Culture of Shame

Shame is defined as a painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace.   It is said to be more damaging than guilt because, while guilt motivates people to make positive changes, shame makes them want to disappear.  It is also one of the most powerful tools the Mormon church uses to exercise control over its members.

Members of the church learn early on that there are standards they are expected to live up to.  In fact, week after week they are reminded (in every church meeting they go to) exactly what is expected of them.  The list of "should's" and "should not's" seems to always be growing longer and longer, and it far exceeds the abilities of any one person.  This is why every member of the church has experienced some measure of shame, whether they realize it or not.

A perfect example of how members are trapped by shame is found in the issue of callings.  Callings are supposed to be volunteer positions, but every primary child can tell you that you're never supposed to turn one down.  Members believe that callings come from God, not from their local leaders, and so they are supposed to accept and serve cheerfully.  Those who ask to be released from a calling or even turn one down are looked down on, and seen as selfish and less faithful.  There is so much pressure to conform that many people would inadvertently neglect their families before they would turn down a calling.

President Monson said:
"Are you ever guilty of murmuring when a calling comes to you?  Or do you accept with thanksgiving each opportunity to serve your brothers and sisters, knowing that our Heavenly Father will bless those whom He calls? ... May we ever remember that the mantle of membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a cloak of comfort but rather a robe of responsibility." (56)
This quote is typical of LDS teachings on a wide range of topics.  Members are reminded to not murmur or complain.  They are reminded that God is the one setting the standards, and that he blesses those who are obedient.  Finally, members are reminded that responsibility to the church is more important than personal comfort.

Latter-Day Saints are taught that shame is important in their lives, but the church doesn't call it shame.  They call it "godly sorrow," and talks and lessons regularly encourage members to feel it.  President Benson taught:
"Godly sorrow is a gift of the Spirit.  It is a deep realization that our actions have offended our Father and our God.  It is the sharp and keen awareness that our behavior caused the Savior, He who knew no sin, even the greatest of all, to endure agony and suffering.  Our sins caused Him to bleed at every pore.  This very real mental and spiritual anguish is what the scriptures refer to as having "a broken heart and a contrite spirit."  Such a spirit is the absolute prerequisite for true repentance." (57)
Phrases like "We can always be doing more," and "There's no rest for the weary," show up regularly in church talks and lessons, constantly reminding members that their efforts will never be enough.  They will always need to be trying harder, there will always be things for them to improve on.  The truth is, people will never be able to measure up.  Whether it is because of mistakes, personal choices, disadvantages, weaknesses, or simple human nature, measuring up will always be out of reach.

For the single person or the couple who deals with infertility, they will always carry the shame of failing to live up to the most basic mission of the church of having a family.  A young man who is sent home from his mission early (or even worse, one who chose to not go at all) will feel like he is not as good as the others around him that served faithfully.  A young boy who gives into the natural and healthy inclination to explore his body and his sexuality, will be made to believe that he is not worthy.  A woman who chooses to wear clothing that the church defines as immodest will be reminded that she is responsible for the impure thoughts in the men around her.  A man who is gay will be made to feel like he is a perversion, something less than whole.  A young woman who has to confess the explicit details of her sexual sin to a bishop will always carry the shame of knowing that someone else knows her secret.  A young man who admits to having doubts will be made to feel like he is to blame for his lack of strong faith.

A woman who chooses to balance a career with motherhood will be made to feel like she is being selfish, and is not following the teachings of the Lord's prophets.  A young couple who cannot afford to buy food storage will feel guilt because they know they're not following the counsel of their leaders.  A woman who chooses to buy groceries with her meager income, rather than paying tithing, will know that she is not measuring up to the expectations the Lord has set for her.  A man who does not complete his home teaching will know that he's let down his leaders as well as the people he should have visited.  A woman who doesn't make time for family history will feel that she is turning her back on her ancestors.  A couple who attends the temple rarely will constantly be reminded that they should be going more frequently.  A man who has been instructed to not partake of the sacrament while he repents will feel the shame that comes from the stares and questioning looks of those around him.

The list goes on and on and on, and never ends.  Shame pervades every facet of the LDS church, and every person within it.  It creates feelings of unworthiness that wouldn't be felt outside that setting.  And for some, it just becomes too much.  While members are constantly reminded that they always need to be doing more, some people just want to believe that they are fine exactly how they are.  Unfortunately, that way of thinking is incompatible with Mormon teachings, and so they find themselves drifting away from the church.  And more often than not, they discover that they are much happier without the weight of all that shame on their shoulders.

Next: Conclusion