Boundary Maintenance and the “Modest” Mormon

December 6, 2004 | 13 comments
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In her brilliant book Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Uillinois, 1985), Jan Shipps suggests that the Word of Wisdom replaced polygamy as “boundary maintenance� between the church and the world.

Shipps was fascinated with Mormon identification with Israel. How did that identification persist over time? Israel, as a construction, she postulated, required a symbolic boundary against not-Israel, Babylon, or the world. Before 1890 the boundary was maintained by the corporate church. Polygamy and theocratic government set Mormonism apart. But the demise of these institutions between about 1890 and 1910 left Mormons vulnerable to softening the boundaries, merging with the world, and relinquishing their claim as Israelites with a special mission. A new boundary, in postmodern parlance, had to be invented.

Shipps says the new boundary was the Word of Wisdom, a “principle with a promiseâ€? for decades but elevated to commandment status under church president Heber J. Grant in the 1920s. The boundary separating Mormons from the world shifted from plural marriage to W of W. In the process, according to Shipps, the responsibility for maintaining the boundary shifted from the corporate church to individuals. More recently, Kathleen Flake has built on Shipps’s argument by showing how the church reemphasized the boundary-reinforcing Joseph Smith story after the demise of the corporate kingdom. After all these years our missionaries are still encouraging people to gain “your own testimony” of the Joseph Smith’s First Vision, a story largely unknown during JS’s lifetime.

Accepting Shipps’s position for sake of argument, my question is where Mormonism stands today. We know that the Israelite doctrine gets little emphasis in general conference addresses, though it lives on in the scriptures, hymns, and patriarchal blessings. And the idea of boundaries, as our temple interview questions suggest, still enjoys considerable vitality. The Word of Wisdom remains a boundary between Israel and the world, but as Mormonism splinters out in many directions, across many continents and languages, brushing up against new public sectors, will the old boundaries become too weak to maintain Israelite identity? Already the W of W may be losing strength as a boundary. The adoption of smoke-free work environments and alcohol-free lifestyles could mean Mormons will have to look elsewhere for distinctiveness.

In a later essay, Shipps suggested that Mormonism’s growth will mean the creation of many Mormon identities in the public mind not unlike the way Jewish peoples are now observed. The center will not hold. Does that mean new boundaries will have to be invented to preserve Mormon distinctiveness? If a new boundary were to be invented, what would it be?

One postulation is modesty. The church has given increasing emphasis to modesty over the last fifty years, from Spencer Kimball’s challenges to BYU students in the 1950s and later as church president in the 1970s, to the increasing emphasis on the Especially for Youth pamphlets since their inception in the 1960s, to the BYU Honor Code beginning in 1971, to the recent injunctions against earrings and tattoos. Current BYU President Cecil Samuelson seemed to imbue modesty with elevated importance when he addressed the topic in his first address as BYU president. Modesty seems to merge with the image of the chaste Mormon.

Does an image of the modest Mormon exist today? Where will the boundary lines be drawn twenty years from now?

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13 Responses to Boundary Maintenance and the “Modest” Mormon

  1. Kaimi on December 6, 2004 at 3:14 pm

    I think it just might, with a line of demarcation being the temple garments.

    The garment has historically retreated, at least a little, as fashion has changed. Womens’ garments now aren’t all _that_ covering. But womens’ fashion in particular — mainstream fashion, not just runway-show fashion — has accelerated at a pace that garments are unlikely to match. To the extent that mainstream fashion is Paris Hilton style clothing — low-slung jeans, barely-there top — I think that we’ll be distinguishable.

    That said, fashion goes in cycles. I know, we’re in a spiral of destruction, yada-yada-yada, but it’s still entirely possible that next year Milan and Paris* will decide that bulky turtlenecks are the way to go. And suddenly we won’t be all that different from the mainstream society. Until fashions get skimpy again.

    *The city / fashion center, not the Hilton. Though I guess it’s theoretically possible that she’ll discover turtlenecks too.

  2. Chris O'Keefe on December 6, 2004 at 3:28 pm

    Well, as a former RA at BYU (about 4 years ago) and a witness to President Samuelson’s addresses (I’m pretty sure he’s given more than one on the topic…) on modesty, it’s something of a contestable issue. While President Samuel noted that he may be “preaching to the choir” by giving a devotional on the topic (BYU devotionals haven’t really ever struck me as particularly well attended), he went ahead and did so. The thing that most BYU students don’t realize is that the dress and grooming portion of the honor code isn’t just an “on-campus” requirement. While a BYU student is a BYU student, they are expected to obey the whole honor code wherever they go. For some students this isn’t a problem.

    But for RAs, who are supposed to “facilitate” living the honor code, there isn’t really much to be done besides a good bit of moral suasion. And that assumes that the RA recognizes his/her role to pull a student aside and address the issue of funky grooming (long hair, unshavenness for men) or “inappropriate” clothing (the perenniel “women’s issue”).

    I think that BYU hopes that by the end of their time there, students will have become socialized into living the dress/grooming portion of the honor code. Having an honor code office with questionable tactics doesn’t hurt either, though any sort of material incentive to enforce the dress code is lacking, unless you -really_ break it.

  3. David King Landrith on December 6, 2004 at 3:32 pm

    I don’t think that there is any such image.

    Once people get older than 30, they pretty much start to dress modest, just because they start to look profoundly better when they’re clothed. So I don’t see a profound difference between the way the average Mormon chick dresses at 40 and the way the average non-Mormon chick dresses at 40. Same goes for guys.

    As far as young folks go, I vividly remember at BYU that I was impressed by the prevalence of bikinis at swimming pools. Now that I’ve got daughters of my own, I’m not so impressed. And I’m often surprised by the poor fashion choices (as far as modesty goes) that I see exhibited in the attire that some teenage girls wear to church.

  4. Jeremiah J. on December 6, 2004 at 3:42 pm

    One should distinguish between boundary as a social scientific category and a theological or religious one. Shipps seems to use boundary in the former sense for the most part, since she is describing how a religious community distinguishes between the community of faith and the outside. This category is standard in sociology of religion, especially the work on fundamentalism, where boundary of the ‘enclave’ has a central role.

    Theologically the term takes on a different meaning. We talk about boundaries of appetites and desires, which the Lord has set. These may be more or less visible and may or may not constitute a social boundary. We also talk about distinguishing marks on God’s people, but these also are not the same as boundaries in the social scientific sense, since God’s purpose in making his people distinctive and special is not (or not only) cohesion of the community, preventing ‘free-riding’, etc., but indeed saving the whole world.

  5. a random John on December 6, 2004 at 3:58 pm

    The boundary line will be however long my beard is. Any longer than that is immodest!

  6. Charles on December 6, 2004 at 4:03 pm

    I don’t know enough about the details in the history of polygamy in the church, and admittedly I don’t have a huge interest in it. But I don’t recall being polygamous a requirement for all saints. Polygamy was accepted for those who were worthy, but I’m not aware of it being a saving ordinance. I could be wrong but to me this wo uld show Shipps’ argument for polygamy being a boundary as invalid. A religious boundary should be something that is required of all those clinging to a faith when other faiths in general do not.

    Also, this does not have to be an obvious thing. Biblically speaking circumcision was such a boundary. But you wouldn’t know who was or was not participating by them walking down the street.

    If we assume as the Post asks us to that polygamy was such a boundary and is now replaced by the WoW, we can consider what things may replace the WoW. I would imagine that as temples become more abundant in all corners of the world where the saints have gathered that temple attendance and recommend worthiness would be the next logical step.

    This may incorporate the WoW but will extend to circumstances of modest dress AND action. Yes modesty is more than just physical appearance. It would also include p0rnography, honesty, adherence to existing covenants and personal testimonies. These would be inward boundaries that LDS saints would know separates them from the world and the external boundaries would be seen by the world only by those who know LDS do or don’t adhere to such things.

    In my example there are a few things that are don’ts but I would also say that boundaries would be inclusive of the things we DO as well. This could lead to religious affirmation in a world that is becoming increasingly secular. LDS may be asked to publicly and vocally proclaim the gospel when the world around us wants us to keep silent.

  7. Bryce I on December 6, 2004 at 4:38 pm

    DKL–

    I don’t know where you live, but I’m guessing it’s in the northern latitudes. Non-endowed women wear considerably less clothing at all ages in the summertime down here.

    Also consider the problem of eveningwear. I can’t think of a single instance in which I’ve seen an evening gown that would be suitable for garment-wearers on a non-Mormon.

    Kaimi–

    As for slutwear, didn’t you hear? Modesty is the new black.

  8. David King Landrith on December 6, 2004 at 4:53 pm

    Bryce I Also consider the problem of eveningwear. I can’t think of a single instance in which I’ve seen an evening gown that would be suitable for garment-wearers on a non-Mormon.

    You make a very good point here. I hadn’t thought of formal gear for chicks. Even the relatively modest gowns don’t cover garments.

  9. Adam Greenwood on December 6, 2004 at 5:08 pm

    Modesty just may do it. Temple garments kinda tend to bring the natural boundary creep to a screeching halt.

    Modestly is like other boundaries, though, in that it works better at separating ourselves out from the general culture then it does at separating us from conservative evangelicals and Catholics. Sabbath observance, marrying young and having kids, and even modesty, are all only partial barriers with respect to these groups. They simultaneously separate us out from the mass but align us with other separatist elements within the mass.

    The Word of Wisdom frankly is a bit the same way. Preachers were railing for years about Demon Rum before we got firm about him. The Word of Wisdom became mandatory about the time the Temperance Movement got Prohibition passed.

    There were some unique features that did distinguish us, of course, viz. the prohibitions against tobacco and coffee and tea, especially the latter two. I still get pretty weird looks for the latter or the instantaneous, oh, you must be Mormon.

  10. Mark N. on December 6, 2004 at 6:42 pm

    Bryce: Also consider the problem of eveningwear.Just the mention of the word “garments” in conjunction with the word “eveningwear” brings to mind a funny TV commercial from some years back where the middle-aged, portly Eastern European/Russian woman models different styles of clothing which all look remarkably alike for the Workers’ Paradise (“Eveningvare… Dayvare…”). I don’t even remember what product was being advertised in those commercials (I have the sneaking suspicion that it was a fast food commercial), but I sadly have to admit that in my own warped and married mind, the comparison with women’s garments somehow almost seems apt. ;-)

    My wife has wondered out loud on several occasions how the early latter-day saints managed to have as many children as they did, given the — um — attractiveness of the womens’ garment.

  11. Clark on December 6, 2004 at 7:09 pm

    It seems to me that modesty has always been a hotbed of conversation and that at least in the Utah period the garments did provide a bit of a demarcation. (Although to be honest, even those old school garments weren’t that different from the underwear typically worn at the time, from what I’ve seen)

    Anyway, for a hoot, go read Gospel Principles by Joseph F. Smith and listen to the evils of displaying calves of women.

  12. Rob Briggs on December 7, 2004 at 5:10 am

    “The Word of Wisdom became mandatory about the time the Temperance Movement got Prohibition passed.”

    Adam, I’m embarrassed to say that I’d never made that connection. But I think you may be right.

  13. Charles on December 7, 2004 at 11:54 am

    I’m not sure how modesty alone could really become that kind of border that people would use to define us. Think of showing up for a social engagement. Everyone is drinking and you are offered a drink, you refuse “no thanks, its against my religion”. Would this really be taken the same way for wearing short shorts and halter tops? Even if a hard line for modest dress could be developed, say temple garments as a guideline, it wouldn’t have the same impact as social trends fluctuate.

    Of course I would be very pleased if the world around us became less polarized to opposing views that we hold.