When Religious Rhetoric Kills

Alan Hooker recently linked on Facebook to an article that addresses the phenomenon of loving theology more than people. It makes an important assertion:

[W]ithin our everyday lives reality is what matters most to the people around us. Theorizing only becomes important once it becomes relevant and practical and applicable to our lives.

I agree with this (as does James 1:27), which is why I am greatly concerned with some rhetoric that has been commonplace in Latter-day Saint and other conservative religious circles regarding chastity. While chastity is obviously a very important principle within the LDS worldview, I am very disappointed in the way some people like to emphasize its importance to our youth. Most people who grew up in the LDS Young Men’s and Young Women’s programs within the last few decades (I am not one of these people) have probably seen or heard object lessons related to the importance of “virtue” (virginity). A popular one has the instructor provide the students with a bunch of cupcakes, licking one before handing it to one of them. When the youth shows disgust at the notion of eating the licked cupcake, the instructor unmasks the metaphor: the cupcakes are you and your virtue. No one wants to eat a licked cupcake. In another iteration gum is handed out, and after it’s been chewed the instructor invites the youth to trade with others, explaining after the requisite show of disgust: “No one wants to chew gum that’s already been chewed.” Sometimes the seriousness of chastity is emphasized with the claim that sexual sin is “the sin next to murder.”

These object lessons certainly get the point across to impressionable youth, but they also imbue them with a powerful message—one that can have significant consequences for those who cross that line some day, voluntarily or otherwise: loss of virtue = loss of worth. Elizabeth Smart reifies this process in her comments on abstinence-only education:

I remember in school in one time I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence and she said ‘Imagine you’re a stick of gum. And when you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed. And if you do that lots of times you’re going to become an old piece of gum and who’s going to want you after that?’

That’s terrible, nobody should ever say that. But for me I thought ‘oh my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum. Nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even made a difference, your life already has no value.

These feelings of worthlessness can and sometimes do lead to self-harm and suicide, but more frequently they simply fester within a young adult’s conscience until they leave them with an empty husk of self-worth that fails them over and over in times of loneliness and need and can forever cripple intimate relationships. Some rhetoric, however, leaves little wiggle room:

There is no true Latter-day Saint who would not rather bury a son or a daughter than to have him or her lose his or her chastity.

And more recently:

[R]emember this, my son: we would rather come to this station and take your body off the train in a casket than to have you come home unclean, having lost your virtue.

This kind of rhetoric makes decisions easy for youth who are wrestling with feelings of guilt or shame associated with the crossing of sexual boundaries, whether it be masturbation, homosexuality, consensual sex, abuse, or rape. Those feelings of worthlessness have led to suicide in multiple cases for each of those issues. It can also compel parents to reject their children or compel children to think their parents reject them, whether or not they actually do. I sincerely hope no parent out there actually believes a dead child is in any way better than an unclean child.

Whatever your beliefs about chastity and sexuality, if you are a Latter-day Saint in a position of authority or influence with children or young adults, please, please, please don’t use this rhetoric to emphasize or punctuate those beliefs. It can and does kill, and we ought to be in the business of mitigating that, not promoting it.

3 responses to “When Religious Rhetoric Kills

  • Brian Fulthorp

    Very interesting. This is all too true in Evangelical circles as well.

  • Brady Pope

    This is great and I’m in complete agreement. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I think, however, that you should cite the other two statements so that people know where this sort of rhetoric has come from.

  • www.joezias.com

    Expressed very well and I’m not so sure that it’s just the LDS that use this tactic. One thing I learned as a young man is the idea of ‘proof texts’ among the 7 Dayer’s and others who would come to the farm trying to get people to be ‘saved. For every response of the person they were trying to save, there was they had an appropriate textual ‘proof’ response, e.g. is we would say Xto their query, then they would pull up from memory the appropriate response, say John 13, however when we would say ok how about John 12 or a few verses later, well they never had to memorize anything other than ‘proof texts’ and a lot of times they knew they had been ‘had’ and would immediately head for the car. Some fundamentalist schools in the US, required all students to learn these ‘proof texts’ before graduation.

    Anyway, keep up the good work as I’ve read a couple of your blogs and they are well expressed.

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