Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

The Mormon temple wedding photo game

Mette Ivie Harrison

(courtesy of Mette Harrison)

Mette Ivie Harrison

A guest post by Mette Harrison

When I was a teenager, my father sat me down one day to show me a “game” he played. He’d open the newspaper to the section that had wedding announcements. Then he’d hold his hand over the names and other information and he’d try to guess just based on the image of the couple whether or not they were getting married in the temple.

He had over ninety percent accuracy at this game.

To him, this proved that “the Spirit” was visible in the eyes of those couples who were ready to make eternal covenants with God and to create an eternal family unit.

At the time, I went along with this, surprised that my father was right so often. When I tried to play the same game, I was also pretty accurate at guessing who was getting married in the temple. Occasionally, I was wrong, but it was usually a couple who was getting married in a Mormon church building, so that meant they were still showing “the Spirit” to me in their eyes. At the time, this game confirmed to me and my father that we were righteous enough to be able to discern those who were worthy of the temple and those who weren’t.

Fast forward twenty-five years and I am horrified by the assumptions and prejudices behind this game. I hope you are, too. What I see now is an adult and a teenager looking for people whose appearance followed cultural rules, from missionary-standard hair length for the man to certain hairstyles for the woman.

We scrutinized the bride’s wedding dress to see if it conformed to Mormon modesty standards, and her ears to check the number of piercings. Only one pair of earrings was acceptable for a woman. For the groom, no earrings of any kind were allowed. Or tattoos or jewelry.

While my father, as a man of his generation, believed that people indicated their spirituality by what they chose to wear, I’ve become more dubious about this as I’ve gotten older. People can choose to adopt typical Mormon Utah clothing, hairstyles, and other obvious markers of “belonging,” but what does this really tell us about them? That they are willing to change their tribal identifiers so that they can be part of the church? Maybe. That they want to “fit in” and “belong”? This seems more likely.

My daughter who has left the LDS Church still looks very Mormon. She wears “modest” clothing (most of the time), doesn’t smoke or drink, and has let her one set of ear piercings grow over. Her mid-length, undyed hairstyle looks typically Mormon, too. She sometimes gets asked out by nice young Mormon men who meet her through her job in Utah. Inevitably, she turns them down and tries to explain that they have the wrong impression of her. She’s not particularly interested in dating Mormon guys and suspects strongly that they will not be interested when they discover she’s an atheist.

I have a lot of problems with our insistence in Mormonism on some very strict rules on modesty, including telling young women that they can either change their clothes or not come to weekday activity if they’re wearing “capris” instead of long pants (yes, this has happened in my ward). I think this unduly stigmatizes groups we should be welcoming in, as well as encouraging rape culture in Mormonism by telling girls that it’s their job to make sure boys don’t have “impure” thoughts. It may also produce problems in marriage relationships (see here for earlier post). But at the very least it produces a mentality in which we believe we can tell at a glance whether people are spiritual.

Choosing to wear a certain kind of clothing or to have a certain hairstyle doesn’t mean anything other than an ability to see what others are doing and conform. Some people can’t afford that kind of clothing. Some people can’t see the difference between what they’re wearing and what other people are wearing.

And the solution the church often offers—which is to pay for people everywhere to wear this weird church-approved uniform—isn’t dealing with the real problem, which is superficiality. Surely we want to be able to view people on a deeper level than their clothing choices? Don’t we want our children to learn to look below the surface? I know I do.

I’m asking for Mormons everywhere to think a little more deeply, to be more discerning. This may have the added bonus of also making us less likely to be deceived by those who know very well how to act like good Mormons on the surface, but are only interested in cheating their community of investment funds—or using their positions as “good Mormons” in even worse ways.

We can do better. We must do better. No more games about seeing “the Spirit” in wedding photographs or anything similar, please. Christ looked on the heart. He looked beyond dirty clothes, bearded faces, or “porn shoulders.” So should we.

 


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This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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