You may not be aware of this if you grew up Mormon, but the LDS definition of morality is rather different than that which is generally accepted. Morality is very easily defined to Mormons — it means not having sex. That’s all. End of discussion. Immorality means having sex. That’s what we teach our teenagers, and that is the definition we carry with us from our church meetings into our daily lives.
Today I’d like to talk about some of the nuances to the word “morality.” The meanings that we don’t get in Mutual or Seminary or Sunday School. For purposes of this discussion, I would prefer to define “morality” as a system of ideas of right and wrong conduct.
We Mormons like to think of ourselves as a moral people. We accept the Ten Commandments from the Old Testament, Jesus’ behavioral standards as described in the New Testament, additional ideals and clarification from the Book of Mormon, and random precepts such as the Word of Wisdom health code from the D&C. We even have our own rules of behavior that come from continuing revelation and church tradition. But out of all of these standards of morality, there are some in which we are truly invested, and some to which we merely give lip service.
As one indicator of standards of morality, let’s look at what we teach our children and youth. The standard of conduct that we hit the hardest is of course sexual purity before marriage. We do this to the extent that even the word morality has become synonymous with sexual behavior, as noted above. We reinforce this teaching with related cautions about masturbation for YM and dress standards for YW. I have been dismayed by the amount of emphasis dress standards receives in the Young Women’s program. This counsel eclipses all other religious instruction, including teaching of the Savior and the Restoration. Modesty in dress for girls is taught during YW classes, midweek activities, Standards Nights, Seminary, Sunday School, over the pulpit, at Stake dances, Girls Camp, EFY. Indeed, there is scarcely a church activity a YW can attend where she is not warned that she must appear dressed modestly. If her clothing is not appropriate, she is subject to being sent home to try again. The message is firm and unmistakable. Dress standards must not be violated. Here again the very word “modesty” has been coopted to mean only a particular pattern of dress for girls and women.
Additionally, sermonizing abounds in our youth programs on the importance of obedience to the Word of Wisdom. Due to this emphasis the youth of the Church would sooner steal a car, cheat on an exam, or spread vicious rumors about a peer than take a sip of coffee.
The emphasis on the remainder of the wide spectrum of right and wrong behavior is virtually ignored among Latter-Day Saints. To illustrate this point, fill in the blank of the following sentence:
Our Mormon youth are known for never ________________.
One might say that our youth would never drink alcohol, or smoke a cigarette. One might fill in the blank with “never sleep with a boy/girlfriend.” But would you even think of filling in the blank as follows:?
Our Mormon youth would never skip classes at school.
Our Mormon youth would never haze their fellow students.
Our Mormon youth would never tell a lie.
Our Mormon youth would never steal.
As a convert who attended evangelical Christian services, I can tell you that in other churches, these standards of moral conduct are given great emphasis. If you have grown up in the LDS church, it is likely that you consider loss of sexual purity and Word of Wisdom adherance as grievous sins. It is possible that you would add murder to this list, with the exception of those you kill while in the military. Other transgressions would be appraised as less important on the moral continuum.
Is there not a morality that is based on the other commands of God found in the scriptures? Is there not a morality that is concerned with practices that minimize the harms that people suffer? Promoting people living together in peace and harmony? Morality that requires charitable action for good? Overcoming selfish vices? What about a morality based on respect for the planet on which we live and the myriad creatures who live upon it?
I hope we can begin to consider the vast implications of religious morality. Morality within the Church should be more than simply refraining from sex. This wider morality should be discussed at least as often as the length of skirts. It should help us formulate ethical theories for personal conduct.