Thursday, January 3, 2008

Latter-Day Morality

You may not be aware of this if you grew up Mormon, but the LDS definition of morality is rather different than that which is generally accepted. Morality is very easily defined to Mormons--it means not having sex. That's all. End of discussion. Immorality means having sex. That's what we teach our teenagers, and that is the definition we carry with us from our church meetings into our daily lives.

Today I'd like to talk about some of the nuances to the word "morality." The meanings that we don't get in Mutual or Seminary or Sunday School. For purposes of this discussion, I would prefer to define "morality" as a system of ideas of right and wrong conduct.

We Mormons like to think of ourselves as a moral people. We accept the Ten Commandments from the Old Testament, Jesus' behavioral standards as described in the New Testament, additional ideals and clarification from the Book of Mormon, and random precepts such as the Word of Wisdom health code from the D&C. We even have our own rules of behavior that come from continuing revelation and church tradition. But out of all of these standards of morality, there are some in which we are truly invested, and some to which we merely give lip service.

As one indicator of standards of morality, let's look at what we teach our children and youth. The standard of conduct that we hit the hardest is of course sexual purity before marriage. We do this to the extent that even the word morality has become synonymous with sexual behavior, as noted above. We reinforce this teaching with related cautions about masturbation for YM and dress standards for YW. I have been dismayed by the amount of emphasis dress standards receives in the Young Women's program. This counsel eclipses all other religious instruction, including teaching of the Savior and the Restoration. Modesty in dress for girls is taught during YW classes, midweek activities, Standards Nights, Seminary, Sunday School, over the pulpit, at Stake dances, Girls Camp, EFY. Indeed, there is scarcely a church activity a YW can attend where she is not warned that she must appear dressed modestly. If her clothing is not appropriate, she is subject to being sent home to try again. The message is firm and unmistakable. Dress standards must not be violated. Here again the very word "modesty" has been coopted to mean only a particular pattern of dress for girls and women.

Additionally, sermonizing abounds in our youth programs on the importance of obedience to the Word of Wisdom. Due to this emphasis the youth of the Church would sooner steal a car, cheat on an exam, or spread vicious rumors about a peer than take a sip of coffee.

The emphasis on the remainder of the wide spectrum of right and wrong behavior is virtually ignored among Latter-Day Saints. To illustrate this point, fill in the blank of the following sentence:

Our Mormon youth are known for never ________________.

One might say that our youth would never drink alcohol, or smoke a cigarette. One might fill in the blank with "never sleep with a boy/girlfriend." But would you even think of filling in the blank as follows:?

Our Mormon youth would never skip classes at school.
Our Mormon youth would never haze their fellow students.
Our Mormon youth would never tell a lie.
Our Mormon youth would never steal.

As a convert who attended evangelical Christian services, I can tell you that in other churches, these standards of moral conduct are given great emphasis. If you have grown up in the LDS church, it is likely that you consider loss of sexual purity and Word of Wisdom adherance as grievous sins. It is possible that you would add murder to this list, with the exception of those you kill while in the military. Other transgressions would be appraised as less important on the moral continuum.

Is there not a morality that is based on the other commands of God found in the scriptures? Is there not a morality that is concerned with practices that minimize the harms that people suffer? Promoting people living together in peace and harmony? Morality that requires charitable action for good? Overcoming selfish vices? What about a morality based on respect for the planet on which we live and the myriad creatures who live upon it?

I hope we can begin to consider the vast implications of religious morality. Morality within the Church should be more than simply refraining from sex. This wider morality should be discussed at least as often as the length of skirts. It should help us formulate ethical theories for personal conduct.


Stephen said...

As a lifelong Church member, I do not associate "morality" solely with "chastity", though of course I've heard them used synonymously. I think most Latter-day Saints realize that there is a lot more to morality than simply refraining from sexual contact with a nonspouse. At least, I hope so.

Perhaps the emphasis on chastity as a (the?) primary component of morality is because of our culture's denigration of sex. People talk of sex as "doing the nasty", as if it's some dirty thing -- and these are the people who use sex to try to sell something! What ever happened to "virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy"?

I, too, am dismayed at the misuse of "moral" as a synonym of "chaste", but I acknowledge that such an identification might be for the greater good of our people. Surely a person cannot be unchaste and still be moral.

brooke said...

An excellent post, really. I have a lot of comments, but the most pervasive is: if murder during war were held as much of a sin as murder outside of war - in all our religions - i think the world would be a much better place. just as these other forms of morality seem to be forgotten in times of ease of anger, so are the poor, the hungry, etc.. you know these, but i'm putting them here because they are simply so wonderful.. from Matthew 5.
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
10 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

it seems as though if we can remember to live by these verses the world would be a much better place. it simply amazes me over and over and over and over again what people choose to remember from the scriptures and what they choose to forget.

Bookslinger said...

Brooke, what are you calling "murder during war"? What do you mean?

Do you mean to say that all killing of soldier-on-soldier during wartime is murder?

Kalola said...

Very inspiring, BiV. DH and I have had several discussions on this topic. What saddens me is when young people participate in bullying each other, and this goes for both young men and young women. Yesterday, as I was on my way to work, I thought of this hymn: "Let Us Oft Speak Kind Words to Each Other."

Being morally upright covers a myriad of behaviors.

I appreciated your post on this topic.

Rich said...

At the risk of continuing to "routinely make an ass of myself all over the bloggernacle" as one commenting fan accused me of over at fMh, I nonetheless thought fMhLisa's latest post about universal health care certainly fits in with where you are going with this idea. Since Christ himself distills the entirety of the gospel down to loving our neighbor, and points out (Matt 25) that the Judgment is all about getting a barometric reading on how well we do with that, I would say morality clearly has a lot more to do with whether or not we are trying to implement the Zion ideal of "no poor among us" than worrying about whether or not Sister Smith's blouse might be too tight.

Dr. B said...

In response to Bookslinger I wrote a post on the subject of lying on my mission spinning off on BiV concept of morality.

Doc said...

I fully agree with what you are saying. I wonder though, what are you doing for your family to better supplement their concept of morality. Do you regularly augment the definition in FHE? It seems to me this is something we can all teach better, but I don't know if The YM or YW programs are capable of doing so.

brooke said...

bookslinger - yep, i do mean that killing-during-war is murder. what else do you call intentionally killing another person? do we put a different label because of the political forces causing it? if so, why? why is killing because of political forces morally right, but killing some random stranger on the street isn't? what is the difference - besides the political forces? why can't we put all the money we put into state sactioned murder into finding solutions for peace without shedding blood? i don't understand why we don't do that.. i simply don't get it.

Bookslinger said...

There is killing that is justified. Justified killing is not murder. The Bible has many examples of justified killing in it, so does the Book of Mormon. If one accepts that those two books are the word of God, then one must also accept that God sometimes sanctions, even requires, killing.

The Book of Mormon seems clear to me that God requires honest and God-fearing men to defend the lives of their loved ones, even to the point of bloodshed, if necessary.

I believe it very mistaken to put forth the idea that all sides in all wars are merely politically motivated. One side usually is. Both sides sometimes are.

But if you are not able to abide the shedding of blood, as a last resort of course, in order to protect innocent life from the depredations of the wicked, we'll have to disagree.

Here's a quote that I like, and I hope it doesn't apply to you:

"If you love wealth more than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, depart from us in peace. We ask not your counsel nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you. May your chains rest lightly upon you and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen." — Samuel Adams

My relatives, my father's cousins to be exact, were slaughtered by the Nazis. Aside from the scriptures, that is one reason why I believe it necessary to stand up to evil, and never rule out force as a last resort.

I've actually met relatives and others who escaped that hell and still had tatoos of their serial numbers on their arm. Millions didn't escape.

I hope none of your loved-ones are ever slaughtered before your eyes. I hope your home is never invaded, or your car hijacked, by those who would do you or your loved-ones physical harm. But if, God forbid, that should ever happen, I hope you would do all in your power to protect your family members from the unlawful attacks or any form of bodily harm that such perpetrators would threaten.

Bookslinger said...

I removed my post of 1/3/08 at 4:24 PM, because on hindsight it seemed too negative.

Let me try to re-word it.

It seems a lot of our youth, even our full-time missionaries, don't always recognize what constitutes moral or immoral behavior and atittudes.

The thing that seems to be needed the most, in my opinion, is eliminating the tendency that some of our strong-willed teenagers have to bully others to get their way.

brooke said...

bookslinger - you bring up the nazis, and family. on april 16 my stepfather was in the only classroom that was not attacked in norris hall at va tech. the man he sent down to check on what was happening was shot and killed by the shooter. my family carries the scars of that day every day. we were incredibly blessed that day, incredibly, and each day i know that. my reaction and the reaction of my family has not been anger at the shooter, it has been sadness for him, and a call for more compassion in the world. if the world were more compassionate things like april 16 at va tech wouldn't have happened.

at some point the killing has got to stop. at some point we have to transform the world. at some point something has to change, and SOMEONE has got to hold out a vision for peace.

war is not inevitable. it isn't. if you talk to people you'll find that, in the end, we all want the same things - happiness, enough to provide for our families and loved ones, to be seen and heard and respected. it's amazing how similar we all are, really and truly. and it is a gift to recognize it.

i know that someone has to believe in the vision of peace. someone has got to hold a vision that killing is going to stop. if no one holds it, how can it ever happen? you can choose to believe that i am an idealist who doesn't understand the true ways of the world, or you can try to understand why i say the things that i do and why i believe what i do. you may not agree, but you can take a moment to understand. and if you do.. well, if you choose to do that - understand and respect while disagreeing, well, you've just taken a step towards peace.

Bookslinger said...

"war is not inevitable. it isn't."


If you believe in the scriptures, (even keeping in mind the scriptural injunctions to sue for peace, to leave room for the repentance of evil-doers, and to forgive one's enemies) then war really is inevitable up until the 2nd coming of the Lord. Total world-wide peace is not something that is in the Lord's plan prior to his 2nd coming.

However, by the afternoon of his 2nd coming, your vision of world peace, lasting for just shy of 1,000 years, will indeed become a reality. The implementation of that peace will coincide with the miraculous destruction of evil-doers by the Lord himself, and not at the hands of his followers.

I agree that peace is worth pursuing. However, being slaves to evil is too high a price to pay for peace. Submitting to murder or genocide is also too high a price. Submitting to madmen (such as the VA Tech shootings) is also too high a price.

I believe that you have a right to sacrifice your own life in whatever cause you deem just. If one wishes to be non-violent and not defend oneself, I believe they have that right. I respect the rights of pacifists to live their lifestyle.

But I don't believe you have the right to sacrifice the lives of others, especially your children or your spouse, when they are threatened by evil.

"if you talk to people you'll find that, in the end, we all want the same things - happiness, enough to provide for our families and loved ones, to be seen and heard and respected."

I've travelled overseas. And I agree that is true for the vast majority of people. But it fails to take into account true evil, or those who give in to evil.

In the past century, we had three monumental examples of true evil. If you want to measure the evil by body count, the largest was the Chinese communists under Mao. The second was the Soviet communist regime, and the third was the Nazi regime. Here's a web site that gives some estimates to how many people were killed by those regimes in the 20th century:

"if the world were more compassionate things like april 16 at va tech wouldn't have happened."

One can hope. But I don't think it's accurate to assert that. The shooter appeared to have had psychological problems that went way beyond what a "more compassionate world" could have fixed. He appeared to have needed serious treatment and medication.

Back to history lessons: The story of Neville Chamberlain just prior to World War II illustrates that appeasement doesn't work.

proudmamablogga said...

Oh, modesty....

Let me just say that I appreciate this post.

Stephen said...

Interesting, in the late 60s, most Utah mormon kids did not associate chastity with the ten most important commandments.

I have to admit, at my house it is "tell the truth, work hard, be kind" as the three things I think are most important and want my children to remember.

a spectator said...

So true. So scary.