This is sort of a follow-up to hawkgrrrl’s post last week, “Performative Christianity.” Ethics and morality are huge topics, so there are always more things to talk about. Here’s one of the claims in her list of bullet points:
- 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.
Let’s focus on that loaded term “Good Mormon.” What does it mean to be a Good Mormon? Too often the focus is on loyalty, obedience, and conformity. Those are institutional virtues, not personal ones. Sure, we hear a lot about faith and love and service. But the institutional stamp of approval (a TR) turns on whether you attend meetings and write checks, not on whether you commune with the Spirit or practice random acts of kindness. In terms of personal morality, one has to sink very low before the bishop even notices or cares. Even then, too often local leadership and membership close ranks with perpetrators and blame victims.
But the problem with critiquing “Mormon morality”in this fashion is there are no universally accepted alternatives. Philosophical ethics produces a lot of discussion but few reliable conclusions. “Be nice to others” and “do no harm” are better guides to personal behavior and morality than anything you’re going to find on the shelves in the philosophy section of your local library. Other churches don’t do any better. Other institutions in society suffer from the same problems, often to a greater degree. Mormons tend to be good people.
So I’m going to take a different approach, following a discussion by Simon Blackburn in Ruling Passions: A Theory of Practical Reasoning (OUP, 1998). He has a discussion of what he calls “emotional ascent,” which I glossed in the title as intensity. Let’s talk about scope and intensity as reflected in the Mormon system.
Scope and Intensity
First, scope. There are lots of decisions in life. You face dozens every day. Which are moral decisions? When does a bad decision become not just dumb or wrong but immoral, some kind of transgression? Opinions are going to vary quite significantly on this score. For most Americans, drinking a cup of coffee is a morning ritual. For Mormons, it’s a transgression. For the vast majority of Americans, taking a second or third wife is a transgression. For Mormons, it’s an article of faith, albeit a non-practiced one. I’m sure you can think of dozens of additional examples. Another observation is the Mormon practice of placing moral weight on institutional imperatives: attending meetings, writing checks, supporting your local bishop.
Some of this gets taught explicitly in lessons and talks. Other features of the Mormon system just get absorbed. It requires real effort to take a step back and reflect on which personal actions *should* have a moral component and which decisions *should* reflect moral considerations. Obviously, it’s not just Mormons who could benefit from this exercise. It’s part of growing up for any person, part of the development of your adult personality and sensibilities. The Mormon hymnbook is probably a better practical guide to moral behavior than anything heard in talks or lessons. Have you done any good in the world today? Helped anyone in need?
Second, intensity or “emotional ascent” as described by Blackburn. He first observes:
What kind of thought or feeling is involved when we have a moral reaction to some conduct or some situation? Centrally, a moral transgression is something that is other peoples’ business, something that is against mores or norms. It is some kind of trespass. As such it is of legitimate concern to others. This is not a strict definition … [b]ut it points to the right area.Simon Blackburn, Ruling Passions, p. 9.
He then outlines a “staircase of practical and emotional ascent” looking at the degree of emotional engagement or reaction one has to a transgression. I’ll use a list to make it clearer.
- Simple preference, like or dislikes.
- Basic hostility to some kind of action or character, to which we have an aversion or hold in contempt or get angered by.
- Express that anger or disappointment or contempt to someone.
- Attempt to rally others to that reaction, encourage others to share your anger or contempt.
- Make it compulsory: express unhappiness or anger with anyone who doesn’t share your reaction or sign on to your moral campaign.
- Even further, be upset with anyone who doesn’t ratchet their emotional response up to your level. Just agreeing is not enough, their righteous anger needs to match yours. Those advocating tolerance become enemies. Dissent is beyond the pale.
Blackburn calls this “a spiral of emotional identification and demands.” What’s interesting here is not merely the rising scale of emotional engagement and intensity. It’s the fact that what started as a moral decision or moral issue or moral reaction quickly morphs into an emotional response and a scale of rising emotion. To transpose this into the Mormon system, being a Good Mormon means getting upset about the right things, to the right degree. A critique of the Mormon system would be that Mormons get upset about the wrong things (or fail to get upset about things they should be upset about) and go overboard in their reaction.
My general sense is that often Mormons get upset about the wrong things and get too worked up (go too far up Blackburn’s emotional reaction staircase). A discussion can be had about whether the examples one sees are outliers and exceptions or are part of a general problem. Recently, a number of official LDS announcements or letters to the membership have stressed civility and tolerance toward other members, suggesting that at least the leadership sees a problem. Pres. Oaks addressed this very directly in his recent Conference talk. It seems too many Mormons are publicly broadcasting their unhappiness and anger at perceived (or misperceived) transgressions by others. Well, maybe that is what they’ve been taught to do in church! My sense is the leadership is trying to dial that back, but it’s a real challenge. It generally takes a generation or two for Mormons to realign their thinking and actions on a given topic or doctrine.
So here are some questions for readers. Let me quickly remind everyone that, as noted above, Mormons tend to be good people and I’m not suggesting Mormons are abject failures in terms of moral reasoning or emotional response. There are lots of people in the world who get righteously angry about stupid little things. But here at W&T it’s generally Mormon things we talk about, so that’s what we’re doing.
- Do Mormons get upset about things that should not be a big deal?
- Do Mormons ignore or let slide things that ought to be a bigger moral concern?
- Do Mormons get too worked up (too far up the emotional response staircase) about some things?
- Do Mormons sometimes view tolerance as a misguided response rather than the proper one?
Remember Oak’s talk on “good, better, best”? I think the idea was that there are things we can do that are good but perhaps there are better things and best things that are far superior. Think how this relates to your post. We (Mormons) get caught up in many good things that are very centered around the organization. But are they the best things we could be doing with our time? Example: is going to the temple all day and doing multiple sessions / baptisms or doing a load of family history / name indexing the best use of time vs. serving in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter or just helping someone with a problem? Likewise, is engaging in Church callings and activities the best way to spend time as a Christian?
Also, what we (LDS) consider “sin” like breaking the WoW or sexual impurity (not adultery) seems harmless compared to real sin in the world that’s all around us. It’s kind of embarrassing what we worry about some times.
Good post and lots of stuff to think about. Off the top of my head, yes, Mormons get far too upset about things that aren’t that big a deal. Really, anything anyone else does in their life, as long as it’s not harming someone else or doing real damage to themselves (self-harm, etc.), is none of our business. And I second josh h’s quote about “it’s kind of embarrassing what we worry about some times.” That’s especially the case, IMHO, when it comes to stuff like modesty, the W of W, sexual “purity”, etc. These are things that are so much less important than the fact that millions of people still don’t have access to potable water, or the way that COVID is currently ravaging India, or the number of people who die each day from hunger (25,000, according to the UN). Stack those things up against women baring their shoulders and you see just how trivial and asinine our sense of morality is.
To me, one consequence of elevating what I call “trivial morality” is the corresponding lack of concern about what I think is real integrity. One example is testimony meeting. In theory, we have such meetings to strengthen each other, to get to know about each other’s spiritual journey, etc. But it’s become this ridiculous performance of a kind of righteousness based on absolute certainty. So instead of someone being honest and getting up there and saying, “hey, I don’t know anything for certain and I’m really struggling with certain things, but I have faith in X,” we just get a bunch of people crying as they insist on the absolute truth of things that Mormon scripture and doctrine says CANNOT be known for absolutely certain. So testimony meeting actually compromises and curtails true integrity since, if I (or anyone else) got up there and talked about my doubts about B of M historicity or critiqued the patriarchy or said that women not having the priesthood causes me to doubt the true intentions of the church, I’d actually be silenced and asked not to give my testimony ever again. And part of that conversation would make me responsible for other people’s testimony as a way to shame me into being quiet: (“you can’t say stuff like that because you’ll damage other people’s testimonies!” is how that conversation would go). So one of the very things designed to strengthen and grow faith actually ends up curtailing it because following a script is more important than telling the truth, which means that the church cares more about the script than the truth, which means that it has no moral authority. And we’re back again to josh h’s comment about how embarrassing that is.
I liked your description of the six levels of moral outrage (I’m just calling it that). For me, I don’t get to a six for a lot of things, but I totally do for polygamy. I am very angry about anyone who tolerates it, and if their sense of outrage can’t match mine, I mostly have no time for them.
Now, for a counter example, on Twitter I have mostly laughed about the idea that we can’t call church members “Mormons” anymore because for the first 50+ years of my life it was the preferred term, but for the last 3 seconds, it’s been declared a victory for Satan despite prior Church presidents claiming the name and even singing weird little rural Utah ditties about being a “Marmin boy.” So, to me, this one’s obviously *ahem* just someone’s preference. Some snot-nosed punk on Twitter (I’m going to guess she was approximately recently returned missionary age) came at me for saying “Mormon,” declaring that I was obviously an anti-Mormon ex-Mo for using this “slur” which she had the gall to equate with the “n” word, co-opting the real harms with this drummed up fake harm. It was crazy pants.
Well, Dave B’s excellent post is sure to elicit some good responses. Thanks, Dave B! I would just like to share a funny story that actually happened, to emphasize the points he is trying to make. No grand philosophizing here.
I lived in Maryland in 2002, the year the Baltimore Ravens went to and won the Super Bowl. The team colors are purple and black. So we had a Ward member who was a passionate fan. On Super Bowl Sunday in early February (very cold), he showed up for Sacrament Service wearing a white shirt and tie and dress-slacks—and a fluorescent purple Orphan Annie wig, and Jesus sandals (no socks) that highlighted his toenails that his wife had painted purple. He also had black fingernail polish. Needless to say, he was a show-stopper.
I went up to the Bishopric’s First Counselor, who was conducting that day and said that I would make an extra donation to the Fast Offering fund, if he would have this man give the opening prayer. Knowing that I meant it, the First Counselor backed away from me in horror, and said that he wouldn’t touch my offer with a 10-foot pole.
Many people got a kick out of his costume, but several Ward members were genuinely outraged. My wife and I responded, when they complained, was that he was enjoying himself and demonstrating his passion, and having a good time, and wasn’t it great? The Ward members who were upset at this guy then got upset at my wife and me. I think that God was cracking up with laughter when this Ravens man showed up at church.
Some Mormons just don’t like to have fun. Injunctions in Proverbs to have a cheerful countenance don’t cut any ice with them. They prove the truth of H.L. Mencken’s definition of a Puritan as someone who is haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere, is having fun.
A few years ago, our Bishop here in Utah wore a bright red and white Santa suit, one that was tailored like a regular business suit, to our Ward Christmas Party—complete with flashing red and green and blue Christmas lights. Everyone loved it.
He was well-loved by our Ward members, for obvious reasons.
We also attended our daughter’s Ward Christmas Party, where the Bishopric dressed up in ballerina tutus, complete with pink tights, and danced to music from the Nutcracker Suite.
Gotta love it.
“ So instead of someone being honest and getting up there and saying, “hey, I don’t know anything for certain and I’m really struggling with certain things, but I have faith in X,”
The last time I bore my testimony (several years ago), I said, “the older I get, the more questions I have, which there aren’t always answers to, but I choose to have faith.”
The next person got up and said, stridently, she has no questions etc. I guess to her it sounded like I didn’t have faith.
It’s really sad we can’t enlarge the tent and meet people wherever they are in their faith exploration. The rigidity has emotionally damaged family members, who otherwise might’ve maintained a connection to the church were it not for ignorant, strident, authoritarian local leaders and members who took it upon themselves to judge.
It seems too often our meetings are more sales seminars for the church rather than spreading the Gospel. It also seems sometimes we pay more fealty to our leaders than to the Son and our Heavenly Father.
Thanks for the comments, everyone.
josh h, that “Good, Better, Best” talk might have something to add to this topic. I’ll have to go re-read it. Maybe there’s a post titled “Bad, Worse, Worst” waiting to be written.
Brother Sky and Lois, I’m thinking Testimony Meeting is where some of these failings are on full display.
Angela C, if I had thought to title this post “The Six Levels of Mormon Moral Outrage” I might have a hundred comments by now. My bad.
I appreciate the post. One thing that I’ve decided is – if this pandemic ever ends and there is a more normal return to church meetings (haven’t attended in person in over a year) that if I open my mouth I want the words to flow more authentically. Let them lie where they fall.
@Angela – I detest everything about polygamy too.
2 weeks ago my wife and I flew 5 hours to Western Australia for the blessing of a great grandchild on fast sunday. My grandson and his wife had invited a number of non member friends for the occasion. So we were conscious of things non members might find strange.
The bishopric councilor in the process of bearing his testimony, repeated the word testimony 13 times. The highlight though (apart from the baby blessing) was a sister in her 40s, who reported that her pet rat had died so she was going to have to be particularly righteous so her and the rat could be reunited in the celestial kingdom.
The grandsons father in law was recently released as bishop. WA has had a total of 9 deaths from the virus so virtually no restrictions, so 2 hour church, but after the first hour half the ward left and we went to the ex bishops house and had a pancake lunch at noon on fast sunday. Incredible community spirit.
I would not buy a toyota, but the hire car we had for the week was a toyota corolla hybrid, and it was not too bad. Moral dilemma?
Back to our own ward this week mothers day. Primary sang a song, no talks about mothers, RS lesson not about mothers, but EQ did have a lesson saying all women are compassionate, caring, and intended to be stay at home mothers. We had a film by Elder Holland, with 3 examples of caring mothers including one with a gay son who came back from his mission early, but his mother and priesthood leaders worked with him so he could eventually go back and complete his mission.
Toward the end of the lesson I commented that women were not necessarily more caring than men, that I was aware of a mother who abused her children to the extent they were hospitalised. That the young missionarys gayness was not the problem but the church policy. That we were putting women on pedestals but also refusing them equality. From behind me came the comment that if I didn’t believe in the church, I shouldn’t be there.
Wow, Geoff. I know more caring men than women in my ward. And Heavenly Father and Jesus as males are the model of caring.
One of my grandbabies was being blessed. Lots of family there, spanning several rows. One of my sons was in his early 20’s and hadn’t been a church goer for many years. At the time, he didn’t own a suit, but he was wearing his best: nice jeans and a button-up shirt with a bolo tie my father gave him before he died. His hair is usually has two or three hues ans a “striking” haircut. Half a dozen rings, bracelets, pierced ears, and there may have been a feather somewhere.
Not the typical sacrament meeting fare.
I was sitting a row back from my son and there was a couple ( 50ish) two rows behind me. They clucked and tut-tutted several times during the meeting. When the meeting was over and people were starting to leave, they couldn’t contain themselves. They loudly and passive-aggressively, started making comments – wanting to make sure he could hear them. “How inappropriate” “There are standards” “Can you believe how disrespectful he is”
They didn’t seem to notice how the many nieces and nephews were clamoring over their favorite uncle. How warmly he was embraced by his siblings and those on the in-law side of the family. The obvious love and happiness was lost on them because he was not in uniform.
Who would you want to go to the afterparty with?
@BeenThere, I definitely want to go to the after party with the peacock and not the pesky magpies.
In my teens I had a very black and white view of the world and the rules that had been drummed into me every Sunday and mistakenly applied those rules to everyone, member or not. I was harsh. As I matured I softened and now mostly I worry about how I am following my own morality. While I do still find myself judging others, I am at least aware of how unkind I am being.
When my children were young I recognized they were developing that same black and white view of the world and I shut it down telling them to respect everyone’s choices. Primary goes HARD on the Appearance of Morality issue and those kids know the “rules” frontwards and backwards before they leave.
Mormon morality—think “the Matrix.”