The Misguided Quest for a Common Moral Framework

The Mormon Newsroom just posted a new think-y piece titled “The Quest for a Common Moral Framework.” A few years back the Newsroom posted a number of these reflective essays, such as “Approaching Mormon Doctrine“, but not so much recently. So this one is worth taking a look at. It seems like a spinoff from the intensive Religious Freedom initiative.

Rather than hoping or arguing for a common moral framework for society (which, I imagine, would only be seen as a good thing if was the Mormon moral framework that was adopted or enforced), the better approach is to start by recognizing the common legal framework that does exist. That legal framework, particularly criminal law, is informed by a general sense of right and wrong, but not by any particular religious viewpoint, at least in the 21st century. Outside of conduct that is prohibited by the law is a broad area of civil society where individuals and organizations pursue their own interests and goals, safeguarded by rights of free speech, assembly, religion, and free association. That is, people are guided by diverse moral frameworks, acting under a common legal framework.

At the end of the essay (unlike the title), it is in fact plainly acknowedged that “we may not agree on all the specifics of a common moral code.” And that is the point: We live under a common legal code but pursue different interest and projects in life, guided by our individual and differing moral codes. We like it that way. When we say, “Hey, it’s a free country,” that’s what we mean. Nobody wants to live under someone else’s moral framework, common or not.

Deep down, the Mormon psyche seems strangely attracted to the idea of a benevolent dictator rather than a messy democracy. Maybe that comes from examples in the Book of Mormon (kings and authoritarian chief judges are celebrated) or from our sketchy model of the City of Zion (whose officials are not elected). This shows through toward the end of the essay, where the anonymous author or committee rejects, as a model for the ideal society operating under a moral framework, the idea of “individual sailboats heading freely to self-chosen destinations” and instead argues for a world where “trains run on set schedules.” So the “common moral framework” that the Newsroom has in mind is Mussolini’s fascist Italy. No thanks. I’ll take the sailboats.

55 comments for “The Misguided Quest for a Common Moral Framework

  1. “Deep down, the Mormon psyche seems strangely attracted to the idea of a benevolent dictator rather than a messy democracy”

    Huh? Upon what basis do you see that? From what I can tell most people just want to be left alone.

  2. Clark,

    I don’t want to speak for Dave, but it strikes me that the God of Mormonism is a benevolent dictator. And if the pattern of God’s authority is to be repeated by Mormons who become gods themselves in the afterlife, Dave’s comment makes sense to me in that context.

    Ditto his comment about Mormons not liking a messy democracy. Despite what the church teaches about liberty and agency, most LDS folks I’ve known tend to be quite uncomfortable with choices other people (read: non-Mormon) make. The Mormon view of Heaven is not, as far as I can tell, a relaxed, peaceful place where everyone is at liberty to choose to live however they’d like. It’s an authoritarian paradise where everyone follows God in lockstep (the first law of the Mormon Heaven is obedience, not love or liberty, remember) and hangs out with their families. That’s pretty much all we know about the Mormon afterlife.

    And to Jonathan: I don’t think Mormons are fascists, but they’re clearly authoritarian. We talk so much about priesthood authority and about how we’re “the one true church” that the authoritarian strain of Mormon thought is pretty easily identified. I agree that fascism isn’t necessarily on the table, though I’d suggest that our view of obedience and authority, if enacted in this world instead of the next, would at least have the potential to contain certain fascistic elements, notably a strong, nationalistic authoritarianism and a fairly regulated economic structure (United Order, anyone?).

  3. Here is the odd dichotomy that is the Mormon psyche. On one hand, we like to think of ourselves as individualists, and some of us even go so far as to embrace Ayn Rand’s extreme egosim. On the other hand, we are religious, and, specifically, Christians, the strange little group that in the days following Christ’s manifestation after his resurrection, had “all things in common among them.” In other words, Christians were supposedly practicing a form of communism more than 1500 years before Marx was even a twinkle in his father’s eye.

    But, this individualism is modern, a product of thousands of years of human development away from the tendency to group that provided evolutionary, or survival, advantage of our distant ancestors. We even cause the family to reflect the individual, our nuclear family model of one dad, one mom, and one or more children. Not too long ago, families were a lot more complex, consisting of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. living in a close-knit neighborhood, or even the same house. Clans are the natural order or ‘traditional’ form of family, even as described in the Old Testament with Adam.

    Humans have developed an understanding of self-determination and what that can mean, and they have developed sufficient technology to help them have the time it takes to explore this. More leisure time meant more time to ponder, more time to learn, and so we have now a rather large ‘movement’ across the world in favor of self-leadership, self-direction.

    Ayn Rand did not trust religion because it tends to enforce the group over the individual. Ironically enough, Marx did not trust religion either, though more because religion tended to do the ‘thinking’ for the people. Communism was reinvented into something that functioned on a state-wide scale and rejected religion outright, while supposedly keeping the ‘brotherhood’ ideals of religion. Fascism, on the other hand, did not have to be reinvented, it never stopped being practiced. Fascism has been a desirable form of government for as long as humans sought to rule over other humans. Coupled with this fascism was a state church, with either a single or multiple set of gods, so that the state/church became the order of the universe for every day people.

    The LDS church presents itself to its members in both forms. It has a hierarchy of leadership and an entrenched bureaucracy (including the CES), which provide the global management of affairs and circumscription of doctrine. It has a lay leadership at the ground level, no professional clergy, which means despite the over-arching bureaucracy, individuals in local communities take turns being the leadership, both spiritual and temporal/logistical. This is not like churches of older times, so there is an implied trust that local congregations can actually function with some autonomy. That is why the church needed to start in the United States, because here an environment was provided that suited the development of this kind of model.

    It is one of the tenets of this church that its members obey the laws of the areas where they live, and this has put the members in some areas in extraordinary dilemmas at times. But, over time, this policy has served to keep the church stable and given it survival in those areas. This then becomes the Mormon dichotomy I opened with, a mind that is taught to both think for itself and obey authority, civil authority not just God’s authority. We are free agents, according to LDS doctrine, but we are bound to uphold civil law which puts constraints on that agency as well as spiritual laws that also constrain that agency.

    However, we share this country, and the world, with many people who are not LDS, and not Christian, and not even religious. We are tempted to think that these may not know how to behave morally since they do not believe as we do. Our cause for concern is misplaced. Religion really is not a requirement for humans to develop a moral compass, even though that is what we told ourselves, and what religion told us for millennia. We really just have not had the opportunity, and mindset, to try living morally without religion, until this time. People have demonstrated they can behave morally without believing as we do, without believing akin to us, or even believing in any particular philosophy/religion. This is is scary to us, but it doesn’t need to be. We find, after all, that being homogeneous does help us feel safe, but limits our thinking. We strike a balance in our day between the pressures to conform from multiple sources, and the desire to determine our own thoughts and behavior, and this struggle is what, in my opinion, makes us most like God.

  4. Brother Sky, I’m so ridiculously swamped this week I don’t have time to say much. I’ll just say that’s certainly not the image of heaven I’ve been taught. While hardly canonical nor the only view, a rather popular view of heaven is more or less that people get to become Gods to their own universe and are righteous enough to be trusted to do what’s right without micromanaging. While I’m far, far from a libertarian nearly everything about heaven I’ve heard tends to be far more of a libertarian type heaven than what you outline.

    Obedience is the law of heaven, yet scriptures suggest that as we become more righteous we are trusted more. The key scripture about Mormon notions of divinization to my mind has always been Hel 10.

    “Blessed art thou, Nephi, for those things which thou hast done; for I have beheld how thou hast with unwearyingness declared the word, which I have given unto thee, unto this people. And thou hast not feared them, and hast not sought thine own life, but hast sought my will, and to keep my commandments. And now, because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will.”

    That just doesn’t seem the benevolent dictator model. The Mormon model to my eyes has always been less a dictator than someone frustratingly giving you far less information or direction than you want. Instead you repeatedly get told to figure it out yourself. (The command to light the boats by the Brother of Jared being the classic archetype of this view of government) Since Mormon theodicy is fully wrapped up in the idea of this life being primarily a developmental period I’m curious as to this dictator model. It just seems so at odds with fundamental Mormon views.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are many people who do want to get told what to do. It’s just hard for me to figure out how they still have that view after being in leadership. We’re certainly given directions – sometimes directions we don’t like in the least. But what’s so surprising to me is just how frustratingly few there really are.

  5. have to second Clark. my view of heaven is not a lock step dictator nor the one true church rules them all. The first law of heaven maybe obedience but it is willing obedience. Obedience selected on an individual bases often after growing experiences, even trails of faith or surely repentance. Using this free-will principle in governing a family or leading a group of church members is very difficult and often frustrating. Often individuals add to the very general directives given in church handbooks because they want the safely of clear directives and are uncomfortable with seek their own understanding.

  6. I doubt that Dave was really serious about the fascism thing. But it is mildly ironic that somebody advocating a “common moral framework” would be seemingly unaware of what might be called our “common political shorthand” in which everybody understands what “making the trains run on time” is code for.

  7. Religion is the basis for morality and freedom. Without religion the Nephites would have not known the commandments and will of God and dwindled away into disbelief. Our country was found and framed upon the platform of religious morality.

  8. “it strikes me that the God of Mormonism is a benevolent dictator”

    A dictator enforces their supreme power on others for the good of everyone under their authority. You can’t look at the world as it is and think that God’s role in it resembles anything like a dictator, benevolent or otherwise.

    A “good” dictator would see all the wrongs in the world, and either right them on their own or force others to comply for their own good. Indeed, perhaps one reason why so many people are turning away from God in this day and age, is because they’d like him to be a benevolent dictator, when that’s clearly not how he operates.

    Regarding “authoritarian” that term is very loaded. Clearly, lines of priesthood authority and stewardship are a necessary component of our faith, but you can’t define the church on the terms of the world in this way. It’s similar to how the united order can’t be described as communism or socialism, why males being ordained to a priesthood office isn’t “sexist”, why the church isn’t defined as a “cult” and why it’s inappropriate to define Latter-day Saints as “non-Christian”.

    In every one of the aforementioned cases, you can make a technical word-play argument that strips down the church and applies that simple label, but that would a very unsophisticated, almost sophomoric argument.

  9. With lastlemming (7), “making the trains run on time” is ironic at best, but I would say phenomenally misguided. Not only is the phrase associated with Mussolini (whether accurate as to the trains is unclear but probably not), but it was resurrected and used by several Trump surrogates in the recent campaign just ended (to decidedly mixed reviews).
    Putting aside Mussolini and fascism, and current associations with president-elect Trump, all of which is unnecessarily(?) inflammatory and distinctly out of place in a Mormon Newsroom piece, there is the fundamental problem that we do NOT have a “common” moral framework. I have listened to several Church leaders talk about religious freedom and moral framework, and without fail they all make broad assumptions about a “common” view. Over and over, as I hear examples and cases, I hear complexity and a multiplicity of viewpoints including from different religious traditions and from within single religious and secular traditions. Often I agree with the desired outcome, as presented, but always I hear complexity and multiplicity.
    Whether the Mormon God is a benevolent dictator (also inflammatory?) I will not venture. What I do hear is the belief that if we will all refer back/up/over to the Mormon God, we will all come to the same answer. My lived experience is that that simply is not true. Even if “we the people” were all devote Mormons (or all Christians or Muslims or libertarians) we would not come to the same answers on any number of important moral choices.

  10. Christiankimball #10,
    We are cimmanded to build zion. That means being all of one heart and one mind. If we were all “true” Mormons, we should all agree on the same morality.

  11. I think the Newsroom piece speaks to a naivete that the Church displays when it appears to re-package existing norms/beliefs/ideals under a Mormon label and call it novel and superior.

    I’m relieved that the post doesn’t appear to represent a subtle endorsement of dated gender roles or treatment of homosexuals, but I sadly see the post as being rooted in Mormon exceptionalism, as I think, as Dave suggests, that the call for a “common moral framework” presupposes that there is not one in the Judeo-Christian ideals that our society is based upon. We may stray from that framework at times (November 8), but it nonetheless remains.

    Mormonism’s raison d’être is its exceptionalism, whether it is explicitly mentioned at General Conference by the Bretheren or hidden under a deep layer of liberal-progressive and/or universalist ideals (I’m thinking of Mason’s “Planted” and the growing genre it inhabits). Conscious or not, the Church often wades into subtle expressions of its monopoly on unlocking God’s greatest blessings through efforts like this Newsroom piece. I’m disappointed by this, and by the fact that public initiatives like Mormon Helping Hands or FamilySearch are at there core efforts to convince people of/facilitate the Church’s position as defined by D&C 1:30. These efforts of course help people who are not interested in following the Church’s prescribed path to exhalation, but that is absolutely not their intended purpose. Doctrinally speaking, Mormonism’s path is quite specific, and I disagree with the efforts of those believers uncomfortable with Mormon exceptionalism to say otherwise.

    I used to be able to tell myself that the most benevolent God is a bureaucratic one who has set up a clear, singular path through everything that gets me a Temple Recommend, but I no longer operate under this framework. I’ll take a sailboat too, comforted by my belief that those still on the cruise ship are headed to the same bright hereafter.

  12. Anyone who is opposed to a system of mass transit with established routes and schedules is an anti-environmental hater of poor people who probably voted for Donald Trump after a weekend of yachting on his rich man’s sailboat.

  13. A particular question nagged at me as I read the post at the Mormon Newsroom Blog: What if the common moral framework that society arrives at fundamentally disagrees with the teachings of the LDS Church? For example, a majority of the country now supports gay marriage. I wish the blog post had addressed this possibility.

    I definitely see a strain of authoritarianism in the LDS Church structure. I can’t count the number of times I have heard something along the lines of, “This is not a church of volunteering. It is a church of assignments.” We are given assignments to clean the church, go out with the missionaries, bring food to various functions, not to mention home and visiting teaching. We are told never to ask to be released or to turn down callings. When I interviewed at BYU-I, I was told that department chairs are chosen by the administration. They are then sustained in the same way we sustain bishops. When I was at BYU, I could not help but notice that it was proudly noted that students had initiated the creation of the honor code; however, students did not have control over it after that. We have the 14 Fundamentals talk that clearly states that we need to do what the leaders say.

    Obviously, the Church does not have power to compel members to do what it says. But it uses the power of community to pressure people to behave how it likes. I do not have much faith that the Church would be more accommodating if it controlled the secular government as many leaders in the past have said that it should.

  14. I feel the church realizes that finding a common moral ground is a means to an end. Truly, in the end, the saved will be strained through a very high strict moral standard that all agree upon. Getting there though may require lesser morality we can all agree to.

  15. The crux of this discussion, as I see it, is that a “common morality” does not necessitate “agreement on political policies,” and yet . . . This post points out the Church’s hedging of the “does not necessitate” “and yet.”

  16. I’m okay with the idea of legal framework. Except that common legal framework for America and a large number of other countries are based on Judeo-Christian beliefs. So, we’re right back to religion again.

  17. Christian (10), while I’m rather dubious about the benevolent dictator model, I’m not sure I have a problem with common moral framework. I think that’s true even if the grounds of morals aren’t agreed upon. By and large most moral questions society agrees upon. There are some that we don’t (abortion, homosexuality, place of privilege, etc) but they are dwarfed by what we do agree upon.

    Michael (14) that is a big problem with this view. Despite thinking society shares a lot in terms of morals, the controversial areas are precisely where we don’t share views. Further just because society shares a view doesn’t mean it is correct. My sense is that the Newsroom is appealing to something like Burkean approaches to morality. I’m not sure it can do the job they want it to though.

  18. The common statement that the first law of heaven is obedience is circular thinking. Obedience isn’t a law. We can be obedient TO a law, but can we be obedient to obedience? What if we are disobedient to obedience? None of this makes any sense at all. There are laws. Maybe even eternal laws. If so, do we even know what they are? We can be obedient to them if we know what they are. If we don’t, then obedience is impossible. But obedience to obedience is always just nonsensical. We need to spend more time trying to figure out if there are eternal laws, and if so, what they are, and stop proposing that obedience is the first law of heaven. It is no such thing, and such shallow thinking just gets us sidetracked from more important matters.

  19. Clark,
    I see it similar with the church. In our appeal to find common ground we may be undermining morality at its core and it may backfire.

  20. Clark: “My sense is that the Newsroom is appealing to something like Burkean approaches to morality. I’m not sure it can do the job they want it to though.” Could you explain this for a layman? Thanks.

  21. Nobody wants to live under someone else’s moral framework, common or not.

    Except that everyone does live under someone else’s moral framework. Every single law—from the most trivial to the most profound—does, in fact, shove someone’s religion down someone else’s throat. Defining secular value sets as irreligious (because the superhuman is oneself rather than God?) doesn’t make them less imposing or onerous to those who would prefer to choose otherwise.

  22. Michael (23) Burke basically privileged the place of tradition. He’s kind of unreadable but pretty influential. The idea is more or less that society’s norms have been established over centuries and carry great wisdom. Thus those attempting revolution ought be very careful. The burden of proof is heavily on those advocating revolution. In this case it means there’s a set of established social norms that are this moral framework. People are advocating overthrowing them but this risks missing the benefits they have. (Contextually Burke was worried about the excesses of the French revolution)

    The problem for a Burkean is that while those arguments are appealing to many they generally offer little reasoning for those advocating for revolution. The conflict is almost always over norms that are considered bad. So while a Burkean is hesitant at change they almost always support change that turns out to work. But then why didn’t they support the change initially? This is a traditional problem for Burkeans over issues like women’s suffrage, slavery, civil rights, and more.

    Franklin (21) The obedience idea is obedience to God not to laws. This runs into the Euthyphro problem though. Is the good good because God says it or does God say it because it is good? However I think the Mormon theodicy offers a way out of this. God does the good because it is good independent of God. However we are learning the good and thus have to trust in God that what he says is good. This type of obedience, as I hinted at in (5), is really much more a kind of educational pedagogy than good in its own terms. We are obedient to God because he is God but ultimately because it is through obedience that we learn the good.

  23. Clark (25), re: “The obedience idea obedience to God not to laws.” With this idea you have made some sense out of the “first law of heaven” mantra, but the sense you have made is not at all the sense in which that mantra is used by some church authorities or generally in the LDS culture I’m familiar with. It seems to me that the obedience mantra is commonly used to motivate obedience to whatever is said by any LDS authority that implies a course of action (or it is used to accuse the “disobedient”). For one example, President Hinckley’s suggestion that a single ear piercing in each of a woman’s ears is enough has been used to discourage multiple piercings and to criticize the spirituality or righteousness of women who had multiple piercings. The no R-rated movies suggestion has been used similarly. For another, at least one stake president has refused a temple recommend to a man who declined to shave off facial hair because of his skin condition. I would submit that it is certainly not through obedience to the whims or personal preferences of ecclesiastical authorities “that we learn the good.” Of course, you didn’t suggest it was. These examples, however, make cultural nonsense out of that mantra quite independently of Franklin’s (21) issue.

  24. The Newsroom essay is not very good—it’s so unfocused that it’s hard to pin down what the author really wants to say—but Dave’s point in the OP is worth making. Dave points out the essay’s fundamental mistake: if we’re looking for a basis on which we can exist together in prosperity, we find it not in a common moral framework, but in the rule of law.

    To write religious toleration into our fundamental law was the single greatest achievement of the American founding. Europe had endured religious warfare for centuries. The Americans were the first to apply Locke’s brilliant idea that we must segregate religion from politics in order to allow both religion and politics to thrive.

    Now, there’s nothing wrong with trying to find a common moral framework. That’s a fine religious activity. It’s a fine irreligious activity too. It’s just not a good way to erect a framework for civil society.

  25. JR (26) I confess I don’t see the conflict. If what a prophet says is actually from God then presumably we should obey because God said it. The ultimate non-proximate causes for that obedience are our learning to be like God. What you seem to focus on more is simply disagreement over what is from God or how to deal with human fallibilism. While those are important issues they seem different from what I was addressing.

    Loursat (27) while I’d certainly agree rule of law is hugely important the reality is that much of our culture is due to social norms and not laws. If social norms break down so that we can only appeal to law then a lot of our society has stopped functioning well. The ability to trust each other simply is the grease that lets society work.

  26. Clark (28) We have significant historical instances of prophets of the Restoration saying things and giving directions that are either not from God or God is rather fickle. In any event, my comment was not limited to words of prophets, but was directed to the use of the obedience mantra by ecclesiastical leaders generally, many of whom are not sustained as prophets, and by others purporting to interpret or apply the statements of such ecclesiastical leaders. In my experience and to my observation, there is a substantial difference between your analysis of what the obedience mantra means or should mean and the way it is often used. I believe you are right about what it should mean. I merely mourn the perceived fact that that is not what is means to many in application.

  27. Yes, but again you’re addressing a different issue – when do we think prophets are speaking for God. Again I agree that’s important although I suspect we disagree on the issue. But it seems different from what was being addressed.

  28. I thinks its paramount that we elect leaders in society that best represent our views and beliefs of morality. The problem of the church trying to find a common moral ground us that it divorces morality from religion and eventually makes “morality” just what a secular godless society defines as “moral” and further opens the door to the acceptance and embracing of humanistic secularism.

  29. I didn’t get any sense that the article was trying to promote LDS morality as “common” morality, but rather that achieving a common morality was an ongoing “quest.” The main point seemed to be that religious beliefs have traditionally drawn societies together in a common morality, and that religion is still an important part of that quest in modern times.

    I think these essays, regardless of their lightweight philosophy, are a promising sign of the church’s attempt to move beyond legislating its own morality. They are ecumenical, trying to place the church within a broader religious culture fighting for relevance in an increasingly secular age. The church should be applauded for trying, however haltingly, to bring about a more nuanced discussion of difficult topics.

  30. Alison for President: “Defining secular value sets as irreligious (because the superhuman is oneself rather than God?) doesn’t make them less imposing or onerous to those who would prefer to choose otherwise.”

  31. The common moral framework is a dangerous ideal. The only reason our pluralistic order works is that we haven’t adopted a common moral theory. We have what some scholars, like Cass Sunstein, call incompletely theorized agreements, which allow disparate groups with disparate moral backgrounds to agree on particular practices or results while disagreeing on the underlying reasons. Also, it seems that in the broader discussion, there’s a background assumption that the church is better than the larger society at identifying and instantiating the true gospel ethic. I suspect that isn’t always true, even if it often is.

  32. Franklin (21): They couldn’t put “obedience is the first law of heaven” in the scriptures if it wasn’t true.

  33. Dave, I couldn’t believe that a church essay would actually use the phrase “trains run on set schedules” in this context, so I checked and, sadly, you are correct.

    So many within the Mormon faith long for the benevolent dictator because it obviates the need to actually think for yourself, which is really hard work. This manifests itself in the continued embrace of scriptural literalism, scriptural inerrancy, and prophetic infallibility, or its modern euphemism “we cannot lead you astray.”

    And the church obliges its members with handbooks of instructions that purport control the most minute aspects of church administration and that grow with every new edition. And the rules for missionaries—”e.g., earrings should not hang longer than approximately one inch below the earlobe”—would make a Pharisee blush. And we wonder why we are so often referred to as “sheeple.”

  34. When was the last time you waited for a train that didn’t come?

    Tuesday afternoon, the bus I had hoped to take home didn’t show up, I had checked the online bus tracker and saw that it wasn’t coming, so I stayed working a bit longer and arrived home later than intended. About a third of those who boarded the bus said something to the driver about having waited at their stops vainly an extra half hour. What a bunch of sheeple; we should have each inflated our personal hot air balloons and wafted through the air, each pursuing his own independent course, instead of turning our wills over to the benevolent dictators who manage municipal services.

  35. Farside – are you kidding? Are you just making things up? Look at the material I have to prepare a lesson for 14-15-year-olds on Sunday:

    “An important part of being self-reliant is learning how to make decisions for ourselves. Heavenly Father is willing to guide us, but He does not always tell us exactly what to do. He has given us agency and expects us to use our knowledge, experience, and faith to guide our own decisions. We can then ask Him to confirm to us whether our decision is correct.”

    A list of scripture reference and three suggestions for activities follow. That’s it. I get nothing. I wish I had a lesson with structure. I wish I had three pages of patter but I’m supposed to encourage agency and self-determination in these sheeple. Half the time they won’t even talk in class. What is this ever-growing pharisaical manual we all must follow? I think I… I think I must have missed it. Thank God I didn’t tie a four-in-hand last Sunday, I might have run afoul of something. I’m sure you know someone who was excommunicated over a bow-tie, though.

  36. Mars, I don’t know anyone who was excommunicated over a bow-tie but I do know someone who was excommunicated several years ago for teaching that Joseph Smith had multiple wives. And, a few years ago, when I told a true story in a Sacrament meeting talk about a young missionary who defied the instructions given to him by two apostles because he felt their proposed course of action was unsafe, the Stake President ordered my bishop to conduct an investigation to find out why I was suggesting it was okay, under any circumstance, to disregard a church official’s instructions. (Those two apostles, by the way, almost drowned because they ignored the young missionary’s warnings. Oh, and by the way, that young missionary had a name: Joseph F. Smith.) I was similarly admonished several years ago when I suggested in a High Priests’ group meeting that Joseph buried his head in a hat where kept a seer stone in order to translate the Book of Mormon.

    We are strongly discouraged from using any material not in the correlated manuals. If you teach that Moses didn’t write the first five books of the Old Testament or that Jonah really wasn’t really swallowed by a big fish, then you are not in harmony with church teachings. And we are repeatedly admonished not to seek out anything on the Internet about church history that does not appear on a pro-LDS web site.

    What kind people does this environment breed? Hugh Nibley provides an answer in his essay “Zeal Without Knowledge”: “It actually happens at the BYU, and that not rarely, that students come to a teacher, usually at the beginning of a term, with the sincere request that he refrain from teaching them anything new. They have no desire, they explain, to hear what they do not know already!”

    I’m delighted to hear that the Junior Sunday School lesson manuals are encouraging the youth to be self-reliant. But the church is far from a model of consistency when it comes to encouraging independent thought and questioning. The last apostle to repeatedly do that was Hugh B. Brown and, for his trouble, he became the first member of a First Presidency to lose his position once the prophet died and someone who didn’t share his liberal views became president of the church.

  37. Mars, I forgot one other story that you might find instructive.

    In our last ward, the bishop would not allow any member of the Aaronic Priesthood to pass the sacrament if he wasn’t wearing a white shirt. A young boy in the Teachers’ Quorum—I’ll call him Jason—didn’t believe it was proper to exclude otherwise worthy priesthood holders from performing this ordinance, so he always wore a colored shirt.

    As it turns out, this young boy’s father was not active in the church. He was bothered by certain aspects of church doctrine, history and culture. But, to support his son, he decided to attend sacrament meeting one Sunday to hear Jason give a talk.

    After the sacrament service, another boy in Jason’s Teachers’ Quorum saw his father. He promptly approached him and the first words out of his mouth were: “When is Jason going to start wearing a white shirt to church?” We never saw his father in church again.

    But wait. This gets better. Guess who told me this story? It was the bishop, who had overheard the conversation. He shared this with me during a discussion we were having about the growing problem of intolerance in the ward, utterly clueless to the possibility that his pharisaical attitudes might be a contributing cause.

    Mars, the words you quote from your lesson manual ring somewhat hollow in the face of experiences such as these.

  38. FarSide I think you’re conflating having strong social norms with obedience. They aren’t the same thing although I can understand why they can easily be conflated. I also understand why some might chafe at strong social norms.

    Somethings are more than just social norms of course. Pres. Hinkley’s request to get rid of tattoos and too many earring seems minor but I’d consider that being obedient if we follow. I remember when it happened and I knew several friends who had tattoos removed. I don’t know if it was a command from God (I doubt it) or Pres. Hinkley trying to keep us separate from the world as best he could manage (what I suspect is the case) I’ll confess I see nothing wrong with following his counsel in this case.

  39. Clark, when an integral component of your moral framework is reflexive obedience to those in positions of authority—though shalt sit the prescribed distance from the campfire, no further and no closer—it’s rather hard not to conflate the two. Indeed, the moral framework suggested by the author(s) of this essay will not produce the desired results unless everyone gets on the same train. It can’t abide those with differing interpretations of the framework’s social norms.

  40. Clark,
    Does God really bless human beings for being obedient to church leaders? That really does not fit the D&C 130 model, does it? We are blessed for being obedient to specific laws to which specific blessings are attached, not strong social norms established by a hierarchy.

  41. FarSide I don’t think there is “reflexive obedience to those in positions of authority.” If that were so home teaching sure would be done better. Rather people do what sociologists call virtue signaling which is rather independent of actual obedience. They’ll focus on things that signify they are righteous while really being rather unconnected to matters of obedience. In my experience people focused on virtue signaling rather rarely care about obedience.

    The same thing happens everywhere of course. There’s a great economic paper that managed to show empirically that people prefer to buy a Prius to signal their environmental cred rather than other hybrids that aren’t as noticeable as hybrids. This happens a lot with politicians who’ll pass laws designed to show their virtue rather than actually reducing the rate of whatever they’re against. You see this especially with gun control, abortion and many other things.

    Now of course virtue signaling is exactly the phenomena among the Pharisees that Christ condemned. And I’d certainly never deny it among us. I’ve seen it regularly. I just don’t think it has much at all to do with obedience.

    Old Man, D&C 130 has nothing to do with being obedient to Church leaders. The question is when a Church leader is actually inspired. I think it a fair position to take that you try and figure out if they are but give them the benefit of doubt. I can’t say I’m always obedient because I’m not. I wish I did better. But I do honestly try to give all my leaders the benefit of doubt. There’s then the question of how much leeway they get in a calling where they have stewardship but have to figure things out themselves. But ironically that’s an issue precisely because we get vague commands from God and have to usually figure the details out for ourselves. The the very fact this is a problem actually demonstrates that the benevolent dictator model isn’t happening. Usually what people really are complaining about are well intentioned leaders trying the best they can and screwing up at times. But again, I’m not sure that has much to do with obedience.

  42. FarSide, I don’t think you see the irony in your behavior. You’re just acting so Mormon about this. Your zeal for your gospel hobby is so great you’re just setting aside actual, huge, programs that are exactly what you want. You’re not praising Preach My Gospel, you’re not praising Behold Your Little Ones, you’re just repeating anecdotes. There really is nothing the Church could do to satisfy you, do you realize? Because you greet every one of these new programs with a shrug, with a “hey, that’s the right direction but SOME BISHOPS DON’T LIKE BLUE SHIRTS, and THAT IS A DISASTER.”

    And I don’t mind. There are far more destructive idiosyncrasies we have culturally. I think it’s kind of cute. You’ll be all right, just stop worrying and start giving a little.

    (incoming list of FarSide’s contributions and lifetime of service, qualifying him above all others to provide binding criticism)

  43. Mars (47). I’m relatively new to the bloggernacle. Is your comment 47 what is meant by Times and Seasons’ “Charitable Comments Welcome” line? I appreciate the substance of both your comments and FarSides’, if not the perceived tone. You have pointed out some important Church programs that seem designed to help counteract a strong, but not ubiquitous, cultural habit of unthinking “obedience” to ecclesiastical authorities pointed out by FarSide. He is not the only one to have seen that habit in practice or even explicitly articulated by some as an expectation of all good Mormons. I needn’t set out any such “anecdotes” here. BTW, I don’t think “anecdote” can legitimately be used as a pejorative term, though it seems important to recognize that a few anecdotes do not provide an appropriate statistical basis for a generalization. What most of us have to deal with, however, is our lived experience and observations, not sociologically gathered data and statistically justified evaluations.

    FarSide has pointed out one common LDS use of the word “obedience” that can have negative effects. Clark has pointed to his preference to reserve the word “obedience” for something other than the way some use it. While Clark’s implied definition is theologically far more defensible in my view, it is also important for dealing or communicating with those leaders and followers who insist upon “reflexive obedience” to recognize that they do not limit the word in the same way Clark seems to wish they would.

    Thanks for pointing out what the Church is currently doing to attempt to counteract a counterproductive strain of Mormon culture.

  44. New, “charitable” is not merely tone. There are rhetorical patterns common to anti-Mormon discourse that are nearly impossible to combat through normal, polite means – they use politeness as a cloak while seeking to cut away at the foundations of the conversation. Were I to merely accept FarSide’s terms, which are that church-wide programs are mere steps but local bishops with dress codes unacceptable to FarSide are serious problems, he would transform from a nutcracker into an Angry Mormon Blogger prince and dance me away to the Land of Sweets, where his personal experiences reign supreme, leaving me powerless except to say “but it’s not like that everywhere.”

    Taking up an angry tone is a rhetorical tool, a reminder to FarSide that such tricks are not acceptable. He does not get to shift the foundations of the discourse. He’s trying to get us to acknowledge that if you don’t accept active protests against authority figures you are being “reflexively obedient” and probably “spiritually totalitarian” as well. I acknowledge that I may be wrong about his intentions and methods – but I will note that I haven’t been before, in similar cases. Anti-Mormon rhetoric is depressingly homogenous.

    In my personal, lived experience, some bishops allow colored shirts, some don’t. In wards that don’t, there are usually white shirts and ties in a closet somewhere nearby for boys that don’t have them, and there are always youth leaders willing to shell out three bucks at a thrift store to help out boys with poor families. It’s not that big of a deal. When a twelve-year-old is making his own pantsuit protest, and his dad leaves church in disgust when somebody comments on it, there’s something else going on. In my personal, lived experience. And it’s not prima facie evidence of dictatorial culture, especially when compared to the lesson manuals up and down the Church that promote the opposite.

  45. All legal frameworks are predicated on a moral ideology. This moral ideology need not be wed to a specific religious tradition, but is rooted in a shared cultural ethos–i.e. common beliefs of right and wrong. When a unified moral framework is rejected a legal framework becomes entirely provincial and arbitrary. When the courts loose their moral authority their legal authority is only tyranny. Alas, that seems to be the history of law and society.

    Reading the LDS newsroom piece I did not get out of it what Dave got out of it. I too am all for the sailboats, unless I need to catch a scheduled train. I thought the spirit of the piece was an attempt to recall what binds us in common, despite different political/cultural/religious points of view. To me, the whole sailboat/train metaphor was an attempt to draw a distinction between our vast differences and our fundamental similarities.

    This tension has never been fully resolved, but was addressed in the idea of a melting pot where differences were set aside for a greater, unified, identity. Such an ideology obviously didn’t work well for many minorities. Still, multi-culturalism has brought forth a disbanding momentum that has actually fractured the melting pot into tribalism, and the public idea of a common people has retreated behind a different kind of egocentrism as a result. There is a fractured moral framework in our culture. The legal framework will not bind it, but only be used to justify it. In this I believe Dave has it backwards. I am more than interested in his thoughts on the subject.

  46. The problem I have is that the divide is growing, not shrinking, between the right and the wrong. Finding some common groynd may seem pleasent but reality is that it isnt going to happen. For instance, where is the common ground between abortion and life? Where is the common ground between same sex marriage and heterosexual traditional marriage? Where is the common ground between pornography and decency? What do we really mean when we want a common moral framework? Sounds one sided to me. One side wants morals, the other doesnt. There is thus no common ground to find. It will always be an ever increasing divide in these last days. The past, according to scripture, is replete with showing this divide and how eventually God just destroys the wicked.

  47. @Rob
    “Where is the common ground between abortion and life?”

    I think many, most liberals would agree that abortion should be rare, exceptions in cases of rape, incest, severe fetal abnormailites or maternal health issues. The difference lies in how we move in that direction. Liberals believe we can and should put our full efforts behind preventing unplanned pregnancies. Conservatives favor an outright ban. The problem with the conservative approach is we have been there, done that–at the cost of women’s lives. The liberal approach will never deliver a zero abortion rate (but neither will the conservative approach).

    Rather than frame the argument in terms of hetero vs homo marriage why can’t we frame the problem as promiscuity?

    Pornography vs decency?
    There have been varying court decisions on pornography laws/restrictions and attempts to restrict it. There are some restrictions easily upheld such as laws against child porn.

    I think often there appears to be less common ground than actually exists because of one side inaccurately framing the other side’s position. Example: arguments for gun laws becomes “they want to confiscate (all) our guns.”

  48. Lois, I think framing can reduce the amount of common ground. I also think that for groups with pretty similar views the small differences seem that much larger. Honestly the difference between the democrats and republicans in terms of policy is much narrower than you see amongst parties in most countries.

    NewToThis, I don’t mind using whatever words we choose to use to describe the phenomena. There’s an old joke that 90% of any discussion is agreeing upon the meanings of the terms we use to describe the debate. I think there’s a lot of truth to that.

    My point is just that if it’s a matter of obedience then we have to explain why it only applies to some matters and not the matters than the authorities actually spend the most time on. (Things like home teaching, tithing, doing service, doing your callings etc.) Instead obedience is tied to things that most people see as pretty minor (both the complainer but also the people being obedience) Any discussion on obedience has to engage that. If it avoids that central issue then I think it’s really being a bit dodgy.

  49. Lois,
    Between the church and the world, be it conservative or liberal, the divide is widening and attempts to bridge the gap is futile. Common moral framework between the wicked and the righteous is an oxymoron.

  50. Doctrine and Covenants 10:37

    37 But as you cannot always judge the righteous, or as you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous, therefore I say unto you, hold your peace until I shall see fit to make all things known unto the world concerning the matter.

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