How Religion Muddles Morality
Mormon Heretic’s latest post on Wheat & Tares, Why it’s so hard to help the Disaffected, is the latest in his series transcribing Mormon Stories interviews between John Dehlin and various guests. In this article, Mormon Heretic continues his transcription of John Dehlin’s 2007 interview with historian Richard Bushman.
For the most part, I really like the things that Bushman has to say. In fact, I loved Bushman’s incredibly open tent view of Mormonism, as is elaborated below:
It’s very easy to feel in a situation like that that you’re outside the Church, that you’ve somehow marginalized yourself. You may even get excommunicated or people cast aspersions on your sincerity or your morality or all sort of other things. One way or another you feel like you’re not in the church anymore. I for one don’t believe that. I think Mormonism is not just home teaching and bishopric meeting, it’s all these individual souls wrestling with the scriptures, with God, with their own souls trying to find out what’s right and true, and doing that in sort of this overall Mormon context. I think people who are struggling may be obsessed with these questions to a certain extent, are showing us a kind of worship and devotion that is deeply Mormon. I mean who is more committed to the Prophet Joseph Smith than Dan Vogel?
Think of the millions of hours that he’s spent with very little reward. On the prophet’s documents, on his life, and even though we think of him as an antagonist, probably an atheist when it comes to religion, still he is engaged to Joseph Smith. There’s a kind of devotion there that I for one think has to be respected. So while the institutional Church may have to protect itself and cut these people off and label them as agnostics, I think looking at it from God’s point of view, there are a lot of these people are really struggling souls. Some may be really evil, some may really be trying to harm and destroy, but I think there are a lot that are just trying to find out what they think is right. So I hope none of them feel like they’re outside of Mormonism. They can’t be outside of Mormonism as long as they think about Joseph Smith. That puts them inside of the Mormon cultural boundaries, and that is of great importance
However, at some point in the conversation, Bushman shifts gears a bit, to talk about different potential paths for disaffected Mormons.
You know we had this one image that I’m sure is true in lots of instances of people who kind of begin to let up on the standards, they don’t pay tithing anymore, and then they may take a glass of wine, and they may smoke a little bit and maybe have a few brief affairs or what have you. Not that they’re becoming demons, but you just sort of a slackening. That moral rigor that is required of Mormons and upheld by the sense this is God’s purpose and will. Once that’s relaxed, you know everything kind of relaxes. I don’t know whether it ends up that people stop praying or stop thinking of God or not, but that’s one course that I can see people following as a result of this disruption.
But there’s another course that I’ve seen in certain people I’ve known which is quite different. Not so much, I am not thinking so much of moral standards, because I don’t have any evidence of how that works, but spiritually. These people begin to feel like of all the things they learned in the Church, the thing that really registers and seems true and lasting is Christ. It’s the sacrifice of Christ and the promise of forgiveness, and the belief that Heavenly Father is working with his pitiful children to try to bring them along in some way, and Christ becomes very big.
A while ago, I was defending DMI Dave against some flak that he was catching on a post that sought to define the diversity of “middle way Mormonism.” The part that I think was most controversial was the following:
3. Half-conformers. These people feel impelled to move outside LDS behavioral norms, from little things like skipping the white shirt or skipping priesthood meeting to bigger things like drinking, smoking, stealing, and the like. Those in the first two groups can be fairly stable for long periods of half-attendance or half-contribution, but there seems to be more tension for the half-conformers, who tend to fade away after a few months or years.
People flipped out at the idea that “skipping the white shirt” or “skipping priesthood meeting” could be related to something like “stealing.” And they thought that there was an insinuation that being a middle way Mormon was more associated with stealing. I tried to point out again and again that Dave wasn’t really suggesting that any given middle way Mormon was more likely to steal, but that, by definition, someone who does happen to steal is not conforming to Mormon standards…(one of the responses that came back, though, was to point out that whereas things like drinking and smoking are against the Mormon code, stealing is not unique to the Mormon code.)
…anyway, what’s interesting is that I found myself on Dave’s side then, but now that I read Bushman’s words here…I find myself particularly perturbed…even though it’s not really certain that Bushman is saying that any given disaffected Mormon will fit this idea (although he concedes that he’s “sure [this one image] is true in lots of instances.”
I just want to put this out here.
There is a world of difference between letting up on Mormon standards and slackening or relaxing on moral rigor, because Mormon standards often have nothing to do with morality. And furthermore, EVERY Mormon should recognize this, but they don’t.
Look. “Paying tithing” is not a moral act. Not paying tithing is not an immoral act. Abstaining from wine is not a moral act. Taking a glass of win is not an immoral act. Smoking a little bit is not an immoral act.
OK, OK, so you may still think that these things are in the realm of morality. OK, feel free to do that. But at least recognize that even if these things are in the moral realm, they assuredly do not fit in the same category as “hav[ing] a few brief affairs or what have you” (and do you hear how casually he mentions this.)
I don’t know why this post has to be written. In fact, I want to believe that this post doesn’t have to be written, and that I will get plenty of comments from folks who will point out that they understand what I’m saying. But I fear that those are not all the comments I will get.
I don’t want to be uncharitable. I think that the title of this post is provocative, but I don’t want to believe it. Nevertheless, I can’t help but fear that it may in some instances be true.
Religion muddles morality?
I think there are several senses in which religion can muddle, or confuse morality. I think the first is in the sense that thanks to religion, people can place in a moral realm things that really don’t belong in the moral realm. Or, put things that don’t belong in as “critical” a part of the moral realm alongside things on critical sections. To the extent that people think that paying tithing is a moral issue (in absolute terms), or that paying tithing is a moral issue alongside marital fidelity (in comparative terms), that’s what’s happening.
But there is a second sense in which religion muddles morality…the entire ground for discussion is confused now, as a result of these morality claims. Ex-Mormons, for example, have to field off claims that they are leaving to sin and leaving to be immoral if they ever dare drink alcohol…and while they are fielding off such claims, no one can discuss whether alcohol is moral or immoral. We can’t discuss addiction, harm to others, moderation vs. abstinence, as long as Alcohol Is Bad.
If I wanted to be controversial, I could extend this to some of the more contentious ones…notice how I drew the “line” at “affairs.” But there are discussions we could be having there: monogamy vs. polyamory vs. swinging, of open relationships and consent and disclosure. And you know, maybe it turns out that everyone still maintains that monogamy is the right answer…but we don’t ever tease that out.
I don’t mean to trivialize the commitment that religious folks (especially like many Mormons) have to their religion. There is something to be said for the religious obligation, burden, and duty that the most devout, religious folk undertake that too often is not replicated by the non-religious and not-as-religious. In other words, I understand that there is something to be said about gaining a 10% pay raise from not paying tithing (if one does not divert those funds to other causes in lieu of tithing), and there is something to be said about being able to sleep in on Sundays, and not being beholden to various other activities throughout the week.
But it doesn’t seem to me that we must describe the rigor involved in these things as moral rigor.
OK, so since this was written at 2AM, I’m hoping that when I wake up, there will be plenty of people to assure me that I’m making much ado about nothing, because things simply aren’t like this.