I’m sure you have heard something like this before: “I hate Church culture, but I still love the gospel.” I’ve heard this comment umpteen times and still can’t comprehend the logic behind it. Culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Mormon culture is the result of Mormon doctrine.
When someone does something sexist, homophobic, anti-intellectual, racist, or otherwise stupid in the name of Mormonism, believers will defend the Church by saying bad actions are a reflection of Mormon culture, not Mormon doctrine. People of this line of thought are good, kind people, and are often willing to acknowledge the harm that the Church as an institution can sometimes cause. They are unwilling, however, to attribute these problems to the root cause – Mormon doctrine. By ignoring the fundamental problems with Mormon doctrine in action, they create a cultural strawman to sacrifice as a scapegoat on the altar of preserving their worldview.
Take the issue of blacks and the priesthood. The Book of Mormon specifically refers to dark skin as a curse:
And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people, the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. (2 Nephi 5:21)
And that is just one instance of doctrinal racism in the church. There are plenty more of them if you take the time to look. Rather than recognize that racist doctrine influences a racist culture, Mormons just say that the Church as an institution is both in the world and of the world. Their explanations of Church racism begin with disclaimers like “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was restored amidst a highly contentious racial culture in which whites were afforded great privilege”. They then proceed to explain that despite God’s spokesman being racist and God’s scriptures being racist, God isn’t actually a racist. Instead, the prophets were just victims of their culture and weren’t correct about the nature of God. Except for when they were talking about eternal families and the Celestial Kingdom and God having a plan for us, of course.
You know, the nice stuff.
Mormon culture is what happens when a bunch of Mormons get together and live Mormon doctrine. While they belong to a tight-knit community and don’t say bad words, this also means intense pressure to conform and negative social consequences if someone fails to do so. A strong Mormon culture means you know everyone in the grocery store has made the same temple covenants and supports the same Strength of Youth standards, but it also means that those that challenge the status quo are rejected and pushed away. While a strong Mormon culture celebrates being “righteous” , it also ostracizes people who happen to be gay or happen to drink.
Sure, the (modern) Church doesn’t explicitly say they we should ostracize gay people. They don’t say that people who drink are evil. They say they love and value individuality and self-expression. But for everyone one of those statements, there are ten more that say there is an attack on the traditional family, or that drinking is a sin, or that self-expression outside of their predetermined box is an act of rebellion against God (have you heard Boyd Packer’s thoughts on rap music? Or been a woman who wanted a career before starting a family?). When those negative messages are repeated at pulpits and in classrooms, members have a negative psychological reaction to “sins” and those that commit them. If you were an active member whose biggest priority was getting your kids to the celestial kingdom, would you want your child to hang out with people that drink? Why would you want them to befriend people who are dismantling the family? Why would you support someone whose self-expression could be considered irreverent or full of loud-laughter?
Of course, in places where Mormons are more scattered, Mormon culture isn’t as strong. There is no way to enforce God’s commandments on others when Mormons have to compete with other ways of thinking. When they are in the minority, Mormons have an obligation to be “cool” and relatable for the sake of missionary work. Besides, unlike non-members in Utah, people haven’t had a chance to become familiar with the truth, so you can’t hold it against them. Without other Mormons to help live the gospel, they do their best to fit in and help others join the Church.
Certainly Mormons would not have a hard time recognizing that Scientologist culture, Jehovah’s Witness culture, Buddhist culture, Jewish culture, and other religious cultures are the result of their respective doctrines. It is why those cultures exist – the doctrines created them. When someone decides to police someone’s modesty, that isn’t just weird Mormon culture. The modesty police are the result of weeks and months and years of Sunday School. One Sunday they learn that the gospel is the most important thing in all of time and eternity. The next Sunday School lesson teaches them that the best way to help someone is to help them live the gospel. And another Sunday School lesson on the law of chastity teaches that God wants them to respect our body with skirts that reach past your knees.
After those three lessons, isn’t a logical conclusion to help someone remember the importance of the gospel and encourage them to dress more modestly? If these lessons are all doctrinal, it shouldn’t be wrong to help someone live the gospel by suggesting they wear more modest clothing. The Church may not specifically say to help others be more modest, but it sets up a framework where it is easy for a member to arrive at the conclusion that they should help others be more modest. The culture of Mormonism is simply members taking the doctrine and filling in the gaps. Sometimes they get filled with harmless things like green jello or stake dances. Other times they get filled with judgement, exclusion, and a distrust of scientific evidence.
President Benson said: “Only the gospel will save the world from the calamity of its own self-destruction. Only the gospel will unite men of all races and nationalities in peace. Only the gospel will bring joy, happiness, and salvation to the human family.” But then why is it that even Mormons from out-of-state think that Utah Mormons are weird? Even Mormons can recognize that things start to get uncomfortable when too many Mormons are herded into one place. Mormonism can’t save the world – it hasn’t even figured out what do to about its own history or how gay people fit into the plan of salvation. So the next time people talk about the peace and wonder of the Millennium, imagine a New World Order version of BYU-I monitored by the Strengthening Church Members Committee. Oh joyful, heavenly day! Come swiftly Jesus!