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Are Cafeteria Mormons Starving?

Eternal Salvation

by Jessawhy

I’m a picky eater.  It’s not that I don’t like a variety of food, but I usually want my food to have perfect temperature, the perfect texture, and the perfect presentation. I NEVER clean my plate. There’s always just some bits of food that don’t combine to the perfect bite so they never get eaten. Despite my slightly OCD tendencies, I think we all have our own little strange eating habits.

In a similar way, I’m a little bit of a picky eater when it comes to the LDS church.  I don’t expect perfection (well, maybe I do) but I’m definitely a Cafeteria Mormon.  Despite the negative connotations, I think nearly all members of the LDS church are Cafeteria Mormons to some degree.

In my mind, Cafeteria Mormons are those who select which parts of church doctrine, practice, policy, and history to embrace and which to reject, or ignore.  Considering the volumes of doctrine, the variance in practice and policy, and the disagreements over history, church members are always going to have to pick and choose what works best for them, which combination is most helpful in their quest for the spiritual nourishment.

So I enter the Mormon cafeteria with a tray and look very closely at what is being offered. I’ll take a bowl of unconditional love and forgiveness, but I pass on the extra helping of guilt for not doing X, Y, or Z.  I’ll take a plate of saving ordinances, but pick off the painful and troublesome parts of the endowment and sealing ordinances.   The humanitarian service looks great, but I’ll pass on polygamy, noticing that it is served on the same plate as celestial marriage. Hmm, that’s troubling.  Curiously, I find myself drawn to less desirable dishes of history, like Mountain Meadow’s Massacre, and the church’s involvement in the ERA.  Perhaps this is because these are hidden under the counter.  I won’t touch the frequently over-served accounts of the first vision. I’ve been eating that every week since I was three.   The more closely I look at the food, the more troubled I become.  It seems that every plate of doctrine, policy, practice, and history are tainted with something that is unappetizing.

Then I realize my stomach is growling. I’ve been so critical of the food (and sometimes those who have prepared and served it) that I’m not actually enjoying that parts that are healthy and delicious. Perhaps my diet is more limited than some, but I hope it’s good enough for me as long as I focus on what IS helpful for me and not on those things that are hurtful.

Sometimes I think I’m just sitting around waiting for the cooks to change the recipes or offer something completely different (like egalitairan entrees). I’d like to see some dishes removed entirely, but I’m not the owner and there aren’t any comment cards.

Now of course the analogy breaks down at some point. But, for the most part it’s helpful because it reminds me that I am responsible to closely examine the parts of the church that I embrace and the parts I reject.  I seem to be in a phase where I’ve been focusing more on what I reject and that’s not helping me very much in the spiritual department.  I’m a little malnourished.  Perhaps another solution is to incorporate elements from other faith traditions into my spiritual diet.

I’m interested to see if others have had similar experiences.

If you’ve given yourself permission to embrace parts but not all of the church, do you find yourself focused more on the bad than on the good?

If you don’t consider yourself a Cafeteria Mormon, why not?


Jessawhy is a wife, mother, community volunteer, activist and student. She is currently working towards a Physician Assistant degree.

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48 Responses

  1. kew says:

    Fascinating article. My struggle has mostly been in the past few months after leaving BYU & the West. I do seem to be focusing on the bad, and not the good. I’m not sure if I am starving yet, but I definitely am getting hungry. So how do I get over this? Because prayer/scriptures/etc aren’t working.

  2. linds says:

    Why do you feel like you need to get over it? Take what works for you and embrace it. Let’s get rid of the bad, especially those “extra helpings of guilt”.

  3. Alisa says:

    I love the analogy, Jess, and I think you’re right about us all being cafeteria Mormons at some level. I would add to it this – many LDS say one of the greatest things about the Mormon cafeteria is that the food is the same everywhere you go, all over the world. Yet, like all cafeteria food, it’s mass-produced. It’s starchy. It focuses heavily on canned and processed items that have been through rigorous tests and approval boards before it’s deamed healthy enough for even the weakest among us. It nourishes for awhile, but then sometimes I want more.

    Fortunately, the 13th Article of Faith gives me all the permission I need to supplement my cafeteria food with other great sources. So I’ve tried other spiritual restaruaunts too, even fine dining. And sometimes I go out to my own organic garden and see what’s growing spiritually there, and I’ve found that my own home-grown, intuitive spiritual food is sometimes the most nourishing and delicious.

  4. Molly says:

    I can manage it until someone else forces an issue. During Prop 8 I was subject to a lot of haranguing by family members and church leaders because I refused to participate in Pro-8 activities. I didn’t want to press the issue and didn’t speak out against it. But my failure to jump up and do what the church told me to drew as much attention as if I wore a rainbow pin to church.

    I think for Cafeteria Mormons it’s more often the case that they attract attention for failing to be visibly zealous about issues like that, not because they actively voice what they disagree with.

    This makes it easier to focus on the negative, because it’s easier to get annoyed when you weren’t looking to pick a fight but one came to you anyway.

  5. Matt W. says:

    I don’t consider myself a Cafeteria Mormon because everyone must choose for themselves what is truth and what isn’t, and everyone does this. Thus I think it is silly to have a distinction of Cafeteria Mormon, especially since it is typically used in a derogatory fashion. (The worst is it is normally used in a self-defining derogatory fashion, from my experience)

    I do embrace the parts of the church I love and understand, and I have decided to follow Camille Kimball’s example and put what I don’t up on the shelf for the most part. I do take those things down and examine them, but I’ve generally found they are not that essential to my faith.

    I have had times where it was hard to put something back up on the shelf which gave me an issue. I guess I’ve been lucky in that typically as I’ve prayed on these issues, I’ve felt either prompted to let it go or given an insight that brings me peace.

  6. Jessawhy says:

    You ask some good questions. Transitioning can be hard, especially if you felt a lot of support at BYU and in the West. If prayer/scriptures, etc aren’t working, I hope you can find friends that you can relate with. I find that my social networks are essential for helping me transition in life.
    Best of luck to you.

    I’m not sure that I feel I need to “get over” anything. I’m just looking more closely at my approach to nourishing myself spiritually and deciding how best to do it. I’m interested in how you’ve found a way that works for you.

    I should have emailed you a draft of this. Your thoughts really enrich my analogy. The correlated materials do seem like empty calories sometimes. Yesterday I attended a teacher’s training class and the teacher mentioned a rumor that someday there won’t be manuals, we’ll all be called to teach from the Spirit. I thought, “Well, that’s good for me since I hardly use the manual at all. But, it’s not likely with as much work as the church has put into correlating the material.”
    I love your ideas of supplementing your spirituality by using the 13th article of faith as an example. I should be seeking out good instead of dwelling on the bad. Thanks.

    Yes, that is hard when someone else forces an issue. I also find it hard to keep my mouth shut when a one-sided view of history, or former church leaders, is presented in class. I will sometimes make comments to present balance, but I don’t want to be the person who is always negative.

    Matt W.
    I don’t know if Cafeteria Mormon is derogatory or not. I suppose some people think Feminism is derogatory, but I don’t.
    Perhaps Cafeteria Mormon is more derogatory and deserves to be renamed. How about “Thoughtful Mormon”? or “Careful Mormon”?
    I’ve tried the shelf thing and it didn’t work for me. I’m glad it works for you. Perhaps in the future I can find a way to really put away my questions and concerns.

    Thanks for all the comments!

  7. Andrea says:

    Is the cafeteria true? It has lots of yucky food. I’ve tasted it, but I don’t eat it regularly. I stick to the delicious main entrees which are filling and have sustaining nutrition. Teachings of charity, Christ, integrity, etc. and the Book of Mormon.

    I find it fascinating how people can convince themselves of anything they want. The Church is true, or the Church is not true. Which do you want? I guarantee you can end solidly on either ground if you focus on it. Keep eating the anchovies (Mt. Meadow, polygamy, inequality) and you’ll get sick. I’m not in denial that these issues are there. I just believe the main dish is something I want.

    They’ve recently found lost civilizations in the Amazon jungle of cities just like the ones in the Book of Mormon. They’ve found mummies from Asian descent, but also from Middle Eastern descent. Just watch the National Geographic channel. My friend doesn’t believe in the Church anymore. He listens to the evidence he wants and I listen to the evidence I want. Have you noticed the same goes for politics?

    To survive, any thinking person has to be a cafeteria Mormon, but requires the uplifting nutrition of the staples.

    I recently read a ludicrous article in the Ensign about mothers staying home. I was pissed. I wanted to burn the contrived propoganda. Later I read Elder Eyring’s message. It was beautiful and uplifting. It saved my Ensign subscription. We really have a lot of different choices in the cafeteria. It’s not an all-or-nothing deal.

  8. Madam Curie says:

    I recently read a ludicrous article in the Ensign about mothers staying home. I was pissed. I wanted to burn the contrived propoganda.

    Andrea – I know exactly what article you speak of, and I did burn it. It felt really good.

    If you’ve given yourself permission to embrace parts but not all of the church, do you find yourself focused more on the bad than on the good?

    I found that the mere act of deciding to be a Cafeteria Mormon (although I prefer the term “buffet Mormon”) has enabled me to focus more on the good and less on the bad. I think I was actually more focused on the nasty moldy bread and less on the yummy moldy cheese before I realized I could take one and leave the other. In some ways, I feel like I’ve embraced uncertainty, and it feels good. I allow myself to question. I allow myself to doubt and discard, to reason and reject, where needed. I feel like before I chose to be Buffet Mormon, I was trying to make myself eat food I knew I was allergic to. Now I just leave it for the nut-eaters and move on.

  9. Sinclair says:

    I tend to think that what I’ve been up to these past few years is “fasting” rather than starving. Withdrawing from regular activity has, I have felt, granted me a level of permission to investigate my adopted faith without bias or a lense tainted one way or another (all good or all bad). I’ve experienced outrage, digust, understanding and finally a peace about so many issues that were once at my fore. They just don’t matter to me anymore and that is a huge surprise. Maybe I binged a little on what I felt was the bad and am satisfied, without the need to purge.

    So, for now anyway, I take what I know I can handle and leave the rest for others to enjoy if they choose. Should a fellow member come to my table and criticize what’s on my plate I remind them where they are seated and to mind their own bellies. I’m tired of the bloat of the “all or nothing” attitude and instead prefer the lighter fare of personal relationship with my Savior, applying the atonement to me and my life and participating as I see fit or am accepted with others in the dining hall.

    Of course, utilizing tools obtained long ago assist with some of the dis-ease that follows a less than polite exchange or judgemental gossip passed behind my back (don’t they know it will either come back to me or that they can’t whisper well enough?). Meditation, my personal mantra and bodywork therapies (both recieved and given) plug me back in to my core and alleviate the gas of all that nonsensical chatter.

    Whatever works. I’m not here anymore to push myself into a mold that doesn’t fit or fight with someone who’s opinions of me are less than kind. I am the rebellious jell-o that won’t accept shredded carrot. 🙂

  10. Jared says:

    Thoughtful topic.

    Food gives us life and energy. Church, like food, needs to give us “spiritual” life and energy. If not, then we are certainly starving spiritually.

    The way to tell if we are receiving spiritual nutrition can be determined by a simple list of questions.

    1. Have we had a defining spiritual experience(s)?

    2. Do we receive answers to some of our prayers?

    3. If the answer to both question is yes, have they been written down?

    A defining spiritual experience is one that supplies the foundation to our testimony.

    For example, one of the basic spiritual experiences each member of the church should have is of the Book of Mormon. The Lord has given a special invitation to acquire a Holy Ghost testimony of this scripture (Moroni 10:4-5).

    Regarding answers to prayer. Each member should have on going answers to some of their prayers. I say some because if we are prayerful we have a long list of things on our prayer list. Some of these prayers take years or even a life time to answer.

    However, many prayers will be answered shortly after we offer them, that is, if we’ve arrived at a place in our spiritual life where the channel of communication is open with Heavenly Father.

    When we have a spiritual experience it is important to write it down soon after receiving it.

    If you answered no to the questions then it might be a good time to diligently seek a Holy Ghost testimony of the Book of Mormon. It is worth the effort and once realized will open up a whole new world of spiritual possibilities.

  11. Mike S says:


    I’ve given that same promise many, many times, including on my mission, etc. Despite serving faithfully for decades, reading the BofM 15-20 times, praying about it hundreds of times, etc., I still can’t say that I’ve ever had that confirmation that the BofM is true.

    Any suggestions?

  12. Kaimi says:

    You’ve taken what was already one of my favorite analogies, and developed it perfectly. I may not always find nourishment in empty-calorie lessons, but this post was a very satisfying meal (and tasty!) that I’m going to be thinking over for a while.

    My compliments to the chef. 🙂

  13. Mike H. says:

    Another topic where I’ll just let it rip:

    I know many may say they are not cafeteria, but upon examination they WILL fall into that category. What about: Family History? Have they ever even been in a Family History Library at all? Many have not! And, many who say their Family History is all done are sadly mistaken. Missionary work-When was the last time they worked with the Missionaries? Do they ever do anything to help the Welfare services of the Church? My Mother mentioned that a number of members of the Ward we were in years ago didn’t want to work at the Welfare Orchard, that they would rather pay someone to do it for them.

    What is Consecration? And, what are you/they doing about it now, before the Millennium? Some have totally blurred the difference of Consecration & the United Order. Scripture study? Humanitarian Service-Some members won’t “dirty their hands” by helping to feed the homeless at a Shelter in our area. And, I’m not talking about a panhandling, obvious drunk/substance abuser on the street corner, either, for they were Homeless people trying to get back on their feet at the Shelter.

    What about the Political efforts of the Church that did NOT work, like Utah’s OK to repeal Prohibition, or, the 1972 Initiative to restrict P0rn in California, that failed?

    Rebuking with sharpness? Elder Holland gave a wonderful talk involving & explaining this topic years ago, but too many have made up their minds, and don’t want to limit their anger, just because an Apostle told them to. Meekness? It’s not weakness, as Elder Maxwell said, but some don’t want to reexamine how they feel about Meekness. What is showing an increase in Love after rebuking with sharpness? Some think ceasing to yell at someone about what they did wrong is an increase in Love!!

    Etc., etc.

    “I’ll take a bowl of unconditional love and forgiveness”-That sounds good, but Elder Nelson completely trashed the idea of unconditional love once. There was a Sister in our Ward, who bore sweet Testimony of Unconditional love, so I’m confused on this issue.

    “Curiously, I find myself drawn to less desirable dishes of history…”-Sorry, but you have to think about taking both the good & the bad on this one, if one claims to be balanced. FYI, I’m puzzled why some LDS women adore Eliza R. Snow (Smith Young), but then the same women hate Plural Marriage. She was a Plural wife, twice. Did she ever protest it?

    Yes, some things get beat to death in the Church. In Priesthood, one of our Instructors takes about 10-15 minutes of Lesson time to discuss the Topic from “Mormon Doctrine”, and not from what was taught by Joseph Smith! He is in great awe of Bruce R. McConkie, but what about relevant quotes from other LDS Leaders on those subjects?

    I get told by some members I’m a crummy parent for having 2 sons with Autism, yet the Church site about disabilities says it’s not the parent’s fault.

    This may step on some toes, but many of these things (and others) need to be looked at.

  14. James says:

    First of all, great extension of this analogy!

    I would also alert you to the presence of an open kitchen in back – we don’t have to settle for the mass produced stuff. In other words, complaining about the low-nourishing foods misses the point that in doing so we are allowing ourselves to be “acted upon.” We are free to “act” by engaging the “food” (for example, scripture study) at whatever level or intensity we want. Don’t like the canned stew being dished up in Sunday School? There’s a killer recipe for beef burguingnon with a fully-stocked pantry, if you’re willing to put in the effort.

    You can define Cafeteria Mormon in different ways, but you’re right, Jess – we are all CM’s at some level. In my case, I have found my interests to be narrowing significantly. If it isn’t strongly tied to the atonement, 1st principles and ordinances of the gospel, or temple covenants, I’m not particularly interested anymore. Second coming? Yawn. Three degrees of glory? Whatever.

    The “basics” are rich and multi-faceted enough that they keep me going just fine. Even though these (along with everything else) are often served up as unseasoned dishes with cheap ingredients, I know about the back kitchen! Just be careful not to look beyond the mark, or you’ll burn the food…

  15. Nate Oman says:

    I think that the analogy to the cafeteria is misleading because it suggests that what one does when understanding one’s relationship to the Church and the gospel is pick and choose on the basis of pre-existing preferences. The image necessarily privileges a vision of ourselves as autonomous choosers and satisfiers of our particular configuration of desires. To the extent that this actually describes the attitude of cafeteria Mormons there is, I think, something spiritually disturbing about it, precisely because of the way that it privileges the self.

    On the other hand, I don’t think that the metaphor describes what most people do. Rather, I think that what we are doing — if we are acting in good faith — is engaging in a constant process of interpretation whereby our understanding of the Church and gospel changes while at the same time our own pre-existing convictions are changed by our interaction with the Church and gospel. Rather than the uni-directional, self-centered image of the consumer in the cafeteria, the relationship is necessarily circular. The hope, however, is that the circularity is of the virtuous kind described by hermeneutic thinkers like Gadamer.

    As for true cafeteria Mormons, I’m happy that they are at the feast but there is something rather sad and pathetic about them in my mind.

  16. Jared says:

    If the idea of a cafeteria approach to the church is applied to academics or to a career path it begins to be seen for what it is–slothful.

    Now some will say that is a mean thing to say.

    It’s not my intention to say something mean.

    We can’t ignore facts, and the fact is that some among us are diligent, and some are slothful.

    Having said that, I remember, with some pain, when I returned from my mission and dated a wonderful girl for over a year. We decided to marry, and would have, but for her parents.

    I was a high school drop out with a non-member father and an inactive mother. They persuaded her to not marry me.

    The heartache this produced led to significant spiritual experiences which I will forever be grateful for–though the cost was high.

    After some time, I thought, surely the Lord will bless me to soon find another so I can keep the commandment to marry. It was another eight long years before I married.

    During that time I had to deal with all the social challenges of being a 30+ year old unmarried man. The prophet said anyone over 25 was not keeping the commandments. Another way of saying slothful.

    I’ve learned, by experience, if I’m right with the Lord, then I can deal with all of the other problems that come down the path because I can count on the Lord’s helping hand. But often, that support comes when we’re at a point of exhaustion.

    When life hands me what appears to be an insurmountable difficulty I do my best to follow President Hinkcley’s counsel:

    It isn’t as bad as you sometimes think it is.
    It all works out. Don’t worry.
    I say that to myself every morning.
    It will all work out.
    Put your trust in God,
    and move forward with faith
    and confidence in the future.
    The Lord will not forsake us.
    He will not forsake us.
    If we will put our trust in Him,
    if we will pray to Him,
    if we will live worthy of His blessings,
    He will hear our prayers.

    From the funeral program for Marjorie Pay Hinckley, April 10, 2004; see also “Latter-day Counsel,” Ensign, Oct. 2000, 73.

    I know by experience that this counsel is true.

  17. Kaimi says:

    “If the idea of a cafeteria approach to the church is applied to academics or to a career path it begins to be seen for what it is–slothful.”

    That’s right, no one would dream of picking or choosing in their approach to school or career. This is why all of us attended the same school, graduated with the same degree, and have the same job.

  18. Gecko says:

    I think that a separation needs to be done between ecclesia and organisation. The first is a group of people with a common or shared background (though they might disagree on some aspects) moving along a time continuum. Decisions such as MMM and ERA represent a subsection of such collectivity engaging with the ‘perceived’ environment. Whatever actions follow will be criticised by the remnant of the collectivity who chose not to engage in a similar pattern. That is ecclesia.
    The organisation as such presents marvellous and quite fascinating aspects of a religious organisation. Here, without a group’s baggage a more objective review of the organisation understudy can be achieved. Overlapping between ecclesia and organisation will result in individual instances on which personal interpretation of actions/results will be varied, however, both are necessary to conform what some people know as ‘Church’.
    Your post addresses more the complexities of the ecclesia than necessarily doctrinal issues such as: theosis, continual revelation, personal progression. Is it more a ‘cultural’ cafeteria to which you are referring? Aspects of the communal values to which you are disquieted? The ‘overheated’ First Vision accounts are more a unifying bond of the ecclesia, but ultimately it will lead to an observation of the organisation.

  19. Other Jared says:

    “We can’t ignore facts, and the fact is that some among us are diligent, and some are slothful.”

    Yea, leave it to Jared LDSAIC to call his own myopic definitions “facts.” It’s the “peanut butter and tuna fish” sandwich of my cafeteria.

  20. Jared says:


    As I’m sure you know, I wasn’t referring to the selection of school or career. I was referring to once our choice is made, how diligent we want to be thereafter.

    I am associated with a company that has over 100,000 people. I see, almost daily, the choices people make. I also talk with those who have 30 and 40 years in their career. It’s interesting to hear some of them reflect on why they did, or didn’t take hold of opportunities that were available to them. The cafeteria approach is evident.

    The Lord has given each of us the opportunity to acquire the gift of the Holy Ghost. As followers of Christ this is the most important objective we can have. The choice is ours. No one really knows who has the Holy Ghost, and who doesn’t. The church doesn’t attempt to make a determination, but in the eyes of the Lord it is everything. This is illustrated in the parable of the 10 virgins, and is a continual theme through out scripture, especially the Book of Mormon.

  21. hawkgrrrl says:

    I like Nate Oman’s point, that it is really a question of how we interpret and reinterpret the gospel throughtout our lives. The food is often simply someone else’s interpretation. Sometimes they are wrong, but they are the one holding the microphone (er, the serving spoon?).

    Jared is getting mixed up between belief and practice, IMO. The cafeteria analogy is about what you believe, not about picking and choosing commandments to follow.

    In RS about 8 months ago, this topic came up. General agreement was that everyone is a cafeteria Mormon, whether they realize it or not. Then someone added the insightful comment: We’re all cafeteria HUMANS. We all have preferences and personal interpretations of things in every facet of life. If we don’t want to starve, there are 3 remedies I like: 1) get in the kitchen, 2) brown bag it, and 3) spice it up with some delicious take out.

  22. Ziff says:

    I like this post, Jessawhy. I like how you’ve used this analogy. I particularly like your point about how comforting doctrines are sometimes coupled with frustrating ones.

    Like Madame Curie, I like the word “buffet” too, because it has more positive connotations than “cafeteria” (or perhaps because it hasn’t been used enough to acquire the negative ones). It also suggests to me an overwhelming abundance of food that you could never even begin to get through.

    Or I also think of it as an “all you can eat” buffet or perhaps better an “all you can swallow” buffet. So perhaps I can happily swallow the idea of an embodied god, but I can’t swallow polygamy, so I give up trying to force it down my throat.

    Nate, regarding your point about us not being unchanging agents, I don’t think the analogy has to be revised much to accommodate that. Sure, we might find some dishes distasteful at first but later find them to be delicious. Maybe eating something semi-familiar helps ease us toward something completely new. So our preferences can definitely change. But I think it’s also worth noting that some of the dishes don’t go together well, and trying to eat them together can tie one’s stomach up in knots.

    Also, given the variety of the dishes/doctrines/practices/whatever, it seems not surprising to me that they might vary in how good they are, or how contaminated they are. Taking the feast to be a cafeteria or buffet seems a perfectly fine approach to me, and not at all sad or pathetic.

  23. Jared says:

    Hawkgrrl said:

    Jared is getting mixed up between belief and practice, IMO. The cafeteria analogy is about what you believe, not about picking and choosing commandments to follow.
    You bring up a good point regarding belief and commandment keeping. Of the two, I think belief is the more important. That may surprise some.

    Before I went on my mission I had many things to repent of, but I found the Lord near when I sought Him.

    This surprised me because of the emphasis the church puts on keeping the commandments. I’d assumed one would have to be real good at keeping the commandments before the Lord would extend spiritual help.

    I’ve learned that there is a season where the Lord will be very near while one orders their life. He is the author of mercy and when one is sincere and believes, miracles happen, even for those emerging from the dark night of sin.

    Lack of belief is far more detrimental to drawing near to the Lord than not being good at keeping the commandments. This is what I learned by experience.

  24. PK says:

    I joined the church 35 years ago when I was 24. I immediately grabbed onto the entire doctrine with a firm conviction that if it is true, then the whole doctrine is true. I could never understand folks who accept only parts of the gospel. Of course it helps that I am by nature completely socially conservative. I live in California and donated to prop 8. I would have voted for it even if I was not Mormon.

    I however am very rebellious against social Mormonism. I always attend required meetings such as stake priesthood leadership meetings and things like that, but I do not attend meetings that have no value to me. I do not attend a social event or stake cutural activity just because I need to support the person putting it on. If it does not have enough value to attract people, then do not have it. I know that the gospel is true but I do not accept that I have to do something so that others can self actualize.

    Also, I hope that they do not serve funeral potatoes at my funeral and sing “until we meet again”. I gag at that stuff. It feels too politically correct for me.

    The gospel is real, it is not a game or a program to help you look good to others.

  25. Nate Oman says:

    Ziff: I appreciate your point, but don’t think that it goes far enough in that it still sees the religious experience in terms of satisfying preferences, albeit preferences that shift over time. What is missing is the notion that the Restoration is something that has some claim on us independent of our preferences. It is more than just something that we (partially?) like. Rather it is a given order that makes claims of authority, whether we like it or not. What I like about thinking in terms of hermeneutics rather than in terms of choice is that it makes sense of the necessarily complex and conflicted stance that we take without reducing that stance to bromides about taste and choice, having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.

  26. EmilyCC says:

    I love this analogy–it’s generated some great discussion, but I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head fully around it. I think it might be because of Nate’s excellent point. The cafeteria model does seem to focus on a purely consumer model.

    I can’t quite figure out how to make it more circular with God, but I think this analogy works well for us as members of our Church community. Not only do I eat from the Mormon cafeteria, I also am frequently asked to serve and provide the food. To borrow from Alisa and James’ excellent points, I think it is our responsibilities as members of this community to draw from our home organic gardens and master the beef burguingnon recipe rather than rely on lds.org to cut, paste, and cook up cheap and regurgitated (ick! pun not intended!) lessons and talks.

  27. Laurie says:

    FWIW Jessawhy, I STARVE at church. I try to make an appetizer out of being patient with my fellow tribe members and I try to turn those canned goods into a fresh tasting meal of symbolism, but I still leave hungry because there just doesn’t seem to be enough good quality freshness to begin with. Why is yoga class or my meditation community like dining in a 4-star restaurant, where everything seems presented beautifully and there is a swan napkin waiting on my plate? Why do I go back to the cafeteria? Must be the good company…

  28. Kristen says:

    Brilliant. And timely, for me, anyway.

    On the weekend my inactive-all-our-lives father made fun of my sister for being a Cafeteria Mormon because she didn’t go to stake conference with her three very demanding young children. I told her that every Mormon is a Cafeteria Mormon whether they realize it or not. The only difference is that some of us know where we are and some of us naively think we are all consuming the same meal.

    I have given myself permission to embrace part but not all of what I hear at church and it feels great. But I am still struggling to not gag when someone surreptitiously slips mustard (bleh!or worse, corn syrup!) on to my otherwise perfectly wholesome sandwich. It feels like every other bite at church.

    I need a crash course on how to sift the good from the bad. Just last night, my husband and I were discussing this dilemma — for us individually and for our daughter. I want so much to give her all the good of the gospel, without all the stuff I find totally counterproductive. I know there is only so much I can do (in spite of all the GC talks to the contrary) to shape another person’s spiritual path, but I am still left to figuring out how to do it for myself.

  29. Bob says:

    I agree: All are Cafeteria Mormons. But the Church Leadership say IT dishes up the plate..and eat your peas!

  30. James says:

    I strongly disagree, Bob. The scriptures are simply too full and rich to suggest the church issues a “one size fits all” mandate when it comes to how we progress spiritually. Sure, manuals are correlated. Sure, the correlated materials aren’t perfect. But nobody has ever demanded (as far as I know) that I or anyone else use those things as an intermediary or filter to gain knowledge.

  31. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    The term “Cafeteria Catholic” or “Cafeteria Christian” has been used in discussions in the religious media (Christianity Today, first Things, et al) to refer to people who choose not to conform their behavior to many of the basic teachings of their chosen churches. A regular example of this is the refusal of most Catholics in the US to follow their church’s teachings against use of artificial methods of birth control. The goal of a Cafeteria Christian is to create a church that is entirely conforming to personal taste and preference. Nothing hard to chew, nothing difficult to swallow, nothing that smells bad or offensive to our human sensibilities.

    We all have our own tweaks about intepreting and applying the Word of Wisdom. Is Coca Cola OK? How much meat do we eat? At the same time, I think most of us would be skeptical of someone who claimed that they can be a Mormon in good standing with God (in 2009) who smokes casually and drinks alcohol.

    Clearly, there are lots of activities that the LDS church sponsors that are not mandatory, but are provided as a service, such as attending BYU or an Institute. There are those activities which Church leaders highly encourage, but which are left to our discretion, such as weekly or monthly attendance at a nearby temple. there are activities which we are exhorted are needed for our own growth and salvation, like missionary work and seeking out our kindred dead. And there are those things which are things we made solemn covenants to do when we were baptized, ordained or set apart, endowed, or married. Part of gaining maturity in the church is understanding what God simply offers us, and what he really expects of us.

    The most important thing we take in the LDS cafeteria is a piece of broken bread and a cup of water. And when we eat and drink these things, we don’t expect them to satisfy our desire for ever more complex flavors and gustatory enlightenment. They are plain things, almost flavorless. But the unique feature of this food and drink is that we don’t consume it, as much as it consumes US. When we partake of this food with an understanding of the covenant that comes embedded in it, we realize that the question is not, Do I choose this food? The question is, Will the Lord who this food represents choose ME?

  32. JDD says:

    Watch out for spiritual vitamin deficiency.

  33. sarah says:

    Brilliant analogy, loved it. It strikes a chord. I am a once faithful cafeteria eater turned home-lunch bringer… 🙂

  34. S.Faux says:

    Thanks for the essay. I am a proud cafeteria Mormon. I definitely feel NO obligation to believe everything I hear over the pulpit. Rather, I learn line upon line, precept upon precept. Actually, when push comes to shove, I think everyone does.

    There is plenty of room in the chapel for all kinds of people with all kinds of beliefs. The door is open to all. I am glad for this broad invitation, because otherwise I might feel uncomfortable. Actually, I don’t feel uncomfortable, even though I am a Darwinian evolutionist, voted for Obama, proudly work with many gay individuals where I teach, and don’t care to watch BYU football (even though I keep hearing about the “big game” with no clue what that is about).

    As whacky as I am, I will feel welcome at Church, and a void would be created if I ever stopped attending.

  35. Bill says:

    Very nice analogy. There’s much I agree with in your take on being a Cafeteria Mormon.

  36. eddie says:

    i don’t really struggle with this. i think it mostly comes down to recognizing that the gospel itself is perfect, while the members in the church aren’t.

  37. Jessawhy says:

    Although I wish I could respond to all the comments, I’m afraid I don’t have the time.

    I appreciate all of the different perspectives here and think that perhaps the differences are really not that irreconcilable.

    A few commenters have described the cafeteria analogy as erroneous. That’s possible, but even those without any qualms about church doctrine or history (TBM’s as I affectionately call them) still have to prioritize their focus. Assuming that we all take the bread and water (thanks R.T. Swenson) as our priority, we still have room for other dishes, but not all of them at once. We also have to sort through sometimes competing or conflicting doctrine and policy, which means we have to choose, sometimes through prayer, what we will partake of in church, or in the LDS community.

    Also, some comments have pointed to the idea that we can grow or create our own spiritual food. I think this is true, but only to a point. If we supplement so much that we no longer have a taste for any Mormon food, then do we really identify as Mormon anymore? Do we have that shared experience? Assuming that we DO want to stay part of the community, which dishes do we have to keep trying to like? For those of us with significant conflicts with the church, is it worth sacrificing some part of our integrity to participate in the community?
    How do we navigate this?

    Nate Oman,
    I do think that we’re “autonomous choosers and satisfiers of our particular configuration of desires” to a certain extent. Isn’t this the way that non-Mormons become Mormons? Are they not choosing to satisfy a hunger in a way they haven’t found elsewhere?
    However, I do like your concept of the relationships being circular, members influencing each other’s expectations. But really, with coorelation and the strict heirarchy, I find our experience doesn’t vary much from the set pattern, or the mass produced food.

    Thanks for your comments. I’m new to the idea of separating the ecclesia and the organization, so despite my reading your comment three times I’m not sure I can respond coherently. As for your questions,

    “Is it more a ‘cultural’ cafeteria to which you are referring? Aspects of the communal values to which you are disquieted? ”

    Partly, yes. The cultural issues are troubling to me, but only (to follow the analogy) as it seems that fellow church members don’t even look at the food when they put it on their tray. They get the same thing week after week, the same thing their parents have always eaten. So, in that sense, the lack of examination troubles me.

    Your reference to continuing revelation is a good example of something that I may disagree with the church. Sometimes the issue of continuing revelation seems paradoxical. When a GA receives revelation for the church, we have the right and responsibility to receive our own to confirm it. But how do we handle people who receive a conflicting message from God? (Prop 8 is a good example).

    Thanks to all of you who gave ideas of how you supplement your spirituality. I really like yoga. It centers me in a way that I don’t get at church.

  38. Kaimi says:


    Did you see this fascinating NYT article on prayer and worship?

    One relevant portion:

    But I am in a small minority, at least in the United States. According to a recent study by the Pew Forum, 75 percent of Americans report that they pray at least once a week. Interestingly, only 39 percent attend a worship service once a week or more frequently. Steven Waldman, the editor in chief of Beliefnet.com, says he thinks this gap means prayer in America is becoming detached from traditional denominations. “In a way, prayer has become its own religion in this society,” he told me. “People pick and choose. They want to be their own spiritual contractors.” This tendency toward do-it-yourself spirituality affects every denomination. According to Waldman, there is a widespread phenomenon of Protestants burying plastic St. Josephs to help them sell their homes. Some Orthodox Jewish rabbis recommend the Lord’s Prayer as a pathway to spirituality. Jesuit retreats routinely incorporate Hindu and Buddhist techniques of meditation. And for those who can’t find what they want among the traditional brands, there are personal trainers known as spiritual directors.

  39. m&m says:

    I think it might be because of Nate’s excellent point. The cafeteria model does seem to focus on a purely consumer model.

    Good point.

    I think there can be an element both of figuring out what feels right to us, and learning to accept things that sometimes we don’t like. For each person, discerning those things will probably unfold in different ways, but isn’t that part of the journey — to learn to discern? I think ultimately God is the one who can help us do that. And it takes lots of time and experience to figure out how to work with Him on that. I don’t think we ever fully master it as mortals. Part of the veil, the fall, the journey.

    I think it does help, though, to seek to understand what things are on the main course list, what things are really on the main menu, what things are cultural side dishes (or brought pot-luck!), etc. What is really essential for our health and well-being, and what things may not actually be on the menu but are being brought to the table — ironically, by those who are distressed (or obsessed — think gospel hobbies) by them!

    (I’m thinking about gospel hobbies on one end, and of things like MMM and polygamy on the other. Elder Ballard recently encouraged us to not focus on things like that w/ those not of our faith — because they are distractions from the core messages of the gospel, particularly of the Savior. I tend to think that things like that may be good for us not to worry so much about as members, either. I’m not trying to discount the questions or concerns – just suggesting that sometimes focusing on things like that that aren’t central to the gospel message can end up being distractions from the satisfying, simple truths available to us.)

    I’m one of those who finds great satisfaction in the basics. I can see why other things would be alluring, but I have found them to often be unsatisfying in the end, more like empty calories because they don’t really lead to Christ and to light. They often just lead to more confusion and questions. I think that is in part because they aren’t essential for our nourishment.

    Jessawhy, it sounds to me that that is some of what you are doing — trying to figure out what is essential, what is the main course. Of course your journey is yours, but in reading your words, I can’t help but wonder if maybe what you seek really doesn’t need to be in other faith traditions but in focusing more on the constant truths that we study over and over again.

    For example, maybe the first vision feels tired, but are there things in it that might be new if looked at differently? As I think about it, I can understand the notion of being bored w/ something…but then I think about it. e.g. with the first vision, I start to think…. It’s not just a story about Joseph, but can tell me much more: about the power of scriptures, of pondering, of prayer, of the reality of Satan, of the way light can vanquish the adversary, about the Godhead, about the role of the Savior and about His relationship to the Father, about prophets, about revelation, about authority, about the apostasy, about the big picture plan, about God’s love for His children.

    When I engage things that seem repetitive, I find new things, new light. Satisfaction. The Spirit fills me. Repetition and simplicity, imo, are triggers to truth in our teachings. If something is repeated, it’s probably important. If it’s not, I can probably go without putting it on my tray. That’s one way I figure out what to feast on.

    The irony is that we will sometimes focus on what is not talked about, thinking that that is where the mysteries lie. I think they actually lie more in the basics, because the basics are the core of the Savior’s teachings, and are the things of which the Spirit can testify clearly — also unfolding layers as I learn and grow…all which help me engage the scriptures and words of the prophets with new eyes…even things I have heard a million times.

    That’s my experience anyway.

    Best to you in your journey.

  40. James says:

    In reading the comments, it struck me that there are different “levels” of cafeteria-ness.

    The first level would be those who don’t have any particular issues with church doctrine or practice, who wouldn’t see themselves as “Cafeteria Mormons.” Their cafeteria-ness comes in the “sins of omission,” as we commonly talk about in church. They may also selectively ignore certain doctrines or practices passively rather than making a deliberate choice to avoid a certain topic or whatever.

    The second group are those who may be (or have been) more concerned have about a particular issue. These are usually the hot-button issues – polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, etc. This has caused a shift in understanding – this person may not buy off on the historocity of the Book or Mormon have major reservations about past or current priesthood leaders. Nonetheless, this group for the most part stays in the church, but has made a more conscious choice to adjust behaviors or expectations based on perceived shortcomings in whatever area of concern they might have.

    The third group are those who have chosen (for any number of reasons) to “Cafetria Hop.” I’ll take a little Siddharta Gautama with my Brigham Young – it’s all good! It’s not that groups 1 or 2 don’t appreciate (or even insight) in the good things of other faith traditions, but group 3 finds spiritual nourishment from sources outside the LDS cannon.

    Now, that’s a fairly broad brush, and I’m sure I’ve missed something, so forgive whatever shortcomings there may be. Each of these levels is a bit cartoonish, there are probably few people that fit one group perfectly. I guess the bottom line is that there is more than one functional definition of what Cafeteria Mormon means, and it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.

  41. D'Arcy says:

    Well, right now I’m a Anorexic Mormon, but it’s not as unsatisfying as it sounds.

  42. Kelly Ann says:

    In sitting back at the buffet, I realize that I don’t have to like everything and that is more about the company than it is about the food. There are essentials I should eat but I don’t have to binge …

  43. anonymous says:

    I’m disgusted by what they serve in the cafeteria and don’t eat there any more. My partner discourages me from eating elsewhere. Yeah, I’m starving.

  44. britt says:

    When I read this I actually thought of you. I like the part especially that says we should ‘understand and live by the basic truths.’

    Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin (1917–2008) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “Faithful members of the Church should be like oak trees and should extend deep roots into the fertile soil of the

    fundamental principles of the gospel.

    We should understand and live by the simple, basic truths and not complicate them.

    Our foundations should be solid and deep-rooted so we can withstand the winds of temptation, false doctrine, adversity, and the onslaught of the adversary without being swayed or uprooted. …

    “Spiritual nourishment is just as important as a balanced diet to keep us strong and healthy. We nourish ourselves spiritually by partaking of the sacrament weekly, reading the scriptures daily, praying daily in personal and family prayer, and performing temple work regularly. Our spiritual strengths are like batteries; they need to be charged and frequently recharged” (“Deep Roots,” Ensign, Nov. 1994, 75).

    Now for me, the gospel hasn’t been hard for me to accept, but sometimes I am overwhelmed with everything I am supposed to do. I don’t necessarily feel like I am “expected” to do certain things or that I am held to a high standard of EVERYTHING that I should be doing, but sometimes I find myself running faster than I am able.

    It all comes down to the simple and basic truths of the gospel. Sometimes it is just best to stick with those.

    As far as being a Cafeteria Mormon as you describe, I think that we all have some give and takes of this. We excel in different ways and we struggle in others.

    Just like life. It is easy for me to go and run 5 miles a day 7 days a week, but someone else might think I am crazy! I have lost a son. Some who lose their babies may hole up in a dark room and never come out. I can’t say that I haven’t been tempted to do so, but so far so good. We all have different challenges and circumstances.

    Anyway, just thought I would stop by 🙂

  45. Quote from above: “The Church is true, or the Church is not true. Which do you want?”

    It’s simply not about truth. That’s what science is about. Religion is about living. Evolution is rejected because it is not studied – not for any other reason.

    In my own “cafeteria” style application, I try to reject anything that is cruel and apply what is inclusive. I may make some errors and have to make corrections, but along the way I can be more or less honest. “Honesty” also, is not about truth – it comes not from “truth,” but from “honor.”

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