I was listening to a book discussion about Jane Austen’s novel Sense & Sensibility. One of the podcasters provides historical context for these weekly discussions. She was talking about the scene when the dastardly Willoughby seeks forgiveness from Elinor, whose sister he has wronged. While he wants her to forgive him, the podcaster points out that he really hasn’t done any of the hard work to change himself that a real apology would require. He’s sorry because he couldn’t marry her sister (the winsome Kate Winslet in Ang Lee’s version); he’s not sorry for harming people with his selfish behavior throughout the preceding events of the novel. He claims his current loveless marriage is a sort of penance without recognizing that he’s harming his new wife in still carrying a torch for someone else and in referring to his new wife, his current victim, in derogatory terms. He was participating in a Christian ritualized confession without holding any of the Christian ideals it embodies and without the interior work that Jesus preached.

The podcaster who made these observations explained that she was raised in a conservative religious family, attending Catholic school, and that as an adult she does not affiliate with any religious tradition. She further observed the historical religious environments in the novel vs. the cultural assumptions we make in the contemporary United States, which is a much more outwardly religious country than England. In the wake of the reformation, the Church of England became the state-sponsored religion, but it was less intrusive into the interior lives of its congregants. As Queen Elizabeth I was quoted “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.” Everyone belonged to the same Church, but they could feel differently about it, and the Church didn’t demand much beyond milestone events like marrying and burying. Being a C&E Christian[1] was acceptable.

By contrast, the US was colonized by religious exiles who wanted to create a more dominant religious environment, one with more structure and rules, to create the “city on a hill,” an idealized Christian community. External devotion was required, and people chose their church based on an alignment with its mission and vision. American Churches had high expectations and demands. Religion wasn’t dictated by the state eventually, although it was usually privileged; it comprised of rules, sacrifice, duty, and devotion. Belonging to a Church required an outward observance of its rules, public displays of devotion. Because of these high demand requirements, boundary maintenance took the place of private feeling. So long as you followed the rules of the leaders, it didn’t matter whether you were a good person or not. If you publicly performed your religion’s requirements, you were considered a “good Christian,” regardless of the content of your character or whether the gospel made you a more moral person or not.

So, building on her thoughts, there were a few observations about “higher demand” religions that are popular in the US and the downstream impacts of those types of worship vs. a state-sponsored “lower demand” religion like Anglicanism.

  • These religious movements (perhaps ironically) sprang from a desire to make religion more accessible to individuals (e.g. publishing the Bible in English), and reducing the power the Church and the clergy had over its parishioners.
  • Anglicanism was perceived as secular with low requirements for compliance and attendance. Sounds like heaven, right?
  • One of the key corruptions that had crept in was that priests and curates were chosen by elite families with a “living” in their possession to “bestow” on whomever they chose, including second sons who could not inherit family titles and lands. They had to achieve the requisite education, but nobody cared what their beliefs were or their ability to provide pastoral care. [2] [3]
  • While the US was set up as a place of “religious freedom” what that meant in practical terms was a place where higher demanding religions that had emerged in protest to the lax & corrupt Anglican Church could hold sway and have political power denied to them in England which had a state-run Church. “Religious freedom” really meant giving these religious movements preference and political power; it wasn’t on the whole designed to be a pluralistic secular nation (Rhode Island came closest to a pluralistic society, and many who found Massachussetts’ religious fervor overbearing fled to that colony, even though the clam chowder was miles better in Massachussetts).
  • These high demand religions were focused on creating a “Christian nation,” one with their views holding political power and dictating the behavior of citizens.
  • Although individual piety was expected, outward performance of that piety was how individuals were judged and their behavior kept in line with required norms by those religions in power (see also every Nathaniel Hawthorne story ever written).
  • Any deviance from performative norms was viewed with black & white superstition and a need to control; hyperbole was used to shame behaviors that might be normal, but were considered sinful and therefore threats to the patriarchal order that was established (e.g. slaves, wives or children disobeying their head of household whose word was supreme; anyone using medicinal herbs that could be recast as “white magic” to heal the sick).
  • Using public shaming rather than private conscience as a tool for reform and repentance, applying penalties that were visible to all in the community so that those undesired behaviors would not be tolerated (which likely just drove them underground, creating incentives to lie and hide things, tale as old as time [4]).

Taking these historical observations to their logical psychological conclusions, we also see the following “fruits,” and as Jesus said, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” Here are some of the downsides to the types of high demand religions that founded the United States and that still predominate here:

  • The more you prescribe how devotion must be done, the less emphasis there can be on an individual’s quest for devotion and/or spirituality. This is one of the foundational questions that drove Joseph Smith who sought his own salvation and didn’t like the enthusiastic prescriptions of the preachers during the Second Great Awakening, or in his words “It feels good not to be trammelled.”
  • Hand in hand with the first observation, the more a religion requires performative (public) behavior, the less energy there is for internal work and introspection.
  • Seeking the approval of human authorities and social groups is, according to scripture, the opposite of seeking divine approval. “The Lord looketh on the heart.” Humans don’t and can’t.
  • Instead of self-knowledge attained through reflection, group rules and approval enforce self-deception and only superficial introspection. Complying with group norms is a completely different type of activity than discipleship and self-improvement. You can become a “good Mormon” (as gauged by outward, visible behaviors) while internally being a terrible disciple and Christian.
  • When Church rules and norms are the focus, the idea emerges that without Church rules and norms, individuals would devolve into hedonism and go “off the deep end.” This idea becomes deeply engrained in the culture as well as within individuals.

Let’s explore that last one a bit. I have a good friend who told me about a family member who had become an atheist after years in the Church, and as the friend explained (as if this were an inevitability), this person then cheated on his wife because “why not.” Once you leave the Church or quit believing in God, what constraints would there be on your behavior? I disagreed completely with this view and pointed out that you don’t have to believe in God or attend a Church to avoid harming others through your selfish and reckless actions. You can be a good person without belonging to a Church or without a belief in God. As missionaries, didn’t we deliberately seek out people like that, people without a religion (or a weak tie to religion) who wanted to be good people and do good things? Clearly, it’s not attending Church that makes people be good.

But the notion that being “unchurched” (an antiquated word I love for its simplicity) equals behaving immorally or recklessly is so ingrained into us (indoctrinated, some would say), that it’s totally common to hear a person claim in a testimony meeting that they are grateful they are in the Church because they are convinced that without it, they would have succumbed to addiction, self-sabotage, or other reckless behaviors that would have resulted in an unhappy life. Who’s to say? Maybe that is true for some, maybe not. We can’t know what other influences may have occurred in their life. It also seems that someone who chose to be a moral person with the Church’s influence may have also done the same without it. After all, you can be outwardly religious and inwardly not moral, like one of Uchtdorf’s Potemkin Villages, and so the reverse can be true.

I would posit that the more a religion demands in outward performative behaviors, the less likely a person is to develop an inward, self-reflective moral compass, for the same reason Jesus gives:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

Matthew 6:5

When you focus your attention on the approval of men (quite literally in a patriarchal culture), you have your reward; you don’t need to do the internal moral work that truly creates a good person.

What do you think?

  • Does being in a high demand religion hinder individual morality or teach it like training-wheels on a bicycle or bumpers on a bowling lane (which many believe hold back the development of these skills rather than assisting)?
  • Do you see an inevitable arc in this historical view of the US vs. England or do you think things could have (or did) happen differently?
  • Does the cycle of church corruption > individual devotion > new, higher religious standards > church power & control > church corruption constantly repeat because power corrupts? Do you see this differently?


[1] Christmas & Easter or as the podcaster said they called them in her family “Cheasters.”

[2] Unlike BYU’s religion department which doesn’t care a whit about having appropriate educational credentials, but solely focuses on perceived orthodoxy and charisma.

[3] Jane Austen fans may recall that the dastardly Wickham opines that he would have enjoyed his life as a priest if Darcy hadn’t denied him the living. Then he is revealed to be a sexual predator of young heiresses, so basically yes, he would have loved being a priest. Wink, wink.

[4] See also BYU’s Ecclesiastical Endorsement process and *SPOILER ALERT* the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter.