Conformity Is the First Law of Heaven

I was listening to an episode of Kristy Money’s new relationship podcast, Mormon Journeys, where she was talking with fellow therapist Rachel Brown, and Rachel made a point that particularly struck me. Here’s what she said:

There’s not a lot of cultural room in the LDS tradition for differentiation of an individual. It’s almost like we’re set up to never differentiate as adults. And by “differentiate” I mean a couple of things, but mainly the idea that you can choose your own set of beliefs and values.

Now this might sound obvious, but what was striking to me here is that I typically think of us Mormons as being obedience-happy, but Rachel’s point is that we’re also conformity-happy. The distinction between the two is that obedience is doing something in response to a command(ment), whereas conformity is doing something in response to a social norm. Conformity also includes changing beliefs and attitudes, in contrast with obedience, which only involves behavior. (Here’s a nice article I found that discusses the differences.)

In the podcast, Rachel went on to talk about her decision to marry in the temple, and how it really wasn’t where she wanted to get married. When the time came to get married, though, she went ahead an did it in the temple because she didn’t want to face the fallout of people assuming that she was unworthy or her parents’ disappointment. This sounds to me like her decision was driven by conformity than obedience. She was concerned with violating the norm rather than with going against the commandment to marry in the temple.

There are some other recent examples of Mormons exhibiting concern with conformity.

  • Many Mormons opposed the women’s march that took place in hundreds of locations last weekend, often using Sister Nadauld’s 2000 General Conference talk where she contrasts “women of God” and “women of the world.” Unlike the temple marriage example, where there is both obedience and conformity potentially at play, this is purely a situation of conformity. There are no commandments against marching or demonstrating. What there are is strong social norms against such things. Mormons, and particularly Mormon women, aren’t agitators.
  • Ordain Women drew a lot of flak for their actions at Temple Square. Again, it doesn’t seem like there was a particular commandment that they were violating, but they were violating the norm against public agitation, and it probably felt particularly egregious because they were violating it by making the Church their target, and doing it in the very heart of Mormondom.
  • The Wear Pants to Church days, particularly the first one in 2012, brought out a really surprising amount of vitriol from people who were opposed. There’s no rule that women cannot wear pants, but what these events revealed is that, at least in some parts of the Church, there is an extremely strong norm that they don’t. And some people feel very passionately about this norm.
  • Young men who are blessing or passing the sacrament are required in some wards to wear white shirts and ties, even though the Handbook says that this is only “recommended” and explicitly adds that “they should not be required.” There’s clearly a strong norm at work here to override the Handbook.

I find it interesting that enforcers of Mormon social norms don’t often appeal to the social norms that are being violated as the reason for their opposition to something like Wear Pants to Church. Rather, they often turn to commandments and try to make the question into one of obedience. For example, the first year of Wear Pants to Church, I saw the argument made many times that the Church says members should wear “their best” to church, and women’s best was clearly a dress or skirt, so women who were going to wear pants to church were clearly going against the rules. Similarly with Ordain Women, opponents have often cited a descriptive norm (we’ve never ordained women before) because there’s not much to go on when it comes to commandments on the issue. It makes sense, though, why it feels like a stronger argument to appeal to authority and obedience rather than to appeal to a social norm and

A complicating factor is that the line between social norms and commandments isn’t always bright. The best example of this fact is then-Elder Boyd K. Packer’s [in]famous talk, “The Unwritten Order of Things.” A person who is looking to enforce a social norm with the same zeal as a commandment could have no better friend than this talk, as they can always claim that the norm they’re pushing is part of the unwritten order of things, so we have to follow it just like a commandment. To further complicate the issue, occasionally a social norm gets upgraded to a commandment. I think this happened with President Hinckley and the requirement that girls and women have only one pair of earrings, as well as with President Benson and the admonition to not watch R-rated movies. The R-rated movies one might be in decline, though, When I’ve seen it discussed online, at least one person will typically say that President Benson’s talk was 30 years ago and was addressed only to youth and hasn’t been repeated and now the counsel is just to avoid anything violent or obscene, regardless of the rating. So maybe one-time commandments can drift back to becoming norms.

Really, I guess it shouldn’t be surprising if the difference between social norms and commandments isn’t always easy to identify, since the question of what qualifies as a commandment is adjacent to the endlessly thorny question of what qualifies as doctrine. What I do wonder is whether we Mormons are more conforming in general than other people. It seems to me that we are, but I’m just one person with one pile of anecdotes. What do you think?



  1. I would list prohibitions on birth control and oral sex as further examples of social norms upgraded to commandment and then discarded when a majority ignored the commandment. I like the nuance of Obedience vs. Conformity.

  2. How about the social norm of being Republican? I have a hunch that if I were to ask my Republican neighbors specific questions regarding their beliefs about a variety of issues, they’d actually come down on the Democratic side of a majority of the issues. Once you get past the sound-bite level of conversation, reason tends to push people to the left. But you can’t be a good Mormon and a Democrat, so . . .

  3. We try not to conform to the social norms of premarital sex, cohabitation, convenient abortion, Sabbath breaking, secularism, careerism, materialism, party culture, and a myriad of other norms. All in all I’d say we’re rather peculiar in our nonconformity.

  4. The scriptures have a word for upgrading norms to commandments: teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.

  5. Add beards and caffeine. Just like pants for women, these are not violations of any commandment, but they do fall outside church guidelines for the spheres where the church has the greatest control – missions, temples, church schools, etc.

    To a declining extent, I would also add women working outside the home.

    IMO, the general perception in the membership is that these rules are a ‘higher law’ that the general church body is not yet ready to abide, but hopefully someday will. Kind of like the WOW that moved up from good counsel to TR requirement over a few decades.

  6. I think it is interesting that Mormons praise stories of non-conformity when someone is standing up for Mormon beliefs and practices (i.e., Joesph Smith), but don’t value social non-conformity when it goes against Mormon culture and teachings.

  7. “IMO, the general perception in the membership is that these rules are a ‘higher law’ that the general church body is not yet ready to abide, but hopefully someday will.”

    And that’s terrifying, but I get the sense all too prevalent.

    Growing up in the church I always loved my father’s non-conformist streaks. And on this I’m my father’s daughter. The only place he wore a white shirt was the temple. He had fancy waistcoats, colourful ties, and even bow ties. And he’d grow a beard, a moustache, even mutton chop whiskers as the fancy took him. And he was a deeply spiritual man who when warned by the spirit, somewhat regretfully, that he was going to have to shave off his beard did so the evening before then Elder Packer demanded it from the pulpit during a stake conference in the 70s.

  8. Great story Hedgehog. Was the instruction to your father because he had a leadership role or what it that all men should be clean-shaven?

    I recently started growing a beard for the first time in my life (at my wife’s request). I’ve been pleasantly surprised by all the compliments, especially from stake leaders during ward conference. I’ve only had a few weird looks, but those are likely just a reflection of surprise rather than disapproval.

  9. It was a blanket condemnation of beards, so far as I can recall Dave K (I wasn’t very old, maybe 9), made in the general session of our stake conference, and directed to everyone. I talked about it with my father a few years ago, he didn’t mention anything about leadership in connection with it, though he has over the years served on bishoprics and the high council.

  10. Fine discussion, Ziff. Obviously, LDS would rather be viewed as highly obedient than highly conformist. Strangely, the I’m a Mormon campaign spots sponsored by the Church seemed to celebrate diversity within the Church, which is so out of step with the conformity norm that is so strong within LDS culture. It’s like we practice conformity while advertising diversity.

  11. I taught my kids to understand these two sayings of Paul:

    1 Corinthians 6:12 All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.

    1 Corinthians 10:23 All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.

    It was hard to understand as young men / young women, somewhat easier as young adults, and has become easier as they have entered their thirties and forties.


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