Sinning Alone

November 18, 2004 | 28 comments
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At a recent conference, I was klatsching with law professors, mostly from my school, when a young law professor in the group related how she was being pursued by another conference attendee. “I always attract married men,” she lamented. “Of course, they all say that they have a bad marriage, but this one is Mormon!” That last pronouncement brought howls of laughter from my colleagues. The woman who made the statement didn’t know me, and she was embarrassed when she found out that I am a Mormon. I was embarrassed, too.

Most stories about Mormons have very little effect on me. When BYU football players are expelled for Honor Code violations, I do not take it personally. Nor do Mormon success stories like Ken Jennings give me a particular boost. Every once in a while, however, stories about Mormons I do not know strike a personal chord.

Why is that? I assume that my potential for embarrassment increases as my proximity to the subject Mormon decreases. I am so unlike BYU football players that I assume no one will associate me with their personal failings. On the other hand, I am a law professor myself, so the sort of reprehesible behavior exhibited by that person hits closer to home.

I shared this incident with my oldest son as a cautionary tale. I wanted him to know that men who act like the law professor in my story do not operate under a veil of secrecy. Their behavior will be disclosed. Perhaps more importantly, I also wanted him to understand that his actions are not wholly personal. In my view, we rarely sin alone. Like it or not, we are representatives of the group, and that carries with it some responsibility to others in the group. I am not sure whether most of us view our lives in that way, though I suspect that most American members, raised in a culture that emphasizes individualism, probably do not. Nevertheless, it is a lesson I have tried to reinforce with my children from a young age: they are part of a family and part of a religious community to which they owe obligations, including the obligation to comport themselves with honor.

UPDATE: In the interests of full disclosure: I changed the facts of my experience slightly to conceal the identity of the person who is the object of my scorn. Although I do not know the person, I was told that he is a Mormon and that he is not a law professor. It occurred to me rather late that by shifting my focus to the community of Mormon law professors, I was actually implicating a very small group of potential offenders.

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28 Responses to Sinning Alone

  1. Kristine on November 18, 2004 at 10:32 am

    test

  2. Bob Caswell on November 18, 2004 at 10:37 am

    Gordon, this can go both ways, however. I have a sister who married a non-member and lives a life of inactivity [in the church]. It’s one thing to have parents like you remind us that “we rarely sin alone” before any major sins happen. But it’s quite another to have parents like mine who continually reminded my sister of her part in the family, religious community, etc, etc after the fact. When my sister gets the feeling that my parents are embarrassed or frustrated because they can’t mention their daughter’s accomplishments at a Mormon dinner party in fear that they’ll have to face the how’s-she-doing-in-the-Church question… Do you think she adds this to their list of merits or holds it against them? Her point is that if “religious community” is so important then it shouldn’t be so deeply rooted in selfishness.

  3. David King Landrith on November 18, 2004 at 10:48 am

    I live in New England, where Mormon’s are reasonably rare–it takes about an hour to drive across my ward, and it’s a pretty densely populated area. When people learn that I am Mormon, many of them relish the opportunity to tell me the story of some Mormon they knew who doesn’t fit the stereotype. More often than not, this just means that they were a democrat or had bad teeth. But sometimes I do encounter tragically bad stories, and I invariably find it personally disappointing.

    Given that some Mormons will behave badly, there are two courses to take. First, you can blame the people who associate you with wayward Mormons: They’re all just a bunch of bigots anyway. Second, you can blame the wayward mormons, distance yourself from them, and set an example that eclipses theirs. I think in the last 50 or so years, individuals in most perceived groups (and it’s society that’s grouping them as much as they’re grouping themselves) have chosen the first route. I like to think that most Mormons choose the second.

  4. Vance Jenkins on November 18, 2004 at 11:16 am

    People sin alone. The consequences the sin endure. It is then we have to answer as a community for them. Mark Hoffman, Mark Hacking, Ed Decker, George Lee, BYU Football Players, etc. etc. The sin is individual even when done as a group. How else can it be judged?

    ‘In an age that has given itself almost completely to situational ethics, our assertions about the existence of moral absolutes may cause some to view us as a kind of strange, religious remnant. It will be imperative that we speak concretely of the consequences of evil and of sin, hopefully in fresh, new, and hearable ways. Because of the increasing impact of the interdependence of mankind, our own individual behavior will be of more than passing significance to others; our believability will depend on our behavior’. — Neal A. Maxwell, A More Excellent Way, p.9

  5. APJ on November 18, 2004 at 12:05 pm

    Although I understand the mindset behind being disappointed by hearing ‘faith deflating’ stories about members, I think it is unhealthy to expect people to make decisions based on how it will make the group look. In my personal experience, when I do try to make decisions on that basis, my resolve doesn’t last too long.

    The church’s ‘peculiar’ ways are kind of a banner to march under, but when allegiance to outward appearance and the world’s perception of us overshadow the individual, it is not good. The comparison of the church as a hospital for the sick and not a museum of saints comes to mind.

    Not to condone criminal behavior, but have you ever what whether or not some of the high profile criminals like Mark Hacking or Mark Hoffman may have been partly influenced to the crimes they committed by a perceived lack of understanding from their religious communities?

    Obviously, we have free agency. But I think sometimes in the Church, we can erroneously put too much emphasis on the perception of goodness rather than on the inner cleanliness of people’s soul.

  6. Aaron Brown on November 18, 2004 at 2:31 pm

    True Story:

    In late 1994, I spent my Fall Semester in Moscow, Russia. One of my roommates, Bob, was a coarse, 30-year old ex-Marine (non-Mormon) who had women throwing themselves at him everywhere we went. At one point, he got into a relationship with an American ex-pat businesswomen, and he would regularly spend the night at her apartment. From what I could tell, she was very worldly and very sexually experienced.

    One morning, after Bob returned home, he shared the following with me: The previous evening, he and his girlfriend had been talking, and the conversation turned to me (I was the only other male student in the program). Bob told her that I was a Mormon. The two of them proceeded to talk about Mormons they had known, and Bob’s girlfriend shared that over the years, she had worked with a number of Mormon businessmen. Then, at one point, she apparently made this comment to Bob:

    “You know, there’s one thing I just don’t understand about Mormons. They don’t drink, they don’t smoke, they don’t do drugs … but they always cheat on their wives!�

    Aaron B

  7. Aaron Brown on November 18, 2004 at 2:31 pm

    True Story:

    In late 1994, I spent my Fall Semester in Moscow, Russia. One of my roommates, Bob, was a coarse, 30-year old ex-Marine (non-Mormon) who had women throwing themselves at him everywhere we went. At one point, he got into a relationship with an American ex-pat businesswomen, and he would regularly spend the night at her apartment. From what I could tell, she was very worldly and very sexually experienced.

    One morning, after Bob returned home, he shared the following with me: The previous evening, he and his girlfriend had been talking, and the conversation turned to me (I was the only other male student in the program). Bob told her that I was a Mormon. The two of them proceeded to talk about Mormons they had known, and Bob’s girlfriend shared that over the years, she had worked with a number of Mormon businessmen. Then, at one point, she apparently made this comment to Bob:

    “You know, there’s one thing I just don’t understand about Mormons. They don’t drink, they don’t smoke, they don’t do drugs … but they always cheat on their wives!�

    Aaron B

  8. diogenes on November 18, 2004 at 3:17 pm

    Well, there are sins, and then there are sins.

    I am not overly concerned with the impact of an incident of adultery (or attempted adultery) such as Gordon describes. People generally know that it is an aberration, that it is not representative of what the Church stands for or how Mormons are expected to conduct themselves. That is why others laugh and remark about it — it is remarkable.

    I am far more concerned about what may perhaps be less obvious, but far more damaging sins — arrogance, self-righteousness, intolerance, sanctimoniousness, lack of charity — that many members (including not a few who post here on T&S) routinely show to the world. That kind of public conduct reinforces a negative image that we already have among the public at large, and which unfortunately, we often deserve.

    In the long run, that perception of us will do far more harm than will the occasional philanderer.

  9. The Only True and Living Nathan on November 18, 2004 at 3:44 pm

    Thanks to the location of the break in your post, Gordon, I had time to think up my own punchline to the law professor’s comments before seeing the rest of it.

    “Wow! How could his relationships with ALL of his wives be that bad?”

  10. Clark Goble on November 18, 2004 at 3:58 pm

    While these situations are horrible, I always try to suggest that there is a double standard held to Mormons. Every Mormon somehow has to be perfect and none can fall away from Mormonism. But let’s be honest, even the quasi-Mormon ranks, the less active, make up more than 50% of our body. You then have those who consider themselves former Mormons and then what we ought frankly call social Mormons. i.e. those who don’t really buy into it.

    Yet somehow these people who don’t live up to the standards they espouse are the ones who are most noticed. Even the old, “well they are willing to break the law of chastity but not the word of wisdom” but is slightly strained. I know of lots of people here in Provo who do the opposite. Sure the ones who put out while avoiding alcohol get all the press. But I think it more complex than it often is portrayed.

    I wonder if Vegans get this if a Vegan is noticed eating a hambuger?

  11. David King Landrith on November 18, 2004 at 4:10 pm

    I must say that (in my limited experience) I didn’t find many Mormon chicks that put out but didn’t drink.

  12. clark on November 18, 2004 at 4:17 pm

    It’s more common here in the BYU area David.

  13. David King Landrith on November 18, 2004 at 4:18 pm

    So I’ve heard, but I went to BYU.

    I’ll take your word for it at any rate. Chicks don’t tend to dig me.

  14. clark on November 18, 2004 at 4:20 pm

    I guess I just knew too many football players and inactive Mormons… (grin)

  15. mike on November 18, 2004 at 4:20 pm

    mormons are held to a higher level of scrutiny than other groups. i think a lot of this has to do with how mormonism is more than a religion, it’s a lifestyle and a worldview. it means more to be mormon than it does to be catholic or presbyterian. also i think the way that mormons put forth their truth claims (we have the fullness of truth and everyone else has at best only a part of it) makes other people hold us to a higher standard than other groups. and the self-righteous attitudes of some mormons probably don’t help.

    there’s not much any of us can do about it though. we’ll never be able to stop people who, rightly or wrongly, are considered mormons from doing things that make the rest of the community look bad. you can do your best to put forth a good image, and if the image of mormons is important to you then hopefully outsiders will look to your example more than that of others when forming their opinions of what mormons are like.

  16. Mark B on November 18, 2004 at 4:42 pm

    In high school (in the late 60′s-early 70′s) in Provo, guys used to joke about the BYU coeds who would sleep with you, but not have a cup of coffee in the morning with you. Back then I supposed that they didn’t know what they were talking about, and I haven’t changed my opinion.

  17. Geoff B on November 18, 2004 at 4:51 pm

    Gordon, I would agree with you that we do not sin alone. Like it or not, we are seen as “peculiar people,” and our conduct will be seen to represent all Mormons everywhere. I am the only Church member in an office of 40 people, and I am constantly held up as an example of what a Mormon is and what a Mormon represents. Most of the people I work with are Catholics (or ex-Catholics) who point out that most Catholics say one thing and do another. They are anxious to find examples of hypocritical Mormon activities as well.

  18. Ethesis (Stephen M) on November 18, 2004 at 9:02 pm

    Ah, or one can post, and sin as part of a group.

    And get posts excised the same way ;)

    Chao.

  19. Kaimi on November 18, 2004 at 10:25 pm

    I don’t think I’ve mad the (mis?) fortune of running across many such women, Clark. That reminds me of a time when I was having the obligatory, uncomfortable sex takl with my Dad, and he began some cationary sentence along the lines of
    “there are girls who will want to do things with you sexually . . . ”

    at which point I said,

    “yes, Dad, but _where_ are these girls?”

    :P

  20. Kaimi on November 18, 2004 at 10:44 pm

    test comment

  21. Gordon Smith on November 18, 2004 at 11:02 pm

    APJ: “I think it is unhealthy to expect people to make decisions based on how it will make the group look. In my personal experience, when I do try to make decisions on that basis, my resolve doesn’t last too long.”

    Hmm. I am puzzling over this because I largely agree with it. But is it because there is something inherently bad about appeals to the community? Or are we just selfish? My inclination is to favor the latter explanation. I am reminded of the verse in D&C 128:15 (paraphrasing Heb 11:40): “that they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect.” It is not exactly on point, but suggest that we have obligations to others and should be motivated by them.

  22. Rusty on November 18, 2004 at 11:36 pm

    APJ, Gordon, I don’t know. When Alma was chewing out his son Corianton, my impression is he was upset that his son affected the image of the group. I tend to think that Alma wasn’t being selfish, but was genuinely concerned for the group.

    I understand that our sole motivation shouldn’t be “the group”, but I’m not so sure it shouldn’t be a part of it.

  23. David King Landrith on November 18, 2004 at 11:47 pm

    APJ: I think it is unhealthy to expect people to make decisions based on how it will make the group look.

    I don’t believe that it is fair to characterize this as an appearance issue. It’s not just about how Mormon’s look; it goes much deeper. I think that one of Gordon’s main points here is that when we break covenants, it has much deeper ramifications than simply whether we as individuals remain worthy members. Like Alma’s son Corianton, it can fundamentally impact the way that people view the mission of our church and our message to the world.

    APJ: In my personal experience, when I do try to make decisions on that basis, my resolve doesn’t last too long.

    This may be a symptom of the personal recklessness that individuals feel entitled to in modern society.

    Kaimi: That reminds me of a time when I was having the obligatory, uncomfortable sex talk with my Dad, and he began some cationary sentence along the lines of, “there are girls who will want to do things with you sexually…”

    At which point I said, “yes, Dad, but where are these girls?”

    I also remember well such warnings, and I also remember hoping to find one of the chicks my dad was warning me about. This is one of the things that baffles me about polygamy; viz., the math just doesn’t seem to wark: There are always more willing guys than there are willing chicks. (I, for one, am darned lucky to be married; I can’t say the same for my wife.)

  24. John Mansfield on November 19, 2004 at 7:05 am

    My role as an example of the saints is sometimes a heavy burden. What people think of me is a small thing, and as the joke goes people generally aren’t thinking about me anyhow. What they think of the work of God is so important, though. When I holler into the backyard for my sons to “get in the house. NOW,” I am wonder are the neighbors now thinking “Mormons yell at their kids.” (Alas, this Mormon does more often than President Hinckley would like.) Failings on the job carry that burden, too.

    Brother Gordon’s and Brother Aaron’s stories of women encountering adulterous Mormon men don’t bother me much, though. A woman who “always attract[s] married men” will sift out adulterous Mormons. We would prefer that there were no such thing, but where there is one, that woman will meet him.

  25. Gordon Smith on November 19, 2004 at 8:26 am

    Rusty, I think if you read my comment again you will see that we agree. When I said that I agree with APJ, it was about my lack of resolve when my motivation is the group. I was lamenting my own selfishness, not suggesting that such a motivation is selfish.

    David makes some good points to APJ, too.

  26. APJ on November 19, 2004 at 10:37 am

    I think it’s fair to say that ‘personal wrecklessness…in modern society’ isn’t such a modern concept. A person’s struggle with individualism v. collectivism is probably more psychologically instilled in us as opposed to being some symptom of our times.

    My original point does, perhaps, need a little modification. I guess I should say I don’t think compliance with church standards should be entirely based on personal or collective motivations. I do believe, though, that certain motivations seem to naturally suit some people more than others. So, in short, it would be awesome if, in our church, those who are concerned with the group image could recognize that individual salvation is the ultimate goal; at the same time, it would also be good if the individuals could realize to a higher degree that their actions do have consequences for people other than themselves. In the immortal words of Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?”

  27. clark on November 19, 2004 at 12:49 pm

    I think John’s comment is right. People have a habit of seeking out certain kinds of people. A woman who is so sexually active and apparently sleeps with so many married men with both attract unfaithful men and probably will socialize with those sorts of men rather than the faithful men.

    It reminds me of a roommate I had here in Provo. Great guy, but he slept around a lot and had a very negative view of marriage. Why was his view of marriage so negative? Because he saw so many women who were unfaithful (often with him). Why did he see so many unfaithful women though? Well, those tended to be the kind of women he dated. It was a kind of self-sufficient prophecy because of the kind of people he associated with. There were, of course, lots of faithful good women here in Provo. Indeed I think them the majority. But somehow the women he’d flirt with at banks and so forth were also the sort not exactly inclined to traditional Mormon views of dating. Needless to say that biased the kind of views they held to fidelity.

    In the same way, I suspect I have an overly rosy view of Mormons because those tend to be the kind of people I associate with. Yes, I’ve known lots of other people, both from friends and roommates. So I’ve known crazy people, drug addicts, and lots of other people. Probably a broad cross section. But even though I recall passing the sacrament in many singles wards with less than 1/3 taking the sacrament, I still believe that by and large most active Mormons are good people who try to do the right thing.

  28. Gilgamesh on November 19, 2004 at 4:52 pm

    Rusty,

    I don’t know if Alma was more concerned for the group or for the potential and new converts that had not heard about the gospel. My concern with the above situations would not be that the church looks bad – most people can notice when one is not living up to set standards. I would say for those that know about the church, the situation is more an irony than problematic. For thsoe that do not know anything about the church this may turn them off to the gospel.

    To use the opening story – the woman complains that the man hitting on her is a married Mormon. One of the group she tells is considering religion and looking for something that is missing in life. This individual has never heard of the Mormon church or met a Mormon, but the missionaries – hypothetically, were set to tract on this persons street later that week. Upon hearing this experience, suddenly the Mormons are no different than anybody else and the potential of finding the missing something dissipates and when the missionaries arive, the interest is not there.