Skip to content

How Religion Muddles Morality

August 21, 2012

Richard BushmanMormon 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.

Rigor? Sure!

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.

From → Uncategorized

  1. religion muddles morality by focusing on the wrong measurables.

    blind or thoughtless obedience to rules that are arbitrary or have nothing to do with genuine morality is not moral or ethical

    any system that would presume to do your thinking for you is not about morals, it’s about control of the masses

  2. Jettboy permalink

    Unless one believes morality comes from and is defined by God. Then this whole post becomes irrelavant. Those who don’t follow what God says are automatically immoral, no matter what.

  3. Jettboy,

    Every discussion pretty much becomes pointless at that point, though.

  4. Derek permalink


    Even for those who do accept that premise, there’s still the thorny issue of figuring out which of the words ascribed to God are actually from Him.

  5. Do other mainstream Christian religions see dietary and clothing choices in terms of morality? Fundamentalist religions usually do (control of what women wear, whether or not they show their hair, etc.) But a faith like the Presbytarians or Methodists doesn’t have those strict definitions of morality. Morality is more in terms of being honest, following the ten commandments, etc.

  6. Seth R. permalink

    Isn’t morality muddled to begin with?

    Didn’t the whole postmodernism movement basically make the point that morality is whatever people say it is?

    So if people say drinking a glass of wine is a moral act – it would be.

    Under postmodernism.

  7. aerin,

    I think that yours is a good point — it’s not fair to paint all religion with one brush.


    I agree that morality is muddled to begin with…it’s the challenge of a whole lot of folks to try to assert a clearer, less muddled set of morality.

    Postmodernism (and similar movements) point out how even though people try to assert objective, universal morality, they fail hard. It’s not saying that everything that morality is whatever people say it is in the sense that by saying, “drinking a glass of wine is a moral act” makes it so…but that, effectively, morality is such a distorted, cheap, deconstructible term, that it doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning left.

    And of course, Mormons so eagerly jump to postmodernism on so many issues as if it is a *defense* of anything.

  8. Seth R. permalink

    I think that any time an LDS apologist tries to say that a critic is operating from personal biases – or that the objective facts about 1800s history are in doubt – he immediately gets accused of borrowing postmodernism.

    It’s not like everything postmodernism ever said was rubbish you know.

  9. Derek permalink

    Andrew, I had similar thoughts when I first listened to this interview. The only way I was able to let Bushman off the hook for this was to assume that he was just being careless in his use of the term “moral rigor” because of the circumstances. I expect, although I obviously can’t prove, that Bushman has a much more mature understanding of morality than this excerpt lets on, but since these remarks were mostly unprepared spur-of-the-moment comments, and given the “Mormon” context of the interview, he may have just reverted to the type of language that Mormons typically use (i.e. right and wrong are whatever God says they are, and that essentially means whatever the Church says they are).

    That being said, even if I’m right, Bushman may get a pass on this one, but the average Mormon in the pews does not, since, as I said, his phrasing is indicative of how most Mormons tend to think and speak. So your critique still seems on point to me. In my experience, the average Church member seems both incapable and uninterested in any deeper discussion of what constitutes moral behavior. They feel that they just need to align their opinions and actions with the teachings of the Church and they’re good. Moral rigor accomplished. They see it as a virtuous exercise in self-discipline, sacrifice, and spirituality, while the rest of us see it as intellectual laziness. I see elements of both.

  10. Paying tithing to the LDS Church is definitively a “moral issue.” I would argue that it’s completely immoral to contribute.

  11. Seth R. permalink

    Another example would be buying shoes made in a Cambodian sweatshop.

    Or contributing to the Democratic Party – or encouraging terrible scholarship by buying Sam Harris’ stuff. Or terrible journalism by buying “Under the Banner of Heaven.”

    Lots of things can be “moral decisions” depending on your point of view.

  12. Andrew, if you agree with your employer to be there for 8 hours a day, is it immoral for you to take long lunches and shove off a couple hours early each day? What about pretending to work and chatting at the water cooler half the day?

    Moral rigor is dependent on the relationship we have with God. Mormons have agreed to bear one another’s burdens, so a choice not to pay fast offerings is one aspect of that commitment. If one doesn’t want to bear one another’s burdens, one shouldn’t agree to do it, or one is at cross-purposes with one’s morals.

    If we love one another and care for one another, behave with integrity with one another according to the social mores of our community, but for one reason or another cannot accept Christ as our Savior, doesn’t that classify as a terrestrial life? Isn’t that a life that offers a degree of glory? For those who do not believe in the Mormon view of heaven, isn’t that the end they’re hoping for anyway?

    I would imagine that Bushman, if he were writing, would expound a more mature view of morality, one that recognizes shades and levels. But really, if you eschew religion, why do you care how religious folks misunderstand morality? Aren’t they already deluded on the big things anyway? Doesn’t it make sense that they would misunderstand the little things?

    I wonder why we care what we each think so much. Even for me, with my covenant responsibility to share my joy of testimony with you, I don’t get too worked up if you think I’m a fruitcake. I think you’re a chocolate cookie. So there.

  13. Seth,

    I’d say it’s not simply that the apologist says the objective facts about history are in doubt, but he operates by trying to say that entire historical and scientific endeavors are untrustworthy because of systemic flaws.

    And I mean, that would be fine…but the problem is that the church is making historical and scientific claims…if you want to be postmodernist, that is one thing, but then don’t claim capital T truth when such a concept doesn’t really mesh well with a postmodernist outlook.


    I think you are probably right about Bushman vs. the average member on the level of nuance and thoughtfulness…even if that may not be immediately apparent from this interview section.


    Especially after having face-to-face conversations on this issue, I see what you’re saying…this is definitely a good point.

    Seth, I also see the point in your additional examples.


    To the extent that theft is immoral, I can see what you’re getting at with your job analogy.

    Your point about “agreeing” to do certain things (and conflating certain actions as being the primary — or perhaps even the only — means of satisfying the agreement) brings to mind thoughts about contracts…some contracts aren’t enforceable to begin with…some are void and some are voidable…but instead of talking about contracts, I’d just want to point out that it’s REALLY narrow to view the fulfillment of “bearing one another’s burdens” as being “fast offerings”.

    But really, if you eschew religion, why do you care how religious folks misunderstand morality? Aren’t they already deluded on the big things anyway? Doesn’t it make sense that they would misunderstand the little things?

    This really highlights what I’m frustrated with…I am sincerely hoping that I am misreading you, but it appears that you have presumed that religion is “the big thing,” and morality is (one of?) “the little things.”

    Like…where do we go from here if that’s what you think? (Perhaps a religious person might feel similarly about my ordering of things…)

    I guess it’s not so much about what we think, but about what we do…but when what we do is affected by what we think, then what we think matters.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Main Street Plaza » Sunday in Outer Blogness: Rape Edition!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: