False Measures and the False God: A Problem Born of the LDS Modesty Canon

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In Mormondom, fitting in is often confused with living rightly. By living rightly, I mean living according to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the promptings of the Holy Spirit. I’ve learned, however, that many Latter-day Saints see the relationship between fitting in and living rightly as a tit for tat. In other words, they suggest that dressing according to the Mormon modesty canon proves our willingness to obey all God’s commandments. I don’t see it that way.

You may be expecting this post to veer into a diatribe against modesty standards, but it will not. Organized groups of people may establish any model for appearance that they desire, and individuals may choose to follow those standards or not. The problem I wish to address isn’t the LDS dress code, but the predictable waste product that occurs when it is exalted as a measure of individual worthiness. When we conflate signifiers of tribal compliance with submission to God, we create a false God, one who looks upon the outer man rather than upon the heart. When we bring these codes into our chapels and church auxiliaries, our worship often becomes misdirected; the goal becomes the outward manifestation of the degree to which we are like one another, rather than an inward reflection of our progress to become like God.

Last week, Kim B. Clark, president of BYU-Idaho, sent a message to his student population that pivots on this false teaching. What he wrote was staid and typical, but also jaw-dropping because few outside Rexburg, Idaho (or the Middle East) would consider it immodest to wear pants hemmed four inches above the ankle. He justifies his public rebuke of students who violate the BYU-I dress code (specifically by wearing shorts outside the gym area, or not shaving well that morning, or wearing anything but ankle-hiding attire) this way:

“You may wonder why the president of BYU-Idaho would spend time on these small things. Here is the reason: The dress and grooming standards are one of those small things on which big things depend. Obedience in the small things creates a spirit of obedience in all things. And obedience brings the blessings of heaven, to you individually and to the whole campus community.”

I’ll give Clark a pass for not qualifying that obedience to God brings the blessings of heaven, because I think his intent is clear. However, I will not give him a pass for equating the rules of the community with the commandments of God, nor on his implication that a student’s submission to God is dependent upon his or her living community rules. He would have spoken more accurately if he had said, “Obedience in the small things creates an illusion of obedience in all things.” Have you heard the story about the buttoned-up, clean-shaven Sunday School teacher who had an affair with his hygienist and left his wife and six children heartbroken? Because it’s happened over and over and over in one form or another. The small things of the community are not the foundation for the gospel.

President of ValNornbanyan1944brig_0098
Photo of the president of Val Norn, BYU Banyon 1944 (pg. 96)

Some may argue that the church’s dress standards are inspired by God. Fine. But God’s commandments aren’t inspiration: they are eternal law, irrevocably decreed. If the dress standard were eternal law, we’d expect the Lord’s church to apply it universally. The reality that dress standards have changed over time and vary between church universities demonstrates that BYU-I’s dress code is little more than a tribal custom. Teaching that obedience to God’s commandments is based on obedience to cultural rules exalts the tribe, but degrades both God and his children by shifting the focus from internal to external.

Over at LDS Living, we saw a different manifestation of the same problem, one I found touching regardless of its misdirection. Here, Jessica Carter issues a heartfelt plea to the church’s membership on behalf of her teenage son, and youth like him who don’t comply with LDS dress and grooming standards. She specifically requests we remain welcoming, understanding, patient, and sincere. She writes, “As a parent of a child who doesn’t fit the ideal Mormon mold [because of his long hair and refusal to wear a tie on Sunday], it is sometimes painful to watch how fellow Church members react to my son’s appearance.” She astutely reminds us that judgmentalism exercised against our young men and women is unlikely to inspire in them a desire to adopt the established norm, something President Clark may need to hear.

However, beneath Carter’s wisdom simmers the very problem she seeks to destroy. She writes, “[P]lease just assume the parents [of children who don’t fit the mold] are doing their best to help their children live the gospel.” The undercurrent of these words suggests that she, like President Clark, sees compliance with the dress and grooming normative as a requirement of gospel living.

Remember that Christ, like Carter’s son, had long hair and bucked against many of the established customs of the faith practice into which he was born. Perhaps it could be argued that, if we measure God himself against the LDS mold, even God fails. I suggest there is no evidence more clear that the LDS mold is a false measure of commitment to gospel living than this.

But what interests me most about Carter’s plea is that she asks us not only to refrain from judging children who don’t fit the mold, but also to refrain from judging the parent of that child. Tellingly, she doesn’t feel God’s scorn because her son is long-haired and doesn’t wear a tie to church, but she does feel the disregard of fellow church members. I see in this more evidence that the LDS modesty canon exists to satisfy man, not God, who looks upon the heart.

It also demonstrates how our investment in the dress standard as a measure of devotion to God can alienate even those who strive to comply. Some who feel isolated will cling at the margins, but others let go because they don’t feel wanted, appreciated, or understood, three things our Heavenly Father feels for each of us.

I submit that the dress and grooming standards aren’t the weed that is choking so many of our young people out of the Lord’s garden. Nor is their non-compliance to those standards choking them out. Rather, we are the weed that chokes them with the false teaching that their long hair, rolled cuffs, tattoos, piercings, and exposed shoulders are the small things upon which larger things are dependent; we choke them when we tell them their appearance is the foundation of gospel living. We might as well tell them that a switch plate is the foundation of electricity for all the truth our words reveal.

I am filled with charity, which is everlasting love; wherefore, all children are alike unto me… Moroni 8:17

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20 thoughts on “False Measures and the False God: A Problem Born of the LDS Modesty Canon

  1. I think a lot of people would have felt more at ease with the BYU-I president’s message if it had stated something more along the lines of, “You agreed to these standards as part of your admission to the university.” To me that is less of a guilt-trip and in a way recognizes that following these standards does not necessarily make you more righteous. Instead, following the standards just shows that you’re abiding by your prior commitments.

    Mostly I just wish BYU and BYU-I would update their dress and grooming standards to reflect the current norms.

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    1. A friend pointed out to me how ironic it is that Clark surveyed the students on campus on Constitution Day and proceeded to remind them how BYU-I limits their freedom of expression. Amusing, but the university can do that and the students sign on. Because they signed on, it’s fair to argue non-compliance is as an honesty issue (though he seems Pharisaical on the things he points out), but he didn’t do that. Instead, he used the lazy language that we hear all too often. But the longer we use this kind of language, the more ingrained it becomes. Unfortunately, for young people, it may be the only language they hear so I can’t blame them for thinking the adults around them are nuts. 🙂

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  2. jan thomson

    Beautiful. Thank you. Any I echo Sherry’s sentiments. Standards required as part of admission do not equal absolute standards.

    As an aside, the link you have next to the Banyan photo is apparently not working or has been taken down. Any ideas…?

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  3. I agree with Sherry. However, nobody agrees in the dress code to not roll up pants 4-8 inches. They agree to not wear capris or shorts. They agree to wear pants. So even THAT annoys me- the fact that we are obsessing over the rolling up of pants!! It’s just silly. Thanks for making us look even more weird than we already did.

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  4. CG

    This is brilliant and very well- written. You clarify and verbalize points and ideas I have been trying to articulate for quite a while so succinctly and poignantly. Would you mind if I quoted you in a talk?

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    1. That’s curious. I still see it on page 96. Val Norn was a social club. Maybe you looked for a class member photo? It can be confusing because Val Norn sounds like a person’s name. Maybe the club was named after a person. I don’t know its history.

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  5. rtc

    I love your thoughts on this. Recently, my 10 year old daughter was labeling other 10 year olds as immodest, based on church standards. I quickly corrected her but I was surprised at how early the judgments start. It actually kind of scared me. Anyway, great to have you back!

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    1. My younger Mom self was guilty of this. When my kids were very young, I essentially *taught* them to evaluate others according to their modesty quotient. I shake my head at the person that I was. As you may or may not know, I didn’t grow up with these rules (coming from a non-LDS family) so I suppose I experimented with the ideas before I saw the folly.

      But I gotta be honest. I still kinda judge unrightly sometimes. I’ve seen faithful LDS girls in prom dresses that looked, to me, like they belonged on 42nd street. The height to which some teenage breasts can be heaved–and with such little fabric!–is astonishing. But when I catch myself thinking such things, I rein it in. I have an objectivist bend on these things. The same way I had to experiment with teaching the dress code to my kids before I got it figured out, well, sometimes our kids need to experiment with it, too, in order to figure out what place modesty will have in their life. So I try to flip my judgmental moments into a more mature moment of knowing, of understanding, that testing–experimenting–is simply something God’s children will do (in one way or another, at one time or another) on their journey to self-discovery. I remember that Heavenly Father loves them right then, in that moment, boobs heaved up to their chin or in that dress that looks like you could drop coins in the little slot in the lower back, and so I love them, too. Life is grand. And the journey is the point. Progression is the point. 🙂

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  6. Dorothy

    As always I adore your pithy wisdom. I remember falling under this same spell for awhile. It made a sort of sense because it was tied to the wearing of garments–an outward expression of an inward covenant. It was easy for it to be taken a few steps deeper by being ‘pre-righteous’, or choosing in advance to be obedient to covenants not yet made. It became a slippery slope of silliness.  Soon we’ll be traveling about with extra sandals & dishes to drop along our path so we can keep the Sabbath day holy in the eyes of our congregations.

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  7. Susie

    I hate our focus on modesty and how pharasaical it seems, however God has blessed us with prophets for these days for a reason: to interpret Gods word for application in this day. So what do God’s prophets say on the matter and not reading in between the lines or cultural interpretations, but what do they actually SAY. I went through a period of hating modesty because some women were judging another lady behind her back for wearing a bikini. I posted some pictures of a Muslim or Hasidic swimsuit and said, “we might as well as just wear this in order to be SUPER modest!” Then I realized it wasn’t necessary. We have modern day prophets for a reason. So let’s follow them, but love comes first.

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  8. I have just found your blog and I agree with it totally. I want to thank you for hitting this Head on. I have teenage sons who are going to this very issue. They like to dress the way they like to dress they like their hair long. I as a mother choose to let them express themselves because I feel as a mother it is less likely they get involved with drugs or alcohol or any other kind of worse things than having long hair and red pants once in awhile. I have taught my boys value, morals, and how to make a judgement for themselves and learn from bad judgment they have made. More importantly how to relish in the good judgment they have chosen. Thank you for so eloquently stating what heavenly father hope for us is. Love thy neighbor as thy self. This was not prefaced with if your neighbors are modest dressing people of your status then love thy neighbor. It was not stated love thy neighbor but try to change them to a dress code of modesty. No it was simple.
    Love thy neighbor.

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  9. JessOlsen

    “Why do people mourn and complain against the plans and purposes of the Lord and his servants? It is often because they know not the dealings of that God that created them. Those who have failed to obtain the needed witness of the particular work or doctrine involved lack he proper perspective and thus are unable to view things from a divine perspective….Murmuring and complaining comply disclose and uncommitted soul. Commitment and obedience bring understanding that cannot otherwise be had.”
    -“Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon,” page 12

    I discovered this a couple weeks after reading this blog post and felt like it helped me a lot. Just something to chew on

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    1. I’m not sure I understand the relevance of this quotation. The dress code isn’t doctrine. Nor are either the BYU-I president or the mother who wrote the article for LDS Living one of “his servants” in the way I understand this passage to mean. For the Strength of Youth, which contains the official declaration of the church regarding dress and grooming, teaches modesty. There’s no list of acceptable things to wear.

      In fact, I don’t see how anything I have written on this blog can be construed to mourn or complain about the plans and purposes of the Lord or his servants, meaning our prophet/s. I do mourn with those who mourn, however, and that’s in line with my baptismal covenant. Discussion about how our behavior, on some things, may distract us from the plans and purposes of the Lord is a positive in my book.

      So I’m not clear on the connection you wish to draw.

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