Cafeteria Mormonism

A very important issue when you talk about Mormonism is the question of orthodoxy. What is a Mormon and what do Mormons believe? While Mormons would have you believe that Mormon doctrine and practice are fundamentally constant, experience shows that Mormonism changes with time and because of pressures from both inside and outside the church. It might be said that each generation creates Mormonism in its own image and swears that this is the true faith passed down from Joseph Smith. But while familiar discussions revolve around charges of doctrinal changes and contradictions being met in turn with denials, and counter charges of misrepresentation a new phenomenon is emerging that challenges both Mormonism and its critics.

Third Wave Mormonism, Middle Way Mormonism, New Order Mormonism, call it what you will, it seems to represent a new generation of believers who see plenty wrong with the Mormon Church but, instead of looking to leave they create Mormonism in their own image, reforming it for personal use. Mormonism is becoming for some very much a “personal” faith perhaps best described by the term “Cafeteria Mormonism”. It is a fascinating phenomenon and is explained quite well here. It is a key issue and addresses the question of what is “authentic” Mormonism. How do we recognise this phenomenon and how should we answer it when we meet it?

Cafeteria Mormonism is clearly identified in the recent and growing opposition of many Mormons to the official Mormon support of Proposition 8 in California. As a result many Mormons have gone on to question the official Mormon Proclamation on the Family, attracted by the idea of alternative lifestyles. Less obviously a Mormon might talk excitedly about grace and quote many Bible texts a Christian might quote, sounding like a Christian in the wrong church. Usually we might argue that they were using Christian terms but giving them Mormon meanings. But the Cafeteria Mormon might as easily select a bit of Christian grace to compliment his selection from the Mormon trolley.

I find myself returning to the same point I always come back to and that is the message Mormonism offers the world “officially” through its missionary programme. One correspondent describes how he learned to reject the “expectations of continuity, predictability, certainty, and a safe religious experience” in favour of “a whole new wild and changing religion full of possibilities and potential”. You can see the attraction but the irony is that the Missionary Discussions criticise the Christian Church for being wild, changing and full of potential and call it “apostasy” and characterise the Mormon Church as “restoring” a “consistency, certainty, continuity and safe religious experience.”

Joseph Smith has provided some inspiration for Cafeteria Mormonism and it is no surprise when you consider that today Joseph Smith would make a very bad Mormon. Any Cafeteria Mormon will find something in Smith to justify their choices. He was a unique character who thought Mormon thoughts for the first time and much of what he said and did was experimental and unfixed and much changed and developed very quickly as Mormonism grew. An example is his view of God, which was almost Trinitarian although ultimately Modalistic in the BOM and which developed into the polytheism of the Book of Abraham (ch.4) and the King Follett Discourse, a view from which some Mormons today are distancing themselves. In another he saw his role as simply producing the BOM but then changed D&C 5:4 (originally Book of Commandments 4:2) to accommodate further ideas he had such as producing his own Bible.

He was a monogamist who became a polygamist, a mystic who became a general, an opportunist who became a city mayor and leader of a new religion. He gave the Word of Wisdom “not by commandment or constraint” (D&C 98) and never once felt constrained to keep it. He wrote clearly in the BOM of dark skin being a curse and spoke of the curse of Cain passing through Ham and denying his descendants the priesthood (Book of Abraham 1) and yet he ordained a Negro. Yes there is much in Smith to comfort those who seek a more fluid and flexible Mormonism.

Is this view “officially” taught and endorsed by the apostles and prophets of the Mormon Church? Do the prophets on whom the mantle of Smith has fallen and through whom alone Mormons are taught to find restored truth smile on Cafeteria Mormonism? Does the Mormon Church still offer the consistency and continuity it claims to restore and that it finds woefully lacking in the Christian Churches or is Mormonism becoming as experimental and tentative as it once accused Christianity of being? Is Mormonism in its popular form becoming itself apostate? Such a thought is richly ironic given that Mormon missionaries are still bringing the world a message of Christian apostasy and Mormon restoration.

Cafeteria Mormons dismiss the Mormonism of their parents as one great mistake but I find myself impatient with the characterising of the authoritarian Mormonism of the not too distant past as “McConkie Mormonism”. It cannot possibly be ascribed to one man or one generation and nullifies the “anointed” leadership of the prophets of previous generations. If Mormons are finally facing up to the failings of their church, its history and leaders they should be honest and face their own errors and stop vilifying critics as “anti-Mormons” who do little more than mischievously mine for quotes.

I am reminded of the old saying that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Mormonism has been increasingly transparent to the outside world. Its traditional criticism of “Christendom” (which has been vitriolic at times) is increasingly implausible as Mormons themselves deny and/or explain away polygamy, racism, polytheism, contradictions and failed prophecies as misrepresented or the product of a dynamic religion.

I certainly don’t expect Mormonism to be perfectly consistent but Mormonism expects it and promises it. That is the claim of the “restoration” and if some Mormons are saying that it is no longer the case then surely someone ought to tell the prophet? More than that, the prophet ought to tell Mormons so they can relax and look at their religion realistically for the first time, maybe even have a good laugh. That is all critics really want and if we can start the Christian/Mormon discussion again with Mormons understanding that they are allowed to be wrong and change their minds and without pretending it’s the same old church then surely we will begin to get somewhere.


  1. I think you are overstating the extent to which Mormonism - as a religion - casts stones at other religions.

    Mormons don't like conflict, and the times when I myself have actually bluntly pointed out the drawbacks of other faiths, I've usually been shushed, or received an utterly disinterested response. Mormons don't really seem to care about the failings of other faith traditions and they don't spend much time talking about it. Historically it may not have always been so, but it seems to be the case today.

    Second problem - your post assumes that it's an orthodox world, and the LDS Church must be judged by that yardstick.

    I reject this premise. I don't consider orthodoxy to be the primary point of religion. So I see little point in judging a religion by it. Especially one like Mormonism that is more interested in historical narrative, loyalty and identity than it is about esoteric belief.

  2. Seth

    We keep covering this same ground when we meet and I will simply say what I have repeatedly said in response to these now familiar remarks, i.e. I am not addressing myself to your interpretation of Mormonism but to Mormonism as it is brought to people at the door. I am also addressing myself to the experiences people tell me they have in those doorstep encounters with Mormons.

    I disagree with your claim that Mormonism doesn't go to any trouble to "cast stones at other religions." It is founded on the vilification of other churches. Today, as I write this, Mormon representatives are telling my neighbours that,

    "The Saviour told Joseph not to join any of the churches, for they were, 'all wrong' and, 'all their creeds were an abomination.' He stated, 'They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.'" (Preach My Gospel, p.37)

    Funny that if a Mormon tells my neighbour that my creeds are abominable and my professions of faith empty and godless it is sharing the gospel but if I tell my neighbour that Mormonism is a cult it is "tearing down other people's religion" and just too bad.

    Mormons are always telling others that their churches are wrong. It is their raison detre and the heart of the Mormon message.

    Orthodoxy may not be so important to Cafeteria Mormons but it is essential to the Mormon Church. If the Mormon Church is so casual about orthodoxy why do bishops interview for temple recommends? Why are prospective converts asked probing baptism questions, including the role of JS and his successors as prophets, the Word of Wisdom, etc. Why such a furore about other Mormon churches and the strident denial of their identity as Mormons? Why the high and mighty claim to being "the only true church"?

    I sympathise with your own views to some degree but the question is, if someone becomes a Mormon tomorrow will they be joining the "official" Mormon Church or the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints according to Seth? Jude urges his readers to "contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" It is difficult to contend for something so nebulous as that described by Cafeteria Mormonism so of course orthodoxy is important. If we don't stand for something we risk falling for anything.

  3. No, they will be joining the Restored Gospel as God reveals it to them.

    We do stand for something.

    You are deeply mistaken in thinking that orthodoxy is the only thing out there to "stand for."

  4. Seth

    We seem to be having this conversation twice. You have a peculiar take on orthodoxy. Christians defend orthodoxy only insofar as it defines what Christians believe and practice. It is a mistake to think that there is this separate entity called orthodoxy that substitutes for Christian belief. Orthodoxy is not a faith but a description. The creeds fill the same role and I am puzzled by the term you use elsewhere, "Creedal Christianity".

    If you unpack the term "Restored Gospel" used above in terms of what Mormonism teaches and expects you will be describing orthodoxy. When I talk about Mormon orthodoxy I am using the word correctly as it describes correct belief and practice (orthopraxy) for Mormons. To suggest that such a description doesn't exist goes against reason.

    It hardly makes sense to defend your Mormon faith by insisting that there is no orthodoxy to talk about.

  5. I didn't say "no" orthodoxy. I merely stated that it was of secondary concern to religious practice at best.

    Most mainline Mormons arising out of the 1970s and 1980s have a very, very selective view of Mormon doctrine - mostly filtered through the lens of Talmage and McConkie. As much as I respect both men, they only represent their own take on what Mormonism is.

    A much more inclusive and broader look at Mormon thought reveals a startling heterodoxy. But either way, the primary point of being a Mormon is not the holding of orthodox beliefs and it never has been.

    The primary point has always been about loyalty, tribal affiliation, and willingness to come through for your fellow Mormons. We couch our identity in terms of historical narrative (much like Judaism in this respect). We read the divine narrative in our scriptures and envision ourselves as re-enacting those divine narratives in our own lives. This is primarily how a Mormon reads the scriptures - as a source of narrative, not theology.

  6. Seth

    On the subject of Christian orthodoxy, I was correcting your assumption that orthodoxy matters to Christians in the way you seem to think. That is, that something called "orthodoxy" that has come down to us via the creeds and confessions of the church stands in the place of Christian beliefs demanding our loyalty. Creeds and Confessions explain and expound what we believe, they do not originate it.

    Your characterising my kind of believers as "creedal Christians" (strange term!) elsewhere led me to conclude that this was the situation you envisaged- it is not.

    Your argument about the Talmage/McConkie strand of Mormonism intrigues me. Talmage 1862-1933 to McConkie 1915-1985 covers a mighty large proportion of Mormon history, orthodoxy and orthopraxy. That is Brigham Young d.1877 to Spencer Kimball d.1985. That is 11 Mormon prophets out of a total of 15 that presided over this perversion of truth and practice.

    Given that these men and those that stood with them were not heterodoxical for their time (most of McConkie's teachings came from the prophet Joseph Fielding Smith for example) and that they didn't define but taught an already established orthodoxy I wonder if you can see the elephant in the room?

    Believe me, I have no problem with you creating a Mormonism to suit your own worldview. The problem is that Mormonism comes along with the claim that truth and authority are restored through the consistent and trustworthy teachings of the prophets, the absence of which led to apostasy in the original church. Now I find you insisting that for all those years the god of Mormonism has given me a bum steer from Talmage to McConkie and I got it all wrong because God's prophets got it all wrong!

    I understand full well the idea of being faithful to the narrative but which narrative have Mormons been following under the ministry of these 11 prophets over a period of over 100 years? It is revealing that you have said it was your reading of Joseph Smith that freed you from the constraints of consistent and reliable Mormonism. I can only conclude that the original apostasy has happened again, with the church going bad after the death of its founder and the truth being restored through the folk ministries of GBH and TSM.

    If a Mormon reads the Scripture as a source of narrative not theology I see two problems. First, why then all the fuss in Mormon literature and teaching about correct doctrine? and second, what gives you the right and authority to tell the story to the exclusion of others with their own story to tell? Why exclude them and deny them their voice?


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