The kind of Mormon I want my children to be

2012-11-05 21.47.32I love LDS teens and young adults.  These days, around here at least, they seem to be good kids trying to follow the pattern of the church in attending seminary and institute, enrolling in higher education, planning for missions, and thinking about marriage.  For the most part they have very, very high personal standards.  Unlike my generation when the girls weren’t afraid of test driving the new boy in the ward’s lips, the majority of our Mormon kids today seem to be extraordinarily restrained and ‘good’, particularly if they’ve gone through the wash at EFY!

But while we were more wanton, our generation seemed to be more politically engaged.  We joined political parties, we were involved with the student’s union at the university, talked about Dialogue type issues and honed a kind of Mormon identity which didn’t see us ceding from the world in a chaste retrenchment.

While we were more unruly in terms of not having mastered 100% all of the  disciplines prescribed by ‘For the Strength of Youth’,  we were alive and engaged with the issues in the world around us.  Growing up in New Zealand we were the children of a social democracy, where politics and politicians were literally on our doorstep.  Where quotes from Monty Python became embedded in our social commentary, where the ironies of power  and the silliness of university education weren’t lost to us because we watched Black Adder and the Young Ones.  Where joining the Labour party bought us within speaking distance of those in the highest echelons of national authority.  Where we frequently cracked open a book about Mormonism and wondered why the one, not published by Deseret Books, seemed to have an entirely different, refreshing and edgy  flavour.  Where we had names for a certain breed of ‘perfect’ Mormon such as  ‘Peter Priesthood’ and ‘Molly Mormon’,  neither of whom we aspired to be.

And our parents seemed to watch us with admiration.  They didn’t bubble wrap us, they didn’t lecture us or express their tearful disappointment in the decisions we made that might lead us down the path of sin.  Rather they seemed to look on with respect awaiting an opportunity to hear about our newest theory on life and the way the universe ought to be operating.  I never got any sense, despite my philandering boy loving ways that I was a disappointment or a worry (although I’m sure we did cause a few grey hairs).   There seemed to be a celebration of my bourgeoning political and social consciousness, and though  I expressed it awkwardly as I joined the adult world in their musings, it was all part of my maturation as  a woman and a feminist.  That I was frequently seen around church locking lips with my boyfriend didn’t seem to ring the kind of alarm bells that they do today.  Granted it might have been efficacious to tap us on the shoulder sometimes and ask us to take a breath, but there were no obsessive worries that had everyone hovering with paternal or ecclesiastical concern.  I look back at my Laurel and young adult years as a wonderful time.  Full of stupid mistakes, but equally full of independence, an intellectual and social flowering and an awakening into a world  of philosophical consciousness that was conflating beautifully with my developing theological identity.

So with all of the complexity facing our kids, with the barrage of information they need to negotiate as digital natives, you would think that a path would be open for our Mormon kids at church to reconcile their vibrant, information filled, ‘ism’ filled lives with their theology.   But our church needs a short sharp smack on the bum for letting our kids down and valorizing a kind of daft, literal, smug, answer-filled Americentric neo-liberal Mormonism that suffers deeply from a sense of doubt in itself.   As my 18 year says, ‘How can you form an opinion when opinions have already been made for you?’ 


My sense, as I help my children navigate the ideological traps set in the curriculum material (seminary in particular), is that our young people are told too often  that their primary concern should be  with ‘being’.  Be good, be faithful, be chaste, be disciplined, and be nice…  But how, I have to ask, are they being asked to think?  How are we nurturing their minds? How are we helping them make sense of the complexities and contradictions in our religion, in their faith journeys, and in our faith tradition’s history, so that they feel empowered to speak up, participate, talk back, question, interrogate and critique?   How can we honor their spiritual yearnings while at the same time respecting their minds?

How can we hold these wonderful and thoughtful minds in the church where our theology, our church, our religion and our doctrine is relevant and meaningful and worth a lifelong investment because they are confident that the church and their communities can, should, and will progress because of their staying?  How are we encouraging them to move out into the world as thoughtful, transgressive social commentators with a commitment to bring about a world where the pursuit of social justice is a central tenant of their religious praxis because they have been trained to see it as the essential message of  both Book of Mormon and the Bible?

So, to the cohort of wonderfully disciplined young people who are so very very ‘good’,  I honor your commitment to personal standards, and don’t wish to take anything away from it, but I want to ask you for more and remind you, in the words of Hugh Nibley:

The worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism.  Longhairs, beards, necklaces, LSD and rock, Big Sur and Woodstock come and go, but Babylon is always there:  rich, respectable, immovable, with its granite walls and steel vaults, its bronze gates, its onyx trimmings and marble floors …and its bullet-proof glass – the awesome symbols of total security.  Keeping her orgies decently private, she presents a front of unalterable propriety to all. (1989, p. 55)

And here again is BY himself:

Being driven from city to city…is nothing compared to the danger of becoming rich and being hailed by outsiders as a first-class  community.

My eldest is planning on serving a mission at the end of the year.  And while on one level I’m pleased with this very Mormon of Mormon decisions, I have to worry just a little bit.  I don’t want him to come home drugged by Mormon orthodoxy, I don’t want him to bury his sparking intellect or his  political awareness for the pursuit of  ‘a professional occupation with a six figure salary’ like so many Mormon returned missionaries aspire to.  I want him to be part of a young Mormon vanguard who are deeply aware of what a Zion community looks like and have the nuts to pursue it with commitment, spirit and passion.

  • JohnnyS


    You really rock. This is a great topic. I share your anxieties and I’d like to add one more to the picture. It’s related to your concerns about our children not being taught to think and it’s actually related to the Hugh Nibley quote as well. One of the disturbing trends I see in the church regarding what we’re teaching our youth is that, while we advise them to avoid tattoos, extra piercings, funny haircuts/colors, and especially listening to rock and roll (Heaven forbid), we are also simultaneously implying that those who have tattoos, funny hair, etc., are somehow lacking something that clean cut kids have. This really isn’t the purpose of the teachings, but I do think this is what’s happening.

    Not long ago at my ward, a young man who is the same age as my son raised his hand in primary and told his teacher, quite proudly, that when walking downtown with his father, he saw someone with a tattoo and he was careful to avoid that person. It was a textbook example of what I call “righteous othering”: The tragic phenomenon that occurs when we teach the gospel with an emphasis on prohibitions rather than an emphasis on charity and empathy. If we teach our young men to wear white shirts, for example, that is, I suppose, a good thing, but it’s not as good a thing as teaching them to love and accept other people regardless of what they wear. I think we are far too focused in the church on creating unthinking, lockstep conformity and not nearly focused enough on the tragic results of doing so: if our youth are taught certain ways of dressing, grooming, accessorizing, etc., then what ends up happening often (and this was a phenomenon I encountered almost daily at BYU) is that we dismiss/look down upon those who are not like us in regards to outer appearance. I actually think Hugh Nibley said just such a thing about the BYU Honor Code (a truly insidious thing, BTW). It’s simply astonishing that a church that has the Savior at its core, the Savior who taught that external things absolutely don’t matter when compared to the contents of one’s heart, spends so much time trying to regulate/moderate the external appearance of our young people. That is truly a tragedy and that, I think, is at least one fairly substantial obstacle that we place in the way of our young people who ought to spend their time learning simply how best to love people, regardless of their appearance.


    • kiwimormon

      I don’t have the words to tell you how utterly, absolutely in agreement I am with you! When I look at the scriptures I see a theology which leaps out at me as antithetical to the kind culture we see in the church. It makes me so furious and I wonder what the hell they are studying to end up with the kind of smug self-righteousness we see today.

    • Amber B

      I add my absolute agreement. To be fair, no one ever mistook me for a Molly Mormon. On the other hand, plenty of people mistook me for someone who surely wasn’t really worthy because I *wasn’t* a Molly. Fortunately, even if my dad hated some of how I looked and acted, he taught me to be a critical thinker and to love all people. One hopes that mums like kiwimormon are doing the same thing my dad did: raising kids who remain the “exceptions.”

      Just today, whilst being extended a calling I Do Not Want but am clearly a good choice for, I noted to the counselor that the very “not normal” looks and social behaviours (for instance, as I told him, last night I was at a bar watching a friend’s band, disappointed it wasn’t my band, watching friends’ drinks when they went to the loo and chatting outside with the smokers when the other bands weren’t good) are the very things that might (I hope) make it easier to convince some of the 2/3 inactive people in our stake that, indeed, the Lord wants *all* people to take part in his Atonement.

      This whole topic strikes a chord with me, with what I’ve been through and with what I feel, as someone who loves the Gospel but has no use for the Molly Mormon pop culture (often disguised as traditions, but with no basis in actual Gospel principles), I can contribute to spreading God’s love and light to *all* people.

      • kiwimormon

        I wonder if this isn’t one of the big problems the church is going to have to face. There is a cultural intransigence to coming to terms with the fact that there is nothing divine, useful or even helpful about the cultural constructions that have been popularly reproduced as the ‘ideal Mormon’. It has to have appeal across class, gender, race, and even sub-cultures in order for it to survive as something other than a weekly tea party reenactment. Besides, there’s too much inbreeding, the church needs fresh ideas, fresh and interesting people – we are not conscious enough of ourselves as a group and get away with saying daft things that don’t help us become disciples of Christ! I’ve raved enough – thanks as always for your most excellent insights!

      • JohnnyS

        Hey Amber,

        I think your experience really illuminates some of what kiwimormon has been talking about. No-one has ever been able to explain to me why we put so much emphasis on appearances when the Savior specifically instructs us not to. Good for your dad for teaching you two absolute essentials about life. I agree, too, about the Molly Mormon culture. I have no problem with folks who like to scrapbook, make jell-o, ballroom dance or whatever. I do have a problem with the norming that goes on surrounding such activities. I’ve never understood it and have no idea why any cultural practice is valued over another when neither practice is a moral choice. I listen to Van Halen a lot, just like other folks in the church scrapbook, but I don’t think either practice should in any way be associated with personal worthiness/righteousness.


        P.S. What kind of band are you in? Bubble punk? Ska? ABBA covers?

        • Amber B

          I am sure that the cultural norming was a (typical human) church member response to societal issues. In order to both fill in the gap for the culture that cast them off and strengthen community bonds, people created traditions. And, like you, I’m fine with people going along with that if they like. However, this ought to be done with the realisation that it is neither Gospel nor essential for salvation. Unfortunately, in the fear that drives people who feel like they’re at war/under attack to cling even more closely and blindly to the ties that bind them together, most folks forget that. Really, it’s a very normal human thing from what studies and readings I’ve done in sociology and psychology. But I figure that, as we are mentally developed enough as creatures to recognise such things, we ought to be more mindful. And, in the case of LDS folks, more loving and less inclined to condemn for things that have nothing to do with the actual Gospel.

          (Thanks for asking about the band! My main project is a rock band, and people who hear us played on international internet radio stations are often surprised to hear we’re from the U.S., which I take as a compliment. You can check us out at…Music and some really informal video of live shows…And, if I may brag, the songs don’t all sound the same. So I always ask folks to give more than one song a chance. And, of course, the response I get from church leadership varies. My favourite member of the stake presidency laments that he has only been to one show. Whilst a former bishop asked me not to invite his ward member to shows since the venues all serve alcohol.)

        • Amber B

          Drat! My love of ellipses ruined the link:

  • JohnnyS


    Love the pic of the Young Ones. That show got me through college.

    • kiwimormon

      I know! Soooo ridiculous and funny – might catch me some youtube clips to remind me of how daft it is.

  • bidlet

    I wonder too, whether too much emphasis is placed on the final destination, as noble as it is, rather than the journey with all the setbacks and hurdles that is the experience of life. Perhaps some of the over-protectiveness that haunts middleclass parenthood has spilled over into our Mormon traditions to the point where we have forgotton that wonderful law of opposites – the need to experience heartache to truely appreciate joy. The need to face challenges to really grow strong and have a depth of character. The inevitability of making mistakes but it not being the end of the world but an opportunity to become wise. To become aware of the incredible power of our sexuality but not to the exclusion nor end of our moral purity. So many valuable lessons are to be learned while we are young and a bit feckless, reckless and able to take risks, and you know what? Young people do thrive despite their immaturity and inexperience. Of course we want to protect them from harm but do we want to smother them from illumination and potential growth? We as teachers and leaders need to think really hard on how and what we are teaching, and are we letting discussion and thinking happen that is not proscribed and only in the manual. Do we know our “stuff”(the doctrine) that we are trying to impart to those we lead or teach. Maybe the question is; why are we failing our young people, and what are we really afraid of?

    • kiwimormon

      I think you hit the nail on the head right there. There is a fear – and wouldn’t it be great to burrow down in to that and figure out what that’s all about? I struggle to believe that its really a fear for the salvation of our children – there’s something else afoot here!

  • bidlet

    You forgot to mention Blackadder – great dialogues can be quoted around complete strangers and everyone gets it, knows it and has a good laugh … well everyone over 40!!!!

  • kiwimormon

    If you weren’t quite so big, it would be time for Mr and Mrs Spank to pay a short sharp trip to Bottieland.

    ‘My head… oh, my head… feels like the time I was initiated into the Silly Buggers Society at Cambridge. I misheard the rules and tried to push a whole aubergine up my earhole.’

  • bidlet

    Brilliant! “yes …. and no”, “your husband has taken to wearing a bag”, “Bob”, and isn’t that where we all got the saying “rumpy pumpy”. Love it!

    • kiwimormon

      Blood! War! Rumpy Pumpy!

  • A j70

    As much as I love 80′s English comedy,back to task.I have steal issue with the white shirt mentality of the church. We dress the missionaries by the IBM dress code to give them a corporate identity,given. We corral the young men into literally follow suit.and the return missionaries can’t break the habit. The issue I have. Is when ever I read the scriptures and see clothing mentioned it is usually to condem a group of people for their puffed up apparel. I am I the only one who thinks that HF and JC aren’t that fussed on a dress code??

    • Amber B

      I reckon as long as I’m modest…Of course, even with that, I was just thinking about how the boys can (and regularly do) have the collars or their garment tops showing but a sister has the slightest bit of garment showing and its a scandal…

      I also have a friend here who is a descendant of President McKay, in whose time the whole clean shaven thing came up. She is fond of saying that everyone knows McKays can’t grow facial hair, and that’s probably part of where the line was crossed from simply being tidy in general to being clean shaven.

      I know that issues of avoiding the appearance of evil, taking care of our bodies (as one half of our souls), and trying to make sure we’re not scaring off potential converts due to our looks must surely play into it. And I understand. I really do. But I wonder how unwieldy it must be to try to sort out how to make room for diversity of cultures within and between nations, for changes in what is perceived as “appearances of evil” over time, and related issues must make it even harder.

      All that aside, one way my current ward and stake earned my love was by finally being a place where people didn’t assume, based on looks, that I must be bad. Even the “Molly” girls have been known to compliment things that are definitely well outside what they would ever wear. Love *should* move us to a reasonable degree of acceptance.

    • kiwimormon

      I have to agree! I wonder how we will cope as a largely Western Christian religion when Jesus does comes again, and he’s brown, he’s short, speaks Aramaic fluently and English with an accent, has a beard, long hair, doesn’t wear a suit, doesn’t have a university education, is a simple builder, and doesn’t drive a Lexus? Would he be recognisable as a Messiah without a CV and an investment portfolio?

  • bidlet

    Yeah, and how about women wearing trousers to church? I personally don’t mind wearing skirts/dresses to church cos I don’t do so much any other day of the week, but if I want to wear pants there shouldn’t be any kind of pressure not to. Actually I couldn’t give a fat rats bum about what people think if I wanted to wear trousers to church, and if our heating breaks down this winter as is quite common, I will probably do so for my own comfort and good health!
    And what about beards aye?? My father-in-law cannot serve in the Temple because he chooses to wear a beard, yet in the hall of Prophet fame in the Conference Centre where all the portraits of latterday Prophets hang, they all had beards up until about the 1940′s or 50′s. And don’t spin me that marlarky about the hippies of the 60′s and not wanting to be associated with the like etc,etc – it’s time to get over it cos the reasons/excuses sound pretty darn lame 50 years on. Hmm, but we are not really known for questioning what was thoguhtto be a policy/doctrine …. oh, and then we come back to blacks and the PH ….. sigh!

  • AnnieB

    So support Kiwimormon’s points and the other comments. My own father has his beard story too. He was on a NZ stake high council when one brother was denied a temple recommend because he wore a beard and was told to shave it off. He had it because of a disfiguring scare from a removal of a facial tumor. He eventually shaved it and went to the temple and my father said he never felt quite right about it. Then we happen to leave NZ and go live in England and my parents attend their first temple session and to their surprise there are plenty of PHs with beards. Dad noticed the difference and he raised a question and was told that its not doctrine and you can wear a beard to the temple. My dad has never forgotten the unrighteous priesthood dominion over that one PH in NZ. Now some might say…”well it was his test of obedience”. I say….really!!! Do we really need to test people this way. Personally I have struggled with the church culture of how we should look like if we are to be a righteous people. American middle class, white shirts, and women wearing dresses. The dress code for women just irritates my soul to no end. I have been denied entry into a church YSA dance in NZ as I wore pants, and they were a classy pair of pants too. I was even asked for ID. The fact that I arrived with a non member, (doing my missionary work) did not deter the gate keepers. At the time I held a temple recommend, being single at the age of 29 and little boys at the age of 19 and 20 coming to the dance in jeans and T shirts, and being chaperoned by newly wedded couples at the age of 22ish, is meant to make me feel like I belong to a church that is christ like. We were turned away and that was the last time I went to a YSA activity. I don’t see why I have to wear a dress on sunday’s to receive the sacrament. Whats wrong with women coming to church in pants, its modest! oh thats right….I look empowered cause I look too similar to a man. How about I add a nice crisp white shirt and then maybe a jacket. My closet is full of these types of clothes that I wear every day due to my line of work and they are modest and high quality clothes, these are actually my best clothes and I feel most comfortable in them. Don’t get me going about Sister Missionary dress code, I could write pages.
    As a YSA in London – Britannia Ward we had two homeless people attend church regularly. One an older gentleman would wear a old brown baggy suite and a pair of mens shoes, no socks and they were loose and they made the clonkiest noise. Another was a woman that wore the female Islamic Hijab and Burka. She wasn’t Muslim, it was her way in dressing modestly and it was the best she had. Never once were they judged or encouraged to dress any differently. In their world it was their sunday best. I wish we had more of this christ like acceptance in our wards, cause that was the first and last time I have ever experienced such love and acceptance and I miss it.

  • Ritchie

    I was in a Ward where there was a huge uproar over the length of a deacon’s hair. Apparently the parents and Bishop were involved because someone in the Ward was offended by the length of this kid’s hair and did not feel comfortably about taking the sacrament. I knew this kid because I had taught him in Sunday School. He was and is still a great kid. Very thoughtful and mature for his age. If that member knew this kid like I knew him, he/she probably would have done what we all should be doing during as the sacrament is being passed: focus on own issues instead of the perceived issues of others.