Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Mormon Cultural Expectations

Below I paste a facebook conversation I recently had.  Included is a list of Mormon cultural expectations/ideas I identified.  I'll admit my list is rough and not all the expectations/ideas I posit are strongly evidenced trends- it was more of a starting point/gist/constellation of items that helped convey my response to Nicole.

Brad Carmack I've decided that I choose to be a doctrinal disciple and Latter-day Saint. I also choose to be free of cultural Mormon expectations except those norms that are ethical or bring net benefit to me or my family. I don't feel obligated to comply with the cultural expectations of Mormonism as I do the gospel-derived expectations.

Sunday at 11:07  ·  · 
Curtis Galke
Curtis Galke 
There are Mormon cultural expectations? :)
Sunday at 11:09 ·  · 
Brad Carmack
Brad Carmack 
‎:) I know, right? Btw, we'll have to chat more soon- I passed the FSOT and submitted my personal narratives a couple weeks ago. The next phase is the oral examination. My mom's worried about me going down the foreign service route- I think I'll need a couple testimonials to assuage her (and me, for that matter ;)
Sunday at 11:36 ·  · 
Daniel Farrell
Daniel Farrell 
Hey Brad, you're great--I think a trick with this sometimes (for me) is to not let my self-talk drift towards "I'm not one of these people--I'm an outsider," when moments come up where I culturally (not doctrinally) feel like I'm going against the flow.
Sunday at 13:35 ·  · 
Brian Egger
Brian Egger 
Good for you Brad. Follow your heart. I need to hear more about the FSOT. That is exciting. You will be perfect.
Sunday at 13:36 ·  · 
Nathaniel Gustafson
Nathaniel Gustafson 
I approve whole-heartedly. It's good to know where your motives lie and where your foundation is.
Yesterday at 00:02 ·  · 
Nicole Marie Myer
Nicole Marie Myer 
So what cultural obligations do you feel expected to comply with? Just wondering...
23 hours ago ·  · 
Kamron Eck
Kamron Eck 
Are you referring to green Jell-O with things like corn, cheese, or shredded carrots in it?!
6 hours ago ·  · 
Brad Carmack
Brad Carmack 
‎@ Kamron :) Yep, I'm scrapping the Jello with shredded carrots for bacon at my reception. I mean, who doesn't like bacon? You're invited, btw- and I hope that day is sooner than later.
@ Nicole - I provide examples of not-necessarily-doctrinally-derived cultural expectations/ideas: 
1- shaking hands with folks at church
2- starting FHE when enough people arrive to make a critical mass, rather than on time
3- backing off from thinking deeply or talking about certain subjects, such as the implications of church policy, because "it's not important to your salvation"
4- having the woman in charge of cooking and cleaning at home
5- proposing early on, getting hitched young, and having lots of kids
6- anything to do with sex is a huge taboo before marriage, then you're supposed to suddenly embrace and epitomize all things sexual for your spouse the next day
7- helping move-ins move in 
8- hometeaching at the end of the month
9- homophobing
10- not calling on individuals to participate in Sunday School when teaching
11- send your kids to EFY and BYU- and when you're at BYU you'd better excel in everything because after all you're the light of the world and the salt of the earth, so mediocrity evidences failure, and you'd better be smart and good-looking and fit too for the same reason
12- getting your Eagle Scout award
13- giving the girls flowers on Mothers' Day
14- despising evolutionary theory
15- presuming that homosexually oriented people choose to be homosexually oriented
16 - presuming what is natural is good, and that playing God is bad
17- women should be more demure and men more assertive
18- there's little need to do hard thinking about tough issues (such as advances in reproductive technologies) because the prophet will reveal everything that's important for you to know
19- conservative institutions and "the way things have always been" are better than new-fangled ideas and practices from the world
20- politicians are all corrupt and the Constitution is abused and ignored
21- the Catholic church is the great and abominable church
22- playing video games is the main evil in the lives of single young adult men
23- in Elders' Quorum you should always forget your manual and never prep for the lesson; in Relief Society you should always cry a lot and go overtime
24- whenever you give a talk and you mention a line from a talk but don't go into it in depth, you should encourage the congregation to read it in their personal study, though you don't expect them to do so
25- you're supposed to care about where your mission call is before you open it and buy into concepts such as "stateside" and "foreign speaking" as if those categories are somehow very important
26- you've got to give your kids piano lessons
27 - because the prophet was behind Prop 8, the groups that oppose are villains who unfairly targeted the church, and any means (including a paper-thinly supported, largely emotional appeal to parental control over education)
used to pass the proposition is approved by God
28- we're each supposed to check authenticity at the door by donning a carefully managed "i'm doing great and have no major flaws and am into this" persona/mask at church, despite the fact that most of us are repeat sinners, often depressed/lonely/hurting, and not infrequently bored or apathetic.
29- if someone's unhappy it's because they're not keeping some commandment
30- when a leader, you never chew out home or visiting teachers when they break their commitments (don't report, or don't complete their visits, or keep their word to you)
31- presuming in every case that it was God's will that a person died when s/he did, even when, say, some killer guns down your innocent friend
32- personhood begins at syngamy
33- your conscience = the Spirit
34- anything you can't explain must be attributed to God
35- you should propose with a ring
36- you should go on dates, rather than letting your parents arrange your marriage
37- facial hair: del diablo
38- after the prayer you're supposed to stay in your seat for a while before jettisoning
39- you celebrate Christmas with cards and gifts 
40- women should be more nurturing than men
41- when you home teach ask if there's anything you can do for the teachee at the end of the visit 
42- the length and content of public prayers

I hope you can see that I could go on. As I implied above, not all these cultural expectations are egregious. For instance, moving in move-ins is a great gesture and I would say is not only ethically permissible but advisable because of the net benefit of its consequence bundle. But it is a practice, not a principle. Both families and individuals are free to select from programs, practices, and ideas that aren't mandated/commanded. For a more thoughtful approach on many of these subjects, see generally my blog. bradcarmack.blogspot.com
Subsequent thoughts:
-Taken together, the corpus of mormon cultural expectations constitutes a heavy burden of expectations for families and individuals.  To discriminate between cultural vs. doctrinal expectations is a difficult task; simply bearing the burden is also difficult and frequently disappointing.  Thus, any Mormon who isn't fortunate enough to be either oblivious or exceptionally talented has their work cut out.

Subsequent discussion:

Alicia Yost
So let me see if I understand: You are going to allow your parents arrange your marriage?
Just kidding.
Alicia Yost
Wednesday at 00:43

Maren Larsen MacMichael
‎#6 on your list is one that has personally bothered me. As far as move-ins......having just moved, I am grateful for that cultural expectation--it was a great help.
Nicole Marie Myer
Hmm. Sometimes I think you're intellectually on par with great philosophers and scientists of history and that makes you a little scary. I kind of feel like that scene from "Ever After" where the prince asks "How do you go through each day with this kind of passion? Don't you find it exhausting?" :) I will read your blog.
Wednesday at 16:47

Shawn Hammond
Interesting list, Brad, and I agree with a lot of them. Although some of them aren't "Mormon cultural expectations" as much as they are "societal cultural expectations." A small sampling of those would be #1, #2 (not specifically with FHE, but meetings in general), #4, #8 (procrastination isn't unique to Mormons) #17, #28, #30, #35, #39.

I agree... See more with Daniel that your decision not to feel obligated to conform to these expectations is totally fine, as long as you don't see it as "me vs. them". That seems to be flirting with dangerous ground. I can see that kind of thought process as building up unnecessary walls between you and other members that could prohibit you from fulfilling Mosiah 18:8-9. But you're totally correct in saying that you shouldn't feel obligated to conform to any of them.

I also would encourage you to not be different in some of them simply for the sake of being different. Your personality is awesomely unique enough that you don't need to be searching for areas where you can be different, just because. Some of your list I believe is inherently bad, but much of your list consists of simple quirks or traditions that, although not doctrinal in nature, also aren't necessarily bad, and being overly critical would prove counter-productive.
Thursday at 10:55

Brad Carmack 
‎@ Alicia, if I went with my parents (at least my Dad) we might be married right now

@ Maren- yes, moving help is a great expectation to cash in on

@Nicole - I have yet to see "Ever After" due to a well-nurtured predilection against chic flicks, but I think I see your point. Good luck on my blog, it's fairly dense and not always super-organized on account of being created after the image of my thoughts, which are also fairly dense and not always super-organized.

@Shawn- thank you for your thoughtful response!! I looked at all of the items in your sample and I think you're correct about each (i.e. they represent a cultural norm with broader application than within Mormondom) as well as your assertion that other items also fit that description. Good point on the unnecessary walls and not being different for different's sake- and the piece about some traditions/ideas not necessarily being bad (which I noted at the bottom of the original list). Also, being overly critical likely would have some counter-productive consequences.
20 hours ago ·  · 
Ricky Kesler
Ricky Kesler 
Brad, I agree. While I do a lot of the things on your list (took piano lessons, wait a few seconds after the prayer to leave, etc.) I don't do them because I believe they are some correct eternal principle, I do them because I choose to and do not look down on anyone else for not doing them.

I also wish we could be more honest about our lives and not feel ashamed if we're, like you said, depressed/lonely/hurting. It is counterproductive to put on a fake persona just to "fit in" and not be looked down on. I've had plenty of times when I wish someone would have known that I was hurting, but I felt like I had to pretend.

I also agree with number 6 whole heartedly and have for a long time. Now that I'm married, I agree even more. I plan to not be that way with my own family. 

You definitely have the right idea here. I guess I just want to point out that doing any of those things is not inherently wrong, but that those things should not be considered the right way to live.
7 hours ago ·  · 
Tara Larsen Chang
Tara Larsen Chang 
Brad, I went through a similar thought process a number of years ago, where I determined that I no longer wanted to be doing anything cultural merely because I felt I 'should'. After thinking through my own list of principles vs. practices and taking all the 'shoulds' out I realized that there were very few things I would actually choose to be doing differently, but now it did feel like it was a choice and not an obligation, which for me was completely transformative.
6 hours ago ·  · 
Alicia Yost
Alicia Yost 
Sweet!!! I'm in!!
about an hour ago via Email reply ·  · 
Brad Carmack
Brad Carmack 
‎@Tara- Wow Tara! I feel mucho similar. I don't think I'll change my conduct a whole lot, but coming at those habits from a position of conscious volition rather than tacit compliance or obligation brings a huge rush of liberating air into constricted lungs.
@ Alicia- :) I'll let my parents know they're back on the job
@Ricky- thanks for sharing your authentic response. I've got a hunch that a lot of LDS members feel similarly to you on #6, and I think most of us have had times similar to yours where we yearn to be open about being lonely/depressed/hurting. As I mentioned to Shawn and at the bottom of the original list, I'm with ya- doing many of the things on the list is not inherently wrong.
2 seconds ago ·  · 

A reader's email comments and my responses in blue:  
My daughter read me your 42 ‘cultural’ things that are not doctrinal.I agreed with almost all of them.  Let me just list a couple that I remember for which I am on the same page as you.  Good idea, thanks.
•        Speakers in church who suggest the audience should read a talk that the speaker quoted.  I NEVER do that when I speak. 
•        People should make their own difficult decisions and not wait for the Prophet to speak first.  This is not how you said it, but I think this was the essence of what you were saying.  Good point.
•        People should not say that homosexuality is a personal choice.  This is a debate that has been going on for decades.  However, the evidence seems to be that most people with homosexual feelings did not choose it. Elder Oaks said that the evidence states that some people are born with a disposition to lean in that direction.  My research also indicates that the predominance of evidence is in the direction that homosexual orientation is far and away more often unchosen than it is chosen.  However, I don't overmuch fault the folks that say homosexuality is a personal choice because 1) often times such folks are speaking of homosexual behavior rather than orientation, and the behavior part is a personal choice; 2) the predominance of the evidence has only become clear in the last couple decades - so someone who hasn't researched the literature lately or that learned from old-school sources would be understandably likely to erroneously conclude; and 3) the question isn't closed yet and will likely never be fully closed since evidence continues to come in- hence a conclusion of personal choice may ultimately be correct despite the current predominance of evidence. 
•        Everyone does not need to be a great student.  Even though I have the degrees, I am not a degree worshiper.  One of my children does not have a year of college, while two have their PhD’s.  I never give this a thought.  My ‘uneducated’ daughter is every bit as ‘smart’ as the other children.  She took a different path for her own reasons and that is just fine with me. Yours seems an appropriate stance. 

There a few your 42 where I disagreed.  I mention two.
•        I will shake hands at church.  I appreciate the feeling of fellowship that it gives.  However, I admit that my Eternal Status does not depend on ‘shaking hands.’  Sure.  There may be a misunderstanding if you think my list was of only deleterious norms- it was instead a compilation of unfortunate and fortunate expectations (I noted in the original list that I approve of some of the norms).  Thus, I don't think we disagree. 
•        I find the Christmas card tradition a good practice.  There are old friends for which this is the only time of the year that we touch base with each other.  And I am glad that we do.  Though again it is not necessary for exaltation. Good call.

I have believed many of these issues you mentioned for decades.  My way to handle this is just to ignore the culture and do what I think is right.  I respect that position.  I have not made any announcements that this is how I feel; but you are courageous in making your list public.

But my main purpose in writing is to mention two of your items where I strongly agree.  And these two are terribly important.  It's funny- you're not the first of the list's audience to highlight these two as standing out.  It seems they strike a cord with many.

•        People say “I am fine” when in fact that are feeling terrible.  This cultural habit is wrong and damaging.  Once decades ago, I was struggling with an issue.  I finally decided to call my Home Teacher over and tell him of my struggle.  After a detailed description of my issue, he made a few comments and we parted.  He never again acknowledged that the conversation occurred.  I had opened up my heart and he had ignored the substance of what I said.  Maybe this is why I like counseling.  I like it too- and I'm glad you feel that way about counseling.  I find people need to be listened to.  I think that need is abundant and ubiquitous.  Often we can help each other.  I cannot close this paragraph without stating I have had other home teachers who have been very receptive and helpful though I only opened up to one other as much as I did to that man discussed above.  The grassroots Christian response seems to be more the receptive/helpful HTer than the avoider HTer.
        I attended the LDS version of AA with … several times.  I thought the meetings where terrific; people talking about real problems. Yes, those types of authentic processes often prove change catalysts. I wished Priesthood meetings could be so moving.
•        “Sex before marriage is BAD, BAD.  Sex in marriage is wonderful.”  I believe this attitude is a real problem in our culture.  I read one couple who had an excellent way of teaching their young children that reproductive power was a wonderful gift.  But that couple is extremely rare. I think you're correct about the prevalence of the attitude you identify.   

So on this issue I am most curious as to what is your solution to this problem – solution in both how to teach the concepts and what actions single people like yourself should take.  Gosh, good question.  I'm not sure yet, sexual issues are pretty touchy and being off base is bad news.  I bet there're some thoughtful, faithful LDS folk out there that would have some tenable solutions to propose, though none come to mind right now.

I have included a document that I wrote a short while ago on this subject.  I have stored this essay in a section I labeled ‘Personal History Chapters that will not be published.’   After reading this again, I may put it in my published history. I couldn't access the doc because it was password protected.  I'd love to read it though. 

This short essay was a result of much prayerful pondering.  On the surface it seems to support the cultural attitude above that you and I do not like.  But it does not.  No matter how important and correct chastity is, we teach adherence to the principal very badly.  We need to find a way to do a better job as a culture.  I think you're right- but as I don't currently have a better alternative, I'm a little hesitant to criticize.

I hope you find my remarks helpful and supportive.  Let me know what you think.  I have always respected you and your wisdom. Well thanks!


1 comment:

  1. Dear Brad-

    I love you. When are we getting married? I keep forgetting.




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