The question of whether the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has ever banned the viewing of R-rated movies among its adult membership can be approached in myriad ways. One method is to examine the statements made by the general authorities of the Church and see what, if anything, indicates that members have been instructed to avoid any and all R-rated movies whatsoever. This is the method I’ve employed in my previous two posts on this topic (see here and here). Another approach is to ask what it means for something to be a matter of official Church policy. In this post, I’ll combine these two approaches. So far as I’m concerned, quotations are all for not if it can be shown that the mere uttering of something (even by a general authority of the Church) does not constitute the declaration of official Church policy. Still, many people harness support for the view that R-rated movies are forbidden by the Church by picking out random quotations from various Church leaders and rubbing them in the face of people who believe differently. I wouldn’t be a genuine party to the debate if I ignored these quotations, and so I will continue to examine several of them here. (See my preceding posts for responses to other quotations.) After scrutinizing the quotations I regard as most relevant to the debate, I will enter into a discussion concerning the establishment of Church policy. Using this two-pronged approach, I believe it can be shown with certainty that R-rated movies are not banned by the Church.
If you perform a search for the term “R-rated” on the LDS Church’s official website (LDS.org), 90 search results come up. All but 19 of these search results link to articles published in Church magazines over the last 41 years. While these magazine articles provide the most prolific resource for Mormon quotations about R-rated movies, I will limit my discussion exclusively to references made during general conference, the semiannual worldwide meeting of the LDS Church. There are several reasons for doing this. One reason is that Mormons tend to give comments made during general conference higher priority than those given elsewhere. While it may not be an entirely accurate view to hold, general conference is typically regarded by Mormons as the de facto venue for the exposition and announcement of official Church doctrine. Thus, Mormons (on both sides of the R-rated movie debate) more readily hold to, and are less likely to shy away from, comments made within talks presented at general conference. Another reason for eschewing magazine references is that the majority come from magazines meant specifically for the youth, or those under the age of 18. My concern here, as in my previous posts, is with whether or not the adult membership of the Church has been officially instructed not to view R-rated movies. A final reason for focusing only on conference talks is that of the 31 magazine references that do not come from children or youth magazines, most are published versions of the conference talks I will discuss. It is worth noting that conference talks are normally published in more than one of the monthly Church magazines, such that one mention of R-rated movies during a conference talk can easily account for three or four search results on LDS.org. If that talk is later quoted by someone else, the number of search results tied to a singular remark about R-rated movies can triple. One quotation from President Ezra Taft Benson is responsible for five of the first 10 search results to appear, for example, and the quotation reappears in multiple search results thereafter.
Before delving into the particulars of any conference talk, let me begin with some historical and statistical information. The Motion Picture Association of America introduced the ratings system to American cinema in November 1968. Roughly four years later, in October 1972, R-rated movies received their first mention in LDS general conference. They have been mentioned in conference a total of 12 times in the past 40 years, an average of once every 3.3 years. The most recent reference was 11 years ago, during the October 2001 general Relief Society meeting. (Relief Society is the official organization for LDS women age 18 and older. A meeting for the worldwide Relief Society membership occurs in conjunction with the October session of general conference every year.) Of these 12 general conference references, four are directed specifically to the youth or told within the context of concern for what kinds of media the youth in particular are exposed to. Three further references occur within anecdotes involving a personal decision (by youth in all three cases) not to watch R-rated films. These seven conference talks will be ignored, as they cannot reasonably support the claim that adult members of the Church have been commanded to shun all R-rated movies.1
Of the five remaining references to R-rated movies given at general conference, I will begin with the most recent. Speaking in her role as General Relief Society President, Ellen W. Smoot asked an audience of adult LDS women, “Do we show our love to the Lord if we spend our time at R-rated movies, reading pornographic material, or involving ourselves in activities that would be degrading or unbecoming a daughter of God?” What can we glean from this about President Smoot’s attitude toward R-rated movies? On an extreme view, we might conclude that President Smoot believes no R-rated movie is worth the time and attention of a stalwart Church member. It’s possible she feels this way, even if her rhetorical question doesn’t appear to say anything quite so drastic. The more important question to ask, however, is if President Smoot’s question indicates or even presumes that adult members of the Church have been officially prohibited from viewing R-rated movies. The answer is “no.” President Smoot’s question can be understood and is perfectly sensible within the context of her talk, even if no ban on R-rated movies exists. Looking at her quote in context, we can see that her point is one of priorities. What she seems to be asking is this: Is our love for God reflected in how we spend our time and in the character traits we seek to develop? Or are we indiscriminate spenders of time, content to do whatever brings us pleasure in the moment and not worrying a whit about our spiritual development? As I see it, President Smoot is asking her listeners to care about what they do, to seek after good things, and to care about God—to have God ever in their sights. She is asking her listeners not to be indifferent as to the kinds of people they are and will become. Sounds like good advice.
Another conference talk comes from Joe J. Christensen of the Quorum of the Seventy. In a 1996 address, Elder Christensen expresses concern that so many of the youth, “as well as their parents, regularly watch R-rated and other inappropriate movies.”2 While Elder Christensen here makes specific mention of adults (or “parents”), his talk is explicitly geared toward the youth of the Church. When he first introduces the topic of R-rated movies, he does so by telling the story of an LDS bishop who learns that many of the young men under his stewardship are watching such movies. He then goes on to make the remark quoted above. Within context, then, Elder Christensen’s message seems to be something along these lines: “The youth should not be watching R-rated movies, but many of them regularly do so. That’s concerning. Even for adults, it’s a concern when R-rated movies are watched so frequently that a lack of discretion is apparent. Nobody should be wholly indifferent as to the kinds of media that he or she enjoys.” In other words, although adults are not restricted from watching R-rated movies in the same way that the youth are, neither group should go overboard with their movie-viewing habits. As with President Smoot, Elder Christensen’s bottom line concern is one of focus. He seems to be saying that all too often, people become complacent in their lives and indiscriminate in the choices they make. I couldn’t agree more.
The most perplexing use of the term “R-rated” comes from John H. Groberg, also a member of the Quorum of the Seventy at the time of his talk. What makes Elder Groberg’s remark so strange is that the implied subject matter isn’t obviously movies. The relevant quote is this: “Oh, brethren, please don’t sell your precious priesthood birthright for a mess of X- or R-rated pottage.” While this quotation would make perfect sense within the context of discussing movies or the media, Elder Groberg’s preceding comments are not indicative of this. Neither are his follow-up remarks. Indeed, what Elder Groberg seems to be discussing are the thoughts and actions of Church members themselves, with an emphasis on how those members treat the people around them. He warns his listeners against being abusive, angry, neglectful, and selfish. While he also mentions pornography, his emphasis clearly falls not on what Church members view, but on what they do. In other words, Elder Groberg seems to cite the viewing of pornography as an example of inappropriate behavior, not pornography as an example of inappropriate media. This distinction matters, because the true intent of Elder Groberg’s remarks will become clear only if we understand his focus. As it turns out, his focus is not at all on media. Instead, he provides a list of behaviors, all of which seem to involve the mistreatment of others, and then cautions his listeners not to jeopardize their spirituality by engaging in such “X- or R-rated pottage.” In context, then, this “pottage” is unlikely to be movies at all, but seems rather to be the cited behaviors that Elder Groberg is urging his listeners to avoid. Put another way, Elder Groberg may be applying the MPAA ratings system for movies to the thoughts and actions of his listeners. “Don’t live an X- or R-rated life” may be a fair summation of his point. While this interpretation requires that Elder Groberg speaks only poetically when he deems certain behaviors “X- or R-rated,” it is a more reasonable interpretation than that which supposes Elder Groberg is making an out-of-context, off-the-cuff, and obscured statement to the effect that all R-rated movies are prohibited. Think of it this way. If the X-rated pottage refers back to the pornography Elder Groberg has mentioned, then what from his list is the R-rated pottage? As I see it, there are two options. One possibility is that “R-rated pottage” also refers to pornography. If this is correct—and I am willing to grant that some R-rated movies can be seen as pornographic—it still doesn’t follow that Elder Groberg means to condemn all R-rated movies. At most, he denounces a certain subset of R-rated movies. Another possibility is that the R-rated pottage is the abusive, angry, neglectful, and selfish behavior Elder Groberg has mentioned. In context, this interpretation makes sense. After all, it would be strange of Elder Groberg to provide a list of inappropriate behavior and then refer back only to a singular item on the list—pornography—when he says, basically, “Watch out for this stuff!” Again, in context, it seems clear that the term “pottage” is meant to encapsulate everything of which Elder Groberg has been speaking. And he most certainly has not been speaking in general about movies.
The remaining two general conference references to R-rated movies come from one and the same person. Speaking as the First Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric (whose foremost purpose is to watch over the temporal affairs of the Church), H. Burke Peterson cautioned the priesthood brethren in 1980 that “there should not be any X- or R-rated movies that we participate in viewing or talking about.”3 13 years later, speaking as a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, Elder Peterson said that R-rated movies, “and many with PG-13 ratings, are produced by Satanic influences.” Even if the latter quotation does not expressly prohibit the viewing of R-rated films, Elder Peterson’s statements strike me as the most bold and absolute on this subject. It is here that a consideration of what it means for something to be official Church policy becomes particularly relevant.
According to an official declaration of the Church:
Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency (the prophet and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the second-highest governing body of the Church) counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.4
How can this information help us to assess the remarks made by Elder Peterson? Firstly, we should recognize that, while Elder Peterson’s two statements are compatible, they make two very different claims. The more recent claim is that R-rated movies—presumably all of them—are “produced by Satanic influences.” If Elder Peterson is correct about this, it might be a good reason for avoiding R-rated movies altogether. It might be. Then again, it might not. With greed as a major impetus in capitalist societies, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that most of what we spend our time and money on is “produced by Satanic influences.” The jar of peanut butter you pick up at the grocery store may very well have been produced by Satanic influences. I’m not sure that makes you evil for buying it. Regardless, Elder Peterson’s is the only quote I’ve seen from a general authority of the Church that says Satan is the executive producer of every R-rated film that gets produced. According to the Church’s own stance on what constitutes doctrine, this claim is to be regarded as a matter of personal opinion.
What about Elder Peterson’s explicit admonition to steer clear of R-rated movies altogether? Let us consider again the criteria put forth by the Church concerning official Church policy. There are two questions that we must ask:
- Was Elder Peterson’s statement the result of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles “counsel[ing] together to establish doctrine”?
- Has a ban on R-rated movies been “consistently proclaimed in official Church publications”?
If R-rated movies are officially prohibited by the Church, we should be able to answer “yes” to both of these questions. The correct answer to both questions, however, is “no.” Regarding question #1, it is extremely improbable that Elder Peterson’s remark stems from the First Presidency and the Twelve meeting together to establish doctrine. We have no basis for assuming it originated in this way, and it is beyond far-fetched to think that if the First Presidency and the Twelve did establish new doctrine concerning the appropriateness of R-rated movies, it would be presented to the Church by way of a comment made in the middle of a talk given by the First Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric. Fortunately, we needn’t concern ourselves with why Elder Peterson is so vehemently opposed to R-rated movies, because question #2 must itself be answered in the negative. A ban on R-rated movies has not been consistently proclaimed in official Church publications, and that is enough to guarantee that such a ban does not officially exist. Recall that of the 90 references to “R-rated” that appear on LDS.org, Elder Peterson’s is the only one that is addressed to adults and clearly condemns the viewing of any R-rated movies whatsoever. That puts Elder Peterson’s remark into the very same category as his comment about R-rated movies being produced by Satanic influences—it is to be seen as a matter of personal opinion and is not binding upon the Church.
1 A search for the term “rated R” rather than “R-rated” yields two additional general conference talks. Neither is problematic. One talk was given to the young women of the Church in 1996 and briefly recounts a story wherein a teenager refused to watch an R-rated movie. The other talk was delivered by Marvin J. Ashton, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in 1977. Elder Ashton cites an increase in media that attempts to “glorify immorality or violence,” noting the increase in both X- and R-rated movies as evidence for his view. While Elder Ashton is clearly concerned with the media and its influence upon Church members, it is a stretch to interpret his talk as an official prohibition against all R-rated movies whatsoever.
2 I addressed this quotation in my previous blog entry. However, I have since looked more extensively at the talk from which the quotation comes and feel my comments here are more to the point.
3 It is here that I must concede a point I had earlier denied, that adults have been told by a general authority at any point in time not to watch R-rated movies. Despite my good-faith efforts to find quotations like this, I had not discovered this particular gem until it was brought to my attention by someone else. Thank you, Tracy S. From what I can tell, this is the only quotation of this kind to exist.