BuzzFeed on Mormon, well, you know …

It’s a subject that causes editors to sweat, knowing that their newsroom switchboards will almost certainly to explode if they dare to cover it. We are talking, of course, about (cue: drumroll) Mormon underwear.

For many people this subject symbolizes all of the doctrinal topics linked to Mormonism (think Temple vows and the specifics of Temple rituals) that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not supposed to discuss with those outside their church.

Yet critics of the church — especially ex-Mormons — want to talk about these things. They make all kinds of statements on the record about what these secret symbols and rites are supposed to mean.

At that point, reporters and editors are caught in dangerous territory, in terms of basic journalistic ethics.

How do editors (a) verify the accuracy of alleged details (Do ritual Temple dramas and/or media materials teach that traditional Christian churches are in league with Satan?) when (b) responsible, even candid Mormon leaders have taken vows that do not allow them to answer?

How does one write an accurate, fair-minded, balanced journalistic report about, well, Mormon underwear?

BuzzFeed recently tiptoed into this landmine with a respectful, constructive piece on the subject that caught the eye of some GetReligion readers.

The problem, of course, is one that continues to plague your GetReligionistas. This is not a news piece. Once again, how do journalists critique the accuracy and fairness of pieces that are completely one-sided, that represent serious attempts to deal with serious subjects — but they do so in the form of editorial essays, not news reports?

On one level, the current boom in Mormon underwear interest is linked — logically enough — to Mitt Romney’s latest White House bid. Thus, readers are told:

It’s true that Mormons are taught not to flaunt “garments” (as they’re called) for public view, which can feed the impression that Romney’s hiding some dark, cultish secret beneath his well-starched shirts and neatly-creased slacks. But the principle behind Mormon garments would be familiar to any Baptist who’s worn a “What Would Jesus Do” bracelet, or any Jew who’s worn a yarmulke or tzitzit (woven threads Orthodox Jews wear on shawls under their shirts). As the website for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints puts it, garments are worn as “an outward expression of an inward commitment.”

Because garments are considered so sacred, Mormons tend to recoil when they hear non-Mormons make casual reference to their underwear — especially in a political context. But if there ever was a time when discussion of the subject could be contained to Mormon circles, now is not it. Anyone who’s attended a performance of The Book of Mormon Musical has already seen actors wearing replicas of the underwear on stage. And as the presidential race wears on, there’s no doubt it will come again and again.

The key to this piece is that the author — McKay Coppins — is a Mormon and, thus, is able to write this kind of statement: “This reporter is something of an expert on the subject.”

The information in the article is, one can only assume, accurate and presented in a fair manner. A key section discusses the claims made by critics that Mormons believe that these garments are “magic.” Not really. Do Catholics (and the Orthodox) believe that their baptism crosses are magic?

As a journalist, here’s the part that interests me:

Garments today come in two pieces — a white undershirt, and white boxer brief-style shorts — and they contain small symbols meant to remind Mormons of the covenants they’ve made in the temple. … They also come in a variety of materials — cotton, polyester, silk, etc. — to accommodate different climates (a fact for which Mormon missionaries in subsaharan Africa are grateful). Generally, wearing them takes some adjustment at first, but most Mormons report quickly growing accustomed to them. (Out of respect to Latter-day Saints, we are not posting photos of the garments here.)

Here is my question, for those who cover the Mormons on a regular basis. When I worked in Denver in the 1980s, the whole subject of these garments was pretty much covered under the vows of secrecy related to temple rituals. Yet, this article openly discusses this issue and even contains the reference that the garments “contain small symbols meant to remind Mormons of the covenants they’ve made in the temple.”

Where is the line, today, that reporters cannot cross? Where is the point at which a Mormon — such as Coppins — must fall silent for perfectly valid reasons due to the vows he has taken as part of his faith? So you can mention the symbols. Can the symbols now be discussed? He mentions the temple covenants. Is it still out of bounds to discuss the contents of the rites and covenants themselves? Is the secrecy line moving?

My question is sincere, in response to this interesting and I would assume — from the point of view of Mormons who are journalists — constructive piece. Are there journalists out there from Salt Lake City or elsewhere who can help me understand precisely what is happening, these days, with respectful, accurate, journalism on these topics?

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • carl

    they’re masonic symbols. the compass, the square, the knee mark (possibly a mormon origional)and something on the belly button (It’s just a horizontal line, how do I know? I’m wearing garments right now)

  • Cicero

    Among Mormons, it is still considered inappropriate to discuss Temple specifics, particularly about the symbolism. This includes garments.

    Generalities, particularly non-symbolic elements, are usually considered acceptable to talk about. (As they are all discussed and taught in church meetings prior to entering the temple.) For example, the generality that the garment is worn to remind wearers of their oaths to God is usually considered acceptable to express.

    There are also some standard examples of the symbolism that seem to be acceptable to share. At least official Mormon tours of Temples tend to include them. For example, a common symbolism in Mormon temples that is openly presented during the tour is that as Mormons go through the ceremony they move upward, until finally entering what is called the Celestial Room (identified symbolically as entering heaven), which is higher then the other rooms in the temple.

    More complex symbols (including the specifics of the garments) are usually considered verboten. The reasoning being that these symbols are often presented with little or no explanation during the ceremony. It is usually left to the participant to interpret them or to extrapolate from the little explanation given, based on the promptings of the Holy Spirit as the Gift of the Holy Ghost entitles them to.

    Non-Mormons do not have the Gift of the Holy Ghost, which is a specific public ceremony that is usually preformed right after baptism. It’s roughly the equivalent of confirmation in other denominations. Thus Non-Mormons are not entitled to receive the needed divine guidance to correctly interpret the symbols.

    Note that many symbols do not even have official interpretations to be provided. The interpretation is a matter between each individual and God. So when non-Mormons are exposed to temple symbolism and then ask Mormons what it means, Mormons can’t even answer. You have to ask God, not other people. I wouldn’t be surprised if God uses the same symbols to mean different things to different people.

    To Mormons the temple is a place for contemplation, pondering, and communication with God. Taking the symbols of the temple ceremony outside of that setting renders them meaningless and without power.

    However, in a Church of 14 million, you are always going to have people with different opinions about were to draw the line. Most Mormons feel that it is better to just refuse to answer questions- particularly if the questions come from idle curiosity. If the questions came from a seeker they might be more willing to discuss a limited portion that they feel can be communicated without being in God’s presence inside the temple.

    For those who think Mormons must be hiding something nefarious, Mormons feel that the way they live their life is a far more effective response and rebuke then any explanations, which are usually dismissed as lies any way.

  • mapman

    Different Mormons have different standards for what they think is appropriate to share. People generally feel OK to share something if a general authority has talked about it publicly. The church handbook mentions the marks publicly on their website under the section about temple garments:

  • Jimmy Mac

    These photos allegedly have been provided to this rather snarky website by the LDS Church.

    There’s nothing very forbidding or foreboding about what is shown here.

    And here’s a similar photo from everyone’s fave site:

  • Jeffrey S. Cunningham

    “Is it still out of bounds to discuss the contents of the rites and covenants themselves? Is the secrecy line moving?”
    Terry, Yes, it will always be out of bounds to discuss the contents of the rites and covenants themselves outside of the temples; that is, for responsible journalists. The secrecy line is not moving, it has never existed as such. It is more properly a “sacred” line. Members make solemn covenants with God not to discuss these sacred things outside of temples. Will some violate these promises and do so anyway? Yep, it has already happened as I believe most religion reporters know. At the risk of being thought arrogant, it is very akin to casting pearls before swine to discuss such sacred things with anyone not prepared.

  • Dandini

    If you study the Bible a little more thoroughly, you realize there is quite a lot about “sacred” garments, both in the OT and the NT…

    But it does not go into specifics… because they are sacred

  • John

    There is no secrecy line; nor should there be. The original reporter’s coverage of the undergarments provides useful and relevant information about how members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints interpret their faith’s teachings about the significance of the undergarments. The reporter treated his subject with clarity and respect. I believe most people who read his article will come away with a more positive image of the Church of Latter Day Saints.

    I do not understand why readers of this website are punishing perfectly innocuous comments like Carl’s with “dislikes.”

  • Chelsea Mckell

    I like John’s comment.

  • L-dG

    Latter-day Saints often like to say that temple-related information is “sacred, not secret.” … if it’s information you are oath-bound not to reveal, it is BY DEFINITION a secret.

    In the Mormon temple rites, there are a few things which participants make vows never to reveal, but those vows apply to a very small portion of the total ritual. Mormons generally far-exceed those specific promises when it comes to not divulging temple material. (The ceremony, called ‘the endowment,’ lasts approximately 90 minutes; the material they promise never to reveal would take less than a minute to read straight through, though in context it is scattered in different parts of the rite.) This is largely a cultural matter; LDS members take their cues from the leadership of the Church (especially those elevated enough in the hierarchy to be ‘General Authorities’) in what they are willing to speak about with reference to the temple. What Church leadership does not say publicly, LDS members (generally) will not say publicly. But, again, STRICTLY SPEAKING, the vast majority of the ceremony is not protected by any specific covenants of non-disclosure.

    Of course, Temple exposés are a dime a dozen. Anybody with an internet connection and one good typing finger can pull up the text of pretty much the entire rite in minutes. It’s all out there, but what matters to Church members is that THEY don’t break THEIR own promises, not that they keep the information from others.

  • Guy Briggs

    From Boyd K. Packer, currently senior mamber of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles, in _The Holy Temple_, page 20:

    “On one occasion, one of the brethren was invited to speak to the faculty and staff of the Navy Chaplains Training School in Newport, Rhode Island. The audience included a number of high-ranking naval chaplains from the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths.

    “In the question-and-answer period one of the chaplains asked, ‘Can you tell us something about the special underwear that some Mormon servicemen wear?’ The implication was, ‘Why do you do that? Isn’t it strange? Doesn’t that present a problem?’

    “To the chaplain who made the inquiry he responded with a question: ‘Which church do you represent?’ In response he named one of the Protestant churches. He said, ‘In civilian life and also when conducting the meeting in the military service you wear clerical clothing, do you not?’ The chaplain said that he did.

    “He continued, ‘I would suppose that that has some importance to you, that in a sense it sets you apart from the rest of your congregation. It is your uniform, as it were, of the ministry. Also, I suppose it may have a much more important place. It reminds you of who you are and
    what your obligations and covenants are. It is a continual reminder that you are a member of the clergy, that you regard yourself as a servant of the Lord, and that you are responsible to live in such a way as to be worthy of your ordination.’

    “He told them, ‘You should be able to understand at least one of our reasons why Latter-day Saints have a deep spiritual commitment concerning the garment. A major difference between your churches and ours is that we do not have a professional clergy, as you do. The congregations are all presided over by local leaders. They are men called from all walks of life. Yet they are ordained to the priesthood. They are set apart to presiding positions as presidents, counselors, and
    leaders in various categories. The women, too, share in that responsibility and in those obligations. The man who heads our congregation on Sunday as the bishop may go to work on Monday as a postal clerk, as an office worker, a farmer, a doctor; or he may be an air force pilot or naval officer. By our standard he is as much an ordained minister as you are by your standard. He is recognized as
    such by most governments. We draw something of the same benefits from this special clothing as you would draw from your clerical vestments. The difference is that we wear ours under our clothing instead of outside, for we are employed in various occupations in addition to our service in the Church. These sacred things we do not wish to parade before the world.’

    “He then explained that there are some deeper spiritual meanings as well, connecting the practice of wearing this garment with the covenants made in the temple … The garment, covering the body, is a visual and tactile reminder of these covenants. For many Church members the garment has formed a barrier of protection when the wearer has been faced with temptation. Among other things, it symbolizes our deep respect for the laws of God – among them the moral standard.”

  • tmatt


    Thank you for the very helpful post pointing to quotes highly relevant to the journalism dilemma in the post.

  • LMA

    One reason for avoiding public discussion lies in fear of the ridicule we receive. There are many reasons – religious, social, political – why non-Mormons want to criticize and degrade members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One of the techniques used is ridicule. The technique takes advantage of common assumptions in the general culture, pointing with acid humor (or with undisguised vitriol, in other instances) to the areas of difference. Oddly, even the atheists or those indifferent to religion use the technique, as we see in the popular Broadway musical. For example, no one but the worst kind of anti-Semite would even think of pointing to a yarmulke and calling it a “magic beanie.”

    Journalists ought to understand this, and apply the same filters and sense of perspective that they use when writing about other groups representing cultural minorities. In other words, there is nothing wrong in writing about facts. But they ought to be discussed in a context that recognizes the existence and legitimacy of wide varieties of religious practice.

  • Eric

    The original post asked:

    Where is the line, today, that reporters cannot cross? Where is the point at which a Mormon — such as Coppins — must fall silent for perfectly valid reasons due to the vows he has taken as part of his faith? So you can mention the symbols. Can the symbols now be discussed? He mentions the temple covenants. Is it still out of bounds to discuss the contents of the rites and covenants themselves?

    (I’m a laid-off journalist who’s also LDS.)

    As L-dG said, the portions of the temple rituals that those of us who have gone through the temple have promised not to reveal are, strictly speaking, very limited in scope. I have discussed matters such as the symbolism and covenants with nonmembers in a respectful context and could, under the right circumstances, do so in an article without feeling I’ve done anything improper. However, it’s safe to say that the culture of the church strongly discourages much discussion of the temple rituals (and, by extension, the garment) outside the temple itself.

    I’m not aware of any accurate and nonsensational journalism that has covered these topics beyond what McKay Coppins wrote. (I found his article fair and accurate; if I had written it I might have added that the garment symbols, which are simple and abstract, represent a promise to live righteously.)

    Anybody with Internet access can find out what the church tells its members about the temple before they enter for the first time. I think most LDS journalists (or interviewees) would feel comfortable discussing that much, but maybe not much more.

  • Jettboy

    John, the reason Carl has been “punished” is because revealing any sign or symbol is, more than any other part of the Temple, specifically part of the vow not to reveal. Other things can be conjectured not to be revealed, but the actual ritual is unequivocally restricted. There has been times when they have been hinted at, but never straight forward described.

  • becky

    Thank you for the respectful way you treat this issue. If everyone would treat others’ religions with respect and dignity, then we could stop being so divisive among ourselves as Americans. It is okay to question someone’s religion, even the deeper or more sensitive issues, but it isn’t okay to ridicule someone’s religion. I don’t agree with many others’ religious beliefs but I do strongly believe in their right to choose their own religion (or to choose not to choose religion). Thanks to all the moms and dads who teach respect and manners. I am LDS and I would answer these questions about the temple and its symbols, depending upon the sincerity of the person asking. I won’t put what I consider sacred up for ridicule, but I am happy to answer questions from people who are interested or curious.

  • tmatt

    Chill it with the anti-Mormon hate posts, folks.

    Talk about the journalism issues in covering these issues. Otherwise, go away ya trolls.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    I think your journalistic question needs to be fundamentally, what is the “need to know” of your audience. Those who are interested in all the aspects of Mormon temples as a real religious experience can consider joining the Church and qualifying to go in an participate in those ordinances.

    For the rest of mankind, it has no real significance in their lives because they believe that any Mormon ritual is a man-made performance and has nothing to do with God. In that case, their desire to know more is an idle one, and in some cases an opportunity to ridicule what is sacred and important to others. I don’t see the motives of people who are not Mormon as being especially worthy of any more detail than the basics that appear in Coppin’s article.

    As to the people who claimi that there is something nefarious or threatening in Mormon temple rituals, the burden of proof is on them to make their case. Millions of Mormons all over the world have performed various temple ordinances for over 150 years. The manifest lives of Mormons demonstrates that they are good citizens who don’t indulge in some of the pathologies common to other people, such as drinking alcohol.

    If there were something about Mormon temple rituals that threatens the general public, it would have been clear a long time ago. But in fact, Mormons are so mild and nonviolent that no one is afraid of criticizing and ridiculing them, and even turning it into a money-making industry, whereas very few people would be willing to invest their money in a Broadway musical that makes fun of Mohammad, or even be in the audience when the inevitable violent response from some radical erupts.

    The bottom line, then, is that Mormon temple garments have absolutely no effect on the lives of anyone other than Mormons, and there is no justification in pressing for more information on behalf of people whose only interest is to make fun of their neighbors and create religious division.

  • Jeremy P

    During the temple ceremony, there are specific things that the participants promise not to discuss outside the temple. Occasionally, it may be appropriate to talk about other elements of the temple ceremony. For example, when a member of the Church prepares to enter the temple for the first time, he or she usually takes a class in the Church where general elements of the temple ceremony are discussed. When I took these clases, I was surprized at how much of the temple ceremony could be discussed outside the temple. I was surprized to find out that the endowment ceremony teaches are the same basic doctrines that the missionaries teach investigators of the Church (only that the ceremony presents them in beautiful, thought-provoking ways). The covenants that people make with God in the temple are reiterations of the same covenants that they make with God when they are baptised (i.e. to remain sexually chaste, to follow Jesus Christ, etc.).

    Personally, if one of my friends who is not a member of the Church had sincere questions about the Mormon temple, I would not be afraid to discuss the generalities of the temple ceremony with him or her (anything in the Preparing to Enter the Holy Temple pamphlet would be appropriate). However, I would never talk about it in a setting where someone might make fun of the ceremony because it is very dear to me. If I were a journalist, I would take even more care to not say anything that might be used to make fun of the ceremony. Sometimes what frustrates me is how journalists don’t take the time to develop an appreciation for how elevating and beautiful the temple can be. Journalists can develop this kind of appreciation by talking to a Mormon friend or contacting a local Mormon leader.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I think one key would be to find actual public statements by leaders of the LDS Church. This link is to an article by Carlos E. Asay, who at the time was President of the Salt Lake Temple and had been a member of the 1st Quorum of the 70. The article was published in the Ensign, an Official publications of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I would say that any statement made there is fair game, either as a quote or a general interpretation.

    If a journalist is trying to get information on this subject, it is probably best to read up on articles like the one linked to above. Then the person might want to contact the local public affairs rep of the church, or a local stake president, and see if that person has any comments. It would probably be most helpful to ask questions like “what do you feel is the meaning behind this act” and to avoid terms that in general function to mock the clothing in question. If the journalist exudes an air of “I am writing this peace on this bizarre practice of these people” they are less likely to get much cooperation.

    If someone was writting about Jewish skullcaps or other Jewish religious clothing, would there be a need in the article to include the mocking things detractors say about it? Would an article about why Muslim women wear hijab include people making mean spirited and cruel statements about hijab? Would an article about Sikhs wearing Turbans include a discussion of the mean spirited things people say about turban wearing? Would we think it was worthwhile if the article endorsed such lines as in any way valid?

  • John Pack Lambert

    The covenants of sacredness actually apply to the entire temple ceremony. There are other teachings in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that emphasize that spiritual experiences are not to be shared lightly.

    One example is the counsel that while those who recieve blessings of healing can if they feel so inclined to share their expeirences (although this should be done with restraint and sensitivity) those who give a blessing should not share this experience.

    There is a clear set of teachings in the Church that sacred things should be kept sacred and shared in appropriate forums. This relates to the doctrine of the Holy Ghost giving each of us direction on our own personal needs that does not apply to others, as well as to the fact that people come to know the truth by the manifestations of the Spirit of the Lord.

    This means that to do an adequate religious peace on Latter-day Saints the writer should try to build an understanding of Latter-day Saints. Since Latter-day Saint sacrament meetings are open to the public, that might be a good place for a reporter to go to get their sotry. It will lack sensationalism and behaviors that are odd to any Christian, although the way the meeting is conducted will be somewhat different than other religious meetings. To me that was the most outlandish statement of Bloom’s recent hit peace against the Mormons, his contrast of closed Mormon temples with open Pentacostal Churches. The fact that Mormon Church meetings are open to outside people was totally ignored by him, either a mark that he knows little of the Mormons or his zeal against them led him to make misleading statements.

    For example, if a journalist really wants to get stories about Romney, actually going to LDS Sunday meetings in Belmont and Bloomfield Hills would probably have the best chance of success. Although since Romney has been gone 40 years the number of people who remember him at Bloomfield Hills would be few, but I know that there are some.

  • Gordon

    @7. John…

    Just because there is nothing untrue or irreverent (potentially, depends on what how you say it), about naming body parts and discussing various body motions regarding human reproduction, doesn’t make it polite to do so. Further, you will no doubt offend at least some of your audience.

    Carl’s comments undoubtedly fall into that pattern. Surprisingly, if he’s wearing them, he should know that.

  • Jacob

    I don’t think it’s professional or appropriate to discuss any presidential candidate’s underwear, whether that underwear is Mormon or not. Have we become a nation of sixth graders? Does anyone care whether or not Newt uses boxers or briefs?