Gordon Monson: 15 examples of LDS culture intruding on the faith’s doctrine

From beards to tattoos, Pepsi to politics, mission service to Sunday sports, there is plenty that church insiders and outsiders get wrong about what members may think vs. what the faith really teaches.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Leaders are sustained at General Conference on Saturday, April 6, 2024. Tribune columnist Gordon Monson explores where church culture clashes with church doctrine.

Delineating between what is doctrinal and what is cultural inside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a sometimes frustrating pursuit, one as old as time and as fresh as the hours of earlier today.

The mixing and muddling of the two never really goes away, even though many members wish it would. Even when top ecclesiastical leaders make unequivocal clarifications, denouncing or doing away with specific aspects of church culturalization, which is not an actual word but it should be, once doctrine and culture are confused, that mashup can be a hard habit to break.

The real problem of this “D&C melding” arises when the culture not only rules the lives of Latter-day Saints the way doctrine does but also stirs judgment on the part of those who blend the two and places that judgment upon those who keep the two separate.

The mix list is substantial. Here are 15 examples. You, no doubt, can think of more:

1. The wearing — or not wearing — of a cross.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) The historic Thomas L. Kane Memorial Chapel in Kane, Pa. It honors the building's namesake, who was an ally of early Latter-day Saints. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bought the cross-adorned chapel and later donated it to the Kane Historic Preservation Society.

This is standard among many Christian religions and their followers, a representation of their faith in Jesus, his death, his life, his resurrection and his Atonement, all things that Latter-day Saints recognize and celebrate at the center of their worship.

Somewhere along the way, the cross itself got left behind and downgraded. It was even frowned upon by some leaders, although it was never established as an official church stance. You’ll notice that the faith’s churches and temples do not feature the cross, although it wasn’t always that way in the early days. Then-Presidents David O. McKay and Joseph Fielding Smith discouraged the idea of displaying the cross, as did Gordon B. Hinckley, saying essentially that it represented the death of Jesus and didn’t emphasize the notion that Christ lives and directs the affairs of the church and individual followers.

It seems, and this is speculation here, that not using the symbol of the cross was one more way the church could distinguish itself from other Christian faiths. The trouble with that is it also can make it appear the church isn’t Christian, or at least not Christian enough.

Some Latter-day Saints hold the cross dear and wear and display it. Other members, unfortunately, then sometimes look askew at these faithful folks. That’s a shame.

2. Prophet and apostle worship.

Part of this is created and perpetuated by the church itself. These men may be good people, even inspired, but they’re not gods, so they shouldn’t be idolized as such. Listen to General Conference and count how many times church President Russell Nelson is quoted versus the number of times Jesus is cited. Something’s wrong with that. Attend a meeting where an apostle is scheduled to speak, and witness the reaction of the congregation. As the honored one walks into the chapel, everybody dutifully stands, as though a higher being has entered the room. Where is it written that members must or should do this? Respect is one thing, worship is another.

3. Don’t sport tattoos or multiple piercings.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tattoos can carry deep, even religious, significance to those who wear them.

This has banged around for years. But there is no doctrine on it. Bodies are temples, according to scripture, but other than a few comments here and there by church leaders and rules spelled out and then removed from dress-and-grooming standards at BYU and other church schools, this is not doctrine. It’s purely a cultural holdover. The church even did away with the prohibition against tattoos and extra piercings in its new “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet.

To Latter-day Saints from areas around the globe, tattoos and piercings in many cases carry considerable meaning to those who have them, symbols of honoring noble ideas, influences and loved ones. One church member I know has a tattoo on her arm that is a depiction of two olive branches, representative of peace and of Jesus, and of her Italian heritage, a nod to her deceased father. Those branches also represent her and her husband, with olives representing her children, and leaves representing her grandchildren. Who’s going to tell her she shouldn’t have that image on her arm? Who’s going to doubt her commitment to her faith? Nobody with a clue.

4. Only one-piece swimsuits are appropriate swimwear for female members.

Once again, cultural mumbo-jumbo. In the past, there may have been some language about such a thing in church literature, but there is no specific instruction on this supposed directive. Not now. It is left up to women and girls to figure out their own measure of modesty — as it always should have been and always should be.

5. Men should wear only a white shirt to church.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Missionaries now can wear white or light blue shirts.

Well, not only a white shirt, but a white shirt along with neat trousers and a sports jacket or a suit. This is just silly. In this day and age, when churchgoing women outnumber the men, male members might be welcomed with open arms if they showed up wearing a flamingo-colored shirt and parachute pants. It’s all doctrinally good. After all, even full-time missionaries, whose dress is regulated, can wear blue shirts these days.

6. Women should not wear pants to church.

Maybe this used to be a thing, but it’s not now, and it’s certainly not doctrine. Seeing the “sisters” in pants at Sunday services is becoming more and more common, and no members, no matter how caught up they are in waves of past patriarchy, are throwing them out.

7. Female church leaders cannot routinely sit on the stand during Sunday meetings.

Cultural? Probably. Policy? Maybe. Doctrinal? Nope. This exclusionary practice is just plain dumb.

8. Men cannot wear beards.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | Salt Lake Tribune)

Only at Church Educational System schools, such as the BYU campuses, and with full-time missionaries is this an issue. It’s a specific policy for specific people, not a churchwide doctrine. Many past Latter-day Saint prophets wore facial hair and church-approved artwork depicts Jesus with a beard.

9. Don’t play sports on Sunday.

Some puritanical members won’t even watch sports on TV on Sunday, preferring instead to find other ways to while away their waking hours, supposedly in kindly and righteous endeavors. But there is no specific doctrine on it, only an exhortation to keep the Sabbath holy, which enables individual members to decide for themselves where and how they place and define the parameters of holiness. BYU teams don’t start games on Sunday, but star Latter-day Saint and Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid coaches football on Sunday, wins Super Bowls on Sunday, and more than a few church members play their games on that day. Is it only OK to do so if you have a multimillion-dollar NFL, NBA or MLB contract? You decide.

(Ashley Landis | AP) Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, a practicing Latter-day Saint, celebrates his team's Super Bowl victory on Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024, in Las Vegas.

10. Missionaries who come home early from their full-time service have fallen short or otherwise messed up.

This is an assumption that is flat-out faulty and certainly not universally true. Two years or two months — it should not matter. Regardless of what is preached from the pulpit, missions are voluntary. Missionaries who abort their service do so for many reasons, including health issues, both physical and mental, personal and familial circumstances. Whatever the reason, returned missionaries should be honored, celebrated and never judged.

11. Returned missionaries should marry soon after getting home.

Cultural, all the way. More than a few mission presidents have been guilty of laying down this law to their young charges as they prepare to leave their service, as though it were a directive straight from heaven. Getting hitched in Latter-day Saint doctrine is a big deal — ideally it’s seen as a partnership that will last forever — and even within the past year senior apostle Dallin Oaks and wife Kristen Oaks held a churchwide devotional and exhorted young single adults to, in so many words, get on with it, marry and have children.

But rushing too fast through one of the most important decisions anyone, young or old, can cause a whole lot of heartache. Any encouragement to “hurry up” this process is not doctrinal.

12. If you’re a Democrat, you’re going to hell.

The Republican takeover of U.S. Latter-day Saints is still a thing. A ridiculous thing, but a thing, nonetheless. Not exactly sure when it started. It might have been way back when apostle-turned-Cabinet-member-turned-church-President Ezra Taft Benson fretted that the Soviets were going to take over the world. Ironic now that far-right Republicans are the ones who seem to be much softer on Russian leader Vladimir Putin. And Donald Trump, the Republican who holds such a fascination among GOP loyalists, is a man who, on a personal level, is about as far away in character from your standard temple-recommend-bearing Latter-day Saint as Beelzebub himself.

13. The General Handbook is the word of God.

The church’s General Handbook is a reference manual for bishops and other lay leaders who, over the span of their calls, run up against all kinds of situations and circumstances among and affecting their congregants, and almost all depend on these guidelines as though they are scripture. But the handbook, which is available to all online, is regularly updated with changes. A lot of changes. If it were the literal word of God, God would be a God who writes out his rules with a heavenly No. 2 lead pencil in one hand and a divine Pink Pearl eraser in the other.

14. Caffeinated sodas, like Coke and Pepsi, are verboten.

(AP file photo) Can of Coca-Cola and Diet Coke are shown in 2011 in Portland, Ore. Unlike want many church outsiders and some insiders think, Latter-day Saints can drink caffeinated colas.

At one time, this was a serious matter for members, with more than a few top leaders indicating that drinking sodas with caffeine was more than frowned upon. You couldn’t even buy a Coke at BYU. That ban has been canned, and the church has repeatedly reaffirmed that downing a Dew or pounding a Pepsi does not violate the Word of Wisdom health code. But some old-timers still find this reassurance hard to, um, swallow.

15. Never refuse a church calling.

Some overzealous enthusiasts came up with this as a credo for members to live by, but it’s bogus. Often, priesthood leaders who issue callings, or volunteer assignments, to Latter-day Saints in their flock are not aware of all the personal details going on in congregants’ lives. There’s no shame in turning down such an ask — and it is an ask — that for whatever reason doesn’t fit into one’s life. A humble bishop or stake (regional) president will recognize that truth and once he is properly informed will thank the member and look elsewhere.

OK, so this list is just a start. There are many more cultural crossovers. They are like barnacles attaching themselves to the hull of the church’s boat. The cultural hull. The sooner they are identified and scraped off, the better it will be for a church in need of balance and buoyancy.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune columnist Gordon Monson.

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