up in my social media feeds several times.  I can only guess how many references to it will crop up in Sunday School, Relief Society, and Priesthood meetings this Sunday.  Praise, even deserved praise, can lead to complacency.  And we are nothing as a people, if not complacent in our self-image.  We have entire cultural patterns of discourse hardwired into us since childhood to defend the kingdom, and as part of that, our deserved place in it.  It can become an off-putting ceremony that squarely belongs on a rameumptom, and not in our houses of worship.  And for a loud-mouthed reform advocate like me–I fear that this line of thought will cut off any needed action.  Change happens when it is needed, and if everything is already perfect, we don’t need it.

But I’m also troubled by this praising evaluation, because I think he’s probably right about his primary point, and it causes me to question my own choices.  I’m constantly trying to determine the origins of my current moral compass.  Do I tend to stick up for the underdog because of the lessons engrained into me since Primary, or do I tend to stick up for the underdog because I felt like the underdog as a career-oriented, overachieving girl in a church that valued the development of boys more?  Either way, I suspect it was my Mormon upbringing–and I also suspect it was a complex combination of both of those inputs, and many others besides that.

At this point in my life, I feel pretty strongly that there are certain populations who really aren’t safe in the pews in Mormon wards.  (Not all wards, but enough, that it feels like playing a spiritual lottery.)  Divorced Mormons, single Mormons, gay Mormons, Mormons of color–in same ways, these are all groups at risk of spiritual harm because of Mormon teachings and practices (and the complex permutations of those two that manifest themselves in lived Mormon culture.)  I also feel that in some ways, that “teaching to the ideal” has morphed into a “gospel of acceptable casualties” for folks who don’t find themselves in the demographic majority.  I’ve limited my interaction with the church over the years because of this, and I know others who have done the same.  I can’t allow myself to be a casualty.

But I find myself consistently asking the question of where would I be without this troublesome upbringing, an upbringing that still leads me to ask questions like this?  What about my children?  How do I promote or edit their experience with my religion and my people?  What are the costs?  What are the opportunity costs?  Because decades of soul searching aside, I cannot deny that I love my people–even if I don’t always love the way they live their religion.


  1. “I also feel that in some ways, that ‘teaching to the ideal’ has morphed into a ‘gospel of acceptable casualties…'” That’s an interesting statement. Do you think there is a way to teach the ideal without these casualties? If so, what does that look like?

  2. Paul Ritchey says:

    These are excellent points, Karen, which I did not imagine as I read Boyd. Thanks for sharing

    To jimbob’s question, it seems like the only way to avoid “casualties” while teaching truth is for *everyone* to get much more comfortable with imperfection, with things not being “over” yet, so that we do a lot less condemning.

    I wonder whether our struggle as a people to respond to what we see as hostile “others” in the non-Mormon world can act as a sort of mirror for those of us in the Church who feel similar hostility to other Mormons (and especially to authority and authorities). I’m particularly interested in whether we see the public and political turmoil of the late 19th Century creeping back into the church itself in the shape of internal reforms.

  3. The original article to which Boyd was responding suggests that Mormon Republicans uniquely and admirably stepped up to condemn Roy Moore. Do you think that if you were to look at the entire Mormon Republican population as a group that this characterization would hold? Are the rank and file Mormons in Alabama lining up to condemn him? I’m not certain that there are significant differences in honesty, compassion, integrity, personal accountability, etc. (or their opposites) in Mormons generally than in the rest of the population, despite the stereotypes. People are people, and we have all types among us. Like you, I credit my Mormon faith for helping me to be good and kind at times. At the same time, I hesitate to blame my selfishness, racism, or exclusionary behaviors on my Mormon upbringing.

  4. Hal Boyd’s piece is a great response, but I’m not sure I buy the idea that Mormon decency is the result of Mormon beliefs. It’s plausible, but to me it seems just as plausible that a religious community with our cultural history (exclusion from and then hard-won, grudging, marginal membership in respectable American society) but with different metaphysical beliefs would be just as hardworking, decent, etc.

  5. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    A few months back, when Jeff Flake published his book, I wrote this elsewhere:

    I can’t help but think that Sen. Flake looked at the Trump voters in his state–perhaps best embodied by this guy–and asked himself, “Do I really want these people’s votes?” The extraordinary moral degeneration of blue-collar white males in the US in the past couple decades is really astonishing. Their obsession with violence, intimidation, and domination–symbolized by Punisher skull logo bumper stickers, “black rifles” and ludicrously huge handguns, mixed martial arts, and cartoonishly muscular pickup trucks with suspensions jacked up so high one needs a ladder to enter them–isn’t exactly in keeping with the sort of values Flake holds.

    I’m a lifelong Mormon and I’ve known a lot of men like Sen. Flake: quite conservative and often sexist [note that this generally falls into the “benevolent sexism” category previously discussed at BCC, rather than the “malevolent sexism” one], but generally 1) supportive of education, 2) morally upstanding and interested in self-improvement (vs. the “As I Am” school of evangelicals who think it’s OK to wear a tank top and cargo shorts to church), and 3) committed to a much richer conception of Christianity–one in which it’s OK for a man to cry in public, and Jesus is depicted as a wiry mystic rather than a musclebound conqueror–than generally is the case for evangelicals. (There is a reason that the conservative intelligentsia in this country is mostly Catholic, Jewish, and Mormon despite the overwhelming numerical dominance of evangelicals in the Republican Party.) Not coincidentally, this group overwhelmingly voted for candidates other than Trump in the GOP primaries; in the general defections from Trump to Evan McMullin also were quite high among this group.

    There is no room for a Jeff Flake in a party that actively courts men who wear “F*** YOUR FEELINGS–VOTE TRUMP” and “TRUMP THAT BITCH” T-shirts.

  6. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Oops, forgot to close an italic tag in there. :P

  7. Agree, Heptaparaparshinokh. Except that it really, truly is 100% fine to wear cargo shirts and a tank top to church.

  8. The hurtful parts of Mormon culture only continue to exist because we tolerate them with our silence, while we sit in the chairs in Sunday School, and let pass comments that are hateful. Speak up. Remind people when they are following Satan or using his tools of name calling or labeling or shaming. If necessary, challenge your Church leaders when they attempt to use unrighteous dominion to manipulate your beliefs or your behavior. Learn the writings of the prophets and use them when necessary to stop what you do not like.
    As for Trump, remember it was the Mormon states that tried to stop him in the primary election. They failed and chose him over Ms. Clinton. Maybe that simply says they found Hillary even more reprehensible than Trump.

  9. How bizarre is it that people should be singled out for praise because they criticized a pedophile? It is not a mark of great distinction to criticize a pedophile. We are foolish if we pat ourselves on the back for this. Kurt Andersen might think it’s remarkable, but our own sights should be set much higher.

    Passing this rock-bottom test for decency reveals very little about what’s special in Mormonism. The question here is not what makes Mormons unusually good; the question is what makes certain other religiously-affiliated people so bad.

    Nonetheless, Hal Boyd’s essay nicely takes up the opportunity to argue for religious tolerance.

  10. Aussie Mormon says:

    Loursat makes a great point.

    Among normal everyday people it should be perfectly normal to criticise pedophiles, or people who sexually assault/harass people, or otherwise outright inappropriate behaviour.

    The problem seems to be that when the people who society tends to look up to or follow (sports stars, movie/tv stars, politicians etc), either go along with it, refuse to admit that it happens, or just ignore it, that when someone finally does speak out, it’s seen as a big thing.

    The ones that then speak out, then seem to get much in the way of congratulations, while the perpetrators get a small amount of initial criticism, then become a simple side point in articles/discussions about speaking out.

    Mormons speaking out is good for showing that we aren’t creepy polygamists. It’s good for showing that we do care about society. It’s good for showing that we generally act in ways that every decent member of society should.
    The fact that Mormons are being praised for this says more about how much society has dropped, rather than highlighting behavioural standards that Mormons try and follow different to/above that of society.

    It is nice seeing a non-helping-hands related article saying something good about Mormons though.

  11. Loursat,
    President Clinton paled around with millionaires on their private jets while they pedophiled. I assume he wasn’t just there for the mile high dining experience. Sadly, it’s not common enough for elites to criticize their own political party for moral failings. Yes yes, running for election and all that. I guess it’s ok that the people funding the elections are completely immoral as long as we don’t catch their recipients in the act.

    But this post is just sad to me. It shows a complete rejection of your brothers and sisters in the gospel. I realize you have philosophically done so. But where we have failings as a people it’s not living up to the words of the prophets in doing what we’ve been asked to do. We do not have a problem with failing to live up to the modern progressive viewpoint on what a nouveau renaissance man should be. There are no doubt intersections of quality attributes aspired to by Latter-day Saints and the modern progressive, but again our failings as a people have nothing to do with whether or no the someone interprets as “unsafe” my belief that some behaviors are sinful.

    FWIW, Moore seems exactly what I’d expect from a corrupt immoral political class. Sadly, rather than awaken us to the awful reality of the kinds to people our sexual revolution culture is creating, we just happily throw the perpetrators under the bus, all the while our entertainment industry is continually creating a never ending stream of perpetrators and victims. While we pay to gobble it up.

  12. I agree with some of your discomfort – progressive mormon feminist here – but I think the point of the Atlantic article is good independent of its subject. It is weird and hypocritical to praise [group of people] while mocking what defines [group of people]. In our case, that defining weirdness is Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, subjects which unite mormons of every stripe – gay and hetero, married and single and divorced, etc.

    It is also absolutely a soft bigotry that makes mocking mormons acceptable in nearly every social circle, religious to atheist, conservative to progressive. It is certainly true that my non-religious, liberal grad school professor never let up on the Mormon jokes around me, though he would have been furious if a Muslim or Jewish student were mocked for their beliefs.

  13. Great comment, Loursat.

  14. CKNY, I made it abundantly clear that my love for my brothers and sisters remains despite significant concerns about cultural norms. It is hardwired into me, and that is why I dwell on these questions. I think Mormons do a pretty good job of taking social cues from at least some of the leadership, but I think they’re doing a pretty dismal job of taking cues from Jesus when he counseled us to leave the 99 and rescue the 1. Common Mormon discourse is all about letting the 1 (or two or ten) go. There is no asterisk on the commandment to love our brothers and sisters, and that is where our communal failure rests.

  15. So, Boyd praises Mormon politicians for condemning Moore. Does he castigate other Mormon politicians (the whole Utah contingent, for instance) for supporting Trump and turning a blind eye to the reprehensible things that he has done and that he says on a continual basis? Have they taken him to task for his repeated lies, for defrauding people, for his obstruction of justice, for his attacks on the First Amendment, for his bigotry, for his xenophobia, for his desire to take health care from millions, for his friendly relationship with white nationals, for his idiotic birther movement, for his admission of sexual assault? Nope. Crickets. Why? Because they sincerely hope he will allow them to give massive tax cuts to the wealthy while increasing the taxes of the middle class (mine would have increased by over $500 last year if the new GOP rules had applied, and I’m squarely in the middle class). I guess it’s very hard for hypocrites to criticize another hypocrite.

  16. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Emily, when you can afford better but choose to dress like you’re going to Costco because you’d rather spend the money on a new set of Truck Nutz for your lifted Ram, it is not OK to wear a tank-top and cargo shorts to church.

    The Lord will take you as you are, but He expects you to get better.

  17. I’m troubled that this kind of praising evaluation always leads to self-justification and retrenchment in our community. I’ve already seen this article show up in my social media feeds several times.

    I understand the sentiment, and I agree that we are as susceptible to vanity as anyone and need to watch out for its corrosive influence on our community’s ability to solve the problems we need to solve. But I also think the same could be said for public criticism. In my personal experience, it was not uncommon to see blog posts, magazine articles, etc. that challenged Mormon beliefs or practices (sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly) passed around on social media by folks within the faith who became increasingly convinced that these criticisms served as mounting evidence that the Church was not simply in need of work, but irredeemable.

    I don’t personally think that faithful members who blog should refrain from thoughtfully pointing out our weaknesses because some people might integrate their thoughts into a larger narrative of Mormon horribleness. Similarly, I don’t think writers should refrain from pointing out our strengths because some members will use it to arm their Mormon Superiority arsenal. I think Boyd does a good job making a point that’s important for the public discussion of Mormonism and it’s on readers to use it responsibly.

    I think the real takeaway from all this is that everyone should get off social media because it’s terrible.

  18. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    I think the real takeaway from all this is that everyone should get off social media because it’s terrible.

    Except Nihilist Arby’s. That person can stay.

  19. Yes, Nihilist Arby’s can stay. And so can Kim Kierkegaardashian. But that’s it. Everyone else should just get off.

  20. Well said JJ :)

  21. I think that it’s good that someone can objectively look at a group of people whose commonality is their religion, and notice that they behave differently.
    I’m sorry that you’re upset that someone is seeing some good in church members. You want church members to be better than what they are (and there’s nothing wrong with that); and feel frustrated at a compliment that someone else made.
    This reminds me of a Pres. Hinckley quote (and it’s been decades since I heard it, so I apologize) that went along the lines of “For those members who are really doing good, but are depressed that they’re not perfect; stop it. You’re doing good. Be happy with that”.
    If we’re constantly “Argh, we should be doing better” we’ll get depressed and give up. So the occasional compliment, or occasional assessment that we are headed in the right direction; are good defenses against depression.

  22. jader3rd, I am not upset that someone is seeing some good in church members. I think that’s a purposeful misreading of what I wrote. I thought the Boyd piece was fair. (And frankly needed….the kind of casual prejudice he was engaging in is wrong and ought to be answered.) My point is that these types of articles get passed around in this gushing myopic fashion, while any criticism (like mine) is immediately hushed with passive aggressive tones of “too bad you’re too aggrieved to listen to the prophets.) It’s not a healthy way to carry on discourse in such a large organization. It creates huge pockets of blindness, and real people get lost in that blindness.

  23. Fair clarification Karen. Thank you.

  24. I agree with many of your points, Karen. But I think we should give ourselves a break collectively as church members the same way we should not be too hard on ourselves individually. Marian at 7:24 AM I think nails it. Mormons may be the only group for which soft bigotry is universally acceptable. I get a little weary of it at times, but I’ll take this kind of bigotry any day over the persecution of the Nauvoo days for example. Maybe we are at a point where it’s OK to be a people with peculiar beliefs instead of a peculiar people.

  25. Errmm… I am an Alabama Mormon… I believe the women, not Roy Moore. I am a (closeted) transgender bishopric member not wanting to become an acceptable casualty. I have a stake presidency member who has done understanding personal ministry to me, and a church apostolic hierarchy who I sustain honestly as having sacred keys and all that…, and yet make me feel like I either do not or should not exist. And thus we see that we are all a mess of contradictions from top to bottom all (ALL) in need of grace… Teaching to the ideal morphs into a absurd anachronism in my view given that we are all imperceptibly so close together in comparison to the true ideal that the distances between us are ridiculously close although they can seem to be a chasm. Which gives me a contradictory patience and a burning for change. Sigh… and smile… Karen, thank you for your thoughts, they mean a lot to me.

  26. lonascatteredthoughts: support, e-hugs, and all the respect in the world from me and the whole bcc crew. Thanks for sharing your story with us. I suspect that all these contradictions are the heart of our humanity. I’m glad you’re part of our community.

  27. Thanks for your comment, Ionascatteredthoughts. I don’t want you to become an acceptable casualty, either. Much love and support.

  28. thanks y’all

  29. D Christian Harrison says:

    lonascatteredthoughts: I strongly encourage you to make use of Affirmation’s various resources—including their private Facebook support groups. Affirmation serves those who—like you and me—find themselves at the intersection of queer and Mormon.

    Here’s more about Affirmation:

  30. D Christian Harrison says:

    Feel free to reach out to me, directly, should you have questions.

  31. “feel that in some ways, that “teaching to the ideal” has morphed into a “gospel of acceptable casualties” for folks who don’t find themselves in the demographic majority.”

    Most important statement. And we need to do better at this. Thank you.

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