Tests of Faithfulness

Think about the following statements:

1) I have serious doubts about Book of Mormon historicity.

2) We need to return to the Constitution, and resist the ungodly socialist plot threatening America.

3) I have extensively researched the topic, and have concluded that the Lost Ten Tribes are on the moon.

4) I think women should have the priesthood.

5) The Book of Mormon supports progressive views (and thereby Democratic candidates) in its strong advocacy of social justice.

6) It’s a good thing we don’t leave things up to the men, because they would never get anything done.

7) I can’t believe that Sister Y wore that to church; doesn’t she know that that fashion went out ten years ago? The women in this ward clearly have no idea how to dress.

My question: which of these, if shared in church, will get you labeled as “one of those dangerous members”? Or if on a blog, will get your blog labeled as “fringe” or “less faithful”? And why?

In my experience: (1) and (4) are the ones most likely to get you in trouble. (3) will probably get an eye-roll, but more a label of “crazy” than “apostate.” Depending on the ward, I would say (2) is likely to get you some enthusiastic agreement, but likely some annoyance as well, though the latter might be more muted. If you’re in a place where conservative politics reign, (5) might cause people to go so far as to challenge your testimony, but again, that would depend on your ward.

What I find striking, however, is that when it comes to (6) and (7)–maybe some people will cringe, maybe some will laugh. But it’s extremely unlikely that your faithfulness will be called into question. Because sexist generalizations, or making fun of people’s fashion choices, are not culturally transgressive in the way that expressing doubt or disagreement is. If you’re on a blog, they won’t be used as a litmus test to see whether you get to be classified as “faithful” or not.

It’s often argued that Mormonism is more about orthopraxy than orthodoxy, and I think there is merit to that. But I also think it’s telling that there are certain forms of behavior clearly condemned by our scriptures—the Book of Mormon has a lot to say about (7), for example—that have little or nothing to do with boundary maintenance when it comes to what it means to be a faithful Mormon.

I’m not arguing for stricter boundary maintenance; that’s a more complicated issue than I want to tackle here. I’m simply suggesting that those who are drawing circles of orthodoxy and setting up particular criteria for faithfulness are, like the rest of us, picking and choosing when it comes to which issues get prioritized.


  1. forgive my ignorance – perhaps I don’t frequent enough blogs or haven’t read the right posts/articles – but I had no idea that it is often argued that Mormonism is more about orthopraxy than orthodoxy. (or maybe I’ve just really embarrassed myself, because maybe y’all have argued it here and I managed to miss it).

    I always thought that contemporary Mormonism — from, let’s say, 80s onwards, give or take, acknowledging that periodization is always tricky and arguable — is about orthopraxy and orthodoxy in equal measure, and that part of the crises of growth and retention that we’re experiencing as a church is that religions tend to fall more solidly into one camp or another. Clearly I need to do some bloggernacle searches..

    But, after starting off on a tangent (sorry) I must say that I agree with you. Anytime I hear (or read) a member chastise another member for “cherrypicking what they choose to prioritize” I alternately cringe and chuckle ruefully to myself. I think we do have many litmus tests of orthodoxy and orthopraxy that we impose on each other. It’s worthwhile to think critically about where they come from.

  2. On the other hand, I think that if anyone were to consistently teach any of those seven statements in a formal setting: Sunday School Class, over-the-pulpit, etc…

    they would at least be released from their calling and/or not asked to speak for awhile, or at the upper end, be called in for a session with the High Council for correction.

    We have a less-active brother who it is difficult to find a calling for, because he sincerely believes (2).

  3. On the other hand, we had a Gospel Doctrine teacher for a couple of years who regularly taught, “I think women already have the Priesthood” and no one called her on it, not even with the Bishopric sitting right there in class.

    She was eventually released and put in charge of Stake Young Women.

  4. I definitely like the idea of boundary management (#7). Random tactless/gossipy comments have a bad effect on people who may be close to inactivity for whatever reason.

  5. In my GD class on Sunday I expressed the personal opinion that Paul was not the author of Hebrews. My point was not to push that point of view–I don’t really much care who my students think wrote the book–but to make it clear that is an open question that they are free to examine and draw their own conclusions on.

    But I was only able to get away with that because i know how to speak the lingo and make the point in a way that was not threatening. Joseph’s casual ascriptions of the material in Hebrews to Paul do not amount to revelation; Sidney B. Sperry, godfather of BYU religious education, concluded Paul was not the author; and I had a list of GAs who are obvously aware of the issue and therefore refer obliquely to “the author” or the “writer” rather than to Paul when discussing passages. And the last name on my list was one Thomas S. Monson.

    In other words, I came loaded for bear, and anyone in the class would have questioned my faithfulness as a result of my making this point only at her great peril! The thing is, I’ve been teaching in the Church long enough that I knew full well I would need to come loaded for bear on that issue; it’s not something you can just toss off without prepping the class in that way.

  6. My question: which of these, if shared in church, will get you labeled as “one of those dangerous members”? Or if on a blog, will get your blog labeled as “fringe” or “less faithful”? And why?

    What strikes me is that not only, as you point out, do all of us pick and choose which issues get prioritized, but that the atmosphere of different LDS congregations will foster different sets of issues in different places. I’ve been a member of 14 different wards and branches in a wide variety of geographic areas and it was interesting to me to try to answer your questions for each of those environments individually. The sets of answers were all different.

    I will echo one of Kevin’s points. If you are going to introduce a well thought out and defensible idea that may be new or perceived as unorthodox to a group, it’s good to do so without your ego on the line and without requiring agreement. Peacemaking and respect for agency is important in the dialogue, even when you think your neighbor is on the fringe or she thinks you are.

  7. Last month I heard 2) and 6) from a senior missionary at a church visitor center. He didn’t just say them once, either, but went through several forceful iterations of each.

  8. I put 3, 6 and 7 in the same category of crackpot.

    I’ll put 5 in that category as well – because anyone who thinks that the B of M supports forcibly taking money from others, washing it through a corrupt bureaucracy, & giving it to the poor, isn’t dangerous- just not terribly bright.

  9. I always thought that contemporary Mormonism — from, let’s say, 80s onwards, give or take, acknowledging that periodization is always tricky and arguable — is about orthopraxy and orthodoxy in equal measure, and that part of the crises of growth and retention that we’re experiencing as a church is that religions tend to fall more solidly into one camp or another.

    I’m thinking, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, that some of this comes from one’s comparative background. Compared to many traditional Christians, I would say that Mormons have a striking emphasis on orthopraxy. Because there exist such a wide range of beliefs, and the freewheeling nature of informal Mormon theology, I tend to see orthodoxy as somewhat less important. If you use the TR questions as a baseline, there are only a couple about belief, and quite frankly, they leave a lot of wiggle room. That said, I think there are some heterodoxies that do get you in trouble–theories about Kolob are unlikely to get you ex’d; theories having to do with gender are much more potentially explosive.

    Though given how hard it is to define exactly what Mormon doctrine actually is, I’ve sometimes wondered if it’s really possible to talk meaningfully about orthodoxy in Mormonism. I use the term, but I wonder whether I use it more as a kind of cultural signal than anything else.

    But I’m intrigued by your proposed analysis of the situation, especially since I’m still thinking through this. Thanks for the comment.

  10. Kevin, I think my style is more to casually mention things and cheerfully move along before anyone can freak out. Also, according to my siblings, I have a tendency to talk in a tone which leaves everyone wondering how serious I am. 😉 Louisa, I appreciate your point about the need for respect, and being willing to be open to disagreement. And I appreciate the multiple comments noting how things are in their wards; a lot clearly does depend on location. You can say things in the Bay Area that I suspect would cause more of a ruckus in say, Texas, and vice versa.

  11. In regards to orthopraxy v. orthodoxy, one discussion we have had multiple times is that it’s much easier to be heterodox in the church if your life is very orthopraxic. For instance, it’s much easier for me (as a SAHM to multiple young children) to get away with saying I think women should have the priesthood without getting labeled as a dangerous apostate than it would be for a single, divorced, childless woman — by orders of magnitude.

  12. Vada, word. Having been on both sides of the married/divorced divide, while holding relatively consistent opinions, I can vouch for the fact that a failure to meet cultural standards (I’m hesitant to say that being divorced is necessarily a failure of orthopraxis) decimates one’s credibility among Mormons.

  13. Hey Th. I’m sure what you’re getting at, but I’ll bite.

    My context is probably what you’d expect–both wards in a variety of places, and blogs. I definitely heard versions of (2) growing up in Utah, and though I doubt everyone was comfortable with it (my family being obviously in that group), I didn’t notice much outcry. I’ve heard some pretty out-there stuff like (3), both over the pulpit and in Sunday School (the best location for space doctrine, I think). I’ve heard (1) and (4) mostly just in private, from people who would be careful about admitting that publicly. It probably doesn’t help that there have been GA talks explicitly condemning those ideas, which is perhaps why I think of them as more culturally transgressive than others on the list. (On the other hand, condemnations of (7) don’t seem to serve the same litmus test.)

    But going back–once in a while I’ve heard (5), usually in a class, and almost always followed by a refutation. (6), at least in my experience, is so common as to be unremarkable–that kind of thing even makes it to Conference. And (7) I have found to be prominent in certain singles’ wards, perhaps especially the ones at BYU–though I wouldn’t limit the phenomenon to that.

    A lot, of course, depends on the dynamics of the ward–and as I was just mentioning in a different thread, there is not only regional variation, but variation within the ward as to how people experience it.

    I’m realizing that another context I’m thinking of is the CES–as a seminary graduate and an attender of Education Week for many years, I’ve found variants of (6) and especially (3) to be pretty common (okay, the CES beats Sunday School for space doctrine), with an occasional version of (2), (1) and (4) as something to be warned about, not much about (5), and mixed messages about (7) (that is to say, critiques of too much emphasis on makeup, coupled with making a big deal out of how beautiful one’s wife is, not to mention the message conveyed by the fact that at least when I was there, most of the female speakers on the CES circuit were quite glamorous looking.)

    And with blogging–well, you are probably familiar with some of the brouhaha that has occurred at times over labeling blogs “faithful” or not, and as far as I can tell, (1) and (4) would be dealbreakers for those using that categorization. Probably not the rest, though (2) and (5) can certainly start arguments, and in the context of the self-defined faithful/orthodox, I think (5) is more likely to be condemned than (2)–though I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily the case for the bloggernacle more generally. (In that vein, I do have some annoyance, I have to admit, at what I see as the occasional co-opting of the term “faithful” to refer exclusively to a particular subset of Mormon doctrines, somewhat similar to what I feel about the way in which some Christians use the term Christian, though obviously that’s a complicated issue.)

    But this is all just me, and the dynamics I’ve seen, which is why I’m interested to hear other people’s perceptions of what sorts of things constitute litmus tests for faithfulness.

    Is that what you were curious about?

  14. Kristine, you’re right in that I should have said something like “culturally orthopraxic”. Real orthopraxis would involve being charitable and Christlike and wouldn’t really depend on one’s marital or parental status. But cultural conformity gives one much more leniency to be heterodox, which is kind of sad, but also makes me more determined to be a little outspoken when I can be, simply because it doesn’t have the same repercussions for me that it might for someone else who’s thinking the same things.

  15. Vada and Kristine – you both hit an interesting point re: in person responses to heterodoxy in relation to cultural orthopraxy. I wonder if that applies in the bloggernacle as well? Would the cultural orthopraxy of a blogs patrons determine their ranking on the faithful/fringe lists? Would (1), for example, be considered less fringe coming from a blog named Feminist Mormon housewives? Feminist Mormon Stay-At-Home-Dads? Feminist Mormon Divorced, Childless, Democrat Ph.D Candidates? I wonder if the bias is stronger when the topic at hand ties to an individual’s brand of cultural deviance. Is it more acceptable for a Stay-At-Home-Mom to doubt the historicity of the Book of Mormon than it is for an unmarried, childless professor of Anthropology to doubt it?

  16. .


    Essentially yes, though I admit I love the idea of you doing field research, entering a ward, and saying this things and recording reactions.

  17. .

    You missed it, but at church this week, CS began her talk by saying she hates the Book of Mormon. That certainly got our attention.

    (Also, you got a shoutout in the combined third hour. MM asked everyone to talk about the gifts of the spirit they appreciate in other ward members and you were mentioned.)


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