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Thoughts about Bob McCue’s “Perils of Social Mormonism”

September 2, 2009

Eventually, I’m going to write some thoughts about Eugene England’s “Why the church is as true as the gospel.” It describes how the church — through its irritating imperfections — can actually be as effective indirectly in helping us live the gospel as the scriptures and Gospel themselves are directly. England’s approach has been used to justify staying within the church despite finding certain troubling aspects to it…especially if it’s the cultural or social foundation of one’s life.

OK, I think it’s been a bit of a curse. Ever since I committed to my mind to write a post on it, I’ve put off writing anything here…How terrible!

I forced myself out of my funk by finding something else — something shorter — to write about. It is Bob McCue‘s  “The Perils of Social Mormonism.” (PDF WARNING!)

This essay is relatively uncontroversial to me…at least, as far as its basic message goes. The perils of social Mormonism are not in what it does for the individual, but for the people around the individual. While the person pursuing social Mormonism often has “fortified” himself against certain aspects of the church, his family (and particularly children) may not be prepared with the same fortifications. As a result, the kids may stumble and collapse under the weight of orthodox Mormon expectations. They might take too seriously to unpalatable doctrines, unaware that it’s ok to doubt.

I think this general idea is uncontroversial because many members who pick this path will openly admit that they’ve considered this aspect for their families and children. Even with faithful accounts, like Michael R. Ash’s Shaken Faith Syndrome, one can just thumb through the outline to see what even apologists think are issues that must be approached in a nuanced way. The question is…what happens when children learn about these issues in a decidedly non-nuanced way (because the church teaches through non-nuance, not through apologetic damage control)?

Who knows? Maybe this kind of claim was earth-shattering in 2004?

So, while I don’t find much fault with McCue’s general claims, I unfortunately have to say that I do find some with the specific claims. For example, McCue cautions that a child raised within Mormonism does not have as much chance of learning many things. OK, I can buy this, perhaps. But looking at certain specific things…

Like one…metaphoric thinking. Mormons are too literal. OK, I can buy that, but…wouldn’t a social/cultural/Middle way/liberal/New Order Mormon be the first to teach his/her child to look at things metaphorically?

Or…global thinking? Mormonism is tribal to the core. OK, now I understand that the Mormon model may be construed as a bit ethnocentric and imperialistic, but how is going out into the world for two years not conducive to global thinking (regardless of whether the church intended to engender that or not)?

McCue goes on to describe how much of a confusing moral runaround this teaches children. His scenario seems plausible to Mormonism:

“The nice people at church mean well, but they don’t know what they are talking about. So, you have to ignore them when the say … But don’t tell them that you disagree with them, because that will only make them upset and cause trouble for our family. We have to keep what we believe a secret. I know this is different from how we have talked about behaving at school and elsewhere, but church is a special place and we have special ways of behaving there. And, I know you had a lesson last week about how taking the sacrament renews your baptismal covenant and how that means that you are promising to obey all of god’s commandments each week including what the Prophet tells us to do, and as you have pointed out, we don’t do a lot of the things the Prophet, Bishop etc. tell us we should do. You have to understand that promise we make at church are not like promises we make in other places …”

But the thing I realize is…this isn’t different from anywhere else in life. I sense that McCue overestimates the integrity present in the dealings elsewhere in life. In actuality, all of life is a role playing game, and children must be able to navigate. Is that a defense of social Mormonism? Is that justification to specifically pile on particular controversy on someone, especially when it could seriously mess someone up psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually? No! But, we can’t run away from reality. This paragraph is about impression management, and we must it everywhere. I think if one learns how to do it in church (a non-vital environment; no matter how much “damage” you get from the church, you can walk away), it can be better than floundering in school or in the work force.

McCue claims that this kind of thinking is profoundly dysfunctional at any age, and degrades the moral fibre of those that do it. If only we lived in such a world…

I guess for this article, I got caught up on some negative points. Really, there are some good points here…but I can’t help but feel that the overly idealistic and optimistic view of the world at large taints the essay. In the end, the value of McCue argument is dependent on the answer to a question: is the value of using Mormonism as a “sandbox” for navigating through complex social framework of duplicity greater than the risk of this “sandbox” completely impairing one’s social maturity? I think Bob would answer “no,” but England or Dehlin would answer “yes.” Meanwhile, the TBMs are wondering where the duplicity even is…

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  1. I tend to go with Bob on this one, but I can see the other side to it as well.

    I have 5 kids, and up until 2 years ago was a TBM. My biggest challenge right now is…

    I want my kids to be able to make an informed decision themselves when they get older.

    If I keep them out of the Church, and only tell them what I want them to know, I’m brainwashing them with my own thoughts.

    If I let them go to Church, I’m letting the Church brainwash them.

    If I inform them, and send them to Church, they’ll either just become really conflicted, or more likely call a teacher out on something, because kids (esp. mine unfortunately) like to be smart alecs.

    I fear with the last they’ll then be put in a difficult situation. Church says Mom and Dad are wrong, while Mom and Dad say Church is wrong. In my experience members feel nothing with getting families to fight amongst themselves if it accomplishes God’s will. It’s why my parents don’t have access to my kids any more, but that’s a long story by itself!

    Yes life is a lot about role-playing, but it shouldn’t be, and I think the less we encourage it, and the more we encourage honesty, the better off our kids will be.

    That’s just my 2c though!

  2. Urban Koda, regarding this line:

    If I keep them out of the Church, and only tell them what I want them to know, I’m brainwashing them with my own thoughts.

    I’m pretty sure that one of the regular readers and commenters to this blog, FireTag, is going to swoop down and say something like: “No matter what you do, you are “brainwashing” your children.” Even if it’s to brainwash them to recognize that you are trying not to brainwash them.

    (I hope I got that right. he’s posted it a few times here, so I think I know the comment).

    Basically, this is something somewhat out of your control. But it would probably be better to brainwash critical thinking with key to open-mindedness, if you can, so that you know that WHATEVER path they have gone, it has been well-thought out and considered against multiple alternatives.

    But yeah, I agree with you that there is an EASY possibility for things to go wrong — exactly as you say, with the church telling the kids mom and dad are wrong, and then the family split as a part of that. I’ve seen and heard TOO MANY STORIES of that to discount it. Personally, I lean on the side too that regardless of the need in life to play roles, we don’t *need* to introduce this artificially. So, unless the ward is progressive, it’s not necessary. Plenty of children learn to navigate opposing authorities sources without having grown up in the church…and they are doing just fine.

    • FireTag permalink

      Pretty close, Andrew, in predicting my comment. My only quibble is that I told my daughter before she was eight that I WAS trying to brainwash her, and then told her why I was brain washing her.

      Teaching her critical thinking elsewhere in her life naturally made her question why I did that on her own. (It also ensured — whew! — she could take care of herself when I was no longer there to brainwash even when I wanted to. do so,

      Any mistake I made was to teach her to be TOO aware of consequences. Not quite an Adrian Monk “it’s a jungle out there”, but it’s a ggod thing my wife was around to counteract me. (I resolutely put it down to being a rookie as a father.)

  3. gazelem permalink

    “…this isn’t different from anywhere else in life. I sense that McCue overestimates the integrity present in the dealings elsewhere in life. In actuality, all of life is a role playing game…”

    I seem to recall recently making this same point on your blog. My point then, as now, is simply that we all live lies every day in some way (i.e. role playing), so for the sake of my personal social order at church and home, I can keep my mouth shut and keep Mormon protocol as necessary. It works for me. Other people may let the inconsistency burn their conscience, too bad for them, you know? Se la vie!

    Keep writing your commentary, I’m enjoying it.

  4. re gazelem:

    I remember those comments, and I still have to say something about your situation and your reasoning (if I remember correctly) that usually applies to people who “keep their mouth shut and keep Mormon protocol.”

    The key thing is that this is something that works for *you*. You have determined this. But you haven’t determined how well it will work for your family and children. So, for example, since you’ve already begun and gotten steeped in a personal social order at church and home, I can see why you’d just maintain it, instead of scrapping it all and starting (painfully) from scratch.

    But future children, if there are any? Do they need to be INTRODUCED to this? Especially when you don’t know how they will take to it or not? In another comment, didn’t you remark how your wife sometimes asks, “So, who’s going to baptize the kids?” So, that expectation is there. That may mean your wife wants believing kids…so can you anticipate being alienated from your own family? I mean, I understand that this is something that will happen elsewhere in life, but that would make me pause — why add unnecessary cases of the role playing? Of course, whether you believe the church is a net positive or net negative would change your answer on whether you want it to be a “necessary” case of role playing or unnecessary for your family.

    • gazelem permalink

      Honestly, I personally agonize over that very dilemma every day. When is the role-playing going to harm my kids? Up until the point where children are baptized (or even enter the youth program), I honestly feel like church is about social activity and community building.

      Its the teenage years in the church where they are pressured to do so many things, feel a certain way and feel guilty if they don’t that worries me. I have daughters who will be pressured to marry early and then have too many kids to financially support. This frightens me.

      The problem is that I have a partner who wants a semi-traditional Mormon life. I have to be okay with duplicity because I love her and won’t just quit. I have to find a middle way that allows me to not be alienated or marginalized in my own family, yet still helps my kids understand the difference in fairy tales and reality regarding the church. I have chosen a hard path, indeed.

  5. FireTag permalink


    I speak from ignorance here. Is the problem of mormon daughters marrying young and starting families too early really a financial threat? I know early marriage and large families doesn’t make it easy to get into the top positions, and I don’t favor it. I didn’t marry until 28 and didn’t have my child until 33.

    I do, however, live in one of the very richest counties in America, and when I see the things parents do to themselves and to their kids in order to give them a leg up to keep up with material standards around them, I’m not sure they aren’t pursuing insanity.

  6. Porter rockwell permalink

    Or…global thinking? Mormonism is tribal to the core. OK, now I understand that the Mormon model may be construed as a bit ethnocentric and imperialistic, but how is going out into the world for two years not conducive to global thinking (regardless of whether the church intended to engender that or not)?
    I was on a 2 yr mission for the church, and let me tell you that your idea that that is conducive to global thinking is laughable. It’s the most indoctrinating period Ive ever been through. You cut yourself off from all media, are allowed to read from only about 7 books (church approved) besides the scriptures. You meet every week for meetings ( district with about 6-12, or zone with 30-60) and for part of the time stand and recite a type of mantra: ‘the truth will go forth nobly…’.

    Those were the two years I was the most sure ever that we had the only truth and everyone else was in the wrong. I hardly call that global thinking. Sure we were in a different country. Meeting with people who we desperately tried to convert to Mormonism (with little success). But, man, I’ve never been more narrow sighted than during those two years. But maybe that’s just me…

  7. Porter Rockwell,

    I have certainly heard that basic story enough to believe that there’s something to it (that is, that the mission years were the most indoctrinating, most narrow-sighted years they had), but I have also heard a different story enough to think there’s something to it. That is, that people first encountered doubts and challenges while on their mission. While they had this rock-solid testimony, their mission stress-tested it…and left cracks in the foundation that only spread.

    Some of this can happen anywhere. But some of the story was interacting with people who, for the most part, live lives whose trials cannot be resolved by the Gospel or lives whose comforts and joys were never afforded by the Gospel and may be contrary to it (e.g., meeting nonmembers who may smoke/drink/whatever, but who have successful lives)

  8. Mark "Darrin" Kemp permalink

    This discussion seems to have tumbled down the rabbit hole so I thought I’d try to winch it out a bit.

    As a convert who converted near middle age because of my insatiable drive to discover, I found some of the traditional culture of the church irritating and even more irritating the infections of the local culture. It doesn’t take a deep knowledge of gospel principles to make arguments that observed mindsets and social behavior are at odds with the gospel. But that is just expected of people – and independent of the truths of the gospel.

    As my graduate work has revealed to me, such are merely typical of the human organism – called social instinct. Yes, the Great and Spacious building describes human social behavior not just the behavior of only the faithless. Being a member and even faithful doesn’t automatically morph our social brain to be void of such tendency.

    There are gospel principles and then there are implementations, and I can see that a heritage of implementation worked for generations. Unfortunately, the spin off views are anything but true implementations. This is the poison of social Mormonism – these BS views. It won’t be long before there will be more converts than life-long members so this needs to be exposed.

    I joined the church thanks to my liberal thinking (with conservative values) that evolved from my drive for truth. I joined after I had already traveled into Christian scholarship and was steeped in most principles of the gospel.

    So what is my suggestion? One should make a decision after the following line of self-questioning: Do I believe in God and do I believe God wants to tell me the truth and is able to do so? If so, then if I hadn’t already, my focus should turn exclusively to seeking answers from God. There is no other important endeavor than this. Otherwise, the church is just a social club and we risk others in our tendencies of social instinct.

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