On Bearded Bishops & Avoiding The “Appearance Of Evil”
Posted by Shawn L on February 26, 2008
The shaving habits of post-McKay Mormon males is well trod ground, so forgive me if this horse has been sufficiently kicked. But it struck me recently that in my 35 years as an active member of the Church, I have never, ever attended a Ward (in the US) where any of the Bishopric wore facial hair. An important note: I lived in Utah only while attending BYU. Mine may be a unique experience, but I suspect not.
The only coherent argument I’ve ever heard justifying the dearth of beards in our ranks is the old saw about “avoiding the appearance of evil.” The argument goes as follows: of course there’s nothing wrong with beards per se, but people might see your bearded face and assume that you are someone you are not. As a bearded dude, I have heard this line of thinking dozens of times over the years. And after all these years, I’m still not buying it.
In a 1971 address to students, then-BYU President Dallin Oaks phrased the argument this way:
“There is nothing inherently wrong about long hair or beards, any more than there is anything inherently wrong with possessing an empty liquor bottle. But a person with a beard or an empty liquor bottle is susceptible of being misunderstood. Either of these articles may reduce a person’s effectiveness and promote misunderstanding because of what people may reasonably conclude when they view them in proximity to what these articles stand for in our society today.”
Let me pause here to say, I simply don’t see the analogy between facial hair and a booze bottle. For there to be an empty bottle, there is a very high likelihood that somebody broke the Word of Wisdom and, hence, it may be reasonable to assume that the person holding said bottle was the culprit. Why else would he/she have the bottle? On the other hand, the mere existence of a beard does not require the commission of a sin.
Elder Oaks went on to state:
“In the minds of most people at this time, the beard and long hair are associated with protest, revolution, and rebellion against authority. They are also symbols of the hippie and drug culture. Persons who wear beards or long hair, whether they desire it or not, may identify themselves with or emulate and honor the drug culture or the extreme practices of those who have made slovenly appearance a badge of protest and dissent. In addition, unkemptness—which is often (though not always) associated with beards and long hair—is a mark of indifference toward the best in life. As Elder Sterling W. Sill has observed: ‘A let-down in personal appearance has far more than physical significance, for when ugliness gets its roots into one part of our lives it may soon spread to every other part.’”
[Lest you think I'm dredging up old quotes in hopes of simplifying the issue, this is the first article that pops up on lds.org when you enter the search term, "beard." (Go ahead, try it yourself.)] For me, this argument is unpersuasive for a couple of reasons:
First, rhetoric from authority figures (both in and out of the Church) in the 60′s and 70′s regarding “the drug culture” was the equivalent of the “Red Scare” panic of the 50′s. Regardless of its value then, that same rhetoric has no relevance today. The “hippie and drug culture” bemoaned by Oaks has long since disappeared except in TV ads and jam band audiences. I think we are a long ways past the “beard = drugs” analysis. Indeed, Oaks himself made clear that rules regarding facial hair “are responsive to conditions and attitudes in our own society at this particular point in time. Historical precedents are worthless in this area. The rules are subject to change, and I would be surprised if they were not changed at some time in the future.” (emphasis added) Unfortunately, nearly four decades later, neither BYU’s rules nor the attitudes of leaders/members have shifted.
Second, I think the “appearance of evil” argument can be a slippery slope. Certainly this is valuable counsel in many situations. However, we oftentimes trot it out to proscribe behavior that we do not like, but that does not actually violate any policy or doctrine of the Gospel. I have heard YM/YW leaders use this thinking to warn against everything from near beer to playing pool to having too many non-member friends. The problem is, determining what actions reflect an “appearance” of evil is totally subjective. I personally find nothing wrong with a game of pool; at the same time, I could argue that showing up to Church in an $80,000 sports car (I live in the OC, remember) could reasonably give an onlooker reason to believe that the driver has put material gain precedence over charity.
Third, I find something unseemly about the notion of avoiding an activity simply out of fear of how it might be perceived by an outsider. Shouldn’t my one concern be, how would God feel about what I am doing? If I can answer that question with a clear conscience, what do I care if I run afoul of Joe Q. Neighbor’s perception of how a Mormon ought to look, act or talk? Molding our actions around the perceptions of others is always losing battle because, just as there is no singular “Mormon” way life, there is no one “non-Mormon” standard of thought. Put another way, the actions you undertake to please Person #1 may be cause you fall out of favor with Person #2. We are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. Furthermore, this argument assumes the worst about people, that they are full of prejudices and will stereotype you, based on your appearance, without bothering to get any additional information about you or your character. I don’t think that is a healthy attitude for those who have been charged to “love one another.”
So, what do you think? Has my clean-shaven Bishop experience been unique? What are your thoughts Elder Oaks’s “them darn hippies” argument? Am I missing the boat on the “appearance of evil” doctrine? Does commenting on this post lump you in with all of those ne’er-do-wells on other blogs?