Mormon Culture: What it is like on the inside.
I have been talking about the LDS Church every other week lately, and while this episode is about the church, this episode is different than the ones I typically have on the Church in that I won’t be using scripture or LDS sources to show their beliefs, doctrines, etc., instead I will be talking about the culture within the church, which is something that if you have not experienced it you may need to have it explained in order to understand some of the driving force behind members of the church staying in the church, even when they no longer believe it. If you are or were part of the church than you will immediately relate to what I will say, and if not, than you will be able to better relate to those you meet who are members of the church.
The culture within the LDS Church is quite unique and there are a lot of things LDS people talk about that make no sense to anyone outside of the church because they have no frame of reference. There is no way I can accurately or fully describe the culture of the church in one podcast episode, but I hope to discuss it fully enough so that one who has never lived it may better understand those who believe in it. The culture within the church is so strong, so comforting and so controlling that it makes it difficult for people to leave the church, even when they no longer believe it is true, not to mention the fact that it often ruins family relations if a person leaves the church. There are a lot of people within the ranks of Mormonism that are only culturally Mormon, some of which are active in the church and some which are not.
A lot of LDS people consider those who still believe in the church but don’t live it, especially if they drink coffee or alcohol, to be “jack Mormon” but that is not the true meaning of the term. When the LDS people were forced into a mass exodus early on in the church’s history there were some people, mostly in Iowa, who did not believe in the LDS teachings or doctrine but sympathized with their plight and helped them by providing them food, clothing, medicine and safe passage. Those who were driving the Mormons out called those who helped them “jack Mormon,” and some of them suffered greatly at the hands of the mobs as a thanks for their kindness to the Mormons.
I was not raised in the LDS Church, as those of you who are regular listeners know, but I picked up the culture quickly and, in the most part, embraced it. Most people who were raised in the church like to brag about how many generations of their family was members of the church, and it is considered extra brag worthy if your family was among the earliest members, especially if they were some of the pioneers that made the trek from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City, Utah.
One time in church, in a Sunday school class, everyone was bragging about their family coming out west with Brigham Young and company. After a while I spoke up and said, “Well, my family is from Missouri so they probably ran your families out and drove them out of missouri.” People were shocked and appalled at my comment and some even gasped audibly. To say that my joke was not well accepted would be an understatement. In all honesty, most of my family during that time period was from Missouri and, though I don’t know for sure, I would not be the least bit surprised if some of them were part of the mob that drove the saints, as the LDS people like to call themselves, out of Missouri.
People who are raised in the church are taught from birth that the temple is their ultimate goal in this life and is the only way to attain all that God has planned for them. Little children learn to sing songs about going to the temple, and also songs about following the prophets, which is what the church considers its leaders to be, prophets.
Virtually every LDS male is given the priesthood (in times past people of color could not hold the priesthood or go to the temple, but that is a subject for another time) and before each priesthood rank is given the man or boy must have an interview with his bishop to determine worthiness. Young women have some corresponding progression in the church, but they don’t have any leadership or any true responsibilities in the church like the guys do, and since I was not raised in the church and don’t have any children, I don’t know as much about the young women’s programs.
All members go thorough many worthiness interviews, starting just before one turns eight and gets baptized. Worthiness is determined by the persons faith in the church and how well he or she follows all of the rules. Everyone is expected to confess to the bishop if he or she has broken any of the serious rules such as the word of wisdom which prohibits coffee, tee, alcohol, tobacco and drugs, or if they have strayed from any of the strict rules on sexuality. The LDS church considers any sexual sin to be next to murder in seriousness, and I think it is fair to say that it is the most common area where the youth of the church falter.
Unlike most Christian churches which have the sacrament, Lords supper, eucharist, or whatever they call it once or twice a month, the LDS Church has the sacrament every Sunday except for stake and general conferences. If you break any rules you are not allowed to take the sacrament, so a lot of people, especially youth, show up late if they can’t take the sacrament so that people won’t notice. Because of this, a lot of people assume that anyone who shows up late is not worthy of taking the sacrament. In most churches people will not notice or care if you don’t take the sacrament, but in the LDS Church everyone notices and silently judges you, imagining all sorts of horrible possible reasons for you not taking it. Mormons consider taking the sacrament to be like getting baptized all over again.
Mormons are terribly judgmental, especially of other Mormons, but the farther you get away from the Mormon Mecca of the Utah and Idaho area the more normal the members are and the less judgmental they are. A lot of Mormons judge other Mormons for things that are not even against the rules, such as drinking caffeinated soda, like Mountain Dew. Coffee and tea is against the rules, regardless of caffeination, but caffeine itself is not and has never been against the rules.
With as much as some Mormons judge others on small things, they really judge when someone doesn’t take the sacrament. I had an occasion where I was not allowed to take the sacrament for a while and some people in the ward treated me like I was some sort of a monster and would not even look me in the eye, would not talk to me, and I learned that they were spreading all sorts of unsavory and untrue rumors about me. Despite being commanded not to do so, a lot of Mormons love to spread rumors.
The LDS Church has such strict rules on the sacrament that if a man or boy wears a shirt in any color other than white he is not allowed to bless or pass the sacrament, though he is still allowed to take it. A man is also not allowed to give any blessings or anything else like that if he is not wearing a white shirt. I used to intentionally wear a grey or blue shirt so that I would not be asked to do anything, even though I knew some people would judge me and think I was unworthy and didn’t want to be put in a position where I had to admit it. I was willing to let people judge me so that I could just sit and relax and not be asked to do anything. I got tired of always getting called upon to do something.
When a boy turns twelve he is ordained into the aaronic priesthood in the office of a deacon, which is the lowest rank in the LDS priesthood. As a deacon about the only official duties a young man can do is to pass the sacrament to the congregation once it has been blessed by one holding a higher priesthood. Both boys and girls once they turn twelve may go to the temple to perform baptisms for the dead where they will stand in as proxy for someone who died without the Mormon baptism.
When a young man turns fourteen he is ordained to the office of a teacher in the Aaronic priesthood. As a teacher a young man may prepare the sacrament and helps pass the sacrament when there are not enough deacons. As a teacher a young man may also go home teaching along with his father or another Melchezadic priesthood holder (the higher LDS priesthood). Home teaching is a program in the church to ensure every house in the ward gets visited from two priesthood holders in the ward. Sometimes a man will go home teaching to a family and when he gets home his families home teachers will show up at his house to impart wisdom or just to offer help if needed.
Home teaching is stressed by the church as being extremely important, yet most wards have less than fifty percent home teaching every month, and even those numbers are not typically accurate because some men lie about whether or not they visited their assigned families. In case you are wondering, lying is considered a sin in the LDS Church. I always did my home teaching, but in the ten plus years I was in the church my home teachers rarely dropped by to see me, yet they reported one hundred percent complete, which was an obvious lie, but I never ratted them out.
In addition to home teachers visiting the entire family, adult women get visited by a couple of ladies in the ward and it is called visiting teaching. I was never sure why women got the double treatment, but to be honest I never cared enough to ask.
When a young man turns sixteen he is ordained to the office of priest in the Aaronic priesthood and may bless the sacrament, prepare the sacrament if there are not enough teachers to do it and helps pass the sacrament if there are not enough deacons and teachers to do it. As a priest a young man may also perform baptisms and is given a bit more responsibility in home teaching.
When a young man turns eighteen he is ordained to the office of elder in the Melchezadic priesthood, an office he will hold for most of his life until he is ordained as a high priest later in life, usually after fifty. Though it was not so in the beginning of the church, a man must be ordained to the office of an elder before he can serve a mission. As an elder a young man may now give priesthood blessings, confirm a person to the church once they have been baptized, and may perform any and all Aaronic priesthood duties if there are not enough Aaronic priesthood holders to do it. As an elder a young man may now go to the temple to get his endowments, and both men and women go through the temple ceremonies before going on a mission or getting married in the temple.
When a young man reaches eighteen he is expected to serve a mission, but that is a fairly recent change. A young man used to have to wait until he was nineteen to serve a mission, but that gave him an entire year after high school to get into trouble or to get distracted away from serving a mission, so it was decided best to send them out as soon as possible after high school. There is intense pressure on young men in the church to serve a mission, and every male who is physically able is expected to do so. Young women may serve a mission at nineteen (it used to be twenty one), but they are not expected to and it is preferred to have them get married to a returned missionary and start a family instead, which is part of the reason they have to be older to go then the guys so it increases the chance they get married instead of serving a mission. Another reason girls have to be older than guys is to reduce the chances of flirting or dating as most women won’t accept any advances from guys younger then they are.
When I was first called serve a mission I was taught that all missionaries were chosen by the prophet and his counselors praying individually about every application, but that is not even close to being the truth. When I was on my mission President Monson, who was the first counselor in the church’s presidency at the time, said that missionaries are chosen based on the needs of the church and based on the talents and abilities of the individual. A missionary is paired to mission by a computer algorithm and then once a batch is chosen the presidency prays over them and almost never makes a change in assignment. A lot of LDS people refuse to believe that is how missionaries are chosen for specific missions, despite the fact that the church has made no effort to hide the process and many high level leaders have acknowledged it. Thomas S. Monson, by the way, later went on to become the prophet of the church when Gordon B. Hinkley died.
One of the ways male missionaries are encouraged to work hard on their missions and to be faithful is teaching them that the harder a man works on his mission the prettier his wife will be, and because of that if an LDS man is married to a homely or ugly woman people assume he was not a good missionary and was lazy or didn’t follow all of the rules, which is messed up on so many levels. Now it is important to note that the church doesn’t officially teach you will have a pretty wife if you work hard on your mission, but virtually every male missionary has heard it said, and many believed it. I did not believe it, though my disbelief did not prevent me from putting my all into my mission as I was serving a mission, I thought, to bring people to Christ, not to earn a wife. My skepticism of the teaching was confirmed when I saw some missionaries who were lazy, unmotivated and unworthy get married to absolutely stunning specimens of beauty and some of the hard working missionaries got married to ugly women. It is always bad to judge a person based on physical appearance anyway and those who do it should be ashamed of themselves. I have not heard what is promised to the sister missionaries for their hard work as I was never made privy to that information.
Once a young man comes home from serving a two year mission, at his expense or at the expense of his family, he is expected to get married and there is intense pressure on him to do so. There is a saying within the church that any two people who are living the gospel can be happily married because they share a common goal that is bigger then either of them, but I have always disagreed with that. There is not the same pressure on women to get married, though they are expected to do so. If a woman is not married it is typically viewed as the fault of the man for not asking her. Of course, if a woman is proposed to by a young man that is considered by the church to be worthy, she is expected to accept. It is believed in the church that there are multiple levels of heaven and that the only way a person can reach the top level is to be married within the temple.
Quite often when a woman does refuse the proposal she is urged by the man who proposed, and often by her family and church leaders as well, to pray about it. Of course, if a woman refuses a man’s proposal because she said she prayed about it that is the ultimate rejection in LDS culture and there is a saying in the church that “you can’t ask her to pray about it again; look where that got martin harris.”
People who are familiar with the church probably laughed, but those who are not familiar with the church likely didn’t get the reference. Church history teaches that when Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon Martin Harris was acting as his scribe and writing what Smith would dictate to him. Martin Harris was to finance the publication of the book by taking out a mortgage on his farm, which was a business arrangement his wife was not happy about. Mrs. Harris thought her husband was getting swindled by a young charismatic con artist and demanded her husband show her an example of the writing so she could determine for herself what sort of work it was.
Martin pleaded with Joseph to let him take the 116 pages that they had translated so far to show his wife and take care of her concern, but when Joseph prayed about it the answer was no. Martin continued to beg so Joseph prayed again and got the answer that Martin would be allowed to take the pages and show them to his wife and close family only and then to bring them back.
When it was time for Martin to come back with the manuscript he didn’t show up and, naturally, Joseph was worried. When Martin did finally show up, days late, he confessed that the manuscript was stolen from him and he could not find it. As a result Martin Harris was no longer allowed to help with the translation, though he was still expected to pay for the publication, and had to work hard for forgiveness for loosing the translated pages. Smith was commanded not to translate the same part of the golden book again so that no one could alter what had already been written as a claim that he was not a prophet. This is why a guy won’t typically ask a girl to pray again if she turns him down based on a prayer, though a missionary will eagerly ask an investigator of the church to pray again if he or she said they prayed and was told the church is not true and not to join it.
Almost as soon as the wedding ceremony is completed other people, usually older people, will start badgering the newly wed couple as to when they are having children. It is believed in the church that there are multitudes of spirits in the spirit world waiting for bodies to be born into so they can come to earth and prove themselves so they can make their way to the highest heaven. The church even has special wards to help single people get married and they are called singles wards, but you are typically only allowed to attend a singles ward until you are thirty and then you have to attend a family ward.
As a Mormon you are fully expected to be married with children by the time you are thirty. Single Mormon people over thirty don’t really fit in anywhere and they feel like they don’t belong. While no one typically admits it, a large portion of the LDS population views single people over thirty differently and think there must be something wrong with them or else they would be married, or people assume the person has chosen to make something else more important than one of the most important commandments. Either way, single Mormons don’t feel like they fit in and feel like they are being judged, and rightly so. Everythign in the LDS Church is designed for families, which can make single adults who are too old for a singles ward feel like a fish out of water.
The way the church is organized is a geographic area is designated as a ward and the people in that area are assigned a specific building and time to go, and you don’t have choice which ward you are in. If you are single between the ages of eighteen and thirty you have the choice of a family ward and a singles ward, but you don’t get to decide which singles ward or which family ward you attend. In areas where there are a lot of Mormons a ward may be a single neighborhood or even just a few streets in a neighborhood, but in areas where there are fewer Mormons the ward may cover many miles and several towns.
Three married men are chosen from within the boundaries of the ward to serve as the bishop and first and second counselors, none of which get paid for their service. The majority of the positions in the church are not paid and only the upper leaders get paid, though the church claims to be against paid ministry, but the upper leaders are somehow an exception to that rule.
Virtually every person in the ward is expected to have a calling, even if the bishop has to invent a new position so they have something to do. Part of the driving force to have everyone do something is people are less likely to fall into inactivity if they are responsible for something every Sunday. As a Mormon you are fully expected to accept any calling given as the calling is considered to come from God, though the bishop and counselors discussed it and picked the person that was the best fit, or made up a position that would be a good fit for the person. One of the most dreaded callings is nursery, where you have to take care of small children for two hours every Sunday.
It is the common practice of the church to ask a person to accept a calling before the sacrament meeting and then to sustain them by presenting them to the membership for a sustaining vote. Everythign in the church has to be voted on, but no one ever votes against anything the church suggests, even if they don’t agree with it, partially because it is assumed the church is always right, but also out of fear of being viewed as a trouble maker or weak in faith.
There have been several occasions when I have gone to sacrament meeting and been completely blind sighted by being sustained to a calling I was never asked if I was willing to accept and was not given any heads up about it. When we were asked to show by raise of hands I did not raise my hand to sustain myself, and I resisted the almost overpowering urge to raise my hand when they asked if there were any opposed to them giving me whatever calling it was.
LDS services are three hours every Sunday and are separated into three one hour blocks. The most important meeting is the sacrament meeting, which is often first, but sometimes last, depending on the ward and how man wards share one building. Unlike traditional Christian services, there is no preacher that gets up every Sunday and gives a sermon. On all but the first Sunday of each month and semi-yearly conferences, there are one or more people who were asked ahead of time by the bishop or one of his counselors to give a talk on a specific given subject. A topic is always given as the church does not trust members to come up with their own topics, and if you have ever been to an LDS sacrament meeting on the first Sunday of the month you are well aware of the reason.
The first Sunday of the month is fast and testimony Sunday, or open mike Sunday as I like to call it, and instead of having prepared talk members of the congregation are invited to share their testimonies. According to the church, a testimony always has to be about your belief in the Father Son and Holy Ghost, but not in the traditional Christian trinitarian view, and about the church being restored through the prophet Joseph Smith and about the current LDS president being a prophet. Of course, this rule is rarely followed and the meeting quickly goes into chaos and insanity and most people share about their travels or other random things. Most women who go up to the mike cry, sometimes so bad that no none can understand a single word they are saying. Young children who go up are coached by an adult or older child as to what to say, "I know the church is true, I know Joseph Smith was a prophet and that God loves me, I love my mommy and daddy, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen." Children's testimonies are all literally the same, word for word, and the church urging people not to allow their children to bear their testimony until they can do it unassisted is largely ignored. A lot of rules in the church are largely ignored by large portions of the membership, even those who are considered devout.
In ever ward there are the same group of people who get up every fast and testimony Sunday to speak, usually women, and what they say is rarely within the guidelines of what the church asks for, and they almost always cry as they blather on. One Sunday I listened to a girl talk about how she wanted to kill herself because she was fat, and to the best of my knowledge none of the leaders spoke to her about it, and on another Sunday a man took the entire time to talk about birthing pigs. Talk about crazy topics that has nothing to do with church. To make matters worse, the man who shared the pig birthing story had a leadership position in the ward.
The reason it is called fast and testimony Sunday is because members are expected to start fasting on Saturday after dinner and not break their fast until dinner on Sunday, and they are to donate the money that would have been spent on food for the day to the church. This donation is in addition to the ten percent of all income the church requires in order to be in good standing with the church and considered worthy.
The other two hours during LDS Sunday service are for Sunday school and priesthood and relief society meetings. Sunday school is always sandwiched between sacrament and priesthood/relief society. Where the sacrament meeting may or may not be the first hour, Sunday school is always the middle hour. Sunday school is broken into youth classes based on age ranges and the adult Sunday school class is broken into two classes, one for those who are new to the church or investigating it, and the other for everyone else. Go to any LDS Church anywhere in the world and their Sunday school classes will be on the exact same topics on the same Sundays as it is decided by the leadership in Salt Lake City. Children under twelve go to either nursery or primary for the two hours they are not in sacrament meeting. All members, regardless of age, go to sacrament meeting.
The first or last hour, depending on the year, is for priesthood and relief society meetings. If a ward shares the building with other wards, which is typical, the time church starts as well as the order of the meetings changes every year to allow all wards to cycle through and have the earliest and latest slots. Sometimes there are as many as ten wards in a building and there are services from 7AM until at least 5PM.
For the priesthood/relief society hour, all of the ward members that are twelve years of age or older are separated based on gender with the males going to priesthood classes and the females going to relief society classes or young women. For all Sundays except for the fifth Sunday in a month, all of the adult priesthood classes and relief society classes have the same lessons, all over the world. On the fifth Sunday the person teaching the lesson may use a talk from the most recent general conference.
General conference is twice a year, May and October, when instead of going to church the members listen to the upper leaders of the church give talks the entire weekend, Saturday and Sunday. Whether you listen live or later on, every member is expected to listen to each and every talk.
For the youth, the young men and young women classes differ from each other, but all young men’s classes in all wards will be the same and all of the young women’s classes will be the same throughout the church. At the start of the hour, all males over the age of twelve gather together in one room for opening procedures and then are broken up into high priest group, elders quorum, and then young mens, or Aaronic priesthood.
Every Monday evening every family in the church is expected to gather as families and have what is called family home evening where there is a spiritual lesson and then games as a family. The LDS Church is extremely big on families, mostly because of their belief in everyone being literal offspring of God and their views on the faithful going to the highest ranks of heaven together as family and becoming gods themselves.
For the singles wards the congregation is separated into family home evening groups and they meet at the bishop’s house and the counselors’ houses and have singles family home evening.
If you were to ask any LDS person what he or she thinks of other churches they would say that they think all churches have good to them and some truth, but that the LDS Church is the only one with all of the truth, but how they truly feel about it is quite different. Most LDS people view other churches as the church of the devil, a lot of which has to do with what the Book of Mormon has to say about the Bible and churches who believe in it. The Book of Mormon is considered to be the most correct book on earth and is viewed as leaps and bounds above the Bible. It is not uncommon to find Mormons who have never read the Bible and don’t plan to.
If any active LDS person has a friend or family member who wants to attend another church, even just once, they freak out and act like their friend or family member is selling their soul to the devil, though they will likely never state it so strongly. Going to another church, for any reason, is viewed by active members the same way a San Francisco 49ers fan would view a family member who started wearing a Seattle Seahawks jersey and rooting for them.
Where most Christians, regardless of denomination, like to tell people they are Christian, Mormons brag about being LDS, not about being Christian. Despite the fact that they firmly think they are Christian, a claim that is demonstrably false, they always talk about the church and its leaders and almost never talk about Jesus. You will never see an LDS person with a Jesus sticker, a Christian fish, a Bible verse, a cross or any other Christian stickers or emblems on their cars, but you will see stickers and emblems of the temples, the angel Moroni, Joseph Smith, Book of Mormon verses, and things like, "Are you LDS too?" and “Follow the prophet.” It is more like they are proud of being in some club then they are of being known as followers of the Christ they claim to serve.
Most LDS people are somewhat obsessed with whether or not other people are in their club and almost immediately ask new neighbors if they are LDS. When in public most LDS people try to see if other people are wearing temple garments or listen to hear if they say anything that might give them away as being Mormon. Mormons want to know who else is Mormon and they want everyone to know that the are Mormon, but they rarely talk about Jesus or the Bible.
When I was in my twenties my older sister gave me a t-shirt that said, "Jesus Christ, the alternative rock" and had a Bible verse below that. My girlfriend hated that shirt because she said it made me look like a born again Christian and was always trying to get me to get rid of it. One day when she came over she went through my closet and threw the shirt away while I was in the bathroom and made sure I didn't know about it until it was too late to do anything about it. I was upset and so was my sister.
One thing I always thought was strange, even when I was in the church, is that even the most devout members seam to hate to talk about the church outside of church and even though they constantly post temples and LDS quotes on their facebook page they get a little uptight when another LDS person tries to engage in a religious conversation. On several car pools to the temple I was told on the way back by the other people in the car to stop talking about the church because they had met their church quota by going to the temple. The father of one of my girlfriends told me that I put too much stock in what the church says, and he was the bishop of his ward!
It has always seamed to me that a large portion of the LDS people do the absolute minimum and think that breaking a few small rules doesn't matter so long as they don't drink coffee and so long as they keep paying tithing. The church feels quite differently about it and teaches that you must follow every rule and that doing the minimum is not acceptable as only your best will give you any chance of exaltation.
If you ask a Christian if they will be saved if they were to die and they respond yes, and a Mormon would respond in kind, but the term salvation means vastly different things to Christians and Mormons. To a Christian salvation is the greatest thing we can hope for and to be saved is to go to heaven and be with God. Since Mormons believe that everyone who dies will go to some sort of heaven, they believe salvation is for everyone, even though not all heavens have access to God. For Mormons exaltation is the goal, and exaltation is making it to the highest level of the highest heaven where they have the chance to be a god someday. To a Mormon, what Christians consider heaven is simply unacceptable.
Another thing that is common in the church is to tell stories that are sort of legends at this point. In The Book of Mormon three Nephites were blessed by Jesus when he came to America after his resurrection that they would never die. Mormons like to tell the story of a man who was arrested for rape and had the opportunity to attack a sister missionary but chose not to and when asked what changed his mind he said, “are you kidding? Did you see the size of the three men behind her?” The legend is that the three men were the three Nephites, still tooling around on earth waiting for the end days.
Up until this year when the LDS Church cut ties with the Boy Scouts of America because of their decision to become co-ed, the church has had a strong relationship with scouting and most young men raised in the church grew up to be eagle scouts. A while back the LDS Church almost left the scouting program when they decided to allow gay shouts. I am not sure if the church decided co-ed scouting to be a bigger insult than gay scouts or if it was just the last straw, but either way the church and the BSA have parted ways.
The LDS Church is also big on legalism like the Jews are and were, and the church teaches that members are to do only church related things on Sunday and should not watch sports, do yard work, go to the store, go fishing or golfing, or do anything else that is not related to the church other than napping or visiting family members. I have known guys who would set their VCR too record Sunday football and then would get up real early before work on Monday so they could watch it before any of their co-workers spoiled it for them.
Rules are a super big deal in the church, but almost everyone has at least some rules that they are willing to break and feel alright about doing so. The thing is though, the church is set up where they are not saved by grace but rather they are saved by grace after all they can do, which isn’t grace at all. If you are not doing all you can do than the church doesn’t think grace will help you, which logically should make all Mormons follow all rules, even the ones they don’t like.
There is so much more to LDS culture as I have just barely scratched the surface, but if you would like to hear more about it or more about my personal stories in the church let me know.