Thursday, April 9, 2009

Cafeteria Mormonism

I have heard this term quite often, and don't think I understand it. From what I understand, a "cafeteria" belief system means that you pick and choose the doctrines and concepts you believe to be right for you out of a set of beliefs and doctrines.

Yet, I've heard the term applied to situations that don't quite seem to fit. Instead, many of these situations seem to describe a simple search for truth, and the adoption of ideas as a testimony is born from the search.

My question is, what is the difference between being a cafeteria Mormon, and a Mormon in search of truth, willing to seek after all that is "virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy"? Is there a difference?

I think there is, in method if not in effect.

To me, it seems that in order to be a cafeteria Mormon, you have to be picking and choosing what seems good to you, the things that appeal to you. A search for truth, in contrast, contains the willingness to choose some things that do not appeal to you because they are good. To extend the analogy, it would be like picking all the tasty foods from the cafeteria in the first case, and picking foods you feel are healthy for you in the second. In this sense, the Spirit would be the nutritionist at your shoulder, instructing you on what you should choose for optimum health.

Perhaps I am wrong in this viewpoint, and I don't understand the term "cafeteria Mormon" properly. But it seems to me that we ought to be rather careful in applying this term to anyone else.


  1. I think a Cafeteria Mormon is one who rejects the doctrines (food) that he doesn't agree with. An honest seeker of truth doesn't.

  2. My view on the subject was expressed in a guest post at bcc


  3. SR, my answer to your question comes from extensive involvement with members who classify themselves as "cafeteria Mormons". Keep that in mind - along with my core belief in viewing things in the most charitable light that is reasonable.

    First, as I've said elsewhere, I generally hate labels in the Church. As to this particular label, however, I am much more accepting of it - **since it was coined by people who struggle to accept something but are striving to remain active and "faithful" despite their struggles**. That is a noble effort, so I can't condemn or criticize someone for the verbiage they use to explain their efforts to be faithful. After all, "faith" can be defined as the journey walked along a dark path - and anyone walking to some degree in darkness has to choose how to do so among competing options.

    Second, what some people call "cafeteria browsing" others call "putting things on a shelf". All of us only can tackle as many things at a time as we can tackle individually - or, to use the cafeteria analogy, all of us only can digest as many things at a time as we can digest individually. My primary concern is that those who can digest more than others not judge or condemn those who can digest less (that the piccolos don't scorn the bassoons) - especially since such judgment and condemnation can drive away those who otherwise would remain and learn how to digest more over time.

    Third, I have found that many of those who understand the Gospel the most fully are exactly those who struggled the most to "get it" or to accept the dishes that others eat more out of habit or "command" - that many who see themselves as "cafeteria Mormons" actually savor and "feast on" aspects of the Restored Gospel that others who never struggled consume without much enjoyment or pleasure.

    I took my own interpretation of that phrase and wrote the following post last August:

  4. Sorry, one more thing:

    There is a HUGE difference between the Gospel, the Church and Mormon culture - and I have found that many of the voices who recognize those differences and struggle with organizational and cultural aspects of Mormonism are the ones who call themselves "Cafeteria Mormons". We need those voices in the Church, expressed respectfully, in order to continue the pruning process described in Jacob 5 and ensure that non-essential things don't overtake the spiritual roots and keep the gathering from being as effective as it might be otherwise.

  5. *Sigh*

    Sorry for three in a row, but I do need to add a disclaimer:

    There are members who use the label "Cafeteria Mormon" as a cover for their opposition to the Church - who stay in the Church almost solely to fight it. I am NOT talking of these people in any of my comments.

    Fighting the Church is radically different than trying to change cultural and/or organizational impurities. I do the latter a lot; I refuse to do the former - period.

  6. Thank you, everyone. Your comments have given me food for thought.

    From what you say, particularly you, Ray, I think the term "cafeteria Mormonism" is an unfortunate one. And maybe what you say is part of what I'm trying to get at. It is true that EVERYONE deals with doctrines as they come, sometimes shelving the rest to wait upon the Lord's time. That is faith and patience.

    While I have no problem with people applying that label to themselves with whatever meaning and connotation they wish to attribute to it, I think when applied broadly, the term itself carries the connotation of knowing better than God what is good and what is bad.

    To try to put my finger on it, I think it is a very subtle difference between utilizing agency and the guidance of the Spirit to discover good from evil, and judging something good or evil only from the basis of one's own current understanding. Although the result may be the same—that a particular doctrine or concept is shelved, at least for a time, the mode of operation is vastly different. One is humble and teachable, the other is prideful and assumes self-correctness.

    To me, using the term "cafeteria" automatically shades towards pride, as if a person has paid for the right to choose whatever foods they wish in the cafeteria, and only they know what they should eat. It just sounds derogatory to me. I think that is why it grates roughly on me when a person says that everyone is a cafeteria Mormon.

    I can understand that those who struggle with major doctrines in the Church while believing others, might wish for a label to distinguish themselves, and reconcile themselves to it, but I think it still unfortunate. Perhaps the very act of labeling oneself is what sets a person apart from the body of the Church. Perhaps then, it seems like the body of the Church is rejecting the labeled person, when in reality they are separating themselves.

    Applying that label to all members only serves to underscore our separateness, and pass over our unity. It keeps us from being able to strengthen each other.

    If a label is needed to denote those who do not yet know everything, I think I much prefer the label the Savior gave us of "little children". That label holds endearment, trust in God, and the connotation of potential to learn.

    As I have said, this has given me a lot to think about.

  7. SR, I really like the way you phrased that last comment - and it highlights exactly why I dislike labels in the Church.

    Fwiw, I think the main reason many members feel the need to come up with a phrase that describes them is that they feel rejected or judged by others who consider themselves "faithful" and anyone who sees things differently as "less faithful" - when, in fact, they simply are trying to do the best they can based on their own darkly lit vision to be true to their own "faith" (the things they believe but can't see).

    I really feel for those who struggle, and it pains me that they feel the need to justify their struggles by creating labels. I agree totally with you that when it is done to reject something permanently (out of a sense of pride or just cantankerous obnoxiousness) it is wrong. I just know too many people who fit, instead, my previous description - those who really are faithful and want to be recognized and accepted by those around them, despite their differences.

    I think they are the ones Elder Wirthlin and Elder Anderson meant when they talked of those among us who are different, and I feel their pain deeply. I know what it feels like to not be understood because of how I view certain things - of not being sure exactly how much I can share with others in church meetings - of being an "outsider" theologically to some degree. Granted, I am almost as active and faithful and conservative-living as it gets, but I understand their angst and need to justify their perspective. I've moved beyond it, but it's painful, and it's real - so I don't begrudge their emotional need to find a way to assert their own faithfulness in the face of regular criticism and judgment.

    Think about a Democrat in a group that is exclusively Republican - or a musician in a room full of athletes - or a woman in a world otherwise comprised of men - or a black man in an organization of white men - or any other example of feeling out of place but wanting to be accepted as an equal. The more people insist that the exception change to be like the rest, the more likely it is that the lone individual will work to find a way to justify her difference - to assert the reasonableness of her uniqueness.

    Anyway, I really do like the way you framed your last comment.

  8. Thank you, Ray. Perhaps my background has given me a strange perspective. As a military brat, I'm quite accustomed to not feeling like I belong anywhere. I have almost never been part of a group to which I felt wholly united.

    Despite the familiarity with the feelings of loneliness and exclusion, perhaps I don't have enough compassion. I simply expect to feel that way, and to deal with it. For those who have grown up within a community, perhaps the expectation of fitting completely within a community is set a little too high. The purpose of any community is to utilize differences to better the whole. Without difference, there is no real community—the purpose of society is diminished.

    While I certainly feel sympathy for those in such a situation, I still feel that they are the ones who must accept themselves. When they label themselves, or dwell on their own differences, they are cutting themselves off far more effectively than anyone else can cut them off. If we as individuals were able to accept ourselves in the light God accepts us—as glorious yet flawed beings—we would be able to accept our differences a little better.

    Blaming everyone else for feeling "rejected and judged" keeps a person from seeing the true source of their feelings. Ironically, it makes that person become what they most fear: a person who rejects and judges others.

  9. I agree. It's a fascinating two-way street, is it not?


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