The Problem With “No R-Rated Movies”

Summary: R-rated movies are mostly inappropriate, but our carefulness with media shouldn’t stop at not watching just R-rated movies. PG-13 and other ratings are often inappropriate too. 

Adam. Abraham. Abinadi. Alma. Ammon. Aaron. We’re not even done with the letter A, and it’s already evident that the scriptures are full of righteous examples who were required to sacrifice much—sometimes all—for the gospel cause. Whether it be years of missionary work, a beloved child, or even one’s own life, God is not shy about asking a lot from His servants. It’s how He separates the truly devoted from those who want to keep a summer home in Babylon.

Unfortunately, the Lord’s tests often prove too difficult for even the most devout. For instance, some early saints who were willing to move across country for the church were unable to bear the law of consecration. Indeed, it is a sad but self-evident truth that many people are only willing to give so much before taking their leave. Luckily, we’ve got it pretty easy today. Sure, we’re asked to tithe our incomes and magnify our callings (and that’s a lot, by modern religious standards)—but most of us are able to manage at least a halfhearted effort. That being said, we may soon face a day in which the spiritual resolve of church members everywhere is bent to the point of breaking. And that day may be November 20th, 2015—when the final Hunger Games movie is scheduled for theatrical release.

People love The Hunger Games. Mormons really love The Hunger Games. In fact, rumor has it that someone somewhere is about to be known throughout their lives and on the records of the church as “Rue Katniss McConkie.” So imagine the hysteria that would ensue if the Motion Picture Association of America, in their infinite wisdom, determined that part two of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay was worthy of a restricted rating.

Improbable? Yeah. But not impossible. Movie producers aren’t stupid—they know that a PG-13 rating means a better showing at the box office—but let’s be honest, there’s some violent stuff in that book. So violent, in fact, that filmmakers admitted it was an arduous task to score a PG-13 for the first film. Again, this probably won’t happen. But the point is, what if it did? Would Utah County theaters be full of folks with their heads down, wearing hoodies and dark glasses so as not to be seen by their Relief Society President? Would people decry the movie in fast and testimony meeting? Would someone graffiti ‘CTR’ on the headquarters of Lionsgate Film Studios in protest?

  A movie’s content is the same regardless of what capital letter Hollywood puts on the poster.

“No R-rated movies, thus saith the Lord!” is one of the messiest cultural misconceptions in our church, and hardly anybody knows it. But this blog post isn’t to persuade you all that watching R-rated movies is totally ok. It’s to make it clear that our entertainment choices should be thought out and regarded as important between us and the Lord. The fallacy that either God or His prophets have made a definitive church-wide statement regarding movie ratings, I believe, has led us to become lax when it comes to choosing appropriate media. We figure that just because something’s not R-rated, it’s ok. Worse, we may even judge those who choose to watch R-rated movies.

Let’s establish one thing right off the bat—what any general authority  says does not necessarily constitute doctrine, and a member of the church is in no way obligated to follow every piece of counsel these general authorities might give (though it is nearly always advisable to do so). If the Lord wants a policy implemented, a rule created, or something to be said that has not been said before, the responsibility for this lies with the president of the Church. So while a few members of the seventy and even one apostle, Joseph B. Wirthlin, have made statements against R-rated movies, these men are not authorized to institute any sort of church rule, policy, or doctrine.

If you ask a Mormon why they don’t watch R-rated movies, nine times out of ten you’ll hear some variation of “The prophet said not to.” But it’s likely that any follow-up questions (Which prophet? What exactly did they say? In what context?) will be met with blank stares. This ignorance is where the problem lies. As an educational measure, I will provide two facts that should enlighten any who may not know the answers to these questions.

Fact #1: there has been a grand total of one prophet who has said something about R-rated movies. In a 1986 priesthood session address, Ezra Taft Benson delivered this quote: “Don’t see R-rated movies or vulgar videos or participate in any entertainment that is immoral, suggestive, or pornographic.” President Benson made a similar statement in a young women’s meeting six months later.

That’s pretty straightforward. “Don’t see R-rated movies.” Case closed, right? Not exactly. You see, a quote without context is like a hammer without a nail—you can whip it around and do some unnecessary damage with it, but it won’t effectively serve its intended purpose. So let’s examine the intended purpose of this quote, which comes from a talk called “To the Youth of the Noble Birthright.” The title of this talk implies what President Benson explicitly says in the introduction: “Tonight I would like to speak directly to you young men of the Aaronic Priesthood.”

It is an undeniable truth that some prophetic counsel is only applicable to some people. Not all members of the church are expected to abstain from dating—just those under the age of sixteen. Not all members of the church are expected to serve a mission—just worthy and able young men. We could go on all day, but the point should be clear: sometimes the prophet gives instruction that is only applicable to certain demographics, and he always specifies when he does so.

With that principle in mind, ponder on Fact #2: it is clear that President Benson’s talk was not directed to the church membership as a whole. He acknowledged he was glad leaders and teachers and parents were hearing it so they could encourage the young men’s obedience, but several times reiterated that they were not his intended audience. In fact, the sentence directly preceding the “Don’t watch R-rated movies” quote begins with the phrase “We counsel you, young men.” Not “we counsel you, church members” or even “we counsel you, young people”—but young men specifically. As previously mentioned, President Benson made a similar quote directed to young women in a meeting six months later, so we can effectively include all the youth of the church under this “don’t watch R-rated movies” umbrella—but only the youth of the church.

If you gain one piece of knowledge from my post, I hope it is this: we should be making media choices based on whether something is “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praise-worthy”, not simply because the rating seems kosher. Generally, R-rated movies probably won’t be a good idea. But there are certainly exceptions.

As Latter-day Saints, we are entitled to personal revelation from our Heavenly Father, and refraining from R-rated movies altogether works for many people. But until the prophet delivers that counsel to the whole church, we are absolutely not entitled to expect others to do it. Any adult member who judges another to be disobedient or unrighteous for watching an R-rated movie is themselves guilty of disobedience, for just as we are warned not to ignore the words of the prophets, we are warned not to add to them.

Once again, I hope it is clear that this post is not meant to advocate R-rated movies. It is also not meant to advocate PG-13 movies, or PG movies, or G movies. When a movie’s rating becomes our litmus test for its acceptability (which is unfortunately the case for many church members—largely because of this misconception), we are in danger of ignoring the more important factor—its content. I was once in a testimony meeting where a man declared over the pulpit that he was invited by some friends to go see The Wolf of Wall Street, but declined “because it’s rated R.”

Really? That’s why you declined? Because it was rated R? The MPAA (which is operated by some of the very people who make the movies they rate) is far from a perfect judge of a movie’s acceptability. What if a liberal employee had happened to slap a PG-13 on The Wolf of Wall Street and you, only knowing the rating, had seen it? You’d have no idea that over the next three hours you were about to be subjected to prolonged scenes of male and female nudity, pervasive sexual content, and graphic drug use. Also, you’d hear over 500 uses of the F-word, the Lord’s name taken in vain over a hundred times, and countless other obscenities.

A movie’s content is the same regardless of what capital letter Hollywood puts on the poster. Because of this, we all have the responsibility to be wise and research a movie’s content before we see it. We do not have the responsibility or the right, though, to manage the entertainment selections of another.

Consider: a man might see the R-rated film The King’s Speech and be thoroughly uplifted. However, if that same man struggled with faith in God and watched The Invention of Lying, a PG-13 film which promotes atheist philosophy, it could shatter his testimony forever. Or suppose he was exceptionally sensitive to religious profanities—the PG-rated movie The Spiderwick Chronicles, meant for children, takes the Lord’s name in vain fourteen times. Again, the point is not to advertise or condemn any specific film, but to expose the foolishness in determining media selection based on a worldly rating system. This foolishness is compounded when the Lord’s prophets are incorrectly cited as the source.

I could go on for days about other reasons it’s stupid to watch or not watch a movie based on its MPAA rating—the rating system is constantly changing, the majority of the church lives outside of America and has never even heard of the MPAA—but those reasons aren’t really relevant to this discussion because when the prophet speaks, we should obey. We should obey with faith, without hesitation, regardless of how logical our justifications not to obey might seem. But in this case, no justification is needed, because the prophet has not said one word to adult members of the church regarding R-rated movies. So let’s stop pretending otherwise.

Now, I understand that my Hunger Games analogy at the beginning of this post was imperfect—after all, lots of the Mormons who would want to see it are youth, and they have been given prophetic counsel not to watch R-rated movies. I know that some youth are probably mature enough to handle an R-rated movie, just as some youth are probably mature enough to go on dates at fifteen. That doesn’t matter. It’s not a question of maturity, it’s a question of obedience to the prophet. But for the adult members of the church, the prophet has left us to our own devices. Joseph Smith was once asked how he was able to effectively govern so many people—he responded that he didn’t need to. “I teach them correct principles,” he said, “and they govern themselves.”

We have been taught correct principles about entertainment, now we must govern ourselves. We would be foolish to allow a worldly rating system to govern us, and we cannot allow ourselves to govern others. Continuing to do so will continue to breed ignorance and hostility, neither of which belong in the church of Christ. As we become less Pharisaical about the imagined scarlet letter of the movie rating law, we can learn to better implement correct entertainment principles in our lives.

And the odds will be ever in our favor.

Modern day insight - delivered to your inbox