not in Primary anymore

why the culture is as important as the gospel

Guest post by Victoria Birkbeck, who also wrote about Why Feminists Are So Angry

During a BYU class discussion about Mormon young adults, my professor began talking about the fact that young adults tend to leave the church over “culture” related issues. As this part of the conversation began, he was quick to clarify that he was not speaking against the Church in any way: “Is culture different than the Church?” he asked us, rhetorically. “Yes, definitely,” he answered himself.

I hear this distinction made a lot. It gets stated about 4 minutes into any conversation about Mormon feminism. Typically, even if whoever I am speaking to agrees with the issues surrounding women within the church that I bring up, they will say something along the lines of, “I think sometimes people confuse doctrine and culture,” or “I think some people misunderstand what’s doctrine and what is culture” or some other variation of the same idea.

What is this “church culture”? The definition is always a little nebulous, but it seems to be generally agreed upon that it’s the dress, speech, and the expectations for behavior that Mormons exhibit and expect of each other.

Shared culture is the reason that Latter-day Saints who don’t know each other help each other out all around the world. It’s why we make casseroles and do yard work and clean houses for families that are sick, widowed, or otherwise struggling. It is also why we look sideways at women who show up to church wearing pants, why 20 year old men at BYU go to great lengths to avoid revealing their age, and presumably why women cannot be called as Sunday School Presidents or ward clerks.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder why people keep feeling this need to reassure me that the real problem is only with church culture, but not with the church itself. Generally, I think they say it to reassure themselves (and me) that there is nothing wrong with the church, there are just some things wrong with church culture.

But when there are “church culture” problems that Mormons from all different parts of the world can talk about and recognize, there’s no just about it. Clearly, the culture issue is more than just “people misunderstanding”. Culture implies a certain pervasiveness. And that pervasiveness implies that the issue is an institutional one, not a failing of some random individuals.

I believe that when there is something wrong with the culture, there is indeed something wrong with the Church. The culture is as important as the gospel because culture creates people’s lived experience of a religion, and therefore part of the religion. All religions have a culture- and that culture greatly influences the degree to which people feel comfortable and safe within a religion.

For instance, the fact that women typically wear dresses to church is part of church culture– an aspect of church culture that sometimes makes new investigators feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. Thus, the gospel may be all-inclusive, but a lot of people will never learn that within Mormonism if the culture remains toxic to spirituality and tolerance.

The Doctrine vs. the Gsopel vs. Culture vs. Church Policy debate is an endless one, and not one that I want to discuss here. I am not denying the differences between the things, difficult as it is to tell them all apart sometimes. My point is merely that I believe that we are understating the importance of church culture, and thereby not taking the issues within it seriously enough.

Blaming issues on “church culture” is a way of shirking responsibility for the problems that exist. It is my belief that Christ’s church should reflect the mission and characteristics of Christ, one of the most notable of which is his desire to welcome and be with people of all backgrounds. It is not enough to preach the Gospel of Christ: we also need a Christ -like culture.

Ii is my personal hope that we will all be able to bravely face our cultural shortcomings, and decide what we can do as a people to create a culture that is more conducive to inclusiveness, and which helps us all to feel and emulate the love of Christ.

4 Responses to “why the culture is as important as the gospel”

  1. Kim

    I agree with you. There are HUGE problems with church culture, not to mention a huge disconnect between what we claim to believe and how we act (“we” meaning “all of us,” the collective culture). However, I have to be personally grateful for the disconnect. If the doctrine matched the culture, I’d be out in three seconds flat. As it is, compartmentalization is what allows me to stay. Plus, if I leave, the crazies win.

    I do think the culture is evolving though, don’t you? Sometimes the progress is so slow that it’s depressing, but I do feel like there are a lot of people sort of waking up to the warts of church culture and trying to improve things.

  2. Ignacio

    The problem with blaming church culture for the “deficiencies” of Mormonism is that it opens up the critic to the accusation that he/she are also practicing culture in their critique of the people and institutions of the church. I don’t disagree with the notion of church culture representing the church, but I also think that so much of the criticism comes from people who have created their own adversarial culture. I also believe that they seem to be moving toward the more liberal mainstream churches in which service and kindness is all there is and the pastors and leader are afraid to call people to repentance and make them uncomfortable. Joseph said that a church that does not require sacrifice does not have the power to save. Sometimes that sacrifice means accepting a “culture” that we don’t necessarily like. I have been a critic of many things that happen in church, and yet I often find too many of the complaints of white LDS Mormons so navie and silly. Too often they are into the cultural wars as is much of the world. Modesty, dress code, breast feeding, etc. Those just don’t seem important when we are talking about the problems of the world and also about our own eternal progression. I’m not just criticizing the liberal side of the culture wars because the other side is just as much to blame.

    We ought to take these discussion to a higher level and yet we don’t. The whole point of going to church is to learn to live in this world but not be of it. Instead we seem only to try to justice the version of the world that fits our style and culture. With a few good exceptions most of these arguments of the last two years have been rather useless in building a more spiritual life. When we do, the whole culture thing will resolve itself. At this point we seem to be going away from building a more spiritual church culture and are simply developing competing cultures.

  3. charles

    The leaders are just so old. It makes sense that people don’t want to change how they think about things.

    I’m with you, hoping that the culture will change to one more Christlike and aware our weaknesses.


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