– Dress and grooming standards for both young people and older people are promoted that create a distinctive “Mormon” appearance;- Certain forms of vulgarity are permissible, and others are not; for example, R-rated movies are not approved regardless of artistic merit but “high” art that involves nudity or violence is not specifically discouraged and is studied in university courses;
– Only one earring per ear is approved for women, and no body piercing or tattoos are approved;
– Seemingly endless group, family and personal rituals on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis are highly recommended; here are just a few: daily personal prayer at various times; daily personal scripture study; couples’ prayer; couples’ scripture study; family prayer at various times; family scripture study; weekly family home evening; weekly church meetings of various sorts; monthly home teaching; monthly visiting teaching; etc.;
– Permissible and impermissible sexual acts both outside of, and within, marriage are specified, one of my favourites being that garments must be put back on after intercourse before falling asleep;
– 19-year-old young men must serve a “voluntary” two-year “mission” or face social stigma within Mormon society;
– Men who postpone marriage past their early 20s are browbeaten; unmarried men of age 25 years or older are referred to as “menaces” to society;
– Couples who postpone child bearing are brow beaten;
– Mothers who work outside the home without a good excuse are brow beaten;
– Members who do not refer their friends to the missionaries are brow beaten;
– Retired members who do not volunteer for missionary service are browbeaten;
– Homosexuals are encouraged to do a variety of unadvisable things, such as marrying heterosexually to “overcome” their “problem”, undergoing various forms of invasive therapy to “cure” them and living “chaste” lives.
Campbell describes those who cannot distinguish between the human individual and the mask as “stiffs”. He provides as an example the big businessman who does not know how to take his mask off when he comes home and as a result has trouble relating to his family because the mask gets in the way. The performer who continues to perform for his family and closest friends has the same difficulty, as does the litigation lawyer whose intimate relationships are characterized by control struggles and conflict of other kinds.
We humans are perceptive, and react negatively to what we intuit (often unconsciously) to be a mask worn by a human being to whom we wish to intimately relate. Masks get in the way. But, those who have known nothing other than a life of masks will not see this unless they experience the terrifying-at-first life without masks.
Theological Superglue for Mormon Masks
Mormonism also attempts in a variety of ways to use a kind of superglue to hold the primary mask in place. For example, Mormonism attempts to monopolize energy in order to prevent it from being available for use in creation of the antithetical mask.
Mormon leaders do not sit around and plan these things. Social organizations that survive in the long term evolve effective means of keeping their people under control, and these means usually come to be regarded as “sacred” and hence beyond question. The Mormon practises described above are a few of the countless techniques that ideologies have evolved over the millennia of their existence that help to counteract all other forces that may dilute institutional power. How far a particular ideology can go in this regard is constrained by the nature of the broader society in which it is found, how much its members know about that society etc.
In my view, the social control mechanisms just described pale in terms of their ability to keep the primary mask in place when compared to the theology Mormons are taught from childhood up. Think of the idea of the pre-existence. Our “true” characters are formed there and only manifest themselves through obedience to Mormon authority. Our “natural” (that is Earthly) natures are God’s enemies (see Joseph Smith, “The Book of Mormon”, Mosiah 3:19), again indicating that when we incline toward taking off the primary mask, we are fighting our “true” selves. And what happens after death? Again, only those who have kept the primary mask on, and “endured to the end” (a revealing image if there ever was one) will live with God. In fact, the primary mask is made in God’s image, and the ultimate destiny and ambition of orthodox Mormons (and even many liberal Mormons) is to become just like Him – to be eternally unified with the primary mask.
Nowhere is the Mormon mask more evident than in Mormon marriage (See the essay titled “The Effect of Mormon Temple Ritual” at my website). There, the Mormon Church becomes a third and dominant party to the marriage itself. The spouses covenant to each other, and to the Mormon Church, that the Mormon mask will remain on. The mentality carefully engrained in this regard is likely responsible for the high divorce rate among Mormon couples where one chooses to take the primary mask off, and the other keeps it on. A master’s thesis in anthropology at a Canadian university found that rate to be 80% among a large sample of LDS returned missionaries in this regard. This study was conducted in the 1980s. I suspect that the percentage now is lower because of the increasing understanding within both Mormon and non-Mormon social groups that absolute obedience to Mormon standards is nonsensical.
Mormon Masks at Family Reunions
I thought of Mormon masks as I recently recalled a family reunion I attended some time ago. There were lots of good times, sharing of memories, catching up on what was going in different families. A high percentage of the conversation in this regard was either expressly or implicitly connected to the Mormon Church. The Church’s standards and expectations as to how life should be lived – its mask – guided both questions are answers. Here is some of what I recall in terms of questions asked and what they likely meant when the nature of the answers typically give is considered:
– How is Jimmy doing at school? (Means: Has Jimmy cleaned up his life and decided to go on a mission yet, and how is he otherwise doing?)
– So, what are you up to these days? (Means: What calling do you hold, and how is the career going?)
– How are Bobby and Ann (newlyweds) making out? (Means: Is Ann pregnant yet (they have been married for three years!); are they still “faithful”; and are Bobby’s studies/career headed in the “right” direction?)
And, to top things off, each evening at the family reunion featured an activity that allowed the patriarchs and matriarchs of the group to bear testimony to the truthfulness and importance of the Mormon way of life to younger family members, and to express their genuine love for those present. That expression of love, mingled with Mormon testimony, contains a powerful subtext – “If you do not believe and obey as we do, it will cause us great pain, and you don’t hurt the ones you love!”
What could have been a chance to get together and broaden our horizons by enjoying each other’s varied experience was hence turned into a group behaviour modification exercise designed to narrow the range of future experience. But this should not be surprising. The Mormon Apostle Boyd Packer, in a leadership-training seminar I attended by videoconference while I served as Bishop, taught us that each and every activity sponsored by a Mormon congregation should have as its objective to influence those who attend to make, and keep, Mormon covenants. This applied, he said, to everything from Cub Scout meetings through to High Priests parties. Have lots of fun, he said, but remember the point of getting together is to help people make and keep covenants, and the fun and everything else should be set up with that objective in mind.
Why should we expect men and women who have spent most of their lives getting together for the purpose of encouraging their Ward and Stake members to make and keep Mormon covenants to do any differently when they gather their extended families around them?
Mormon Masks Create Irony
I don’t think it is fair to suggest that Mormonism’s goal is a monochrome existence for all Mormons. In fact, the teachings of Mormon leaders often indicate the contrary. But many of them lived in a different time. Joseph Smith himself provides a textbook example of how to take off the primary mask and fashion an antithetical one. In this he does no more than follow the pattern of religious innovators. Then, Mormon leaders like Brigham Young took the torch from Smith and followed the pattern of religious consolidators and standardizers.
Mormonism’s main goal throughout most of its history has been to maintain an obedient people – to keep the herd together, and moving in the “right” direction as determined by the leaders from time to time. Without that, Mormonism as we know it would pass out of existence. And in its dogged pursuit of mechanisms to inculcate obedience, Mormonism during the past several decades has forced the primary mask on faithful Mormons more and more tightly. There is nothing uniquely Mormon in this. Mormonism merely reflects the pattern of countless other religious and social groups.
A review of this aspect of Mormon history discloses many ironies. For example, modern Mormonism has championed “traditional” family values, which given Mormonism’s polygamous history is fascinating in and of itself. When we look close at what it means to be an “ideal” Mormon family, we find a number of odd things related to the nature of the Mormon mask.
What Happens When the Masks Come Off?
It has been said that the beauty of Mormonism is that in order to make it to the Celestial Kingdom, all one has to do is show up and do what one it told. And if you move from one city (or country) to another, no sweat! Just show up at the local Mormon ward and keep on doing what you were doing. It won’t change much; or at least shouldn’t. You will hardly miss a beat. Mormonism is a tribe with outposts in most parts of the world where a Westerner is likely to end up living. All you have to do is “plug and play”. And Mormons are trained to think that without the support of the Mormon system, life would be awful, and that they likely could not cope without the support Mormonism provides. Again, there is nothing uniquely Mormon in this. Most tightly knit social groups use this technique to keep the herd together.
So, the experience of taking off the Mormon mask is designed to be as terrifying as possible. Mormons who come to understand that they are at liberty to, and in fact perhaps should, take off their primary mask are often reluctant to do so. This is because Mormons are trained to rely so heavily upon others for approval that the prospect of doing things on the basis of self-approval only is daunting.
Concerns about divorce, loss of respect of parents and friends, loss of business or career opportunities, etc. play a role in this. And yet again, there is nothing unusual about Mormonism in this regard. Masks order society. Hence, life without masks is much less predictable than life with them. However, we soon get used to playing by a new set of rules and our fear of uncertainty abates. And after a while, the thought of being hemmed in by the myriad mask related rules makes our skin crawl.
I am reminded in this regard by a family from Japan I knew many years ago. They were transferred to Canada for a period of several years. When it came time return to Japan, the parents were reluctant, and the children refused to go. They had individuated to a point at which they did not think they could survive in Japan’s much more structured, mask oriented, society.
I have had similar conversations with people from Korea. One high school age girl I got to know was, during her first year in Canada, learning English, carrying a full load of high school courses, and getting straight A’s while as far I could tell still not communicating well in English. I asked her how she was enjoying Canada, and was told that it was wonderful. “So easy”, she said in broken English.
I was puzzled by this and enquired further. It turned out that in Korea the competition for a few university seats is so severe that this girl, starting in grade 7, had been going to special classes before and after school to “prep” for her university entrance exams. These prep classes ran six days a week. To make it to them, she had to be up at 5 am and habitually worked until after mid-night to get her work done. Sundays – her day of rest – was only a half day of school work. She thought her first year in Canada, with all of its linguistic and cultural adjustments, was a cakewalk by comparison to the only other life she knew. She could not imagine going back to Korea and putting back on the “student mask” that she had worn without much complaint for years and was prepared, until she came to Canada, to continue wearing. I now feel much the same with respect to my former Mormon mask. I simply cannot imagine how I could go back to living in the tiny space Mormonism allowed me.
I also note, in fairness to Mormonism, that the Mormon mask does not cripple as the worst of masks do. See, for example, the article linked above with regard to the “lost boys” who have been tossed out of Fundamentalist Mormon society during the last several years. I have read similar accounts of Old Amish and Hutterite young people have left their societies and found themselves singularly ill equipped to deal with the cultural mainstream of our society. Some primary masks have the effect of so limiting the worldview and coping skills of those who wear them that leaving their social group of origin is not a real option, and to remain in the social group the mask must be left in place, at least for appearances sake.
It is my view that that the Mormon mask cripples those who wear it by causing them to think in magical terms, be unusually naïve, be too respectful of anything that looks like authority, etc. This is reflected in statistics that place Utah at the top the heap in terms of personal bankruptcies, anti-depressant use, certain types of fraud, etc. However, Mormonism is nowhere near as crippling in this way as more extreme cults that use the same mind and behavioural control as does Mormonism, but in a much more intense form. Again I refer to Orwell’s masterpiece 1984 that can be accessed in full text at the link I provided above. He describes a society in which many things Mormonism does have been taken to their logical extreme, and the predicament of those who still have the essentially human inclination to fashion their antithetical masks. Mormonism does not do anything like that. Orwell’s writing in this regard (see “Animal Farm” as well) can be considered caricatures of the ideologies that use the mechanisms he described. Caricatures are often useful in this regard because they highlight the features of a society that are of interest in some particular respect, and explore how they work and where they may lead if left to their own devises. Hence, I would say that the study of Orwell discloses much about the mechanisms Mormonism uses to control people, and illustrates why this kind of thing should be nipped as near to the bud as possible.
The Mormon version of the primary mask is only one of many, but by Western standards it is very firmly applied. Mormon behaviour is shaped by this mask in a multitude of ways that are, of course, invisible to the average Mormon. It is both terrifying, and incredibly liberating, when a Mormon finds the courage to take off his mask and begin to create a new one. That experience has been the more difficult and joyful aspect of my life thus far.
The Mormon Mask