Responding to Changes from On High, and Other Things that Never Happen in a Vacuum

Yesterday, the official organs of the LDS Church announced changes in the church’s For the Strength of Youth guide, which as just about anyone who was an active participant in church programs between the ages of 12 and 18 anytime in the past 60 years (but particularly the past 30) knows, has been a more-or-less official guide to the standards enforced at youth activities and the lessons preached in untold thousands of sacrament meeting talks, youth conferences, Girls Camp meetings, and more. This wholesale rewrite orients the publication around general principles and personal choices, with the explicit condemnations of tattoos, extra piercings, bare shoulders or midriffs, and “passionate kissing” now abandoned, and even same-sex attraction receiving, if not any kind of broad acceptance, at least much more tolerant language. It is a much-needed, wholly positive set of changes, and deserves nothing but applause. My wife and I a little upset about it (though about its roll-out, not its substance).

Why? Because we have four daughters, all of them baptized and raised in the church’s youth program (as my wife and I both were), with the oldest two of them now having entirely abandoned activity in or affiliation with Mormonism, and the latter two maintaining only the most marginal connection with it, and while there are larger historical, political, cultural, theological, and familial reasons for all of that, the judgments, harsh comments, and condescending dismissals of innocent questions they received over the years over matters of appearance, over tattoos and piercings and shoulders and skirt length and so much more, were absolutely a contributor to it all. In other words, all things considered, For the Strength of Youth caused our daughters, however minimally, genuine confusion, frustration, pain, and shame during their teen-age years, and thus is, however minimally, at least a contributor to the complicated, struggling, ambivalent reality of the Mormon faith in our family. We’d like an apology for that, or at least an acknowledgment of that, from the church. We’re not going to get one, of course, because the church doesn’t apologize for such things (or for anything, really).

It’s a little easier for me to understand–though not feel any sympathy for–the LDS Church leadership’s policy of to “not to seek apologies or to give them,” to recognize that some policies may have been “counterproductive for what we wish to achieve” but to nonetheless “look forward and not backward,” than it is for my wife. For me, a white, heterosexual, university-educated, life-long male church member, the many policies and practices of American Mormonism over the decades which have most certainly been, in retrospect, “counterproductive,” have been easier to rationalize or remove myself from. It’s easier for me to look at what I understand to be this hapless, good-hearted, but mostly human-built community I am part of, and see a mess of disagreements, contradictions, and divisions, with every positive step being at least as much accidental as intentional. I recognize that I was never as hurt by, as embarrassed by, or simply as confused by the policies of For the Strength of Youth as were my wife or my daughters. And so my understanding takes a back-seat to my shared frustration with her and them. Yes, I am grateful that the various well-intentioned and prayerful bureaucratic players in the midst of the Church Office Building eventually rounded up enough support to get key decision-makers to approve of this profoundly important change in the LDS Church’s language in regards to youth behavior and spirituality. But dammit, would it have killed them to say, when it was rolled out, “we feel bad for everyone who ever felt humiliated by these policies in the past, and who were brought to the point of painful decisions partly because of them; we know better now”?

Of course it wouldn’t, but just the same, of course they won’t, for all sorts of entirely defensible organizational reasons. I understand that, though I don’t like it (the same way I don’t like the LDS Church’s present organization overall). So my wife and I are left with our frustrations. Frustrations that reflect the reality of being connected to a hapless, good-hearted, but mostly human-built community which has defined our lives, our marriage, and our family for our and its entire existence, a definition that contributed to a lot of–admittedly, very First World and minor, in any absolute sense, but nonetheless deeply felt and real–pain. As the church responds positively–and very belatedly–to the pressures and changes all around it, those of us who lack the institutional faith (because remember, this is all about the organizational church, and by no means necessarily about the gospel of Jesus Christ) to live solely by every word that proceedeth from the prophet’s lips–or from the Church Newsroom’s website–but rather are, for better or worse, very shaped by the vicissitudes of culture and history and personal choice surrounding us, are left looking at those positive responses, and can only feel a little…well, grateful, sure, but also a little bitter. Just grow up and deal with it, you say? Thanks, that’s helpful; I’m sure we’ll get to work on that real soon.

Comments

  1. My daughter is long gone too, although I don’t weep because she and I are both of the opinion that she’s done better for herself and her daughters than if she had stayed. I would also appreciate an apology. So mostly I would just echo the OP. Thanks, Russell Arben Fox.

    And I would add that without an apology or some kind of that was wrong this is better, it’s going to be a matter of minutes and in fact I’ve already seen it that local leaders will say “this (new) principle means that (former) rule” taking the new generation of youth right back to the day before yesterday.

  2. I also have a bunch of daughters who want little to nothing to do with the church and experienced embarrassment/shaming because they (our family) never really fit the LDS fsy model. I too am glad for the change now, but my first thought was to ask why nothing was being done to try to fix the bad messaging/behavior of my girls’ experiences (girl’s camp rules being a big one). A simple acknowledgement that many local leaders took the old fsy too far over the needs of actual people would have been huge! Which makes me feel that the church doesn’t really care about those who experienced negative effects but are just trying to stop more bleed. Sigh.

  3. Michinita says:

    Lehcarjt brought up girls camp, which will not be solved by this (very welcome!) change, but is in desperate need of solving. At our stake camp girls aren’t allowed to wear shorts! We’re in a central valley California summer of triple digit temperatures. That was never in FSY to my knowledge, but we keep that rule despite treating heat related illness every year. Prioritizing “modesty” over health is terrible policy.

  4. I really feel this. In past decisions where the church grants more agency – like women allowed to be witnesses of ordinances – there is initial gratitude and “at last!” followed by being really pissed that I was asked to endure that. Apologies and humility could heal quite a bit of it.

  5. Love this but, to be clear, the pamphlet still condemns homosexuality. It’s the same “it’s ok to have those feelings but you cannot act on them.” Although that’s an improvement over the last iteration which claimed that same-sex sexual activity was much worse than heterosexual premarital sexual activity.

  6. Thanks for the correction, Elisa; I’ve adjusted the language of the post accordingly.

  7. Hanging in there says:

    Your post will resonate with so many people whose sons and daughters have left the church to a greater or lesser extent because of the judgmental attitudes encouraged by the various versions of this pamphlet over the years.
    My daughter, now in her mid-thirties, has deep self-esteem problems which she is still receiving counselling for. She blames her feelings of lack of self-worth firmly on her experiences as a young woman in the church, where she say she never felt ‘good enough’ and the dratted FSOY pamphlet compounded those feelings of rejection and unworthiness. I too would love to see a senior church leader apologize to all those who have suffered this way. But I’m guessing it aint gonna happen. I hope and pray that our Heavenly Father takes into account all the harm done to these innocent young people when the time comes. We heard President Nelson condemn abuse in the strongest terms, quite rightly. What about the emotional abuse perpetrated on young people in the name of FSOY standards?

  8. Hardened not your hearts

    1 HEARKEN, O ye people of my church, to whom the kingdom has been given; hearken ye and give ear to him who laid the foundation of the earth, who made the heavens and all the hosts thereof, and by whom all things were made which live, and move, and have a being.
    2 And again I say, hearken unto my voice, lest death shall overtake you; in an hour when ye think not the summer shall be past, and the harvest ended, and your souls not saved.
    3 Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him—
    4 Saying: Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified;
    5 Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life.
    6 Hearken, O ye people of my church, and ye elders listen together, and hear my voice while it is called today, and harden not your hearts;
    7 For verily I say unto you that I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the light and the life of the world—a light that shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not.

    (Doctrine and Covenants | Section 45:1 – 7)

  9. Christian, your Kimballette has long been one of the bestest human beings ever. Remind her that her U. Ward fan club is still up and running worldwide. :-)

  10. You and your wife have every right to be frustrated and it’s valid. It would be a lie to say I wasn’t pretty bitter yesterday after reading through the new program. It is beautiful compared to what I had. I would feel very differently about the institution if I had this instead. All of that mattered until suddenly it doesn’t anymore, when a lot of my church experience involved that ridiculous booklet 😑

  11. It’s not clear to me that a shift from specific proscriptions to broader principles-based guidance is an improvement. On the substance, there’s no indication of an intent to green-light anything previously prohibited. If anything, the scrupulous teenaged mind may broaden the implied list of no-nos. Teens wanting to know where the line really falls are told to “seek counsel from your parents and leaders.” That counsel will be all over the map, as vexingly varied as the composition of the church. We’ll could very well see norm-policing, in response to this ambiguity-by-design, that’s more erratic and extreme than what was typical under the former For the Strength of Youth program.

  12. I was a bit disappointed (but not surprised) that there were no points about gender non-conformity, one way or another. Baby steps, I guess. :P

  13. Wuuuut in the world..? Ok, so for starters, does the author legitimately want an apology from church HQ? I mean…how self absorbed to say “I didn’t agree with policies x,y, and z, so I expect an apology from the leadership of a church that has roughly 14 million members and who are so busy they hardly have time for themselves or their own families. An easier solution would be to just put on your big boy pants and realize things happen in life, then move on with your life and do what you need to do to strengthen your testimony that the leaders of the church receive revelation from Christ to run His church. If you truly believe that, have a testimony of that, then all of your concerns can easily be resolved. Second, screw the harsh comments or criticism from members. Why is it so difficult for people to just go to church for the Savior and because you made those baptismal covenants? If you make friends at church, cool. If not, screw them because your salvation doesn’t depend on them. Third…”getting bureaucratic players to get enough support from key decision makers”….you mean Jesus…? My understanding is that this is His church and he runs it the way He wants, through revelation from his prophet and apostles. He is the only key decision maker. Changes to For Strength of Youth came from revelation after prayerful consideration. What am I on, fourth? I’m sorry your daughters left the church or don’t attend, but you can’t blame the policies outlined in For the Strength of Youth. That book teaches correct principles on how to stay close to the Lord. If that offends you, then maybe the problem isn’t the information in the book. That’s like someone saying “I want to make money,” and someone says “you need to work to earn money,” whereby the first person gets offended by the suggestion of working and earning money. We as church members want to achieve exaltation. We’re told we need to work toward it through our actions and choices, and then we get offended when we’re told that. It makes no sense. Getting offended at something that has the Lord’s stamp of approval is strange if you’re someone who wants to follow the Lord. People shouldn’t judge others or use the gospel as an excuse to judge others, but truth is still truth. As justice Clarance Thomas know neve said, “North will always be North.” Go back ti me previous comment about not needing friends at church. Lastly, being a straight, white, well educated male means jack squat to the Lord and His gospel. My wife is a person of color, first generation immigrant, etc, and she’s never had whatever issues your wife and daughters have had. This article was just a first-world whine fest, to the point it was like fingernails on a chalkboard and it made no sense whatsoever as far as the gospel is concerned. Excuse me while I bleach my eyeballs

  14. David Tallop says:

    Typical. Russell and the rest of these anti-Mormons just can’t manage to leave the church alone. How sad. I guess it’s nice that all the authors here have found each other so they can be miserable sops together. Congratulations everyone.

    Mr. Fox actually expecting an APOLOGY!? 😂😂

  15. @Craig and @ David T, Typical black-and-white thinking ‘true believers of Christ’ come to a blog and (without any hint of irony and full of smugness) attack those who are hurting. True story.

  16. Chapman Rachael says:

    I agree with everything the OP said. I also have two daughters who were negatively affected by the strict FSY standards.

    I followed counsel of Elder Holland in his October 2005 conference talk: “The For the Strength of Youth pamphlet is very clear in its call for young women to avoid clothing that is too tight, too short, or improperly revealing in any manner, including bare midriffs. Parents, please review this booklet with your children. Second only to your love, they need your limits.” I thought I was doing God’s work for my family when I enforced rules that made my daughters feel ugly and embarrassed. They felt like they must not have the spirit with them because they wanted to wear those things- and just the *wanting* made them feel unworthy (to clarify- I never told them that- that was just the connection they made). I finally relented when they were older teenagers because I could see how much our relationships were eroding.

    Doing a quick search of the LDS library yields some interesting results about the old FSY, and really highlights how much the leaders, from the top down, hammered these standards. In a 1991 conference talk entitled “Joy and Mercy,” Dallin H. Oaks said: “Study and use that saving pamphlet, For the Strength of Youth.” I thought I was helping my family be *saved.* I was really doubling down on their insecurities and their view that God was very particular about their shoulders. I wish I had helped them feel beautiful and loved instead of insisting their prom dresses have sleeves.

  17. Craig,

    Ok, so for starters, does the author legitimately want an apology from church HQ?

    A personal one? No. An acknowledgement of the painful adjustments and complexities that attend a changing church? Yes, that would be wonderful. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

    Second, screw the harsh comments or criticism from members.

    On a certain ideal level, yes, we absolutely should be able to do so. Unfortunately, actual life as an social and embodied creatures makes us often entangled in the judgments of others, just as they are entangled in our own judgments. More forgiveness and empathy all around would be of enormous benefit to everyone, particularly teenagers everywhere (most definitely including our own). Of course, the same could be said of the institutional church, which you’re surely noticed, as a smart reader, was exactly the point of the original post.

    Third…”getting bureaucratic players to get enough support from key decision makers”…you mean Jesus?

    No, I most definitely meant bureaucratic players within the Church Office Building slowly making the case for changes to different decision-makers within and around the leading quorums of the church, kind of the same way was done as regards the racist priesthood restriction, the November 2015 baptismal exclusion policy and its eventual reversal, etc. As I wrote twice in the original post, I hold the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be a “a hapless, good-hearted, but mostly human-built community”; if it is your judgment, or perhaps your testimony, that it is no such thing, but rather a wholly inspired organization with Jesus issuing regular instructions as regards every major (and maybe even every minor) change in its operation, well, all I can say is that we view this church very differently.

    [F]ourth…I’m sorry your daughters left the church or don’t attend, but you can’t blame the policies outlined in For the Strength of Youth.

    Eh, you’re basically correct, of course; as I’m sure you noted as you did your close reading of my post, I acknowledged up front that “there are larger historical, political, cultural, theological, and familial reasons” for how things have played out (so far! remember, as Dr. Manhattan said, nothing ever ends) in our family. There is absolutely an element of self-indulgent whining in this post, and I apologize if my tone was such that you didn’t notice that element. Just because it is self-indulgent and at least a little whiny, though, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also reflect an honest assessment of the role, however small, which For the Strength of Youth played in the often painful dynamics which our daughters faced growing up in the church, and our often flailing responses to such.

    Lastly….[m]y wife is a person of color, first generation immigrant, etc., and she’s never had whatever issues your wife and daughters have had.

    Good for her! I’m happy that her experience with the youth programs of the church, both in regards to social interactions and in regards to her own self-understanding, were so much less troubled than those of the women I love. That’s a blessing.

    This article was just a first-world whine fest

    That’s also something I already acknowledged in the original post (“admittedly, very First World and minor, in any absolute sense, but nonetheless deeply felt and real”), so thank you for quoting me! Again, it shows your skill as a blog-reader and blog-responder, and I salute you for your thoughtful contributions here.

  18. purple_flurp says:

    I wonder if the BYUs will eventually follow suit and lay off from the dress and grooming rules a bit and focus more on the principle than on the proscriptions.

  19. I had the same thought (and hope) regarding the BYUs when I first heard/saw this.

    Three nanoseconds later, however, I realized that will never happen as long as President Oaks (who formally codified the Honor Code in Provo during his presidency of BYU) is alive and as long as Elder Gilbert is the commissioner of Church education. While those two are running things, BYU’s students and faculty will continue to be held to a higher standard than even the temple requirements, whether in behavior or dress/grooming standards.

  20. I agree with MoPo’s take on the issue. The specific prohibitions may be gone, but the principles remain and now the specifics will become part of the unwritten order of things. Although, it would be kind of fun if Young Women’s plan some activities called “Free the Shoulders” and encouraged everyone to wear tank tops.

    I really want to be able to see the bishoprics reactions the first time teenagers come to church with a CTR logo tattoo.

  21. Old Mormon lady says:

    I grew up before there was a pamphlet, so I don’t think we can blame the YW’s program extreme focus on grooming and dress standards on the FSOY pamphlet. It is more that the church puts so much emphasis on girls hiding their bodies, and uses shame and shunning to enforce this over emphasis. And for those who do not think it is an over emphasis, please consider that at most girls camps, the girls are forced to swim in long shorts and a T-shirt over their one piece swim suits, making swimming dangerous. When “modesty” is put over the safety of the girls, for the one or two adult men who happen to be at girls camp, then it is no longer about modesty and is about prudishness. Can’t the men control their thoughts, and if they can’t, they most certainly should not be at camp.

    That same shame and shunning were used back in the dark ages. I remember girls being sent home for coming to a hay ride in pants. Yes, we were supposed to wear a dress on a hay ride, because pants could not be allowed in the chapel for opening exercises and really, pants were not modest, because stupid. No, I am not talking about the 1800s, but 1960s. So, ever go on a hayride in a short dress? Yeah, not comfortable or really modest to sit on the hay in a short dress. But, rules were rules. I remember the shaming for girls growing too fast and their dress getting too short, so they were sent home from Sunday School. I remember a friend being told her dress was too tight and she was given a baggy brown coat to wear over it, in the summer. We had to wear dresses to MIA, while the boys were in 10 inch shorts, with half of them with their shirts off playing basketball. We were supposed to be making bread in the kitchen, but most of the girls were drooling over the 3/4 naked boys, but nobody ever thought “immodest” over 3/4 naked boys.

    We got lesson after lesson after lesson on modesty, then on temple marriage, then back to modesty. They told us so many times that we were sex objects who had to cover up, that we believed our only worth was in being attractive, but not *too* attractive. It seemed we had no value except as sex objects, because whether you copy Hollywood, or constantly push covering up your too sexy body, it still turns girls into sex objects.

    The problem isn’t the pamphlet. The problem is the way we teach modesty as covering up a too sexy body. It is the way we tell girls they are walking porn. So, changing the pamphlet isn’t going to change the attitudes.

  22. Man, I feel like I always read posts and threads like this and think, “Hmm, interesting, maybe coming a little too strong, maybe some qualified disagreement would be in order…” Then I get to a comment like Craig’s and just lose any will to push back.

  23. Also, not sure how the “controlling men’s thoughts” explanation for modesty ever flew. Not because it was offensive or anything, just that, like, does it really work? My perspective may be skewed by the fact that I was/am one of the few guys who really thinks/thought modest is hottest, but it seems like women are equally capable of holding the male gaze with and without cloth over their shoulders.

  24. Craig, David. Kind?

  25. Hanging in there says:

    One of the reasons I follow BCC is that it is usually a space where people can share their thoughts about some aspects of the church or its culture that might give them concern (or reasons for rejoicing sometimes). I enjoy the fact that the comments and discussion are usually thoughtful, measured and respectful. This of course was not the case with those two comments on Sunday evening. Russell’s response was a master class in patience, kindness and humility whilst not being intimidated. I hope it had the desired effect.

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  1. […] there are many women speaking about how much those “standards” harmed them.  (Here and here are good examples if you want to understand this […]

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