There is often discussion about the need to distinguish between “doctrine” and “culture” in the Church. I think it is a productive exercise, but not as simple as one might think. usually, the examples given are surface-level behaviors or attitudes, like the white shirts and affected postures of the deacons passing the sacrament, or the scrupulous use of the right hand by those taking the bread and wine…er…water. I think we sense there is a more deep-seated issue, or we wouldn’t keep bringing it up. In the end, white shirts don’t matter that much.

If you want to dig deeper and find a more meaningful lode of conversation, the tricky part is actually defining “doctrine”.

The <bleep>ing experiment

This National Geographic channel video was all over my facebook last week, with an experiment demonstrating how people follow and reproduce group behavior:


A woman walks into a waiting room unaware that it is full of planted actors. When a beep sounds over the intercom all the actors stand up

Soon the woman stands up with them at the sound of the beep. She continues standing with them as the actors are called out of the room one by one.

When all the actors have left she still conforms to the rules of the group.

As new people are then introduced one by one, they adopt her behavior, until the room is full of people standing at the sound of a beep.

We are zealous beep-standers

Pretend they are Mormons, and leave them in the waiting room of Utah for three generations. They would necessarily develop explanations about why they stand when the beep sounds. The explanations that were most satisfying would become more widespread and more entrenched. Scriptures about spirits rising at the sound of a trump would be passed around to explain the symbolism. Soon some general authority mentions standing at the sound of the beep as one of the glorious fruits of the restoration during general conference, and his talk is quoted six months later by another apostle as a “second witness”. Their foundation is built on, and before long, zealous defenders of the faith can cite dozens of authoritatively pronounced explanations and testimonies about beep standing.

We all know we stand at the sound of a beep, and we know it’s true because of the Love of God we feel as we do it. We feel we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are reminded to always stand upright in defense of true principles. We are saddened when some in the waiting room choose not to stand, as though that were the appropriate place to protest or make a spectacle! God is in charge. He clearly commanded us to stand, and if he wanted it changed he would tell the Prophet. Do those beep-sitters think they know more than the prophet about how to run the Church? If they don’t think beep-standing is right, then why don’t they go join some beep-sitting church where they can be happy. If they think God revealed to them that he didn’t command us to beep-stand, then they must think they are the prophet, and they should just go ahead and start their own church! We’ll see how that goes.

Adding to the commandments

How do you begin arguing against beep-standing? It clearly isn’t found in the scriptures (without significant proof texting), but we believe in modern revelation and it’s all over the “words of modern prophets”. So it must be true doctrine.

An example of this is the idea that the sacrament renews covenants. Absent from the scriptures. God said a lot about the sacrament, but somehow failed to mention this. Yet it’s the exclusive talking point for most members when they mention the sacrament at all. You can find it in countless talks by Church leaders. Does that make it a “doctrine”? Does the fact that it is the Church’s doctrine make it true?

There are other examples of added commandments.

We stand when the president of the church enters the room, at the sound of a hushed silence rather than a beep.

We claim there is safety in following people because they are placed in specific Church callings. This concept is directly contrary to many scriptures, and is demonstrably false based on many historical examples, but it is hard to argue that it isn’t “doctrinal.”

Modifying the commandments

Completely innovated ideas like that are hard enough, because they end up in conference talks, manuals, and handbooks. It gets even more complex to dissect these things when the doctrine IS based in the scriptures, but has been altered or extrapolated beyond what we were commanded.

The only commandment present in the word of wisdom is the very clear directive NOT to enforce it by commandment. Beer is pretty clearly endorsed, as is wine for our sacraments. The advice is present in the scriptures, we just decided it would be a commandment. It’s hard to argue that it isn’t doctrinal, but it is definitely rooted in culture. What was supposed to be wise counsel has become a key external signifier of mormon identity and righteousness in a radically altered form. In other words, we devote energy and time to complying with a standard of “righteousness” which has nothing to do with true righteousness, and further time to enforcing that standard on others.

Likewise with the Temple. We were certainly commanded to build temples, and at least some measure of genealogy was endorsed by God (“your dead” implies something more limited than every human soul ever, in my mind). Does that mean we should build as many temples as possible? Does that mean they should be as lavish (and to my eyes, usually tasteless) as they are? Is there any use in building temples when we allow for hungry, naked, and unsheltered people to remain in our midst or on our membership rolls, thus preventing us from accessing the abundance of the manifestations of the spirit (D&C 78:3-6; D&C 104:14-18; D&C 83:4-6; D&C 70:14; Isaiah 1:10-20)?


As with addition and modification, so with deletion. The mandate to “seek the face of the Lord always” was a key element in Joseph Smith’s soteriology. He meant it literally, and he expected people to do it. There were actual blessings contingent upon it. While that phrase and concept hasn’t been deleted from the scriptures, it no longer has a place in LDS soteriology. We are taught that salvation comes by making and keeping sacred covenants, enduring to the end as an active Latter-day saint. The contact with heaven that Joseph thought was so essential has been written out of the plan, in favor of “saving ordinances” that are measurable and able to be administered by an institution. Since we can’t correlate charisma, we frame it as an extra blessing, something to be hoped for but not expected or necessary, or even something dangerous to seek.

Good luck!

The trouble with “doctrine and culture” is that so much of what we think of as doctrine has been added, modified, and deleted into its current form. The doctrine is the culture. My impression is that the areas where culture hasn’t yet been fully enshrined in doctrine tend to be the less important heads of the hydra (white shirts, etc). The most important, most damaging, and most misleading concepts are the ones that have most tightly woven themselves into Mormonism, and will be most difficult to bring up in a discussion about the doctrine/culture divide:

follow the prophet/brethren

salvation by walking the path of covenants

enduring to the end means being remaining worthy of a temple recommend until you die

justifying our neglect of the poor

Strongly vertical organization, oligarchal central control by what should be a traveling high council

“The prophet” is a title inherent in the office rather than a description contingent on the revelatory experience of the man

Minimization and denial of scripture and history in favor of current pronouncements from leaders

Regarding visions, visitations, and revelation: those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know.

You can talk about white shirts all day without ruffling feathers. Sitting through the beep often costs much more. A friend tried to address those more important issues in a thorough, well-reasoned way and as is often the case he was invited to leave.