A couple weekends ago we had a big, all-day ward YM/YW activity, and seeing as we had 35 or so youth to shuttle and I had a big 12-passenger van, I ended up driving 10 deacons.  It was a good day and everybody had fun, but the drive back was a bit of a nightmare.  If you’ve worked with deacons before, you know that individually they’re fairly smart, but when grouped, their collective IQ is inversely proportional to the number in the group.  I had an emergency bag (jumper cables, first aid kit, flare, etc.) under one of the seats [1], and the boys got into it and started throwing things around the van.  I was hit in the back of the head with a mini roll of duct tape, and one kid even lit a match (apparently there were matches).  They got out of my stuff when I asked them to (they weren’t exactly malicious, just crazy — not sure why, because I’d thought they’d be tired), but the rough housing and screaming just wouldn’t stop.  Several of the boys were trying to meet a goal to read their scriptures daily, and since we were getting home late, I proposed we all listen to scriptures for 10 minutes, both to meet the goal and calm them down.  About half liked it because they’d had it with the chaos, but the other half started screaming to drown it out.  Finally, I exited the freeway onto a dark street where I could pull over.  At first, the trouble makers freaked out a little, but when they saw that I was completely calm and didn’t make any threats, they actually continued being crazy.  They didn’t get it until they saw me texting and wanted to know what I was doing.  “Telling people why you’re going to be late.”  Then they started calming down.  There was a lot of discussion about who was responsible for what, but nobody confessed to anything, and I certainly wasn’t going to continue as things were.  I’d seen enough in the rear-view mirror.  I knew their voices, and I pretty much knew what to do to solve the problem.  I made two of the rowdiest boys in back switch with two of the calm kids in front.

What shocked me was how offended those two rowdy boys were.  They just couldn’t believe they’d been singled out.  The one I’d sat shotgun sulked for the next half hour about how unfair I’d been that he didn’t get to sit next to anybody.  Let me point out that I hadn’t accused any of them of anything I hadn’t actually seen or heard, that I hadn’t demeaned or disrespected any of them in any way, and I hadn’t yelled or even threatened to tell their parents.  I’ve had several stints dealing with YM, and I’ve never had a situation like that in which I’d behaved more calmly or fair-mindedly.  So why were they so upset with me?  I think it was equal parts shame (being singled out from their peers, even though I’d made it clear it was a collective problem) and resentment over being compelled (they didn’t like that I could exercise authority over them).

Isn’t that what it feels like to be judged?  People shame you and compel you?  I’ve heard it said that our church culture is very judgmental, and I think that’s what they mean.  Apparently I had just contributed to that.  But what was I to do?  There simply had to be a higher standard of behavior than what they were arriving at on their own.  How can you enforce a standard without somebody feeling judged?

In Jana Riess’ recent piece “How to create ex-Mormons”, she describes a poster she saw for Mormon Prom that listed lines and lines of rules for what girls couldn’t wear (no bare shoulders, low necklines, you know the list).  These rules made up most of the poster (the guys’ rules were a single line about baggy pants) and included the threat of cardigans and maxi-skirts for those girls who arrived wearing dresses that didn’t meet the standards.  As a preventive measure, girls were to text a picture of their dresses and get approved by their young women leaders.  Riess felt the poster illustrated both a double standard and a culture of judgmentalism within the church that explains why, in her 2016 Next Mormon Survey, she found that the number one reason given among ex-Mormon women [2] for leaving the church was “I felt judged or misunderstood”.

Since Riess and I live in the same general area, I could imagine seeing just such a poster in my church foyer.  While I have no sympathy for the double standard complaint [3], and I’m unapologetic about modesty standards, even I would find the poster off-putting and counter-productive.  I don’t like being shamed or compelled either.

But for those of you wondering what “Mormon Prom” is, it’s basically a dance for older teens held as an alternative to the high school proms, which are considered to not have the best environment (grinding, vulgarity, drugs, etc.)  In my area, there have been some pretty amazing Mormon Proms, and they’re a whole lot of work and money to put together.  The idea of “Mormon Prom” is to create the magic of prom while maintaining a safe, wholesome environment, as opposed to the school dances, which are simply aiming for safe.  A lot of kids (and their parents) don’t feel comfortable going to the school proms, and attend Mormon Prom instead.  A lot of kids go to both Mormon Prom and their school prom.  A lot of kids go to neither.  But the point is, if there weren’t standards, then there’d be no reason for having Mormon Prom at all.

The BYU honor code (which comes up constantly in the blogosphere) has a similar purpose — to create a great university where the standards are a given — and has a similar problem.  In the recent NPR story interviewing Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons about why he decided to speak out against the LDS Church’s position on gay marriage, he told the story of how all his siblings made it into BYU and he was so relieved he’d been accepted by the skin of his teeth.  He said,

Then, one week before I was supposed to go, I met with a bishop and told him I had sex with my girlfriend of four years, and got kicked out of BYU — and that was a trigger point in my life. It was the first time that I kind of spiraled into depression. I was told that I had to stay home and all my friends went off to college and my roommate had to find someone else and I felt like a whole community was judging me.

I also felt like God saw me as this dirty kid who was sinful. And I think that was the first time that I started to think, you know, something’s not right about this — telling a child that something that is innate, that is natural, that is beautiful, is sinful. And that was really destructive to me, and it’s taken me years to see that and a lot of therapy and that’s a small level of what LGBT Mormons go through — which is feeling guilt or shame about something that is innate, that should be celebrated, that is their sexuality, that is unchangeable.

While I applaud Reynold’s empathy for LGBT Mormons, I wouldn’t compare his violation of the law of chastity with the situation they’re in, even if it did lead him to take up their cause.  Regardless, he violated a BYU standard he’d signed when he applied, and BYU’s enforcement of the standard made him feel judged (shamed and forcibly excluded).  BYU’s punishment (and possibly the false equivalence of his fornication with the predicament of LGTB people) has apparently led to him rejecting the church’s standard of chastity, which is undoubtedly not what BYU or his bishop would have wanted.  But how can you maintain standards without enforcing them?  If BYU had no standards, there would be no reason for having BYU at all.

Obviously, if the standards for a church dance or admittance to BYU are too unpopular, people won’t go.  To an extent, the market decides.  As long as students are clamoring to get into BYU, BYU can set whatever standards it wants.  As long as kids want to go to Mormon Prom, they can strictly enforce the dress codes.  As long as boys want to participate in YM activities, I can enforce standards by threatening to exclude them from the next one.  However, if the standards are too harsh, people will quit participating, and the activities will quit happening.  So presumably, the standards would get set to what the market will embrace, to what actually gives an event or institution extra value.  But this is all beside the point.  My question isn’t where the standards should be set, but how you can maintain them without anybody feeling shamed or compelled.

I think many would argue that if any standard exists, somebody is going to feel judged (shamed and compelled).  So, the popular attitude these days is simply drop standards altogether.  You know, let everybody do her own thing.  Have a personal standard if you want, but insisting on a collective standard is considered shaming, and therefore bad. [4]

However, if you believe collective standards should exist (which you do, if you have personal standards and want to associate in groups of people who share them), the question is, how can those standards be maintained without somebody feeling judged?  Other institutions have standards.  Kids get suspended from school, kicked off sport teams and out of clubs.  Professional organizations exclude offenders, and professional journals exclude work of those they don’t consider worthy.  How is it different with church and what should the church do to keep standard violators coming back?


** By the way, I consider this post to be a rehash of thousands of posts that have gone before, and rather than raging about how bad the BYU honor code is, or how unreasonable the church’s modesty standards are, I’d be much more interested in how standards in general, any standards, can be sustained without shaming the non-compliant.  Is that even possible?  What’s the best we can do?




[1]  ‘cause being prepared, don’t you know.  I also have a blue hospital vomit pan for those who get motion sick — and it’s been used multiple times.

[2]  as a whole that is — Riess breaks out the reasons by age group and they vary

[3]  You could simply combine the dress standards for the girls and boys into a single standard, however.  That way you won’t have in boys in low-cut shirts or girls flaunting their thongs in low-hung pants.

[4]  Driving to seminary, my daughter and I were joking about something which led to me mentioning the nightmare dream of arriving at school without pants.  Rather than laughing, she just looked at me and said “my teachers wouldn’t say anything.”  I thought about it, and I guess she’s right — she’d just look like she’d made booty shorts by cutting the legs off some leggings.  How dare they say a word.