When I was growing up, we would usually drive 9 hours north to visit my sister’s house in New Hampshire for Thanksgiving. Since she was 20 years older than me and had gotten married the year I was born, my niece was more a peer to me than the adults in attendance although I was two years older. Visits to my sister’s place had caused controversy in the past. When we visited during my tenth birthday, my brother-in-law refused to let me join the adults’ card game even though I was a very experienced card player, trying to relegate me to the play room with his younger children. I didn’t want to play with their childish toys; I wanted to play Canasta! My mother was angry at his rude dismissal of me and took me out for a drive to cool down.
Later, at Thanksgiving dinners, even when I was a teen, there was controversy over where I belonged. Was I a child, like the offspring of our hosts, or was I a peer to our hostess, my sister? Her husband seemed to have one opinion, and my mother had a different one. My sister didn’t want to get involved in a dispute. I would often just capitulate and sit with the kids. I was definitely not a fan of the kids’ table. Some of their manners were rude (peas don’t belong in your nose!), and we seemed to get the mashed potatoes only after they were cold. But it wasn’t like the conversation at the adults’ table was fantastic and fun either. They were boring! They sometimes talked about work or politics. They also got stuffing that had grapes, apples and walnuts mixed in, which was too adventurous for my young palate. Eventually, as my niece got older, she complained about the kids’ table, and she graduated to the big table while I was still relegated to the kids’ table with her siblings. It was an unjust and capricious system.
Now that I’m an adult, I’ve been to many family dinners with my in-lawsthat have been served buffet style with open seating and too many people to fit at one table. People load their plates, then take a seat on a couch or chair or at the dozen or so seats at the table. Kids and adults alike are mixed together. Adults sometimes have had the authority (and temerity) to usurp a desired seat from a child, but others followed squatters’ rights. As occasional hosts of Thanksgiving dinners, we have always made sure there were enough seats at the table for everyone, although we have sometimes had an overflow table in another room staffed mainly by teens who preferred the company of peers. If any teen didn’t want to go to the second table, they were more than welcome to choose their seat at the other table. This open seating approach, while lacking in formality, has been much more enjoyable to me. There’s no jockeying for position, no rules about who sits where. It’s just about relaxing and enjoying each other and the food.
I’ve seen a lot of posts in online Mormon discussions in the last week about some of the formality and hierarchical thinking members have grown up with in the Church. Here are a few topics I’ve seen discussed:
- Should parents force their kids to go to Church or allow them to make the decision? At what age does forcing children become counter-productive? What about a child who is gay? How does this affect parenting dynamics?
- Is it wrong to use nicknames with missionaries? Does this show disrespect to their priesthood office (this was sister missionaries calling elders “champ” and getting taken down by their branch president for disrespect)? Or is there a bottomless pit of uptight wannabe bishops in the Provo area waiting to be called to be an MTC branch president? This one reminded me of a friend who was YM president and objected to the youth using leaders’ first names rather than “Bro. Stickupyerass.”
- In Mary Ann’s post last week, she talked about the reason the “Whistling and Whittling Brigade” was disbanded: because they recruited 12 year olds to join their ranks, and Brigham Young didn’t like roving gangs of twelve year olds acting like a de facto police department. (As I pointed out there, 12-year olds were eligible to receive the endowment if their bishops deemed them mature enough). She quoted leaders who felt it inappropriate for 12-year olds to perform the duties of a Deacon, which was designated as an adult role (involving whittling and whistling / being a rogue intimidation force rather than today’s mundane role of passing the sacrament).
- A topic that never goes out of style in online Mormon forums: adult children who have left the Church and their relationship with their believing, church-going parents. There is a compulsion for many of these adult children to confess their unbelief to their parents and/or to feel “seen” or validated by their parents despite this fundamental difference in worldview.
- Another age-old topic that probably originated with Adam ratting his wife out to God in the Garden of Eden, but the role Church members see their local leaders holding in their lives, seeking their advice and approval for things that are incredibly personal / nobody’s business, particularly when Church leaders have a poor track record on these topics.
- The use of “one size” messaging in the manuals and in recommending For the Strength of Youth for adults as well as children.
- Bishop Bill posted about Tad Callister’s recent Ensign article on principles vs. rules, including the analogy of wayward children needing adult oversight in TV choices, used as an analogy for the Church’s relationship with adult Church members.
All of these discussions got me thinking about the very Mormon question within the Church regarding becoming an adult. When do Mormons graduate from the Kids’ Table to the Adults’ Table? How does Mormoning influence parenting?
In a sense you could say that there is a Kids’ Table and an Adults’ Table in the elitism associated with Temple Recommends. If you hold a Temple Recommend, you are given more responsibility. You are a (potential) leader, eligible for callings that your non-Temple Recommend holding peer would not be given. Some call this “pay to play,” referring to the requirement of paying 10% tithing to be considered eligible for leadership roles.
As long as the Church has been around, there has been a desire for elitism. There were constant changes to hierarchical structures that Church members could climb to gain power and exert influence. These were often tied to loyalty to leadership. When the endowment became less elite, the second anointing was added as an additional elite ordinance that would allow some to graduate to even higher levels in the Church with even greater promised blessings (hello, you can have adultery without consequences?? Really??)
If you go back to the original twelve apostles, they too jockeyed for position with the Savior, trying to get him to say who was most important. He famously explained (although it’s unclear that they “got it” in the moment) that if you wanted to have an important space next to him in Heaven, you’d have to endure a hellish life on earth basically, and be tortured to death and whatnot. He wasn’t handing out cushy advancements to cronies. They still signed up, but I can’t imagine that was what anybody was hoping to hear.
There are formalized worthiness tests within the Church (for adults, the biannual Temple Recommend interview, for youth, every six months they interview with the bishop, and for BYU students, the now-annual–but formerly one-time–ecclesiastical endorsement). These are designed to identify those who are orthoprax and orthodox and to weed out those who are not. Through these heuristics, the Church can deem a person an insider or an outsider, someone trusted or someone feared. Using these proxies for trust, we create an elitism among the ranks of Church members.
Control & Authorization
Some members strongly believe that you need authorization for just about anything you do. They take personal matters to the bishop for advice. If someone asks them a question, they suggest talking to the bishop. Or they might search for answers to every question using only talks by high ranking Church leaders. One ward member was upset when lessons were selected that were from General Conference talks given by anyone other than the Twelve. In her view, the “higher” the authority, the better the information, and to this end, anything but the highest human authority she could envision should be scorned as unacceptable, unworthy of discussion (unfortunately, this obviously meant that no women had any authority in her view). Authority gives some people comfort. Knowing that they are approved by an authority figure makes them feel secure and right.
Others prefer autonomy to authority. They may even chafe at the control or too strong influence of an authority figure. They want to feel that their choices are their own, whether right or wrong. They may have been burned by authority in the past or they may have more confidence in their motives than those of other people. They may prefer personal accountability for mistakes to a life lived by the design of another person.
Most children crave the approval and love of their parents. I remember reading a short story when I was about 12 years old, at the cusp between childhood and growing up. The story was about a girl my age who for the first time realized that her parents weren’t the best, that they made mistakes, that her mom’s lipstick was crooked (symbolism!). She was initially devastated, her worldview rocked to the core. She didn’t think she could forgive them for being fallible humans and still being so in control of her life. But eventually, she forgave them their mistakes, and she learned to take more personal responsibility for her choices.
That’s pretty much how growing up works. Unfortunately, some parents are loath to give up that all-powerful control they have over their children or they are too invested in the idea that their adult children are their legacy, an extension of themselves, a pass/fail grade on their parenting. In Mormonism, the doctrine of eternal families takes that fear parents have of losing control and infuses a little damnation into it, plus the idea that their own eternal reward will be ruined by a child who chooses not to remain Mormon. This presupposes that the doctrine on eternal families is accurately understood, and given how vague it is, it really can’t be correctly understood, but it is still enough to trigger and exacerbate normal parental fears. It’s also likely to backfire in that relationships based on the theory of heavenly eternal relationships don’t necessarily equate to building great relationships during this lifetime. If the relationship is bad in the here and now, why would anyone wish for it to continue in the hereafter?
Universalism vs. Conditional Love
If the first two examples are about the conditions people have to meet to be acceptable to parents and other human authorities, the third category is about being expansive in one’s views of others and our acceptance. In LDS scripture, we find: “I the Lord will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.” (D&C 64:10) This hints that humans are required to be universalists, but that God may be conditional if He chooses (although it doesn’t claim that He won’t be Universalist, just that He can do what He likes). The statement puts humans on equal footing with each other, showing that with our imperfect understanding and natures, we aren’t in a position to judge others or create comparisons and hierarchies within our own human ranks. The scripture is about forgiveness, so it assumes that a wrong has been committed toward the forgiver, but all human judgments of what is acceptable and what is not are called into question by the gospel in the scriptures. As it says in Isaiah 55:8: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”
I see this as saying that when we try to apply our own hierarchical thinking to God, we will never get it right. We always turn to self-justification and condemnation of our perceived enemies. I mentioned the movie Inherit the Wind in last week’s post, based (fairly accurately, in fact) on the Scopes Monkey Trial. When the fundamentalist prosecutor (and holy crap does he prosecute that schoolteacher!) gets his comeuppance, his former friend the defense attorney defends his statement that the prosecutor had much greatness in him. He is criticized by the journalist (charming, cynical Gene Kelly) for not condemning the terrible prosecutor more fully, and he replies:
“Why? Because I refuse to erase a man’s lifetime? I tell you Brady (the prosecutor) had the same right as Cates (the schoolteacher): the right to be wrong!”
Although the fundamentalist prosecutor uses his time in the movie to whip up resentment among the local Evangelicals who literally chant a song about lynching the defense attorney and his client (!), the defense attorney supports their right to be wrong about the fight they are making. His approach channels the words of Edwin Markham’s poem “Outwitted”:
He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
Looking back at my childhood holiday meals, in a way my brother-in-law felt that my presence in his peer group would lessen his own experience and his own sense of importance. Why should he have to treat someone he viewed as a child as an equal? My mother’s view, aside from loyally defending her child from a social slight, held a formal understanding of hierarchical “rights” based on relationships in the family; like a pedigree chart, immediate family is one level, next generation is a level removed. This is partly just the thinking of prior generations. For example, in Jane Austen’s books, knowing one’s place in terms of precedent based on societal importance was essential. It would be a huge faux pas to try to go in to dinner before someone higher ranking, a misstep that could result in being scorned by others as too self-important. When 16-year old Lydia Bennett elopes in Pride & Prejudice, she pointedly tells her 22 year old unmarried sister that she now goes into dinner before her because as a married lady (er, child?), she has higher social standing.
My in-laws took a different approach altogether, and it was chaotic by the standards I’ve described in my own upbringing, but instead of any attempt at formality, there was real pleasure and joy in one another. The kids mingled with the adults. Everyone had access to everyone. We were all equal; there weren’t enough seats at the table, and nobody cared. Certainly this chaos had its upside. But for those enamored with social hierarchies, it would have been madness, an upending of the natural order of things! (Which I may have personally thought for a few minutes the first time I encountered it, but I quickly saw the appeal).
Our current First Presidency seems more focused on human hierarchies and conditional acceptance than perhaps some previous ones have, or at least it’s more openly discussed in those terms. We’ve also been ratcheting up the ways to measure fealty within the Church during my lifetime. I recall growing up that it was very common for adult Church members not to have a current temple recommend, and many did not pay tithing. The increased focus on these two measures have certainly filled the coffers of the Church, but maybe we’ve also lost some universalism in that process. Also, when we focus on what can be measured, we often lose sight of what cannot be measured. It’s like the difference between a person who is religious and one who is spiritual. You can be both, but just being religious doesn’t make you spiritual.
- What do you think is behind this focus on measuring worthiness and only giving certain callings to those deemed loyal by those specific standards? Do you see it as new or was it always there?
- What would the Church look like if it were more Universalist? What would be different? How would you accomplish such a thing? What would be the downside?
- Would the Church lose its “stickiness” (member retention) if there were more acceptance of people and less focus on worthiness?