WHAT THE HECK IS A CAFETERIA MORMON?
“Teach of faith to keep all the commandments of God, knowing that they are given to bless His children and bring them joy. Warn them that they will encounter people who pick which commandments they will keep and ignore others that they choose to break. I call this the cafeteria approach to obedience. This practice of picking and choosing will not work. It will lead to misery. To prepare to meet God, one keeps all of His commandments. It takes faith to obey them, and keeping His commandments will strengthen that faith.”
Russell M. Nelson
To begin I want to state that I absolutely love being a member of the LDS church. In this environment I feel that there are wonderful blessings that come from bringing a diversity of individuals into a community to struggle together to best understand the gospel and the ways in which we should behave. I love the idea that we have inspired leaders who are chosen to lead and guide us towards the best practices within our lives. However I also feel that the fact that we have such a structure can also be a stumbling block as individuals choose and are sometimes taught to place their agency into the hands of our leaders instead of taking it into their own hands by searching for themselves to discover what we are promised the spirit can bring to us. A popular Brigham Young quote seems to demonstrate that he also feared this mentality when he said that “I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation.” I believe that within this church we are to sincerely and thoughtfully seek truth wherever it may be found, which I see as an active process that we could all do a little better in.
Recently I have noticed an apparently rising amount of criticism towards what I would describe as Liberal, Unorthodox, or Cafeteria Mormonism. I have seen these critiques from all ends of the Mormons spectrum, although most often comes from the pulpit at church, or from a dedicated, often more orthodox, member of the church. These individuals will say “You cannot be a Cafeteria-Mormon,” by which they mean that the “practice of picking and choosing will not work” as stated above by Elder Nelson. Although I have a deep respect for many of those who give this critique, I believe that their concern comes from a misunderstanding of what people like me are proposing. It is easily demonstrable that not only is nobody perfect, but also that everyone picks and chooses what they will prioritize in this journey towards progression. I see these arguments centering around the idea that to be a liberal, unorthodox, or cafeteria Mormon would mean that you are not committed. Although I see where these individuals are coming from I simply disagree with that assumption.
To be clear, I personally like and identify with the term Cafeteria-Mormon, and yet my desire to search out and find the aspects of the gospel that are most important for me does not take away from my dedication. I like the term, because someone in a cafeteria has to be deliberate, and has to be driven to make the very best food choices possible. The individual has the choice whether they want to eat that which is good for them, or that which will only satisfy their craving for a moment. It would be unhealthy to say that you cannot pick what you want to eat, and even you have to eat everything. Just because one wants to decide what appears correct for them, instead of having the lunch lady decide for them, does not mean that the individual does not want to be in the cafeteria. However the fact that I believe that in reality everyone is a cafeteria Mormon is something I cannot fully explore here since I want to focus on the idea of commitment. I am often frustrated with the argument that liberals are less committed, for example, because commitment is something that I highly value. I feel that the overall meaning of “you cannot pick and choose” is that we should take Mormonism seriously and that there is value in doing hard things, which is a sentiment that I agree with.
For example, I think I would be safe in saying that most people recognize that Home/Visiting Teaching can be a pain. Most of the time I just don’t want to spend my precious time going over and bugging my families at their houses, since in reality they probably don’t really want me there in the first place. Most of the time I would prefer to just do something else, but on the other hand I also recognize the value in allowing myself to go outside of my comfort zone in an attempt to be a true friend. It can force us to learn and grow as we attempt to take care of each other. Home/Visiting Teaching can be difficult, but it can be a valuable resource in our lives. We are instructed to read the scriptures and to pray on a consistent basis. At least for me, this has always been a struggle. Not only scripture study but education in general can be extremely difficult as we attempt to gain the skills that are needed to succeed. Deep and sincere study can be extremely painful and difficult, but I believed that through it there is much of value that can be earned. In the church we are instructed to work on and improve our marriages, to seek to be honest in our daily interactions, and to love those who are different from ourselves. These are all things that I believe can be difficult, but can bring much into our lives. I believe that if we are going to choose to be a part of this church we should be willing to allow ourselves to go through hard things.
I believe that the assumption from critics of cafeteria Mormonism is that if we choose what we will believe that we will inevitably choose that which is easier and will not provide us with adequate opportunities to grow. I believe that this assumption comes from a fear, and perhaps a lack of faith in the important aspects of the gospel. They fear that if we choose, we will not choose to experience the joys that can come from Home Teaching, Scripture Study, Prayer, a better marriage, a life of integrity, or an empathetic and loving persona, as we will assume that those goals are too hard. I would argue that if taking the gospel seriously really will benefit our lives, then perhaps we should have a little faith that it really is beneficial. To me Picking and Choosing is not about finding the easiest path, but instead that which is most true, and most vital for each individual. I believe that as we take Mormonism seriously we will find that it really does have great benefits to an individual.
Well said–nice post.
Thank you clean cut.
Great post. I’m not sure elder Neilson knew what a good analogy he was providing when he gave that conference address. I think he (and most others who use the term to judge) intended it to mean that we only follow what appeals to our desires, like my son who only eats mac & cheese when we go to Chuck-a-Rama. But I see that we can’t possibly follow EVERY guideline, policy and commandment that is presented to us. We must prioritize, and your priorities will be different than mine. I promise not to judge you.
Thanks Daniel, I really do think it is a great analogy. In another conversation someone said something like “Are you saying that which will be provided to us through the gospel will not be healthy?” Our bodies need a wide array of nutritional diversity, which may be different for each individual. Meat and protein are important, but if that is all you eat,there may be repercussions. Just eat nothing but fruit and you will see what I am talking about. haha
eat meat sparingly . . . only in times of winter or famine, mild drinks made with barley, feed rye to fowls and swine, don’t play with face cards, marital sex is for procreation only and never for recreation, plural marriage, stone adulteresses and rebelious teenagers, women shouldn’t speak in church . . . We are all cafeteria mormons.
Exactly! Even if you believe that certain of those choices are right, you still have to choose what that is. We all choose and that is a good thing.
It is my firm belief that every Mormon is a cafeteria Mormon. We all pick and choose. Some just think they’re more committed because they only see the things others aren’t choosing and miss those aspects of the Gospel they’re setting aside.
The difference between orthodox members of the Church and so-called Cafeteria Mormons is not merely that the Cafeteria Mormon picks and chooses the doctrines that xe will subscribe to. Insofar as “doctrine” only applies to true doctrine and not to the philosophies of men mingled with scripture, there are some who are considered Cafeteria Mormons because they will NOT pick and choose.
The difference between these two groups, rather, is more in what is discarded than in what is chosen. The orthodox member is orthodox solely because xir picking and choosing matches that of the majority who, because few will allow themselves to realize that they are selectively discarding doctrine that is uncomfortable or hard to understand, are able to produce an near-perfect echo chamber wherein they can assure each other that they are nothing like the Cafeteria Mormons.
Only near-perfect, of course, because there are Cafeteria Mormons in the room too. It is their inclusion in this room, in fact, and their refusal to leave, that spurred the adoption of the term “Cafeteria Mormon.” As the orthodox members adopted it they have the power to define it and use it as they like to create (and marginalize) an out-group.
to prepare to meet God, one keeps all of His commandments.
#1–preparing to meet God implies that we have a relationship with Him, that we actually talk to Him.
#2–what does “all of His commandments” mean? Is home/visiting teaching a commandment? Where in the scriptures is it commanded of God? What about church attendance? Worship is mentioned in the Book of Mormon, but is the entire block a ‘commandment of God’?
The Word of Wisdom isn’t even a commandment; Joseph Smith was specifically told that it wasn’t to be by way of commandment.
Does this mean the 10 commandments? Not too hard for most people. But there are some people I have met who keep ‘all the commandments’ who are serious false witness bearers. Don’t think a thing about it–
after all, it’s hard to pin down; it’s hard to isolate or even identify–
but it happens all the time.
So, what are the commandments, Elder Nelson? (rhetorical question)
His generalizations might be well-intended towards the most simple of minds, but for anyone who REALLY wants to meet God, they are woefully inadequate.
I really enjoyed this post, thank you for your thoughtful words. I can’t help but somewhat ironically apply the analogy to my own history with the church, and perhaps give unintended credence to those who speak disparagingly of the cafeteria approach, but—– I used to be a cafeteria Mormon, and over time I realized that I had fewer and fewer palatable options and always left the cafeteria still feeling hungry. Now I cook all my meals at home 🙂
Thank you Hery. Today was stake conference. There was a cool talk that talked about the church as a life boat, and as we are going down the stream we should not be hitting others with our oars which could knock them out. It was nice. I do believe that most members are trying to merely say that we should not give up on the opportunities to grow because it will be hard. However since publishing this article, I have had some conversations with individuals who do seem to be wanting to hit me out of the boat with their oar, so it can be hard.
Is there a difference between recognizing that a given doctrine is beyond my current capacity, and deciding that I just do not agree with a doctrine and therefore choose not to be obedient? It seems to me that how one defines “cafeteria Mormon” is completely dependent upon how one answers this question.
There are certainly times where I feel that this is justified. To continue with the food analogy, some people are allergic to peanuts. Although peanuts are a wonderful food resource, for some people it merely does not work, and even it can cause them great harm. What I feel is important is that these decisions are not made lightly. I do not think we should break “commandments” merely because it looks like it would be fun, but there are definitely times where it would be justified to do so in my opinion. For example, we are to honor our parents, but if we have an abusive parent we have the right to change the way in which we will associate with them. However most of the times I think that we make “commandments” out of things that are not really commandments, if that makes sense.
I really enjoyed this post. I love the way you articulated the idea about picking and choosing doesn’t mean you decrease your commitment. I consider myself very committed to the things I feel are important–and I take the time to think through and decided what I think is worthy of that commitment; many if not most teachings, principles and traditions taught in the church make the cut for me, but not everything. I feel that choosing in this way actually challenges me, helps me grow, more empathetic to others and helps me to enjoy my membership even more.