16 November 2008

Shirts and Shibboleths – When the "Unwritten Order" Becomes Compulsory

In 1996 Boyd Packer spoke at BYU about "The Unwritten Order of Things." In that speech he briefly but forcefully advocated wearing "Sunday best" to church and decried "more informal, even slouchy clothing" at church meetings which, he said, would lead to "informal and slouchy conduct."

Since then, two other members of the Quorum of the Twelve have used General Conference addresses to urge LDS men to wear white shirts to church, particularly when performing priesthood ordinances. This "advice" has not been official, and has been expressed in terms of personal preference. However, most active Mormons tend to take every word from every General Authority as virtually canonical, and little details like this, easily adopted as badges of faithfulness, usually catch on fast in Mormon circles. The result is a strong cultural trend over the last 20 years or so which pressures every LDS man and boy to wear nothing but white shirts to church as the "uniform of the priesthood."

Today I counted among 12 year old and older males in Sacrament meeting the number of non-white shirts. This is not a small ward. Every week it fills a stake center chapel and many rows in the overflow section. Total non-white shirts: seven, out of close to a hundred, and even the renegades confined themselves to a conservative pale solid blue (but only one tie with any green at all, guess who). Clearly the white shirt part of the "unwritten order of things" has taken hold in my ward and stake.

Before I go further, I want to emphasize that this post is not about the merits of white or non-white shirts. As far as I'm concerned, God our Father cares a lot more about the color of the virtues in our hearts and probably not a whit about our shirts. My purpose here is to examine the phenomenon of how this personal preference of a couple of General Authorities has been adopted as a de facto requirement and badge of orthodoxy, the discomfort which it seems more than a few members of the Church feel when it's not followed, and most importantly, what that discomfort says about those members and about the culture of the Church.

A member of my extended family who lives in a very conservative area of Utah has an Aaronic Priesthood-age son. He has a strong Holden Caulfield streak, and is going through the predictable stage of testing the boundaries to figure out what he personally believes, trusts, doubts, has faith in, and so forth. Not surprisingly, he chafes at the strong "suggestion" that only white shirts be worn to church, and his local leadership's admonition that repeated breaches of this rule will exclude him from administering the sacrament. He thinks this is a stupid rule and regards those who emphasize it as the modern equivalents of those in the Savior's time who strained at gnats. And we all know what the Savior said about them. He knows too.

His parents, loving and devoted Church members of unquestioned faithfulness, don't make a big issue of this. But they are extremely worried about him. In their eyes, if he is unwilling to be obedient in little things, how will he ever be trusted or able to be obedient in larger things?

This is the crux of the issue. The white shirt rule is not Scripture. It is not policy (except for full-timers like missionaries and GA's). As far as I know, it is the preference of two members of the Quorum of the Twelve speaking in their individual capacities. Yet it has been adopted and elevated to a near-commandment by the rank and file of the Church, and when LDS youth fail to comply strictly with it, their parents have significant worry that the Youth of Zion are indeed faltering, are disobedient in little things and thus are on their way to failing in greater things.

This state of affairs worries me too, but not for the same reasons. Whenever I hear admonitions to "obey," my first question is "obey whom, what, and for what reason?" This is not disrespect, it is honest inquiry and in some cases self-preservation. A demand for obedience by itself is morally neutral. One must ask who is requiring the obedience, for what reason, and to what end. The Savior counseled obedience. Hitler insisted on it. Obedience in a vacuum is not necessarily a virtue. If we are to be safe and know whom to trust, we have no choice but to ask "Obey what?' And why?"

I have three concerns. First, some Church members seem to have elevated the personal sartorial preferences of a couple of General Authorities to nearly the same level as express commands in the Scriptures or temple covenants. Second, they seem to be worrying that failure to conform to those preferences is tantamount (though on a smaller scale) to disobeying express commandments in the Scriptures. Third, and most thought-provoking for me, is why this skew of priorities occurs in the first place.

What is it about Mormon culture that seems to lead so many to so quickly adopt comparatively minor details like this as virtual divine mandates, and to cause so much worry when they're not followed to the letter? Is it the obsession which LDS doctrine has with achieving perfection, an attitude which can turn even little details into life or death matters when it comes to achieving exaltation? Is it the last 20 or 30 years' trend in the Church to insist on obedience obedience obedience, follow the prophet follow the prophet follow the prophet, in an effort to preserve some core of consistent orthodoxy as the Church expands into more countries and cultures? Are we so frantic to avoid another apostasy as an institution that we obsess over details even as small as this? Is it the increasing pace of modern life (in the United States, at least) which has more of us feeling so overwhelmed so much of the time with the demands of family, school or work, and church activity that whenever we can do something quick and easy to demonstrate faithfulness, it's almost a relief? Is it the collective paranoia that The World Is Getting Worse and we must do everything we can to stand apart and demonstrate, even if only outwardly, that we are Zion and not Babylon, and we worry that anybody who doesn't wear a white shirt is still trying to keep one foot on the other side of the fence?

As Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. No more. Sometimes a blue shirt is just that, a blue shirt. No big deal. Its wearer could well be just as faithful to his covenants as ever, he just happened to have a blue shirt next on the rack in the closet. The only thing I understand about those who fret and worry about non-white shirts, and about those who pressure others to wear nothing but, is that they seem to be focused on non-essentials and potentially judging others' faithfulness based on outward symbols that probably have nothing to do with the hearts of those being judged. At the end of the day, that's what bothers me most: that I live in a religious culture that not only fosters such beliefs, but persuades those who hold them that they are being rigorously righteous in doing so.

I can't reverse this trend. All I can do is live so that I don't adopt it myself. Keep the commandments, keep my covenants, keep my eye on the Savior's example of charity for all, regardless of whether their shirt is white or blue or tie-dyed. I don't think He would care, and I'm not going to either.


Grant Haws said...

As someone who likes to think they have a bit of common sense, this issue drives me up the wall. The GAs our human. With human preferences, opinions, and faults. To deny that is to deny reality. Yet, the Church is leaning to a Law of Moses mentality where you can no longer decide between a white and a blue shirt. I really don't think God cares what I wear, who I love, or whatever the issue is...it's about how I treat my fellow man. And a white shirt won't save you if you are a complete a-hole.

Abelard Enigma said...

... his local leadership's admonition that repeated breaches of this rule will exclude him from administering the sacrament

I agree, we tend to get really hung up on little things that are really not that important in the eternal scheme of things - like the whole earring thing. It's even worse when local leaders invent their own policies and pass it off as church policy. The official church policy on white shirts states:

"Those who bless and pass the sacrament should dress modestly and be well groomed and clean. Clothing or jewelry should not call attention to itself or distract members during the sacrament. White shirts and ties are recommended because they add to the dignity of the ordinance. However, they should not be required as a mandatory prerequisite for a priesthood holder to participate. Nor should it be required that all be alike in dress and appearance. Bishops should use discretion when giving such guidance to young men, taking into account their financial circumstances and maturity in the Church."

Scott said...

I remember my dad commenting to me once, I think while I was preparing to go through the temple for the first time, that one of the things that he liked most about the temple is that everyone in it was equal--all dressed in white, with the same robes, etc., so there was no class distinction, just a bunch of Saints united in a common purpose.

(Because he told me that, I've found myself paying attention now and then, and I've noticed now fancy some of the womens' dresses are compared to others, and how you can tell which aprons are lovingly hand-embroidered and which are machine-made, but I digress).

Perhaps there's a desire for uniformity (Zion = unity) that necessitates a prescribed uniform? Maybe expecting conformity on a small issue such as this makes it easier to pick out the nonconformists?

I don't like it any more than you do. I have a dark blue shirt and a light blue shirt, plus a blue-and-white pinstriped one. I have a peach-ish orange one, and a lavendar one. I have two different shades of green. I have a beautiful fall rust colored one.

Oh. And I have a white one that I wear every once in a while, because I have a tie that doesn't really go well with any of the colored shirts, so I have to wear the white one if I ever want to wear that tie.

Bravone said...

Thanks Alan. I agree that sometimes we get confused between principle and preference. Even formal, regimented passing of the sacrament can distract from the real purpose of one renewing his covenants and committing to remember Him in our lives. Sometimes we get caught up in things that are shallow and cause us to lose sight of sacred, simple, saving principles.

Bravone said...

Sorry, I forgot to say this in my post. I think facial hair falls into this category. I love having a goatee. It is not out of rebellion, I just like it. My stake president wants me to be a veil worker at the temple. I thought that would be cool to do it again, but then remembered that they will not allow anyone with any facial hair to even be a veil worker. I wonder if the Savior were here if he would disallow my service in a sacred temple because of a goatee? Maybe they wouldn't let Him in either.

Z i n j said...

More Huge B. Brown stuff. Why do you insist that the Saints do their own thinking? Can we not just be obedient? This is way too much hard expecting us to ponder and seek the truth for ourselves. Does the Lord really expect so much of a committment?....as always great stuff for me to cut n paste.