I recently read “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathon Haight. In an early chapter, the author explains how people reason with themselves to decide in which direction to proceed in a moral argument. This concept got me thinking about the moral template of religion – and specifically mormonism, since that’s the religion I’m most familiar with.
Mormonism comes with a template of morals complete with the reasoning already done for participants (believers). All a member has to do is plug into the system, act like everyone else acts, wear the same kinds of clothes (a uniform, in a way) and recite their beliefs. The recitation of beliefs can be done through myriad methods: song (hymns), sacrament rituals – including a memorized prayer,¹ or listening to speakers who touch on common themes and use the same words over and over again, such as: blessings, tender mercies, loving, happiness, heavenly father, and etc. These techniques all use repetition, but none matches the rote recitation that is also prevalent in mormonism.
For example, I still have the young women’s theme partially etched into my brain because I stood and recited it with my female peers every Sunday from ages 12 to 18:
“We are daughters of a heavenly father – who loves us, and we love him. We will stand as witnesses of God in every time and place…
choice and accountability,
We believe that as we come to accept and act upon these values…make and keep sacred covenants…receive the ordinances of the temple…”
I’m starting to forget – which I count as a good thing. I need the space for more important matters! If you’d like to know the full theme, find it here. There have been a couple of revisions since I was a teen.
It felt simple and safe to believe that the morals we were taught were the highest that mankind could achieve. As a naturally helpful person, I was already inclined to feel good about looking for ways I could help others (good works) and the choice and accountability part of the theme seemed logical to me because I believe that we all should be responsible for our actions. In a black and white world, they might stand the test of time, but the problem is, our world is mostly shades of gray.
When my moral template was challenged in the real world, I couldn’t explain the reasoning behind the morals I learned at church because I had not thought them through. I hadn’t come to my own conclusion, so when an atheist coworker in the military challenged me about whether heaven did or did not exist, I had to admit that I didn’t know. I just had to trust that my parents and leaders were correct in teaching me that heaven existed. (In fact, they said that it not only existed, but there were elaborate explanations regarding separate kingdoms according to how “worthy” or believing mormons were in this life.)
A friend and former classmate of mine, whose mother was briefly married to a mormon man several years prior, confided that she always found the concept of mormonism’s baptism by proxy – or baptism for the dead – to be a very strange practice. I surmised that from her point of view, I could see why she thought it was weird, but since I had grown up with it all my life (24 years at the time), it seemed normal to me.
A few years after that, I was challenged by yet another military coworker who asked me why I was a member of a racist church. This caused a lot of cognitive dissonance for me – first and foremost causing me to wonder how he knew about this open secret. I naively thought that only other mormons knew that the priesthood and temple ordinances had been inaccessible to black members of mormonism until 1978, when, bowing to legal pressure (specifically that the church was going to lose its tax-exempt status if it did not allow African Americans to become full members of the organization), and President Spencer Kimball rescinded the exclusion. Basically, there were no reasons left to exclude blacks, so the organization had to cave into the legal and social pressure.
(One might assume that a kind, loving, and all-knowing god in heaven would never have allowed the exclusion in the first place, but in order to remain a faithful mormon, free thoughts like these are not allowed. Just stick to the script and believe what they tell you. It goes deeper than the ban, though. Just ask a Mormon why people are born with black skin. Mormonism’s answer is that blacks were less valiant during the war in the pre-existence. They were supposedly fence-sitters and for that, God was punishing them on earth. My coworker relayed this information and gave me food for thought for the next several years.)
In the moments after this coworker’s verbal challenge, I had to admit to myself that my coworker was right, but I rationalized that the church had corrected this discrepancy. Besides, I am not racist. Before I could think this through properly, however, I went into denial that the church’s racist policy had ever existed. As I heard the words exiting my mouth, I knew I was “lying for the Lord,” but I couldn’t stop myself. I felt shame that I was lying and was also irate that the church had put me into that position by never sharing how to handle the situation if it ever came up. It is likely that the subject never came up because church leadership never wanted to acknowledge the dastardliness that was former-day Mormonism. Just deny that it ever happened and – Poof! – that’s true. Mormons have the greatest moral template on earth, after all. Or so they believe.Years after I left mormonism, the church began to quietly release essays addressing prickly subjects that often cause people to leave (I say quietly because I heard that these essays were not delivered over the pulpit to members or discussed in class). I view the essays as apologist attempts to retain members. If a member searches lds.org for answers on the past racism of the church, they will find an essay titled Race and the Priesthood where current church leaders have thrown Brother Brigham (Brigham Young) under the bus for holding and teaching racist views. Those were different times, they say, when everyone was racist. Brother Brigham wasn’t the only one spouting ill-informed opinions from the pulpit. MormonThink.com has evaluated the contents of the racist priesthood essay (and is full of resources with which to examine mormonism more closely).
Um, excuse me, but if the organization is led by an all-knowing god – one who converses daily with LDS prophets – how could the organization ever have excluded someone based on something that they could not change? Besides that, anthropologists have proven that all human life originated in Africa. All of mankind shares the same DNA. I am half Finnish and a quarter Norwegian. My undersides are lily-white, yet my body contains African DNA – as do we all. I’d love to read a future essay addressing race and the priesthood including an explanation of their acknowledgment of this concept. Perhaps this could be combined with a future essay explaining how at first, the church taught that being gay was a choice and was sinful. As the mormon church has come to accept the social and medical sciences conclusions that being gay is natural and that human sexuality exists on a spectrum, church leaders teach that it’s okay to be gay – unless you act gay, in which case, you are a sinner.
If the LDS organization was in constant contact with an all-knowing being today, there would already be a place within mormonism for LGBTQ+ members – not merely a place of tolerance, but of loving acceptance of who they are and a celebration of their unique views. Instead, gay members are filled with more self-loathing than the standard, white, straight members – who, being taught that they are weak and need Jesus Christ to make them whole, are trapped into believing that their human-ness is bad or wrong, and a case for self-flagellation. Even worse, it causes members to judge non-members as being evil or amoral because we don’t follow or believe the teachings of The One True Church™. Members learn to distrust and fear outsiders. This concept is not really thought through by members, who are repeatedly taught that they hold the moral high ground in a black-and-white world.
If you haven’t thought through the reasoning of certain moral concepts being taught by your leadership, I encourage you to give it a go. Here’s another subject of morality having to do with racist practices in the LDS organization: Why are there no interracial couples or families pictured on church publications? Surely, they exist (I admittedly did not notice that this was the case until it was pointed out by another ex-mormon who is married to a man of another race). Church media includes photos of all the world’s races, but it seems that they don’t want to encourage its members to intermarry. Why do you think this might be the case?
One more moral thought exercise: The LDS church has set up a welfare system to support its members who are less fortunate, but you’re not supposed to ever use it – and if you do, you’d better be a full tithe-payer, or you’re shit out of luck.² How moral is that? Because mormons participate in a prosperity gospel, they view the poor in their congregations as lacking in faith as compared to the faithful middle class or wealthy families in the group. Else, why would Heavenly Father withhold blessings from them?
Look, if you don’t think through the rules and morals you live your life by, and merely accept them as they are taught to you, you are basically amoral. But the good news is, you can change your mind, engage your brain, and develop morals regarding all subjects and situations that come your way. I did, and I continue to run scenarios in my mind in order to work out what I’d do in any given situation because I want to back my actions with thorough reasoning.
1. A funny story a friend in high school told me when it was his turn to pray over the sacrament: They were having problems with the microphone. They couldn’t get it to stay on, so my friend was having to re-start the prayer over again because if it’s not perfectly recited, it doesn’t work (or something!). The bishop finally just instructed my friend to recite the prayer as loudly as he could so that the congregation could hear him (because rules). Just before he set his voice to the prayer, the mike came back on, and the first two words came blasting through: “OH GOD!” This story still makes me chuckle.
2. A former coworker told me that his mom tried to get monetary help from her bishop, but the mom was behind in paying her tithing (10% of income), so she was turned down. My coworker was still an active mormon at that point. I wondered how I would feel about the church if I found out my mother had been treated the same way.
2a. Bishops have some leeway in whether they will provide assistance and for what. I knew a man who worked for a television cable company in Hawaii and he said he once saw a check written by the LDS church to pay for a member’s cable bill.
A final meme: