Don't We All Pick and Choose?

In the last month or two, I’ve come across a couple of people who have referred to my approach to religion as “cafeteria style” or “belief buffet.” Whenever I hear these kinds of comments, I scratch my head in befuddlement.

I tend to think that we LDS all pick and choose which religious tenets we want to emphasize and which we want to downplay. Is there a human alive that truly is able to incorporate into their lives all the ideas and commandments present in the scriptures? All the (sometimes conflicting) statements and ideals that have been presented in General Conference over the last 150 years? Over the last 25 years?

Take, for instance, D&C 89. Active Mormons are generally great at abstaining from alcohol and tobacco. But there is that pesky part about abstaining from meat, unless it’s a time of cold or famine. While some Mormons are very thoughtful about their meat consumption, many Mormons I know do not pay attention to that particular God-given word of wisdom. This is simply one uniquely LDS scripture that most upstanding Mormons have chosen to ignore.

Or how about President Kimball’s General Conference talk in which he condemns hunting for sport? I love that part of the talk. But I understand that hunting is still a popular past time in Utah, even among upstanding LDS. These are good Mormons who have chosen to believe President Kimball’s admonition does not apply to them.

There is also the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a grayish area to me – an area in which devout Mormons, despite some pretty clear cut admonitions from the General Conference pulpit, pick and choose which activities and abstentions work best for themselves and their individual situations.

There are so many other uniquely Mormon beliefs and practices – caffeinated drinks, R rated movies, tight clothing, facial hair, white shirts, family size – that I see many devout Church members picking and choosing how – and if – to incorporate into their lives.

After years of self-doubt and angst about certain Church issues, I now find great inspiration and power in picking and choosing which religious tenets to emphasize in my own life. I feel like it is my right and my responsibility to embrace and revel in those principles and practices which uplift, empower, and inspire me to become a more Christian person. And likewise it is my right and responsibility to discard, ignore, or shelve those ideas that don’t.

While I know that some LDS are uncomfortable with this approach (although, as I stated above, I feel like we all do it to a greater or lesser extent) I feel liberated by it. By carefully discarding those few ideas that I have found hurtful and false, I am now at liberty to fully embrace those that I find wonderful and true. I am a far more enthusiastic Christian now than I was in my period of angst, when I thought that Mormonism was an all or nothing proposition.

I recognize, however, that beliefs and practices are always fluid, and that things I reject now I may later accept. I’m sure that I’ll make mistakes in this negotiation process, but ultimately, I have hope and faith in a forgiving God who will see the sincerity of my quest and understand the ideals that motivate me in my spiritual journey.

Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.


  1. I don’t know that that’s really that true. Certainly it’s not the case that everyone does so to the same extent–there are a lot of places where we are told, instructed, to choose, to govern ourselves. But there are others where we are warned that chosing to ignore is chosing a path of danger.

    To me, the danger of embracing a cafeteria approach to faith is that we may assure ourselves that ‘all is well’ while we slip-deciding that things which may challenge us simply aren’t important, which we may later (perhaps at a most inopportune time, even before the bar of God) conclude were important sins that threw us far from the path. Is the risk of embracing this approach comfort in ourselves now and much greater discomfort and disappointment later (be it in this life or thereafter)?

  2. I think that most members don’t like the term “cafeteria” because they don’t feel like they are choosing to not obey commandments. As you pointed out, most members who choose to eat meat feel like they are still obeying the Word of Wisdom. I think most people’s sense of obedience is based on what is emphasized in conference and official church publications. Tea, alcohol, and coffee are emphasized and meat consumption is not. Is the church itself taking a “cafeteria approach” to the commandments?

    This also gets to the heart of one of those favorite debates on the bloggernacle. How restrictive is the church, really? What is a commandment? Does one talk on hunting make it a commandment? Does one talk mentioning R-rated movies specifically make that a commandment? What about the fact that both those talks were decades ago and not given by the current prophet? I tihnk that the label “cafeteria Mormon” is somewhat problematic due to the difficulty of defining what exactly the central tenets of our faith are or what obedience to them looks like.

  3. I am a cafeteria Mormon and proud of it!

    Last year during graduate school, I participated in a Mormon discussion group that was set up by some of my fellow (Mormon) cohort members. At one point, one person responded to one of my comments with, “You cannot legitimately call yourself a Mormon if you don’t believe [insert doctrine].” To which I responded, “Yes, I can and I do quite happily.”

    I experience great joy from the ways that I choose to participate in the Mormon church, and I don’t think that Jesus would argue with that.

  4. Your choice of facial hair, white shirts, and R-rated movies as examples of cafeteria choices is hardly representative of what bothers most Mormons about the approach. Only the most uptight person really gets upset about a beard or colored shirt at church, although most people would notice it as running against the norm.

    It’s the picking and choosing when it comes to wearing garments or not, remaining silent in the temple or “forgetting” to raise a hand in sustaining out of protest over women’s issues, or taking a public stand in favor of same-sex marriage when the church has formally taken a stand against that, that earns condemnation of the cafeteria approach.

  5. (sigh)

    to anon 4, I think you’re right that R movies or shirt color are not good examples of how people pick and choose their practice.

    to anon 1, I fully agree there is danger in saying “all is well” if really we are choosing to avoid the uncomfortably challenging changes or practices.

    BUT. then I read Caroline here, and what jumps out at me is my pet issue of a few years ago, the one where it dawned on my that all the devout members are as “cafeteria” about avoiding religious challenges as anything, as long as they can avoid hard choices and still fit in socially.

    Caroline “There are so many other uniquely Mormon beliefs and practices – ex: the Temple Consecration Covenant – that I see many devout Church members picking and choosing how – and if – to incorporate into their lives.

    Anon1 “the danger of embracing a cafeteria approach to faith is that we may assure ourselves that ‘all is well’ while we slip-deciding that literally consecrating all we have may challenge us [so actually making changes to live the principle] simply [isn’t] important,

    Before you guess wrong about me, I’m not any better. I probably handled it wrong, but when I realized all the “good members” around me were handling that crystal clear agreement so loosely, both at the personal level and for the whole church as an institution… well, I lost some faith and awe at the whole church thing I’d converted in to.
    And now I am right with Caroline, striving to find some meaning in my practices, to finally let myself stop practices that haven’t borne fruit for me, and re-embracing the shelved practices in ways that do mean something to me.

  6. anonymous 9:57,

    But see, that’s just the thing. Caroline’s point is that we all choose what we will do, and we ought to admit it. You cite the example of not taking a public stand on same sex marriage. Someone can put an anti-SSM sign in their front yard, but still neglect President Hinckley’s counsel to seek out gay and lesbian people and befriend them. So is that member still picking and choosing?

  7. Anonymous 1 says, ” danger of embracing a cafeteria approach to faith is that we may assure ourselves that ‘all is well’ while we slip-deciding that things which may challenge us simply aren’t important.”

    You’re right – this is a danger. But every Mormon I know does this to some extent.

    anonymous #2,
    Exactly. Thank you for proving my point.

    foxyj, I think that is a very interesting idea – that the Church leaders also pick and choose which principles and scriptures to emphasize, and which to not. The WoW example seems good evidence of this.


    cchrissy, that’s an interesting point about consecration. That seems to be another gray area where LDS pick and choose how/if to incorporate it into their lives. I’m glad that you too have found inspiration in focusing on those practices/beliefs that bear fruit.

    Mark IV, excellent point.

  8. You might call me the Happy Hypocrite, because I’ve decided that I’m comfy living an orthodox Mormonism outwardly (my husband is way too orthodox to let me get away with anything else) while inwardly rejecting a lot of the doctrines. I don’t feel like I’m “living a lie.” I don’t know what the eternal significance of all these religious rituals is, but for now they are the way I organize my faith, such as it is. I think of it as a token of my sincerity before God. I don’t doubt because I want to disobey; I obey because I don’t know what else to do with my doubt. Obviously I break commandments as much as the next person. But I don’t wring my hands over doctrines I can’t reconcile. Emotionally, I put them on a shelf. I’ve done the same thing mentally, to a certain extent, but I wouldn’t want to detach from them entirely because, well, this is the framework I’ve chosen for developing my faith. If it were completely free of angst, I wouldn’t have any religion at all. 🙂

    To me, it’s a risk either way.

  9. To me, there is a difference between accepting something and not yet perfectly living it (due to ignorance or simple humanness) and deliberately choosing to reject something that is a key part of our doctrine. And there’s probably a lot of something in between there.

    I also think there is a difference between core issues that are repeatedly brought up in our teachings and more minute detailed things (found in one quote somewhere, but not really repeated) or things that could be left up to interpretation (e.g., the whole meat thing). There is plenty of room in the gospel for agency on issues such as the WoW dos (just because someone eats meat in the summer doesn’t mean they are choosing not to obey…they may be obeying according to their knowledge and understanding).

    No one lives it all perfectly. The difference is that some people want to but aren’t there yet, and others don’t want to in the first place. But even then, perhaps we all are doing our best. Only the Lord and we ourselves can know if that is really true.

    I do think that in the end it all depends on our hearts, though. That’s no small thing. If we are rebellious in some way that is showing up in our hearts (truth be told, we usually have some sort of that in our hearts cuz the natural man/woman is a beast to overcome). If we are truly doing our best, the atonement can take care of the rest.

  10. Caroline wrote: “I’ve come across a couple of people who have referred to my approach to religion as ‘cafeteria style’ or ‘belief buffet.'”

    But if they do that, then they are creating a separation or distinction between you and themselves and it may be construed as a slightly demeaning one, as those phrases are often used to refer to a less perfect manner of living one’s religion.

    SO…if that is the case, do they not, in that process, in fact become buffet grazers themselves, choosing to skip over the admonition of Christ to his believing disciples, “if ye are not one, ye are not mine.” or Paul’s admonishment to the Ephesians to stop making their differing interpretations of religious life a “middle wall of partition” among them?

    Ironic, isn’t it?

    We all buffet graze. Some knowingly. Others unknowingly. We just see it better in others than we do in ourselves.

    This whole phenomenon keeps me constantly in the process of repentance.

  11. Has Starbucks had an influence on your LDS community?
    Everything said here is relative as is each indiviual differs from another. Same principles, different practices.

  12. I agree that we all pick and choose. For example, when someone is harsh and judgemental about another’s life, they are completely forgetting that we are to be kind, compassionate and non-judging.

    We all have access to personal revelation for a reason. It is humanly IMPOSSIBLE to keep all of the commandments, if we don’t use our personal revelation to guide our lives why do we even have it?

    The church makes mistakes. It once said that no black man would ever have the priesthood and the only way they would get into the temple was as servants. We know that isn’t true, and it certainly isn’t taught any more. It was a mistake. What about how the Miracle of Forgiveness says that homosexuality is caused by selfishness and masturbation. If that was true most of us would be gay.

    My personal opinion is that in the end, when all things are said and done, there will be less concern about wearing garments than there will be about whether or not you helped the poor, fed the hungry and nurtured the sick. As a culture, not the gospel, we have forgotten that we don’t get to judge, we are to love and serve and that God’s opinion is all that matters.

  13. I think it’s important to note that we are not talking about hypocrisy here. We are talking about deliberately not following or believing certain doctrine, commandments, practices, or traditions in the Mormon church because we have thoughtfully determined that we either do not believe them or do think that following them brings us closer to God.

    All of us exhibit some level of hypocrisy — we say we believe something, but do the opposite. I think that what Caroline is trying to bring to light here is that most us we purposefully choose not to do some things because of a foundation of disbelief in it.

  14. Interesting discussion. This is a tough one for me. Because on the one hand, it seems to me that my religion should do more than confirm what I already believe, that it should push me, should force me to re-examine what I think. And my fear is that if I just pick and choose, and go with the beliefs I like, I’m failing to seriously engage my religion. If nothing else, even when I disagree with some teachings, I think I have to take them seriously.

    On the other hand, if I felt like I had to take an all or nothing approach to the Church, there’s no possible way I could stay.

    I think of this question not so much in terms of picking and choosing, but in terms of emphasis. I think it’s inevitable that we end up emphasizing certain teachings, seeing them as central, and organizing the rest of our faith around them. There’s a tension between universalism and particularity in the scriptures, for example–and I have to confess that I tend to emphasize the former and therefore give less weight to ideas about chosenness.

    And people select different things to emphasize–one person might see social justice as being at the heart of the gospel, while another might put eternal families in that spot. The first person might downplay teachings about gender roles, understanding them as largely cultural and not all that bound up with what the gospel is really about–whereas the second might see them as central, and be genuinely surprised that anyone could dismiss their importance. And both could accuse the other of “picking and choosing,” but I’m not sure it would be an entirely fair characterization in either instance.

  15. A cafeteria approach is really the most conscionable approach.

    Mormons, and most religious believers, ultimately have to choose between two authorities. They can:

    1.) Follow the Prophets/Scriptures/Doctrine/fill-in-the-blank/etc.

    2.) Follow their conscious, which includes personal revelation, prayer, etc.

    The Church teaches us that both authorities or witnesses are important, and hopes that our personal answers from God will be in harmony with those received by prophets. When they are not in harmony we are encouraged to pray, fast, etc. until they become harmonious; and if that fails, we are to “endure to the end.”

    In my experience, “enduring” something that runs contrary to my conscience and experience has only brought a “stupor of thought” at best, misery at worst. On the other hand, following my conscience has always brought peace.

    I want to meet my maker with the clear-eyed knowledge that I decided for myself, not that someone else decided for me. If I am wrong, I will accept the consequences without regret. But if I “followed the prophet” and/or “endured” something that ran contrary to my conscience, and they were wrong, I’ll be sick with remorse and regret.

  16. Not to knit-pick, but the Word of Wisdom never tells us to abstain from eating meat. It says to eat it sparingly – and that the Lord will be even more pleased if we only eat it during winter of time of famine. Half the misunderstandings members have about the Gospel is because they don’t really know our cannon.

    The other issue not discussed here is this quote:

    “By carefully discarding those few ideas that I have found hurtful and false.”

    While some (or all) of us may place a higher or lower priority on what we think is important to follow, we do not think they are hurtful and false – we just fail.

    Personally, I am just a part time hypocrite trying to do my best. I do not pretend to decide which part of God’s teachings are wrong. That is the big difference between Cafeteria believers and us simple hypocrites.

  17. anonymous, I think you are defintely nitpicking. Your reading is valid, but I think mine is too. “And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” Yes, in the scripture above, it says to use meat sparingly, and the following verse, in my reading, clarifies what God means – the use of it ONLY in times of winter or famine.

    Anonymous – but what are God’s teachings and what are humans’ teachings? That’s the crux. I choose to follow what I think are God’s, and I choose to shelve those which I think are human. That’s where that whole personal revelation thing comes into it.

  18. Matt, I think the interplay, the grappling between those two authorities you mentioned is key to personal growth. (Lynnette, what you said touched on that as well.)

    And after the grappling has been done, like you, Matt, I follow my conscience. I’ve found a lot of peace in the last couple of years by doing that.

    With that said, I do, however, consciously reserve the right to nuance my beliefs or change my practice according to any new understanding I gain. I like the idea of periodically reexamining my faith choices, even the ones I have confidently and in good conscience embraced/rejected.

  19. Tanya, what you said about the church making mistakes reminds me of sunday school lessons I had when I was younger. I remember the question coming up of what to do if the church is asking you to do something you feel is wrong. The answer the teacher gave was that if you follow your church leaders, you would not be blamed by God, even if they were wrong. My reaction was. Ok, but wouldn’t it be so much better to just do the right thing in the first place, rather than just ‘not be blamed’ for going along with something wrong?

    I love what you said in the last paragraph.

    maryb, I like your point about the unChristian creation of separation through the use of judgmental language.

    M&M said, “I do think that in the end it all depends on our hearts, though.” I absolutely agree.

    madhousewife, a lot of what you said resonated with how I’ve decided to live my life. There are some Church things I’ve shelved, and others I do as a good will gesture to God, even though I have no great testimony of them. Paying tithing and keeping the WOW fall into that latter category for me.

  20. Caroline – your Sunday School story is sickening. It reminds me of the rationales that were given by a set of workers at the cremetoriums at Auschwitz during WWII. It is documented that when asked how they could morally participate in activities at the camp, they responded that they would not be moreally responsible for their actions because they were, “Just following orders.”

    Lawrence Kohlberg, the grandfather of modern day moral theory, based his body of research on these testimonies. While Kohlberg’s levels of morality of have inherent issues (since he did all his research on affluent white men), I agree with his assessment that the “I was just following orders” way of being falls in the lower realm of moral reasoning. It’s true that there are times in our lives when this reasoning is enough – but, that time is when we are 5 or 6 years old.

    I believe that moral decisions are based on what most preserves and honors human dignity, both mine and others. In my mind, there are some aspects of Mormon practice that do not abide by this standard – and to say that we will be morally right to follow these precepts because we are “just following orders” is, for me, a greater spiritual danger and a slap in the face to the gift of agency.

    While the church claims that we are supposed to pray and receive a testimony about what is said over the pulpit at General Conference, the truth is, we are expected to come to an affirmative conclusion. Heaven help you if you don’t.

  21. Janna, yes, that Sunday school story made me think of Nazis ‘just following orders’ also.

    I love what you said here:
    “In my mind, there are some aspects of Mormon practice that do not abide by this standard – and to say that we will be morally right to follow these precepts because we are “just following orders” is, for me, a greater spiritual danger and a slap in the face to the gift of agency.”

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