In Praise of Cafeteria Mormonism

In Praise of Cafeteria Mormonism November 4, 2013

It was both troubling and fascinating (something like watching a car wreck) to witness the dustup of the past few days over the unfortunate column by LDS author Joni Hilton excoriating what she dubbed “liberal Mormons.”  I’m sure that Sister Hilton is a wonderful person who may or may not regret at least some of both the tone and substance of what she wrote, not to mention the minor firestorm she set off.  I have no idea why she feels the way she does, or what prompted her to write the column in the way she did.  I’m not interested in piling on or even directly taking on Hilton, but it might be worth reflecting on one of her core arguments.

Joni Hilton’s definition of a “liberal Mormon” (setting aside her poorly chosen moniker) is a person who is a member of the LDS Church but “who [draws] their own lines in the sand.  They [decide] which aspects of our faith to accept or reject.”  This is a serious charge, especially in a church that closely connects the receipt of heavenly blessings to personal obedience,[1] and in which children are taught from a young age to “follow the prophet” and “keep the commandments.”

It’s a common complaint by the official or self-appointed guardians of a religious tradition that some (if not many or even most) of their fellow believers are a little soft, sort of lukewarm, not totally committed, kind of wishy-washy.  One sometimes hears of “cafeteria Catholics,” who pick and choose which parts of church teaching they accept (say, solidarity with the poor) and which parts they ignore or reject (say, the proscription on abortion)—a condition that Pope John Paul II called a “grave error.”[2]  Some Islamic thinkers have made similar judgments.  Sayyid Qutb, one of the intellectual forefathers of radical Islamism, wrote, “A society that creates a made-to-measure Islam other than that laid down by the Lord and expounded by His Messenger—called, for example, ‘enlightened Islam’—cannot be considered Muslim.”[3]

The assumption behind this line of reasoning—whether by Hilton, or JPII, or Qutb (not to equate them!)—is that there is an objective and clearly definable gold standard of religious belief and behavior, and that anything and everything else is a pale approximation at best or wholesale apostasy at worst.  Scripture and religious authorities identify a single set of rules that everyone must follow, or else they are in existentially egregious violation.  So much is on the line—our very salvation—that halfway measures are not good enough.  You’re in or you’re out.  It’s all or nothing.

No doubt this line of thinking has established warrants in the scriptures and other religious authorities of every tradition.  Jesus taught that “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21).  Those who take an all-or-nothing approach select verses like this (and there are many more) to validate their perspective.

But that’s just the point—everyone selects the verses that will bolster their position.  Everyone does this, not just the “liberals” on the one hand or the “fundamentalists” on the other.  Every great religious tradition, Mormonism included, is “internally plural,” in the words of religion scholar Scott Appleby.  As he notes, “religious communities, in their self-understanding and in their orientation to the word, change constantly.”  Over time, those accumulated changes create a “storehouse of religiously approved options” that are available to believers and leaders.  This is not to say that religious traditions have no solid position on anything.  Quite the contrary, it’s that with the accumulated wisdom of any given tradition there are multiple solid positions on virtually everything.  From this point of view, then, religion is less a set of absolute answers than a “sustained argument, conducted anew by each generation, about the contemporary significance and meaning of the sources of sacred wisdom and revealed truth.”[4]

We need look no further for a paradigmatic example of religious selectivity than Jesus, whose entire ministry was a “sustained argument” with the established religious authorities of the day.  He proclaimed his ethic of the kingdom with a series of statements:  “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time . . . But I say unto you” (Matt. 5).  Jesus did not jettison second temple Judaism (which was different from first temple Judaism, which was different from the religion of the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness), but he was selective in his approach to it.  Yes, he and his disciples would eat corn on the Sabbath as they went about doing good (Mark 2:23).  And yes, some aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith—were “weightier” than others (Matt. 23:23).

In other words, Jesus was a cafeteria Jew.  He took a helping of everything at the buffet, but piled his plate high with the things he deemed to be best.[5]  Simply by stating that something—anything—was the “first and great commandment” (Matt. 22:38), Jesus was selecting, interpreting, prioritizing.

Of course, if one considers Jesus to be the Son of God (a.k.a. God the Son), then one would say it’s his prerogative to be choosy—his universe, his rules.  Our job, if we claim to be a disciple, is just to get in line and do what he says, right?  Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in one of the all-time most powerful reflections on Christian discipleship:  “The commandment of Jesus must be accorded perfect obedience in one’s daily vocation of life. . . .  Discipleship can tolerate no conditions which might come between Jesus and our obedience to him.”[6]

The trouble is, Jesus’s teachings are internally plural too.  In the Sermon on the Mount he taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers:  for they shall be called the children of God” (Matt. 5:9).  Only five chapters later, we read him saying, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth:  I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34).  So is Jesus for peace or against peace?  (Or maybe he was for it before he was against it?[7])  At another point he tells his disciples, “for he that is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50).  But only two chapters later he says, “He that is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23).  Well, which is it?

Not only do believers have to sort out the contradictions (apparent or real) within scripture, but they have to choose which scriptural passages to follow.  No one lives all of the Bible’s commands; attempts to do so end up looking like caricature.  Modern Mormons, like other Christians, believe the Bible to be the word of God—well, except for that stuff about women not speaking in churches, or slavery being okay, or menstruating women being secluded every month, or…you get the picture.  Every believer will tell you that they don’t live up to everything that their religion tells them they should, but if we’re being honest we must admit that we also think there are a lot of parts that simply aren’t worth living up to.  So we just kind of forget about them, or skip over those verses, or don’t cover them in officially approved Sunday School and seminary curriculums.

One view is to admit this necessary and inherent selectivity, but say that what matters is not the act of selection, but the principle of selection.  Thus, a Latter-day Saint logic might go, individual members of the Church do not have the authority to pick and choose which parts of the religion they like.  However, prophets and apostles are led by revelation to emphasize certain aspects of the faith that are most relevant to us today, and other aspects (I’m looking at you, polygamy) that can be set aside without cutting the cord to Christ.

This is a legitimate and faithful position, but it only goes so far to explain the selectivity at the heart of Mormonism (and every other religion).  No single apostle or prophet has made a statement on everything (with the possible exception of Bruce R. McConkie, whose most popular and “authoritative” book has now been de-selected by the Church).  So inevitably members are left with the weight of tradition, and the need to select which elements of past and present teaching they will conform to.  Official teaching informs their choices, but so do largely unstated cultural cues (hello, white shirts).  People may not even realize they are choosing from a smorgasbord of possible options when it looks like everyone else is putting the same stuff on their plate.

In the end, it’s not so much that cafeteria Mormonism (and Catholicism, and Islam) is good or bad.  It’s simply all we have.

This is not a surrender to or embrace of unalloyed religious relativism, as if all choices are equal.  I like what prominent evangelical Protestant writer Brian McLaren says about this:

The Bible isn’t a constitution. . . .  It’s more accurate to say that the Bible is a library filled with diverse voices making diverse claims in an ongoing conversation.  Faithful interaction with a library means siding with some of those voices and against others.  (But it also means refusing to remove from the library those voices you don’t side with. . . .  The Bible thus facilitates ongoing, open dialogue and debate, not a totalitarian regime of homogenized propaganda.)  Siding with some voices and against others isn’t simply picking and choosing according to one’s own tastes, then. . . .  Interpretation is also and always a matter of ethics, a matter of the heart and the conscience.  So we can expect hostile people to side with hostile voices in the text; fearful people with fearful voices, and peace-loving people with peace-loving voices.  Interpretation will always to some degree manifest the character of the interpreter along with the meaning of the text.[8]

So the question is not whether we are selective in our religion, but what the parts we select in our religion say about us.

Though selectivity can indeed lead to relativism and the tyranny of individual choice divorced from any sense of community obligation or responsibility, when exercised in good faith and in the context of community it becomes a gift.  In his discourse on spiritual gifts Paul emphasizes that within the body of Christ it is the Holy Spirit “who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”  The diffusion of gifts and perspectives is appointed by God, who “arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.”  The purpose of this diversity within the body of Christ is not to create division, but paradoxically to create harmony and complementarity, “that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another” (NRSV, 1 Cor. 12:11, 18, 25).

In Christ’s cafeteria, your plate might look a little different than mine.  But so long as we pay the price of admission and partake from the same buffet, there’s no reason we can’t all sit down and enjoy the feast together.


[1] Doctrine & Covenants 130:20-21 reads, “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of the world, upon which all blessings are predicated—And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.”  An associated, non-scriptural phrase commonly heard in LDS circles is that “Obedience is the first law of heaven.”  The earliest expression of this teaching that I could find in a very brief online search comes from an 1873 address by Joseph F. Smith (“Discourse,” Deseret News, 12 Nov. 1873).

[2] In a visit to the United States in 1987, Pope John Paul II stated:  “It is sometimes reported that a large number of Catholics today do not adhere to the teaching of the Church on a number of questions, notably sexual and conjugal morality, divorce and remarriage.  Some are reported as not accepting the Church’s clear position on abortion.  It has also been noted that there is a tendency on the part of some Catholics to be selective in their adherence to the Church’s moral teachings.  It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the Magisterium is totally compatible with being a ‘good Catholic’ and poses no obstacle to the reception of the sacraments.  This is a grave error.”  “Pope Counsels Bishops to Hold to Christ’s Teachings in the Face of Dissent,” New York Times, 17 Sep. 1987.

[3] Quoted in Gilles Kepel, Muslim Extremism in Egypt:  The Prophet and Pharaoh, trans. Jon Rothschild (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2003), 51.

[4] R. Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred:  Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation (Lanham, MD:  Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2000), 33, 41.

[5] A remark by a friend, Patrick Perkins, helped shape this thought.

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, trans. R. H. Fuller (New York:  Touchstone, 1995 [1937]), 48, 61.

[7] For the record, I think it’s clear that Jesus was unabashedly pacifist, and that this “sword” comment should be read metaphorically as a prophecy of the social division that would happen within families and communities as some members adopted his message and others did not.  I believe it would be a fundamental misreading of the text, especially in the broader context of Jesus’s message and mission, to believe that his reference to the sword establishes some kind of warrant for the use of violence by Christians, least of all in his name.

[8] Brian D. McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?  Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World (New York:  Jericho Books, 2012), 204-205.


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