A guest post by Mette Harrison
Mormons believe that before we came to earth, there was a war in heaven between Satan and Christ, who offered competing plans for our mortal experience.
Satan’s plan was a plan without agency, or moral freedom. He suggested that if all human beings were forced to choose good, all of us would return to heaven.
Christ’s plan was one of agency, where He would come to earth and make an Atonement so that we could repent of our sins. Because of Christ, we could all return to heaven even if we had made mistakes (which are impossible to avoid) on earth. The war in heaven resulted in Christ’s plan winning the day at the cost of a third of souls, who left heaven with Satan because they did not like a plan of agency.
Agency is a pillar of Mormon faith. It begins in heaven itself and permeates every part of our lives. We are allowed to choose at every step in our path back to God. There are many famous scriptures about agency in Mormonism, including 2 Nephi 26-27 (“Because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon . . .”).
But despite the fact that agency is so important to Mormon doctrine, there are times when what we preach is closer to Satan’s plan of enforced obedience than it is to Christ’s plan of mercy. We so desperately want people to make the “right” choices and to avoid the pain of making the “wrong” one that we try to obscure their agency. This is especially true when it comes to children.
Because of the idea of eternal families, many LDS parents are very concerned that their children’s sins will disallow them from entering the celestial kingdom, so the family will not be completely intact. This pressure on parents can lead to manipulating children into making more orthodox choices and avoiding all of the mistakes that may seem a natural part of growing up.
Mormons do not encourage their young adult children to spend time, as some sects of the Amish do, getting a taste of life outside of Mormonism, so that they can more clearly choose to return to the church of their origins. Mormon teens are never to taste alcohol, smoke a cigarette, or engage in any sexual activities outside of marriage.
And while I might agree that some of these rules are to protect teens from life-long addictions, I think our rules go beyond that. In For The Strength of Youth, our youth are told they should “select only media that uplifts you” and to avoid any movies, music, or books that drive away the Spirit. I worry that many youth and their parents take this to mean that they should avoid good movies that have difficult, painful topics, including movies that may be rated “R.”
This pamphlet also counsels young men and women only to date those who have “high standards,” which I fear many Mormons interpret to mean dating only other Mormons. By doing this, we end up encouraging our youth never to be confronted by those good people of other religions who may challenge their faith.
Finally, For The Strength of Youth says to “invite your friends of other faiths to your Church meetings,” yet says nothing of offering to attend their church meetings, which is not a fair compromise to make. If we are not encouraging our youth to seek out truth in all religions, what are we afraid of?
So many LDS Conference talks recommend avoiding dangerous “media” that I wonder if anyone understands what that means. When I was part of a ward book club, many of the women insisted that they would not read a book that had a single swear word in it in order to uphold their standards. This eliminated all Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, all Nobel Prize-winning authors, and in fact, Shakespeare himself. Are we too busy congratulating ourselves on our standards to feel compassion and to read about the lives of those we are called upon to help save? We need to be more careful in our ability to discern good and bad media than simply looking at a rating system that isn’t capable of telling the difference between good and bad, only “clean” and “not.”
When my kids were small, one of my goals was to make sure that they got to deal with consequences of bad choices as much as possible while I was there to act as backup and to make sure they still felt loved and supported. For instance, I frequently let them buy things that I personally thought were a waste of money. I felt like no lecture from me was as effective as the real-life consequences would be. Obviously, there were limits to this and I didn’t let them do anything that could result in real harm to them physically or psychologically. But I also didn’t have to be the bad guy. They’d buy something stupid, then take it home and complain about the company that sold it. My kids quickly became very adept at recognizing lies in advertising because of this strategy, and they became more independent and confident.
I think books and other media are excellent ways for everyone to “experiment” with different lifestyles and see the real consequences of choices. We can only follow one path in our own lives, but stories are ways for us to see many other paths and learn from the mistakes other people make without having to make them ourselves. So rather than censoring my children’s book choices, I encourage them to read widely, regardless of supposedly inappropriate language or the unwise choices of characters. If I’m worried about a particular book, I always read it myself so we can have a conversation about the material. More than I worry about books that show teens using alcohol or drugs, I worry about my kids reading books that pull punches, either by not showing life with real dilemmas or by not forcing characters to make difficult choices. Those kinds of books don’t help them.
While I’m not advocating a radical strategy of trying out every vice on earth to see what it’s like, I do think that as religious people, Mormons could spend more time talking about the ways we all sin rather than pointing fingers at certain kinds of sin. We could also do better at loosening the reins a bit as religious parents and being a soft space for our children to fall when they make mistakes. I’m much less interested in trying to raise children who are supposedly perfect examples of my religion than I am in raising ones who have real experiences and have learned from them—and who are kind and compassionate to those they know who make mistakes of any kind.
Other posts by Mette Harrison:
- A letter to my daughter’s seminary teacher
- My daughter isn’t a Mormon anymore
- No mission? Then young LDS men are in “No Mormon’s Land”