17 Dear Jack: The Gospel is True, but the People Aren’t

Dear Jack,

I notice many Mormons making use of what they seemingly believe to be a rather clear distinction–between “culture” and “the gospel” or between “culture” and “doctrine”–when identifying aspects of Mormon history, contemporary practice, belief, or trends that they want to distance themselves from or take a position contrary to. Identifying the problematic belief/practice/policy/trend etc. as “culture” rhetorically seems to function as giving the person seeking distance a legitimate basis for doing so. If, on the other hand, the problematic “thing” one is seeking distance from is “doctrine” or a fundamental aspect of the “gospel” such distance-seeking is illegitimate, and the distance-seeker needs to reconcile themselves to the thing they might otherwise want to reject/criticize/express doubts concerning, etc.

While the existence of said rhetorical tool and how it functions raises many interesting questions in and of itself, the most pressing question it raises for me is whether such a distinction is credible. Is there really a principled difference between “culture” and “doctrine”/”the gospel” that one can reasonably rely on? If arguing in the affirmative, what are the principles for deciphering what is “culture” and what is “gospel”/”doctrine”? Appeals to Mormon epistemology on the functioning of the spirit? (But what then to do with conflicting results?) Contemporary consensus among the group of Mormons one most identifies with? That which has a basis in the scripture according to an authoritative interpretation (whose?)? That which has unanimous support from the Quorum of the Twelve? That which has majority support from the Quorum of the Twelve? The Quorum of the Twelve at what point in LDS history? Appeals to Bruce. R. McConkie’s “Mormon Doctrine” (pre- or post-edited version)? Perhaps based on one of these tests or a number of them we could identify a fairly non-contentious set of ideas/beliefs/practices for which there is a large consensus that they would fall into one or the other category, but surely not all. What to do about the gray area? This is the area in which anything goes? Default to treat it all as “doctrine” to hedge against the risk of mistreating sacred things? Default to treat it all as “culture” to hedge against the mistake of perpetuating institutionalized bias/prejudice/”non-doctrine” that is hurtful and problematic? Pick and choose according to one’s moral compass? If in the gray area it boils down to the application of a subjective test, what use is the “culture” / “doctrine” distinction?

If there is no reliable distinction (at least in the gray areas), is there any principle distance-seekers can appeal to in order for their distance seeking to be deemed legitimate within the broader Mormon community?



Dear Principled,

As you’ve rightly noted, making a distinction between “culture” and “the gospel” is a pervasive coping mechanism amongst members of the church, a method for returning to the solid ground of full faith and devotion when encountering practices, beliefs or trends that don’t sit well with individual believers. While your question is really about the legitimacy of this dichotomy, I think we first need to explore what on earth we mean when we use these terms — gospel, church, doctrine, culture — because Mormon doctrine is surprisingly elusive, even when set down by an apostle.

In his recent (and brilliant) post on Patheos, Matt Bowman wrote:

“To be sure, there is no shortage of theology within Mormonism.  Again, the faith’s tradition of a lay ministry means that Mormon leader after Mormon leader have enthusiastically offered their followers one particular version of the faith or another.  And precisely because the language of theology is so foreign to Mormons, Mormons barely recognize that they are doing it: nearly all these exercises in interpretation are offered not as a theologian would – as a possible way of understanding God, a story of eternity that might cast new light on the mysteries of faith – but as simple self-evident truth. But there is no creed, catechism, or systematic theology to hold Mormonism to any fixed point, and therefore, the cluster of ideas that make up Mormon doctrine, all of which at some time or another seemed the unvarnished truth to some group of saints or another, is in a constant state of evolution … There is a great deal which Mormons might believe; there is very little that they must believe.”

 If you ask one hundred different Mormons where they draw the line between culture and doctrine or what they mean by these terms, you might get a hundred different answers. The culture vs. gospel dichotomy is a result of this doctrinal fluidity, but also of the heightened emphasis on behavior, which in many ways is just as important, if not more, than what we believe.  The lifestyle associated with Mormonism – what we don’t drink, how we dress, what we watch – these things are deeply integrated with our religious practice and sense of identity. Whether or not you embrace, or even know, all of Brigham Young’s teachings is far less important to most Mormons than whether you keep the Word of Wisdom or did your home teaching last month.  The distinction between culture and gospel is as slippery as the doctrine itself.

Still, as you noted in your question, it serves a purpose. In my experience, the dichotomy is largely a pragmatic way of allowing the church to remain true and good while making room for human error and imperfection. This isn’t so different from excusing your usually kind partner for being an asshole when they’ve had a bad day or realizing that your toddler is not actually possessed by demons, but probably needs a nap.  Partner and child are still “good” in our books, but we realise and accept that their behavior might not always be. As a coping mechanism, this seems practical and kind-hearted, a necessary tool for any organization filled with human beings.  I think this also includes people who feel the church is their spiritual home, but hope for change in culture and doctrine on bigger issues. These people have good reason to believe that, however slowly the church evolves, things do change over time.

In my active days, the culture vs. gospel distinction was one I made regularly. For me, the gospel was the Golden Rule, the Articles of Faith and the questions in the temple recommend interview (as I understood them at the time – I would later come to see these as more complex, but, for a time they were simple). Everything else was culture in my eyes. This worked very well for dealing with behavioural requirements that seemed silly or arbitrary to me, such as men having to wear white shirts and ties, the ban on tattoos and second piercings, or the fact that others might see it as wrong that my family believed going out to eat after church every Sunday was part of keeping the Sabbath day holy. However, this didn’t work so well in other areas. My lifelong belief that Heavenly Father would someday reveal that our attitudes towards homosexuality were wrong, a result of culture and not part of the gospel — which at its heart was about loving all of his children as I believed God loved me –didn’t stand up so well when it came to the church’s support (popular and financial) of Proposition 8 in California. It wasn’t so much that I was outside popular opinion on this one, it was that it pointed to deeper and more troubling questions about my beliefs.

For a long time, I blamed any misgivings in my heart on my weaknesses, the culture and the imperfect people – on self-righteous Brother So and So or silly Sister X. I made up complicated algorithms for figuring out when our leaders were talking as men (always men) and when they were speaking for God. All I had to do to keep the gospel perfect was distance myself from my own flaws and the flaws of others.  In hindsight, that seems very wrongheaded. There are ideals that can point us toward a more enlightened way of being and behaving, but there is no gospel that exists in perfect form outside our lived experience. The gospel, the culture and the doctrine are so intricately interwoven that the distinctions we make between them are hopelessly arbitrary and personal. We can’t move closer to God by moving away from ourselves or others. In other words, I’ve come to believe that the people are true and the gospel doesn’t exist outside of them.

Building a principled stance is not about the rightness of your arguments, the authority of your source, or whether a majority of Mormons might agree with you. It comes from having integrity and not underestimating the importance of your moral compass. If the gospel vs. doctrine distinction allows you to see the flaws and still come closer to others and God, then it is a useful tool. If the distinction forces you to look away from your deepest values or from the people around you, then it is meaningless.