Beliefs Columns Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

How to create ex-Mormons

Last week on Facebook, I saw an advertisement for “Mormon Prom,” a formal dance for older teens. I don’t know where or when this dance is going to take place (and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to), but I think a better title for it would have been “How to Create More Ex-Mormons, Especially Among Girls!”

The flyer contained clear and unambiguous dress standards. For boys, a button-down shirt and tie were required, and low-riding pants were regarded as objectionable.

For girls: No bare shoulders, naked upper arms, visible cleavage or bra straps, sheer fabrics, low necklines, low backlines, bare midriffs, tight or revealing clothing, or hems more than three fingers above the knee. As a preventive measure, girls were required to text a photo of their dress beforehand to obtain approval from a leader in the Young Women program.

The boys’ guidelines took up a single line of space; the girls’ rules comprised the bulk of the poster. And just in case there was any ambiguity, there were promises of public disgrace for any girls who disobeyed: “We will have lovely cardigans and maxi skirts for those who show up without meeting these guidelines.”

Nothing like a good old-fashioned dose of slut-shaming at a church activity, calling public attention to any girls whose clothing doesn’t pass muster.

It struck me, immersed as I am right now in data and stories about Millennials, that this poster perfectly encapsulates the gendered double standard of the Church AND a pervasive culture of judgmentalism that focuses on outward appearance as a sign of inward worthiness. It’s almost as if it is designed to be a turnoff to young people who might be serious about deeper questions of faith.

I wish church members would be more careful about judgment. I’ve mentioned here before that in addition to all the questions the Next Mormons Survey asked current Mormons about their beliefs and behaviors, we also surveyed former Mormons, including questions about why they left. Among Millennials, “I felt judged or misunderstood” tied for the number-one reason out of 29 possible reasons for leaving the Church. It was third among GenXers and seventh for Boomer/Silent Mormons.

There was a clear gender difference too. Among former Mormon women as a whole, judgment ranked first. And when asked what, if anything, might have induced them to stay Mormon, women’s number-one answer was “if ward members had been more loving and less judgmental.”

The theme of judgment also came up with some regularity in interviews for the book, especially among women. One shared the humiliation of getting ready to speak in sacrament meeting and having an elderly lady cover her legs with a coat in front of the whole congregation, because her skirt was deemed too short. Another told of a Primary president who booted two autistic boys out of Sharing Time one day because they weren’t sitting quietly; she also told them that they would not be worthy to hold the priesthood when they turned twelve. So many painful stories. Obviously, these were balanced by other stories of love and acceptance, but women who had experienced the sting of judgment did not forget.

I’d love to see the Church reflect more carefully about this, particularly about the dangers of an unhealthy interest in policing the bodies of girls and women. The good news from the Next Mormons Study – and there was plenty of good news! – was that young adult Mormons are deeply spiritual, and that they are interested in devotional practices that are often rigorous. They have high rates of daily prayer and sharing the gospel; they are strong believers in core Christian ideas; they do their home and visiting teaching. Women were especially vibrant ambassadors of their faith.

Can we please try not to screw that up for them?

In an era of widespread religious disaffiliation, some of the exodus of young adults out of the LDS Church is frankly out of our hands. Mormonism is not an island, and it’s very, very hard for any religion to entirely resist the pull of larger forces operating in the religious landscape. If young adults are leaving organized religion in large numbers, it’s unlikely that the LDS Church can remain wholly aloof from that.

But neither do we have to contribute to it further with our judgmentalism, effectively handing Millennials and GenZers an engraved invitation to leave.

Let’s cut it out, people.


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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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