Moral Authority

300px-Morpho_peleides_1A friend of mine posted this on Facebook a few days ago:

Morality is doing what is right regardless of what you are told.

Religion is doing what you are told regardless of what is right.

It’s a great bumper-sticker quote — short, emotionally charged, and completely one-sided. Usually I see these, chuckle, and move on, but this is one that my mind keeps coming back to, to chew on some more.

What does the church do well?

How does the church justify its own existence?

(As an aside, if your answer to this question is, “The church doesn’t need to justify itself through helping people be happy here on earth. The blessings of obedience to the church are waiting for us in heaven,” then please feel free to ignore this post entirely. All I can say is that reserve the right to judge my church by its fruits.)

No organization is great at everything. That’s why we have governments, schools, markets, churches, and the hundreds of other institutions that form our society. Each provides a distinct service better than any of the others. Governments are not schools, and schools are not churches. So what are churches? And more specifically, what is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; what distinctive service does it provide to society?

Here are my observations on things the church does well:

  • Social and emotional support network
    • The church creates unity. It meets needs for the people who have the least support from their own families and communities — “the miserable, lonely, and depressed,” to quote Jesus (or was that Ursula?) This is one place where I feel the church does an outstanding job. People just aren’t very good at reaching out to their neighbors on their own. In church we’re still not great at it, but we’re significantly less bad at it than we would be otherwise. It’s awkward to knock at the house next door and ask if they have food in their cupboards; it’s somewhat less awkward to do the same for the families you visit or home teach. It’s awkward to ask the kids skating in front of your house to come play; it’s less awkward to invite the kids who sits next to you in deacons quorum to come play.
  • Behavior modifications
    • The studies I see published occasionally show that Mormon youth do act significantly differently from their peers. On moral and social issues, from sex and drug/alcohol/tobacco use to scholastic performance and civic engagement, church members act differently (generally speaking) from non-members.
  • Growth opportunities
    • The church provides opportunities for motivated members to “step up”. Leadership and teaching callings. Youth service and social activities. Full-time missions. High standards. The church sets challenges and then calls on us to meet them.
  • Charitable outreach
    • The church organizes large service efforts locally and globally. It has the resources and organizational capacity to do this well. I’m grateful for the church’s work in this area.
  • Record keeping
    • Maybe this is kind of a quirky one to add to the list, but it really is a distinctive strength of the church. I’m  not aware of any other organizations that encourage lay record keeping like the church does, through it’s focus on family history research and journaling.

And here are my observations on things the church doesn’t do so well:

  • Encouraging humble acceptance of others
    • I think this is a side-effect of the first two bullet points in my previous list: by creating a clear in-network, the church implicitly creates an out-network as well; by setting high expectations, it also creates an atmosphere of judgment. This “insider vs. outsider” mentality combined with the oft-stated sentiment that “we have the truth” doesn’t lead to much consideration or sympathy for those who appear “unwilling” to meet and accept the conventional standards.
  • Identifying eternal truths
    • The history of church doctrine is one of on-going development, redefinition, discussion, and debate. It’s unfortunate that the claim of revealed, unchanging truth is such a core part of our rhetoric, when it is clearly not a part of our lived experience.
  • Prophesying future events
    • We have a prophet and apostles, but their job is not prognostication. Attempts by church leaders at predicting the future have generally not gone well.
  • Relevance in the arts
    • Let me explain this one by way of analogy. Growing up, my favorite band was Depeche Mode. I still love them. I rarely buy music anymore (thanks Pandora and Grooveshark!), but when they released their most recent album in 2009, I bought it. Another group — Fever Ray — released their first album the same year. I bought that one too, and it’s also awesome. As I read music reviews over the next few months, I saw the Fever Ray album referenced often, but the Depeche Mode one rarely was. While both bands are “good”, only one is “relevant”. That was a sad realization for me. To put that in a church context, I like Liz Lemon Swindle’s artwork (yes, I see you rolling your eyes at me), but I can’t claim that she’s relevant to the world of art outside the church.

In the end, though, I believe that the greatest gift the church offers is a view into the divine potential of humanity. The church teaches that the celestial kingdom will be here on this earth. What a motivating doctrine! I’m not aware of any other church that teaches that heaven is something that we will build around ourselves. As an inhabitant of that heaven, I would still be able to head over to my parent’s house in Cameron Park — the same place I grew up! — and share hot chocolate (or whatever it is that divine beings drink) with them. For me, the church justifies itself by offering a vision of heaven (like so many other churches do), but then expanding on that by challenging us to create that heaven here, through our own thought, words, sweat, and love.

29 comments for “Moral Authority

  1. I just found your website. I am an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, I must disagree with you regarding your friends comment. I completely agree with him. Truth is always Truth, Right is always Right, but those who ‘run’ the Church are NOT always right, especially at the Ward level. There are Bishops and other ‘church leaders’ who are callous and uncaring and talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. I believe in the Gospel, I believe in the Bible AND the Book of Mormon, but I also believe humans are fallible and make wrong choices and decisions all the time, even those with positions of power in the church.

  2. Yes, that is true. The priesthood is indeed a great blessing. However, the ordinances come FROM GOD, not from ‘the church’. You didn’t bother to comment on what my response was really about though. So do you feel the church and its officers can do no wrong? Because, boy do I have a story for you….

  3. Jon,

    Glad that you’ve found the site. I don’t comment much, but am a “lurker.” Welcome.

    I think Dane’s points two and three under “things the church doesn’t do so well” mostly answer your question. The leaders of the church, whether local or general, like the rest of humanity, are fallible.

    Also, like you, Dane seems to be largely agreeing with the “bumper-sticker” quote from his friend. It’s possible that you may have misunderstood Dane’s exploration of the topic.

  4. Sorry Paul, I guess I did misunderstand, and I thought you were the owner of the site. Again, my apologies, things in my ward have not been good lately, so I’m somewhat jaded…

  5. Paul, if by “priesthood ordinances”, you are referring to the practical benefits of priesthood blessings or the instruction in the endowment, then I agree — that is a service the church provides to us, and something the church does well. On the other hand, if by “priesthood ordinances” you mean the ordinances necessary for salvation, like baptism, their saving power in heaven doesn’t help us much here on earth.

    That’s not to deny the validity of saving ordinances, but they’re irrelevant to the question I’m exploring in the post, which is…hmm…looking back on my post, I can see that I didn’t state my question as clearly as I thought I had. My specific question is, “What services does the church provide to its members that have value here on earth?” Like I said in my parenthetical disclaimer in the post, if the church only justifies itself by offering future “blessings in heaven”, then that’s fine — it’s just not the kind of services I’m talking about here.

  6. Jon, I’m sorry for the difficult experience in your ward. There’s no question that church leaders — even priesthood leaders — make mistakes. In a sense, that’s what I’m responding to here. By acknowledging that our leaders are fallible and that our doctrines change, my point isn’t to conclude that the church isn’t true. Instead what I want to ask is, “Rather than focusing on these failings, where instead can we look to discover what the church does well?” In the post I identified several services the church performs well. I invite you to help identify some more.

  7. In a religion in which each person is expected to access revelation, so that we are not “commanded in all things,” should it be the Church that leads out in all matters?

    I believe that the church leadership does encourage acceptance of others, but they can’t negate inspired counsel on many divisive issues.

    With continuing revelation will “identifying eternal truths” ever be a completed project?

    I think you have confused predicting and prophesying.

    And why would the Church worry about “Relevance in the arts?” So at the last judgment we can outshine the Catholic Renaissance artists and really rub it in?

  8. With continuing revelation will “identifying eternal truths” ever be a completed project?

    No, but that’s not relevant to what I said. I’m not looking for a comprehensive list of eternal truths. Just one, just an eternal truth would be fine. Can we positively identify any one of our doctrines as an eternal, unchanging truth?

  9. Several other things we don’t do well:

    1) Fight against abortion – While many other christian churches have taken a strong stand against abortion and for the rights of the unborn, our church is surprisingly silent on this issue. Now and then the church publishes a small print comment about it, but we’ve never taken up the gauntlet. And this issue – the sanctity of life – is perhaps the most important one of all

    2) Supporting those with “problems.” When our people struggle with pornography, immorality, drug addiction, marital discord – we send them see the Bishop. No matter how much we believe bishops are inspired by God, they are in no way trained or capable of offering sound, qualified advice to those who really need it. And our social services (therapy) are, in my opinion, sparse and inefficient. The result is that too many people suffer alone, or worse, are often silently ostracized by others. Christ came to heal the sick, right? Then why doesn’t our church provide a stronger support system for the suffering and afflicted?

  10. Just curious how you’re defining “relevance in the arts.” If it’s Mormon themes being popularized and widely disseminated, then I guess I understand that, or perhaps if you were referring strictly to the field of visual arts. But if you’re talking Mormons who have become famous to both Mormons and non-Mormons, then I think you’re mistaken. It would be difficult to argue that people like Don Bluth, Brandon Flowers, Orson Scott Card, and Stephanie Meyers are totally irrelevant to the American public.

  11. Laurisa, you bring up an interesting point on church involvement in political issues (including abortion). Political power is another area in which the church justifies its own existence. While I don’t agree with the church’s response to Prop 8 in California, I was certainly impressed by how effectively the church acted to affect it. If the church isn’t heavily publicly involved in the anti-abortion movement, does that reflect a relative lack of concern about abortion? Or does it reflect a decision that it’s just not a practical issue to pursue? I don’t know.

    Duerma, you’re right that individual church members have excelled in the arts. My point is only that the restored gospel doesn’t seem to give church members a free “step up” in the arts (or politics, or sciences, or any other field). Church members fare in these areas more-or-less on par with non-members. (Yes, I’m aware that there are two LDS potential presidential candidates, but I wouldn’t call that a trend yet.)

  12. I tend to agree with Laurisa’s second comment, that the Church isn’t exceptionally good at providing useful, real-world counseling. Priesthood leaders are more-or-less trained in the Boyd K. Packer method of behavioral psychology – “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior.”

    While studying doctrine may be sufficient to enable an otherwise healthy individual to improve their behavior, those with real-life illness or addiction often need real, professional help. The Church seems to be moving in the right direction on this front, but its aversion to health professionals who may identify the Church as part of an individual’s problem can be harmful.

  13. Interesting post, Dane!

    Identifying eternal truths.
    The history of church doctrine is one of on-going development, redefinition, discussion, and debate. It’s unfortunate that the claim of revealed, unchanging truth is such a core part of our rhetoric, when it is clearly not a part of our lived experience.

    You make an excellent point here. It’s not just that what the Church teaches as being eternal truths changes over time, it’s that we don’t even (officially) acknowledge that it has changed. So it’s a failure not just of identifying eternal truths, but a failure of identifying the problem in identifying eternal truths.

    I also think you make a good point about growth opportunities. I think I learned to become a better, more competent teacher by teaching classes in church. I remember a specific instance where I was giving a job talk at an interview and people started asking questions and the thought occurred to me that it felt surprisingly like elders quorum.

    What overarching themes are there in the two lists? It kind of looks like to me by what you’ve identified that the Church is better at the practical than the theoretical. Our doctrine wanders around and is hard to nail down. We have a hard time containing our arrogance or being interesting enough to be good at art. But ask us to mobilize for a political campaign or clean up after a hurricane and we’re there!

  14. Regarding #6: “On the other hand, if by ‘priesthood ordinances’ you mean the ordinances necessary for salvation, like baptism, their saving power in heaven doesn’t help us much here on earth.”

    Would you say the same thing about the gift of the Holy Spirit or the endowment or the conferral of the priesthood? These are administered through the Church, and I would suggest their benefit is not limited to the post-mortal realm. Or, would these not count as “services” (as per #6)?

    Also, regarding the point from the OP about the Church not doing well at “encouraging humble acceptance of others,” I would say the Church, with some glaring exceptions, does a really good job of this. I hear just this sort of encouragement all the time from General Conference. I think it’s fairly clear that we are encouraged to be good neighbors and friends, etc. Now, whether or not this translates into observable behavior among members is another questions. I would have agreed with you had you said that we, ‘the Church body’, do not do this well. I see shining examples of acceptance of those who reach out to others, yes; but where I live, the lived experience of the Church is still too marked by the “Church v. the world” rhetoric, which translates into behavioral wariness of others.

  15. @ #9:

    Would the need to be baptized in order to enter the kingdom of God qualify? Or any of the other saving ordinances?

    How about the 2 great commandments, loving God and loving your neighbor?

    What about the truth that intelligence cannot be created (D&C 93)?

    What about the truth of the Atonement? That Christ descended to earth, suffered in the garden of Gethsemane, died on the cross, and resurrected, thus opening the way for everyone to be likewise resurrected and return to His presence upon the conditions he outlined?

    Certainly we’re not as tossed about with the wind as your desire for “just ‘an’ eternal truth” implies.

  16. This is a really interesting post, an interesting idea. I like your friend’s Facebook comment – there’s truth in it and it has generated informative debate.

    You mention that the church creates unity, a social and emotional support network. I’d say yes and no. There can be the appearance of unity simply because people are too afraid to be themselves. There are always those stories/examples where the roof falls in and everyone comes running to help – it doesn’t always happen. What about the occasions when people pay their tithing when they can’t really afford to and it means their children are walking around with holes in their shoes? And people are actively discouraged from speaking about those times because they aren’t seen as ‘faith promoting’ or there is the all to common attitude that if things are hard then it’s something we have brought on ourselves – not worthy enough, not faithful enough, not good enough. Or it comes down to ideas about the ‘programme’ failing because of people not “doing their duty.”
    Good things happen when people are willing to be the answer to someone else’s prayers – and that’s something we can apply to all people, not just those in the LDS church. We make a meaningful difference in the world when we love…

  17. Ryan, re: #15, yes, those count. I used the endowment as an example in my #6 of a saving ordinance that also has a component that some people (including myself) find to be useful or comforting in this life.

    re: your #16, your use of D&C 93 is a great example of an “eternal doctrine” that has changed quite a bit. For a history, see this piece by J. Stapley: . As for the saving ordinances, are they all necessary for everyone? Or just baptism? We didn’t start performing ordinances for the dead other than baptism until Wilford Woodruff’s time. The atonement is certainly a core doctrine, but there’s no consistent explanation of how or why (see ). So I suppose that some of our doctrines can safely be called “eternal” as long as we define them so broadly (with an umbrella word like “atonement”) that we don’t really need to understand or explain them.

    Again, this isn’t to deny that we receive further light and knowledge, or that there’s a problem with the doctrinal evolution in the church. The problem is only, as Ziff points out, that we pretend that those doctrines haven’t changed.

  18. “I reserve the right to judge my church”

    That’s the problem right there. Any religion that doesn’t offer us a chance to be naked before God, judged and not judging, is incomplete.

  19. Something the church does very well in my opinion (that is partially touched on my growth and outreach) is to provide a sense of purpose and opportunity for service.

    I believe many members hold sacred they work they do in the church, from helping other members in physical endeavors to performing family history work and ordinances in the temple.

    Many elderly people in the church get a great sense of fulfillment from spending their retirement on missions, researching and compiling family histories, and serving many hours in the temple. Whether or not you find those activities to be worthwhile, they certainly do.

    A quick comment about accepting of others, I’m not sure if it is a problem with the church or just the members. It seems like almost every other week we are taught about not judging others, to condemn the sin but love the sinner. Those not living to set standards are certainly excluded from activities that require worthiness, but I’m not sure there is a way around it (and most would say changing the worthiness standards is not something we can do lightly if at all).

  20. @#15

    Also, regarding the point from the OP about the Church not doing well at “encouraging humble acceptance of others,” I would say the Church, with some glaring exceptions, does a really good job of this…Now, whether or not this translates into observable behavior among members is another questions.

    I think the church makes a sincere attempt at it, but that’s different from doing a good job of it. I can measure a job well done by the outcome, the “observable behavior among members”, as you put it.


    It seems like almost every other week we are taught about not judging others, to condemn the sin but love the sinner. Those not living to set standards are certainly excluded from activities that require worthiness

    I think you put your finger right on it here. In word, the church teaches not to judge, but in deed the church judges. As you go on to observe, “I’m not sure there is a way around it”. You may be right — maintaining an organization with high standards might be incompatible with maintaining a non-judgmental, accepting organization. I’m still thinking on that one…

  21. And, to tie this back to the post, perhaps being a non-judgmental, accepting place just isn’t the church’s job. I want it to be, and I hope that it will be, but maybe that’s just not intended to be one of the church’s core competencies in order to fulfill its mission.

  22. Dane,
    Re: The BCC article on D&C 93, I’m not sure there isn’t a consistent kernel around which orbit numerous perspectives. There is something there that we do our best to understand. This may kick the can down the road, as it were, by deferring the question (any Derridians out there? think différence), but it does raise a perhaps more significant issue: namely, that of our (i.e., humans’) limited capacity to understand eternal doctrines. But why in our discussions is it so often the case that “changing human understanding of doctrine” is reduced to “doctrine changes”?

    I do not think one should abuse these limitations, say, by using them as an excuse not to search after truth and righteousness, to throw our hands up at the inscrutable nature of eternal truths. However, I also think it misguided to assume too quickly or casually that doctrine changes, as the following at #16 seems to do: “we pretend that those doctrines haven’t changed.” Again, is it the doctrine that has changed or have we? Must a more enhanced, mature perspective of a doctrine–which hopefully comes as we grow in the gospel–be equated with “doctrine changes”?

    Even in those cases where the doctrine has changed in a more blatant fashion–e.g., priesthood ordination of those of African descent–I see no reason why the “truths/doctrines change” hypothesis must trump the “truths/doctrines are eternal” hypothesis.
    Keeping with the current example of selective priesthood ordination…
    The 1978 revelation is used by some to show how LDS “eternal truths/doctrines” have changed. But considered from another perspective, it ‘is’ possible to subsume this change within a broader framework of truth, namely the truth that God works for the salvation of all his children in his own due time and way. This truth, it strikes me, is eternal, while still allowing for what from a more focused perspective looks like blatant backtracking. (I would add that this is what allows God to interact with other agency-possessing individuals in a meaningful way, one that allows him to carry out his work without abrogating our agency.) I recall Nibley’s article “The Best Possible Test.” Let us assume that priesthood ordination is just one more spiritual obligation for which those who receive it must make an accounting? Could we not say that God, knowing the injustices visited upon African Americans in the country that He established, inter alia, for the restoration of His (Son’s) gospel, and the added challenges this placed upon them, decided to wait a while before giving them this responsibility? Say, right after the Civil Rights era?

    No doubt those who reject the priesthood revelation will see Nibley’s argument as nothing more than an attempt to justify the unsavory realities of our history. Racism by any other name… (I am NOT suggesting there was no racism. I believe there was. Only that it isn’t the sine qua non it is sometimes made out to be in some of the LDS related fora I have visited.) The rejection of Nibley’s argument, however, does not constitute ‘necessarily’ a refutation of the argument I am proposing.

    Even though we may find the language/sentiment/etc. of the racist explanations of the priesthood ban repugnant today, who’s to say they didn’t accomplished God’s purposes by deferring ordination while America got its act together and started treating African Americans with a modicum of equality.

    My point is simply that there exists a perspective from which the 1978 about face can be considered an example of God’s eternal truths/doctrines. I have used the priesthood ban to illustrate my point, but one could, I imagine, use other issues as well, mutatis mutandis.

    Lastly, re: #21–Dane, I’ll take your “sincere attempt” comment as a concession. :) In the OP, you said the church doesn’t do well at encouraging. Now you say they make a sincere effort even if it hasn’t borne fruit. That’s a subtle shift in the question as posed in the OP. The point you are making in #21 actually begs the question (am I using that expression correctly?): what does “church” mean, the people or the institutional leaders?

  23. Ryan, thank you for taking the time to offer your well-thought and well-written response. I think part of the confusion is that we’re using the word “doctrine” to refer to two different things — teachings and principles. As an analogy, let me use gravity. Gravity is an unchanging principle. From our perspective, it’s effectively eternal. However, the teachings about gravity have changed, from Aristotle (see ) to Newton to modern attempts at a quantum gravity theory. The principle is the same but the teachings change as we receive further light and knowledge.

    If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that the principles of the gospel are eternal, but that our teachings (or understanding) of those principles change. If that’s what you’re saying, I agree with you. My point in the original post is that we don’t have any particular teaching (or “doctrine”) that we can point at and say, “We got this one right on the nose.” This is a problem when we claim that the church teaches revealed, eternal truths. However, if we instead claim that the church teaches about eternal truths, then it’s less of a problem, but it also makes the teachings less useful.

  24. Dane, I like the gravity analogy. And I think the distinction between principles and teachings express my point well. (And it does so in a lot fewer lines, too.)
    As to the ‘problem’ of the difference between what we teach and what we claim, I confess I only think it’s a problem when viewed from a certain perspective. I recognize that it could pose a stumbling block for some. Some can’t get past what they see as blatant about faces made as the Church catches up with the times.
    Take the priesthood ban. What if we see the lifting of the ban as a sign that God felt society had finally come around to treating minorities with enough dignity that they could handle the responsibility associated with the priesthood?
    I don’t have time for another lengthy response. I just think it’s jumping the gun to assume the Church somehow has a problem because it’s evolving. Perhaps our own expectations of the teachings/principles dichotomy should change, not the Church qua institution. I do find many of the explanations of the ban problematic, but also rather expected. In the absence of a ready explanation, divine or otherwise, it is human nature to make meaning as best we can, to make sense of the situation/reality. It’s what we’re evolutionarily programmed and cognitively equipped to do. That those of us who live later would come back and point out the attempts to do just that as wrong is a thorny issue in its own right. I like Elder Jensen’s MO vis-a-vis Mountain Meadows Massacre; “yes, I’ve read the accounts and all I can say is how tragic it was for all involved. Let us reach out to our brother and sister in the love of the Savior and make a better world.”
    Anyway, not sure if I’m even responding to any specific comment or question. I gotta run, though.
    Thanks for exploring the issues in a considerate and reflective fashion.

  25. The first statement about morality is true on its face. The second statement is a jab at religion that ignores the philosophical questions presented by the first statement. I.e., where does morality come from? If someone does have a monopoly on morality then that person should always be obeyed, even if everyone thinks they are wrong. This is the crux of Joseph Smith’s dilemma, the whole reason he went to the grove.

  26. I’m sure this is perhaps beside the point, but the priesthood having been withheld prior to 1978 has been referred as a “policy”, not a “doctrine.”

  27. I think it’s been variously referred as both a “policy” and a “doctrine” at different times. My understanding is that since 1978, the trend has been toward “policy”, but that doesn’t negate its position as a previous doctrine. (Technically, doctrine and policy are orthogonal, so a particular issue might be both doctrine and policy, neither doctrine nor policy, or one but not the other.)

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