The old adage is that it’s impolite to talk about politics and religion at family gatherings. These topics, at least in American culture, are often considered divisive and fraught. But there are other taboo topics in cultures that are even more verboten than these: sex, sexual orientation, racism, marital issues, mental health, and finances. Why are these seen as off limits? For example, it is very common in some cultures to discuss one’s finances and salary openly. A moratorium on discussing how much money we make only benefits employers who can use our shared ignorance to underpay workers and to play favorites.
At Church, a forbidden topic is mistakes made by leaders, whether living or dead (but especially living). It’s simply not allowed in current Mormon Church culture to imply that a leader ever did anything that was not God’s will. In fact, this seems to be a feature from the beginning of the Church when the same Joseph Smith who ironically said “It feels good not to be trammeled,” also used his authority to excommunicate apostles over disagreements rather than finding common ground. The Church has continued through the years to use “personal loyalty tests” as a deciding factor in whether or not someone can remain a member, including as recently as Chad Hardy’s excommunication when he said he would not quit publishing his Mormon missionary beefcake calendars if asked by President Monson personally. (This was a hypothetical posed by his Disciplinary Council, not an actual scenario).
Not all churches run this way. Many are run by councils that require membership approval or voting for changes to policy or doctrine. Most churches, even high demand religions, no longer use the excommunication process because they don’t find it necessary or productive. Only if you are in a very powerful position might you be subject to such scrutiny; it is not applied to the membership at large.
When you look at what is taboo in a given community, what cannot be discussed without penalty from the group, you learn what is feared by that community and the individuals within it.
A few years ago, I wrote a post about a Relief Society meeting in which an older sister commented that she yearned for the Celestial Kingdom where we would no longer have “these races” to divide us. She then listed off every non-white race she could think of, never adding “white” or “caucasian” to her list of races that are apparently divisive by existing.
Last week I stumbled across a fantastic blog by A.R. Moxon called The Reframe. A recent post included an explanation of why some people consider certain topics “polarizing” by using the game of “Smear the Queer” as an analogy for what has long been the norm in our country. In the game, the group agrees that they are all against the one player designated at the “queer,” or the other. Those who chose the hapless target of their aggression are one part of the problem, but so are the ones who simply go along with the game, who don’t say it’s unfair, who allow the other to be targeted. The illusion of “us” against the targeted “other” is shattered when some who were willing to ignore the cruelty or injustice instead begin to insist that everyone’s dignity matters. That feels divisive to those who prefer to ignore the cruelty, who don’t want to face what we have done as a community to those we’ve deemed “others.”
But the strife isn’t polarization. It’s distressing, but it’s not polarization. The strife is the first early sign that we might be willing to stop being polarized by bigotry and injustice.https://www.getrevue.co/profile/juliusgoat/issues/polarization-and-strife-922845?via=twitter-card-webview&client=DesktopWeb&element=issue-card
Trying to avoid “divisiveness” is a particular problem in Mormon culture, and it is often scripturally tied to the Book of Mormon:
29 For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.
30 Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.(3 Nephi 11:29-30)
In avoiding disagreements, we also ignore that some of our unexamined biases, assumptions and actions are wrong, cruel and well, contentious, provided we look at all of God’s children, not just the Mormon ones, and not just the ones in the room. We can’t improve, be more godlike, be good disciples of Christ, without facing the reality of our shortfalls collectively and individually. Unfortunately, the desire to avoid “contention” is nearly pathological in many of our Mormon wards. Nobody can bear correction, and we particularly have no stomach to acknowledge institutional failures that every person on the planet can plainly see exist, particularly the homophobic, racist and sexist assumptions that routinely go unchecked and uncorrected in the name of “unity” in church culture.
Another reason that taboo topics are often avoided is that they reveal status issues between individuals. When there’s a hierarchy associated with having kids or being married, these topics can feel like personal attacks, callously revealing someone’s “lower” status.
In our capitalist culture, differences in financial means can also feel threatening to those who find themselves lower on the rungs of material success; conversely, those who fancy themselves to be higher on that ladder may make little comments to reveal their own higher status from a sense of insecurity or pettiness. The more focused we are on prosperity gospel as a church, the more personal financial information is likely to be used in this way, although it is typically considered gauche in American culture to flaunt one’s wealth.
Political affiliation is another status issue within the Church, exacerbated by the growing gap between the parties. Recent polling that shows that 5% of Republicans would not befriend someone who voted for the opposing candidate and 37% of Democrats would not befriend someone who did. Revealing one’s minoritarian political views in a church setting can lead to ostracization depending on how strongly conservative the ward is . It can be a problem whenever partisan views are shared as an assumption, regardless of which they are, given the negative partisanship in which hatred for the other party is stronger than affiliation with one’s own. Assuming party affiliation can be different than discussing political issues, but it isn’t always. After all, most people aren’t open-minded or curious about other people’s views. They just want to signal which team they are on.
There have also been taboos related to the pandemic. We’ve noticed that when individuals we know have posted a lot on social media downplaying the pandemic, spreading misinformation about vaccines, or sharing anti-mask sentiments, and then the person dies, their social circle has a tendency to hide the reason for the death. This is a status related omission.
Have you ever taken a Financial Literacy quiz? (follow the link for a quick 6 question one). There is a chicken-egg problem with some of these “taboo” topics: the less we discuss them, the less people know about them, and the less willing to discuss them people will be because they don’t know what they are talking about. This has been shown to be particularly true about financial topics. The national average for the quiz I linked is 50%, even lower in some states (Georgia only averaged 2.7 out of 6!). In cultures that are open about finances, financial literacy is much higher than in the US. Not understanding finances leads to many problems for people, particularly in lower socio-economic households, and among those just starting adulthood. This is even worse for Americans since our system is designed based on individual choices rather than a social safety net. 1 in 4 Americans have no money whatsoever set aside for retirement.
I discovered another “literacy” problem around a taboo topic when I was a freshman at BYU. A roommate of mine was getting married. When she finally explained her fears, it came out that she didn’t know how sex works. She was completely unaware of her own anatomy for one thing. She was sexually illiterate. In a related note, many men are ignorant of women’s health. In a recent Twitter thread, a woman shared an argument with her ex-husband who told her that all women menstruate at the end of the month. She said that was not true, and he became angry and told her, “This is why I can’t talk to you about feminism!”
In our wards, we create literacy problems when our manuals proof-text the scriptures, when we gloss over thorny history issues, when we outlaw the use of “unapproved” materials that normal curiosity and respect for scholarship would lead us to include. This lack of awareness creates a problem in which people are not equipped to address their knowledge gaps and don’t really engage with anything beyond vague platitudes, instead keeping their understanding superficial and unthreatening. This can lead to boredom, and eventually total disengagement.
- What taboo topics have you encountered in the Church? Have you broken these taboos?
- Have you encountered these root causes (avoiding contention, status issues, or illiteracy problems) when taboo topics are brought up at Church?
 The only Mormon ward I’ve ever been in that leaned Democrat was my home ward, so I think I’m pretty safe in assuming wards lean to the right, some very far to the right.
 This is a correction to my original post. The link to the Axios poll results are here.