Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Are Mormons Moral Relativists?

Recently I got into an argument on Facebook (shocking, I know) about whether everyone is capable of being Mormon. Because I feel the God has told me that the church is wrong for me, and because of the many who leave because Mormonism feels wrong to them, I said that not everyone can be Mormon. Not everyone is capable of believing the teachings of the church (which is a good thing in my mind.) I was then accused of being a moral relativist for thinking that God can give different answers to different people.

First, here's a definition of moral relativism: "The philosophized notion that right and wrong are not absolute values, but are personalized according to the individual and his or her circumstances or cultural orientation."

When I was accused of being a moral relativist, it was because I believe God can say different things to different people. Do I think that God will tell someone to kill someone, to mistreat someone, to judge someone? No, I do not. The basis of most religions and philosophies is being kind to and serving others. If God is behind all religions and philosophies that tell people to love others, then God is being consistent, and my morality is based on loving other people.

The problem becomes that Mormons have left the two great commandments of the New Testament behind in favor of minutia like the Word of Wisdom, temple attendance, church attendance and tithing. Look at the temple recommend questions:
1. Do you have faith in and a testimony of God the Eternal Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost?
2. Do you have a testimony of the Atonement of Christ and of His role as Savior and Redeemer?
3. Do you have a testimony of the restoration of the gospel in these the latter days?
4. Do you sustain the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator and as the only person on the earth who possesses and is authorized to exercise all priesthood keys? Do you sustain members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators? Do you sustain the other General Authorities and local authorities of the Church?
5. Do you live the law of chastity?
6. Is there anything in your conduct relating to members of your family that is not in harmony with the teachings of the Church?
7. Do you support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
8. Do you strive to keep the covenants you have made, to attend your sacrament and other meetings, and to keep your life in harmony with the laws and commandments of the gospel?
9. Are you honest in your dealings with your fellowmen?
10. Are you a full-tithe payer? Do your keep the Word of Wisdom?
11. Do you have financial or other obligations to a former spouse or children? If yes, are you current in meeting those obligations?
12. If you have previously received your temple endowment: Do you keep the covenants that you made in the temple? Do you wear the garment both night and day as instructed in the endowment and in accordance with the covenant you made in the temple?
13. Have there been any sins or misdeeds in your life that should have been resolved with priesthood authorities but have not been?
14. Do you consider yourself worthy to enter the Lord's house and participate in temple ordinances?

In my interpretation, the only questions that deals with how we treat others are 9 and 11, and 11 only applies to specific circumstances that not everyone is in. The rest are about the orthodoxy of your beliefs and behaviors that relate to the church. Even fast offerings, which are designed to take care of the physical needs of individuals, are not required, whereas tithing, which can be used to build expensive temples and malls, is required. (Yes, I'm being snarky.) But in all seriousness, a temple recommend is what gets you access to saving ordinances and loving your neighbor and serving others doesn't seem to be as important as orthodoxy of belief.

So I reject the idea that orthodoxy trumps kindness, because I find kindness and service at the heart of religions, and therefore believe God's morality is love and kindness. I am just a relativist when it comes to the things that are attached to religions and become more important then service, but believe that morality is love and service. My God tells everyone to love and care for the people around them, and if religion will help them to do that, then that religion is right for them. God will not tell someone to mistreat another. (This is my world view, and I'm open to the idea that I'm totally wrong, but at this point this makes sense to me, and allows me to try to be a better person.)

Mormonism, on the other hand, strikes me as morally relative. There seems to be nothing that is totally wrong in Mormonism; it's wrong until God says
it is okay. I'm pulling this from places like the story of Nephi killing Laban in the Book of Mormon. Nephi shows the inherent abhorrence that most people have for murder, an inherent quality that I believe is divinely inspired. But because God said murder is okay, he does it. There is something similar in a discussion of polygamy in the Book of Mormon; there is a verse that says having multiple wives is wrong, unless God says it's okay. This is after a discussion of the damage having multiple wives and concubines does to families and how those who have done so have been punished by God. But the caviot that it's okay when God says so seems to say that the damage and pain caused by polygamy and adultery would be okay if God condoned polygamy. So the morality of Mormons seems to be "X is wrong, unless God says otherwise." And God can say anything is okay. In Mormonism, and other faith traditions, God has okayed murder, rape, incest, theft, arson, lies, polygamy, genocide, and on and on. These are things that most people shy away from and agree are immoral things to do. God appears to have no moral code at all if you want to look at it that way.

Now, most of the Mormons I know would agree in this day and age God will not command people to rape or murder or whatever. But it is in the doctrine. The story of Laban is used to teach "the children [to] understand that Heavenly Father helps those who trust him and obey his commandments." God was helping Nephi get the plates by telling him to cut Laban's head off. So while most would say that it doesn't happen today, it is still present in the teachings of the church that God can make anything okay. I wonder how many Mormons, if told by the prophet who speaks for God, to attack or harm someone else would do it?

So is belief in a God who is very attached specific rules, but can okay any behavior no matter how inherently wrong it feels to most of humanity morally relative? I don't think that an element of moral relativism is bad, but I've heard many Mormons say that moral relativism is bad. If it is, how do the above examples fit into the notion that relativism is bad?


  1. Great post. But how dare you link to a faith-destroying site!!! (Sarcasm.)

    Are things wrong inherently, which means there is a law greater than God, or are things wrong just because God ascribes a certain value to them? If it's the latter, that means all of these quaint explanations for why not to do things are meaningless because the action isn't inherently bad.

    I was in a temple prep class this semester, and I asked a question regarding Adam and Eve and what the purpose of giving them conflicting commands was as well as why it was wrong to eat of the tree of knowledge. People's questions weren't satisfying me, so I kept asking, and it finally came down to "Because God said so." It was frustrating. And this was a temple prep class, an arguably more "advanced" class where you should be able to talk about things! I never went back to that class. It was too irritating.

  2. This is the dilemma in Plato's Euthyphro: Do the gods love what is good, or are things good because the gods love them?

    In other words, we are asked to question the identification of God and Good. Can that identification be picked apart? Can the gods be morally wrong? If so, what can we do about it?

  3. I think this is a fabulous post. It really resonated with me. And I think it's also fair to ask how we can know for certain that the will of God is 100% what we believe it to be.

    Brigham Young made some pretty definitive statements about the will of God, his nature and such, which we consider to be completely wrong now. And in cases where he claimed to be speaking as a prophet. So how do we truly know that our interpretation of God's is correct, and how can we impose that on other people with so little thought?