Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Mormon Culture and the Evil Beard

As readers of this blog are aware, I am fascinated by the intersection of religion and culture. Of particular interest are those cultural aspects and influences on religion, whether recognized or not, but those in various religions and spiritualities.

I was reminded of this today while reading the Patheos electronic newsletter, with this issue focusing on Mormonism. One article caught my attention with the title "Beauty and the Beard: Facial Hair, Film, and Mormon Culture." As the title indicates, the article looks at the depiction of a character in a recent film for Mormons as evil through the inclusion of the symbolism and cultural coding of a beard. I had heard that facial hair is frowned upon in Mormonism, but never really took this seriously until this article. Brigham Young had a beard, as did many early Mormons, although you don't see many men today sporting them. Beyond this, as Eric Thompson, the author of the article notes, "LDS artwork from Arnold Freiberg and others (which, despite one's opinion for or against, is undeniably prevalent in LDS houses of worship), has given us bearded Nephis, Almas, Abinadis, Helamans, and Captain Moronis. (See here for background and examples.)"

But even with these precedents for beards in Mormonism, Thompson continues:
To what, therefore, could Holt be referring when he claims that giving Woodhouse a beard was an "unconscious" and "stereotypical" choice? The answer is almost certainly Mormon culture. Somewhere along the line, Mormonism began to identify facial hair as evil on an "unconscious" and "stereotypical" level, at least cinematically. Surely, every Mormon can reference a benevolent mustachioed role model from their own Mormon life, but can they do so from Mormon cinema?
I'm intrigued by this and would love to hear from Mormons on this. Do you agree with this portrayal of Mormon culture in regards to facial hair? If so, is it something conscious or unconscious? And what is the "cultural logic" for this?

As a bearded evangelical I'm curious.


JB said...

As a fellow bearded evangelical, I've been wondering the same thing myself lately.

Jake F. said...

Even though I think this this cultural shift happened before my time I'd be happy to share my experience as an (occasionally) bearded-Moromon.

From what I gather, at some point (Pres. David O. Mckay?) the LDS leadership decided that pioneer isolationism wasn't a long-term solution for the church. The task then became integrating into the rest of American culture without becoming fully assimilated. The solution was to modify Mormonism's self-image so it was compatible, yet distinct. This included a change in appearance, with the clean-cut grooming becoming symbolic of a "clean-cut" spirituality. This was furthered by the LDS missionary/general authority image which associated a particular look with being highly obedient, spiritual and consecrated.

Again, I wasn't around during the time period, but from what I understand the 1970's further cemented the LDS-perceived image of beard = wordly and clean-shaven = circumspect. Ironically (and somewhat unfortunately in my opinion)many LDS members internalized the transient cultural significance of facial hair in the 70's into a more long-term identity. In other words, the LDS have incorporated a distinction (albeit a minor one) into their group identity that the world no longer recognizes. An ironic twist is that BYU allows mustaches, which at the time were benign, but now are infused with a subtly more risque meaning by popular culture. The rule is outdated but it's questionable to me as to how directly it needs to be confronted.

Although I think the LDS stigma about facial hair is often unnecessary, I can appreciate the motivations that underly it. The LDS (as are many Christians) are trying to both relate to and stand apart from their non-LDS friends and associates. On a more personal note, I had a beard for the better part of last year and I didn't experience any disapproval or repercussions. I got a few jokes and some good-humored ribbing but that was about it. At the same time, I was serving as a youth advisor and I felt it important to ask permission from the Bishop before I started to let it grow out, not because I was unsure of its moral-implications, but out of deference to his calling and position.

John W. Morehead said...

Jake, thanks for your thoughts on this.

Steve Hayes said...

How many bearded evangelicals were there 50 years ago?