Tag Archives: Honor Code

Designing modesty

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

– Antoine de Saint-Exupry

Recently, there’s been a lot of hullaballoo surrounding an article in the June issue of the Friend magazine. I’m not going to discuss the virtues of whether or not you should allow four year old girls to wear sleeveless sundresses — that has been discussed in the Bloggernacle ad nauseum. My main concern about the modesty issue (concerning the Church) is how convoluted our stance on modesty has become (especially for girls). Here are some rules (though they are not limited to this list), as codified into our culture by the For the Strength of  Youth pamphlet and the hallowed Honor Code of BYU*:

– No sleeveless anything, whether it be tank top, spaghetti strap, or otherwise. Halter tops are right out.

– All shorts must cover the knee

– No more than one pair of earrings for girls, no more than zero pair of earrings for boys

– Do not wear tight-fitting clothes

– Always cover your stomach

– Avoid extreme styles and colors (I’ve always wondered what they did in the 1980s with this rule, what, with the preponderance of lime green and hot pink)

– Guys should have well-trimmed, non-shaggy haircuts, no facial hair, and, if mission standards are to be followed, a part in the hair as well

– No tattoos, even if it’s like, a totally radical tattoo of a Chinese character

– Clothes should not be low cut in the front or back

– One piece swimsuits for the ladies

– And now, apparently, no sleeveless for little girls either

I’m a big believer in simplicity. Though I fail at it many times, I try to live as simple and as modest a life as possible. I believe that ultimately, a well-lived, modest life will have trimmed away the gluttony and excess and spend its time doing that which has the greatest and most value. I believe this concept applies in many situations, including my spiritual and religious life.

The modesty rules we have currently today are anything but minimalist. In fact, most of the rules we have concerning modesty are reactions against cultural trends of which we disapprove. Few, outside of the more vague ones, such as “avoid extreme styles or colors” or “no tight-fitting clothes”, contain any kind of gospel principle (and even then we’re stretching it); rather, they sound similar to the edicts of Cosmo’s fashion section, a list of do’s and don’ts to stay “in fashion” with the latest LDS style.

I like to think that Jesus is the prime example of a minimalist. When asked which of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) were the greatest, Jesus boiled them all down (all 613 of them!) into two great commandments:

Jesus said unto him, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Matthew 22:37-40

The minimalism behind this is breathtakingly beautiful. Yes, commandments and standards are important, but instead of creating a “modesty checklist” (which the Friend also did), couldn’t we instead emphasize that our bodies are gifts from God? If we love God, we will respect and cherish that gift. Empowered by the love of God and a perspective of our place in the universe, we would refuse to abuse and exploit that gift when propositioned to do so by others. Such thinking would allow the flexibility and breathing room for cultural fluctuation but still provide concrete understandings of what is right and wrong. Rather than measuring ourselves against a list of rules, we measure ourselves against our worth prescribed to us by God. We use personal revelation to guide our way. Modesty, like all other commandments and standards, hang from those two great edicts.

Rules are more comfortable precisely because they are so specific and inflexible. We can hide our ignorance of the gospel, our insecurity in our faith, and our anxiety before God’s presence behind the wall of man-made law. We can be mean-spirited, bitter, judgmental, rude, spiteful, proud, back-biting, or all of the above, but as long as we pay our tithing, attend Church services, and do our home/visiting teaching, we’re still “righteous,” even if the love of God is not within us. It is easier to teach and instill skirt length, sleeve length, midriff coverage, one-piece swimsuit expounding, and one-pair-of-earrings exposition in 30 minute bite-size increments in Sunday School than either the love of God, or the love of others. Yet it is exactly the latter that saves and has eternal worth.

So what would Jesus say? Suppose a faithful disciple approached him and asked, “Master, which of these modesty rules are the most important? No bare-midriff? No knee-cap flashing?” The great thing is that deeply embedded in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, we already have such a minimalist statement that Jesus could possibly make:

Ask yourself, “Would I feel comfortable with my appearance if I were in the Lord’s presence?”

I propose that we eliminate all else in the “Dress and Appearance” section of the For the Strength of  Youth pamphlet and teach our youth this one basic principle above all else when teaching modesty. All in favor, please manifest in the comments. Any opposed do so by the same sign.

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* I’m not sure if including the BYU Honor Code in our list of unofficial official cultural standards for modesty will garner controversy or not, but BYU is possibly the single greatest exporter of Church culture, and so I have included it as most Mormons would probably agree to the standards espoused in the Honor Code anyway concerning modesty.

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Public stoning, complicity, basketball, and shame-based punishment

Recently, if you don’t follow sports, BYU suspended one of it’s star players from the basketball team for breaking the Honor Code — specifically, according to the news, for having pre-marital sex with his girlfriend. The suspension came during the NCAA playoffs, and BYU, favored to do incredibly well, was severely crippled and lost to an unranked team.

BYU has, as expected, drawn a lot of both praise and ire. Some applaud what they term BYU’s commitment to its principles, giving up a lot of prestige, fame, and money for the basketball program in order to keep its integrity. Others attack the Honor Code itself, calling it prudish, archaic, old fashioned, and draconian.

However, neither of these things — basketball or BYU’s Honor Code* — actually matter in the grand scheme of things. As the news unfolded and exploded (this story has been covered and commented on by various news outlets, as well as the Daily Show, and Brandon Davies had been trending for days on Twitter), I started to worry most about the victims involved — the poor player, for one, and especially his girlfriend. Their lives have been irrevocably changed for the worse.

I was a bit dismayed at how cavalierly people seemed to dismiss the trauma Davies and his girlfriend must be going through. Not only has his sin been broadcast throughout the nation via sattelite broadcast, cable, internet, and Twitter, but many blame him for ruining what could have been arguably the one of the best seasons for BYU basketball in history. People have told me that Davies “knew what he signed” and that “if he chooses to transfer, he will do fine in another school,” but nobody talks about how his membership and role in the Church would  change. Not only will he be known as “that guy” for the rest of his life in the Mormon sports world — no matter where he goes — but he will no longer ever be able to function properly within the Mormon community again as well. Wherever he goes, people will know who he is, and they will probably not like him or trust him. Imagine if every time you went into the bishop’s office to confess a sin, it was broadcast on CNN and Jon Stewart commented on it. Even small sins would be mortifying; serious ones would make it very difficult to show your face at church again.

And, of course, nobody ever talks about the ramifications for his girlfriend, who will perhaps endure worse abuse. She is now the Yoko Ono of BYU basketball. She will now become the object lesson in hundreds of Young Women lessons about how important it is to guard your chastity and the horrible consequences if you fail to do so (how would you like to become the cautionary tale of how dangerous it is to be a slut overnight?). And when looking at the Church’s track record in the past on how they treat women who have sinned (especially sexually), she is in for a world of shame and degredation. It’s inevitable in a culture where chastity and virtue is taught through cakes with dirt in them and used chewing gum (that, by the way, completely ignore the power of the Atonement). What is especially unjust in her case is that she is not a high profile Mormon or an “ambassador” or “representative” of the Church. She was just a good girl who made an unfortunate mistake and now she’s going to pay in disproportionate spades for it. And though the media has (thankfully) not centered too much on her for the news, she will live in constant fear, if she chooses to stay in the Church, that someone will discover “who she is.”

What kills me about this is that it was so avoidable. Could they not have shown a little clemency with this case? Normally, when students break the Honor Code in a serious way, it is taken care of as privately as possible; it certainly isn’t discussed on ESPN. Certainly, BYU did not promote this story nor make it public, but this isn’t the first time such a thing has happened. Certainly they knew this would become a public scandal, especially with the spotlight so sharply lighting up the BYU basketball team. Could they not have waited until the cameras were off Davies to punish him? Even if a disgruntled student leaked the fact to the press, BYU could have claimed that they simply wanted to protect his privacy until after the season. Instead, by dismissing him from the team during such a high profile moment of the season, they all but signed his warrant to the press.

But of  course, this is no skin off of BYU’s nose. They look like heroes, staunch supporters of traditional, old-fashioned chastity and integrity. Davies knew what he was getting into (ignoring the fact that most of us make serious mistakes all the time but don’t have the news talking about it). Justice, many Mormons would say, has been served. Many probably feel betrayed, hurt, even humiliated a little. How could he betray our principles? He deserves it. And while I cannot speak for the motivations of BYU, I can’t help but feel that we assuaged our hurt at the expense of two precious lives of God’s children. Why should we consider our actions? He’s the one that sinned, right? Was it worth it?

The situation has often been framed as two decisions — either kick Davies off because he did break the Honor Code that he pledged to follow, and we should follow through with punishment; or, we let Davies off the hook, and people will see us corrupt and weak, and the sinner will go unpunished, which is not just. But there’s a third, middle way. Give Davies some clemency until the spotlight is no longer on him, and then, with a little more privacy, work towards repentance. People will say that means we’re rewarding sin, but I’m sure some people saw that when Jesus forgave the adultress who was about to be stoned. People will say the world will interpret it as preferential treatment, not mercy, but don’t we teach that the world often takes good and spins it into evil? Who cares what the world thinks? We certainly didn’t care during Prop 8, right? Why care now?

In the end, why did we really punish Davies? We had options — why did we choose the harshest one? Was it really to administer justice? And seeing how Davies’ and his girlfriend’s membership in the Church has been thoroughly obstructed and demoralized for years, if not for the rest of their lives, was this truly “just”? If not, what motivated this?

People will say I adopt a clemency stance because I am a liberal moral relativist seduced by the world and ashamed of God’s principles. They could not be further from the truth. I adopt this stance because of the example of a merciful man who was my mission president and one of the most faithful, God fearing men I know. Some missionaries complained that he was too lenient with some of the “problem missionaries” who broke the rules. We were sick of them; they dragged everyone else down, never did any work, passed up opportunities to teach people who were yearning for the gospel. Why didn’t he just send them home? In many cases, he would be justified; he admitted that it would probably even “clean up” the mission a lot and possibly boost morale. But, he asked us, after they get home, what then? Their lives in the Church would be crushed forever. If they somehow stay active, it will be despite their mission experience, not because of it. “No,” he taught, “I am concerned about the eternal consequences of these missionaries’ souls, not their short term success on the mission.”

So, we cleaned up the BYU basketball team, and showed sinners and potential sinners what’s up. The Church is serious about this sexual purity thing and they’re here to take prisoners and names. But at what cost? Davies and his girlfriend have just been saddled with an immense burden to their Church membership that will not likely go away. Those who decided to suspend him when they did most likely knew not only the consequences to their team, but also the resultant shark feeding that would descend on Davies via the media. But apparently something was more important. What? BYU’s dignity and integrity? Good old-fashioned justice? The Church’s image? And how do they compare with the potential worth of two souls, especially in the eyes of God?

A lot of people accuse the Church of being more focused on exclusive membership rather than merciful inclusion. They accuse us of using shame-based tactics and heavy-handed punishments to keep the people in line, especially when it comes to sexual matters. I had hoped that this was not true, and we proclaim that this is not true, but perhaps the Davies incident has shown what our true colors really are.

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* When I talk about the Honor Code not mattering in the grand scheme of things, I mean the Honor Code in its entirety. Many of the rules of the Honor Code are based off what we teach as true gospel principles (such as honesty). However, considering that Jesus, the Son of God Himself, could not go to BYU because of the Honor Code (he drank wine and had a beard), the Honor Code is a man-made set of rules that will not matter one whit during the Judgment

/puts on fire hazard suit

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