A two-sentence version of this piece appeared as Aaron C. Brown’s 9 February 2011 Facebook status update.
Nothing drives me crazier than hearing a well-meaning Latter-day Saint earnestly explain how some popular Mormon teaching doesn’t count as official—or as a “doctrine”—because it belongs to some other—supposedly inferior—category of teaching: “Culture.” “Policy.” “Speculation.” “Folklore.” It’s not that I object to drawing distinctions between central gospel teachings and their lower-class cousins. It’s not that our terms can’t have concrete, useful meanings. It’s that more often than not, they don’t. They’re just empty words. And this is a problem. For if we Mormons are going to draw distinctions between “doctrine” and “non-doctrine,” we need to make sure we’ve thought hard about the contours of these categories. We need to carefully define our terms, and then use them in concrete, principled ways. Otherwise, we’re just employing clever rhetorical tricks to downgrade LDS teachings we don’t like, without doing the work of showing why these teachings should be viewed as less authoritative than teachings we do like.
Perhaps no term for “non-doctrine” irks me so much as “folklore,” because, to my ears, it implies that the “lore” being disparaged originated with the common Mormon “folk”—in other words, that some idea is the weird invention of rank-and-file Mormons from yesteryear who had too much time on their hands and too much zeal in their heads. But many of the embarrassing, awkward, even shameful, ideas that have circulated among the Mormon populace have no such lowly origins. Many were either promulgated by the senior leadership of the LDS Church (often in official fora), or were at least promoted and popularized by them. We really need a term that reflects this reality. We need a word that helps us confront the necessary task of reflecting on the origin of our teachings.
I understand the perceived need to employ a term that can safely disown outdated Mormon teachings and practices without gratuitously embarrassing the LDS leadership. But our collective failure to properly identify the origins of false Mormon teachings has costs. It prevents many of us from recognizing where destructive religious notions often come from. It dissuades many of us from learning from these historical episodes, and from raising constructive questions about how we should approach the teachings of authorities we want to view as inspired.
So here’s my suggestion: Let’s jettison “folklore,” at least when we discuss Mormonism’s past racial teachings or any other outmoded teachings the LDS leadership once promoted. Let’s save it for instances where we’re supremely confident that the Mormon “folk” really are the authors of the “lore.” If we want to employ the term in reference to a sighting of the Three Nephites, a UFO story, or some other tale of dubious provenance, fine. But teachings once viewed as authoritative by Mormon leaders deserve a different term—one that doesn’t mask important questions about the origin and authoritativeness of our “lore.”
Let’s stop talking about “folklore” and start talking about “leaderlore.”
Aaron C. Brown