Perfectionism Part 2: Mormons and the Pursuit of Perfection

This post will make more sense if you’ve read my last post “Perfectionism Part 1: A Problem on the Rise.”

Though perfectionism is on the rise across the culture, some subcultures have long been especially vulnerable. Children of service members, commonly known as military brats, report unusually high levels of perfectionism, due in part to standards of conduct expected of military families. Raised in communities that value order, obedience, and conformity, they know that their behavior doesn’t just reflect on their soldier-parents; it affects their rank, which in turn affects everything from the family’s income to where it is posted. That’s a responsibility far beyond those borne by most civilian children.

More importantly, says the author of a seminal book on military brats, the armed services instill perfectionism in parents by asserting actual perfection as a standard that can and should be met.[1] Some perfectionistic parents then pass that standard on to their children, who must learn by trial and error, as all children do, knowing that errors are unacceptable. A Navy son who became a therapist claims that the military institutionalizes the goal of perfection via regular fitness or efficiency reports in which the only acceptable score is a perfect score. A Marine’s son explains further, “My brother and I were raised on idealism and perfection. The idealism was that perfection was possible.” Add parents who rear children in the ways I discussed in my last post, especially authoritarian fathers, and it’s no surprise that perfectionism has long been near-universal among troubled military brats.[2]

The notion that perfection is possible and desirable also shapes another notoriously perfectionistic population: Mormons. In fact, the Mormon ideal of perfection is more demanding than the military ideal because it applies, not only to appearance, conduct, and job performance, but also to thoughts and feelings, to a person’s fundamental being. This ideal of perfection will seem strange to most people, who, depending on their beliefs,  either see total perfection as impossible or see it as reserved for gods alone. But, in fact, it has a central place in Mormon theology and a clear lineage that helps explain the unique features of Mormon perfectionism.

In medieval Christianity, being perfect meant reaching a point in your spiritual development where your heart is so completely filled with the love of God that it cannot contain anything contrary to God. A selfish gesture, an unkind comment, even an uncharitable thought:  all become impossible because these things are against God’s nature, which is love.[3] Technically, perfection should not be possible for living Christians, given the doctrine of original sin, which holds that all are born with the inherited guilt of Adam and Eve. But theologians such as Thomas Aquinas found workarounds for exceptional cases.[4] As Aquinas made clear, perfection is not an aspiration for ordinary believers; it’s reserved for mystics, elite spiritual athletes whose lives are devoted to asceticism, prayer, and contemplation. And, though perfection requires great effort, it is not a prize that can be earned but a divine gift.

During the Reformation, the idea that living people could achieve perfection became a subject of debate. Mainstream Protestants, who shared a dim view of human nature, denied that perfection was possible before death, even for great mystics, but a few later reformers vigorously disagreed, including George Fox, founder of the Quakers, and Anglican reformer John Wesley, who developed Methodism. But Fox and Wesley went much further than Aquinas had, claiming that ordinary lay people can achieve perfection, sometimes called holiness or “entire sanctification.” In small churches and huge camp meetings, Methodist preachers spread the idea across America that anyone could become so filled with the love of God that they could do no wrong.

Think about that for a minute. This new view of Christian perfection imagined a class of people—not a few cloistered mystics but ordinary folks—who are actually perfect. Right here among us live people who have undergone a transformation of the most radical kind, one we can recognize because it’s expressed in their outer behavior: holy words and holy deeds. If you’re a 19th-century Methodist, how do you know if your neighbor has experienced this transformation? You listen to what she says. You watch what he does. If these neighbors have achieved perfection, every word they speak and every action they perform can’t help but express it.

Though this doctrine of perfection spread like wildfire during the Second Great Awakening, Methodist churches began to downplay it as they became more and more mainstream. But there was a new church putting its own elaborate spin on this Methodist idea: the Church of Latter-Day Saints.[5] The Mormons picked up Wesley’s notion of perfection and ran with it, making some radical changes as they did. Chief among them was a shift in emphasis from divine love to human purity and from divine grace to human effort. Rather than being so filled with the love of God that you could not sin, perfection now meant being so free of sin that you can become a god.

If you’re not Mormon, you have to understand some unique LDS beliefs to understand this change. First, the ultimate goal of Mormons is not salvation or eternal life, which they believe everyone already has. And their goal is not a privileged place in God’s kingdom or even union with God; it’s to become a god, a transformation that Mormons call “exaltation.” Just as God was once a man, they believe, so they will eventually become gods, creating worlds and people to live in them.

The second relevant belief is that Adam and Eve did not sin in the Garden of Eden; instead, they made a heroic choice (death, sexual reproduction) that allowed all of us to be born and the Mormons among us to begin their journey toward exaltation. Since Adam and Eve did not sin, they had no sin to pass on to their descendants as “original sin,” so Mormons believe that human beings are born sin-free and can become that way again by living a virtuous and religiously active life.

Those two differences are huge. Many Christian denominations assume that human beings are, by nature, deeply flawed, so they develop beliefs and rituals to deal with human fallibility—the sacrament of confession, for example.[6] Mormonism, by contrast, maintains that human beings are embryonic gods untainted by innate sinfulness (though potentially vulnerable to the wiles of the devil). Mormons get their slates wiped once, when they’re baptized at eight, and after that are supposed to keep those slates clean throughout their lives and beyond. To ensure cleanliness, they submit to invasive questioning when young, to moral and financial surveillance for a lifetime, and to a level of church discipline unheard of in mainstream Christianity. In short, Mormons believe they have a better start and a loftier destiny than other Christians and so must clear a higher bar at every stage of the journey.

Perfection, when all sins and weaknesses are overcome, is one of those bars. It may not be cleared until after death (which is not the final buzzer for spiritual development that it is for most Christians), but Mormons are expected to regard perfection as a necessary and attainable goal and get as close as possible during their lifetimes. I learned exactly what that meant in a series of interviews with the church’s twelfth president and prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, who explained what Mormons mean by perfection in his influential book The Miracle of Forgiveness.

I’m not going to tell the full story of these meetings today because it would be too long a digression. What matters is that I was nineteen and struggling with the debilitating effects of childhood abuse. Though I left the church not long after I met President Kimball, at the time I still hoped that God—or his illustrious prophet—could help me cope with my trauma and the self-destructive behavior it had caused. Instead, he made my suffering dramatically worse by assigning me responsibility for my abuse and seeing all its effects as evidence of my sinfulness. And, even though I repented sincerely and at length, he warned me that God’s forgiveness, for which I ached, might take months, years, or even centuries and would require of me something I could never achieve: perfection.

What is perfection, to President Kimball? In The Miracle of Forgiveness, he explains very clearly.

Being perfect means to triumph over sin. This is a mandate from the Lord. He is just and wise and kind. He would never require anything from his children which was not for their benefit and which was not attainable. Perfection therefore is an achievable goal.[7]

If perfection means triumphing over sin, then the feasibility of achieving perfection lies at least partly in how you define sin, and Kimball’s definition is extremely broad. There are biblical staples: murder, theft, adultery, idolatry, bearing false witness, swearing, Sabbath-breaking, covetousness, and disobedience to parents. There are versions of the seven deadly sins: envy, lustfulness, slothfulness, anger, pride, insatiable appetite, and greediness for filthy lucre. There are crimes and clear antisocial behavior: embezzlement, brawling, vengefulness, and “inventing evil things,” which I hope includes nuclear weapons. There are many duplicates or near-duplicates of all the above.

The rest of the list raises issues. Most notorious is the fact that Kimball’s sexual sins include masturbation and homosexuality, but, to understand Mormon perfectionism, we also have to look at more mundane transgressions. These include improvidence, disobedience to husbands, lack of natural affection, high-mindedness, flattery, indiscretion, whispering, unthankfulness, ignobleness, profanity, foolishness, impatience, lack of understanding, implacability, bitterness, presumptuousness, instability, ignorance, speaking evil of dignitaries, and becoming a stumbling block.

This list stretches the definition of sin past the breaking point, roping in traits and actions that are hard to avoid in the normal course of life. Who isn’t foolish or impatient now and then? Who isn’t ignorant of many things? Who doesn’t occasionally flatter a boss or an insecure friend? Other supposed vices actually may be virtues, depending on context: high-mindedness, for example, or becoming a stumbling block. In addition, peeping through this list is a political agenda: to rationalize and promote social hierarchy. Why else would “speaking evil of dignitaries,” a proud American tradition from the Declaration of Independence to Trump jokes on late-night TV, be deemed a sin?

In The Miracle of Forgiveness, President Kimball states clearly and conclusively that perfection is both possible and necessary. Then he makes it impossible by demonizing normal human behavior, from masturbation to “lack of understanding,” and by condemning mere attempts at perfection. In a section titled “Trying Is Not Sufficient,” he explains:

It is normal for children to try. They fall and get up numerous times before they can be certain of their footing. But adults, who have gone through these learning periods, must determine what they will do, then proceed to do it. To “try” is weak. To “do the best I can” is not strong. We must always do better than we can. This is true in every walk of life.

Demand that people strive for perfection. Make success impossible but condemn anything less. I can’t think of a better formula for producing maladaptive perfectionism. And that’s exactly what researchers are beginning to find.[8]

Though some in the church disavow The Miracle of Forgiveness because of a shocking statement about rape,[9] it remains an LDS classic that bishops and other leaders often recommend to young people. Moreover, though a bit more blunt than most Mormon literature, the book does not depart from the essential teachings of the church; its simple, forthright prose merely makes the nature of those teachings more clear than usual. It is, therefore, an excellent window on why so many Mormons struggle with perfectionism.

And struggle they do. On social media sites dedicated to Mormon culture, perfectionism is a persistent concern among both active Mormons and apostates. “I haven’t been to church in 13 years, and still I can’t kick this,” reads a post on a Reddit forum for “recovering Mormons.” The comment appears in a long thread headed “Perfectionist culture in Mormonism is toxic.” Former Mormons describe obsession with minuscule (or non-existent) sins, as well as pressure to devote every moment to productive activity or spiritual self-improvement. Perhaps the most alarming sign of perfectionism’s costs is Utah’s high rate of youth suicide, which, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, has tripled in the past ten years and is now the leading cause of death for children between ten and seventeen years old.

As I explained in my previous post, the link between perfectionism and suicide is well-established. In fact, a 2014 review of research found a that suicidal thoughts were even more strongly linked to perfectionism than they were to feelings of hopelessness, especially perfectionism resulting from “chronic exposure to external pressures to be perfect (i.e. socially prescribed perfectionism).” Following the spike in suicides, the Mormon Church began to address the danger caused by perfectionism, producing a video titled “Perfectionism: Will I Ever Be Good Enough?” and disseminating Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s speech to the 2017 general conference, titled “Be Ye Therefore Perfect—Eventually.”

Both these efforts address the problem of Mormon perfectionism by trying to divorce it from the church’s own teachings on perfection. In the video, a young woman testifies that she experienced anxiety about being good enough for God when she felt spiritually dry in prayer, anxiety later relieved by a palpable experience of grace as she listened to someone else’s testimony. By portraying her as expecting to feel God’s presence on demand, the video makes her concern about being good enough seem spiritually immature, a private error that has nothing to do with the Mormon Church. The church, in fact, plays a hero’s role: it’s where she has the experience that corrects her error.

In Holland’s speech, perfectionism is attributed to Satan, who has “somehow managed to make covenants and commandments seem like curses and condemnations.” Now perfectionism is not just the private error of a naive girl; it’s a demonic campaign to misrepresent church teachings. It would be more honest for a church leader to say, “Maybe we pushed that perfection idea a little too hard and ought to revise our position just a bit.” Instead Holland implies that the position of the church has always been that of most Protestants, quoting current president Russell M. Nelson’s newly-famous line, “Here in mortality, perfection is still pending.” In fact, by emphasizing grace and the vast distance between frail humanity and the perfection of God, both the video and the speech could have been produced by any Christian church were it not for a couple of LDS-specific terms sprinkled in. It’s hard not to conclude that, once again, the Mormon leadership has quietly revised a problematic teaching to bring it into line with the American mainstream.

But the revision was too late for Nick Swint, the sixth high-school boy to kill himself in Herriman, Utah between June 2017 and May 2018. Having grown up the most devout child in his large Mormon family, he had rejected his faith as “a bunch of bunk” then returned to it again shortly before he shot himself leaving a note expressing the fear that he was not good enough. My fear is that the new doctrine of post-mortem perfection will take a long time to penetrate a community that grew up with the old doctrine and that Mormon perfectionism will be around, spreading anguish and death, for a very long time.

If you found this essay useful, you may appreciate my book Iron Legacy: Childhood Trauma and Adult Transformation, which deals at greater length with the psychological impact of abuse sanctioned by the Mormon Church. Read more about Iron Legacy here.

[1] Mary Edwards Wertsch, Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood inside the Fortress (1991; St. Louis: Brightwell, 2010), 203-204. The rest of the paragraph is indebted to this book.

[2] Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that all military brats are perfectionists; I’m summarizing the conclusions of Mary Edwards Wertsch who interviewed both military brats and therapists who specialize in their treatment. The subjects in question sought treatment for a range of issues, but, in 100 percent of cases, perfectionism was one of those issues.

[3] Jesus’s famous instruction from the Sermon on the Mount, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” concludes a passage directing followers to love their enemies.

[4] In less powerful hands than Thomas Aquinas’s, this idea of perfection sometimes ran afoul of Christian doctrine. For example, it was the main reason that the beguine mystic Marguerite Porete was executed for heresy in 1310.

[5] It’s becoming increasingly evident that Joseph Smith and the early Mormons derived many key ideas from Methodist doctrine. See the recent article “John Wesley: A Methodist Foundation for the Restoration.”

[6] To be fair, low expectations can also create mental health problems, and being raised in a sect that sees humanity as depraved can be just as traumatic as being raised Mormon. See my essay on religious trauma for more information. But a pessimistic view of humanity produces different psychological pressures than Mormonism’s essentially optimistic view, and that’s the point I’m making here.

[7] Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (West Valley City, UT: Bookcraft, 1969). I used an electronic version of the book in which the pagination differs from the print edition. The quotation may be found on the ninth page of the chapter titled “Keeping God’s Commandments Brings Forgiveness.”

[8] In “Mixed Method Study of Perfectionism and Religiosity among Mormons,” authors Samuel O. Peer and James S. McGraw list seven recent studies that reflect “an emerging consensus . . . that religious perfectionism is particularly prevalent among Mormons” (80). Unfortunately, the religious sympathies of some of the researchers, including Peer and McGraw, lead them to characterize much of this perfectionism as adaptive, even when it involves feeling “physically sick” and “utter self-loathing” after masturbation or sexual contact.

[9] The infamous statement, “It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle,” appears on page seven of the chapter titled “Restitution.” Kimball’s comments on homosexuality (especially the link to bestiality) also bothers some Mormons, though the official church position remains that homosexuality is a “serious transgression.” A future post will tell the full story of my interviews with President Kimball, which were very focused on sexual sin, and you can read a brief account now in Iron Legacy. But sexual sin is not the primary concern of the present essay.

3 Replies to “Perfectionism Part 2: Mormons and the Pursuit of Perfection”

  1. Very insightful.

    If I may offer a slight addition: the indispensable theme of all Mormonism is that your every attempt at being exaltalbe must be under the auspices of the LDS church. That’s why the temple thing is inseparable from LDS theology- it is administered solely by the church institution, and only by that institution. And the only real requirement to participate in the temple experience is unwavering acquiescence that the church leaders are 100% correct no matter what they say. And they all say different things. So most poor Mormons, except for those with larger than average egos, never know if what they are doing is good enough. In fact they can never be good enough to demand any sort of consistency or definitive answers from the leaders- the very ones who control their access to the temples and hence credentials for assuming the mantle of a god.

    It’s always you fault for not understanding things properly. The leaders will say anything that makes themselves the winners. The result is, as you have noted, is unending self-doubt and confusion leading to inordinate use of antidepressants and, as you note, suicide.

    1. Good point. Psychologically, the less control people have over what happens to them, the more stress they experience, so ceding this much power to an institution (and its untrained representatives) is bound to cause anxiety. Theologically, this kind of gate-keeping so alarmed people 500 years ago that they were willing to split western Christendom in half and spend more than a century at war. I’d call that a vote of no confidence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *