Is our primary goal to become “good people”?

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Moralism assumes that our primary duty in life is to become good people, which is usually taken to mean we endorse certain basic consensus values such as honesty, fidelity, kindness, etc. and do our best to allow such values to guide our daily conduct. From this point of view, God does not (or should not) care about the more idiosyncratic norms within the LDS community, such as modesty in dress, the prohibition on drinking coffee, or even premarital sex so long as we are friendly, kind, considerate people and good citizens.

While Latter-day Saints aspire to all basic virtues, it is also true that they aim for something higher; that is, to be a covenant people, with all the eccentricities that might entail. We believe that God might ask things of us that cannot be reduced to abstract universal moral laws or codes of ethical conduct, and which extend beyond basic principles of kindness and civility. In fact, the unique norms of a covenant community might even be culturally situated, but this does not make them less important or divinely inspired.

The Hidden Worldview: Moralism

God only cares that we are good people, which means following universal rules of kindness and civility.

In another article, we discussed the concept of therapeutic deism. This is sometimes referred to as moralistic therapeutic deism — a term first coined by the sociologist Christian Smith.((Smith, C. (2005). Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.)) In his book, Smith tied his ideas about therapeutic deism with a larger cultural and religious tradition known as moralism. This idea, a reflection of a cultural and theological development among Christians in the 19th century, is that righteousness and wickedness are primarily matters of proper conduct. Thus, good and evil are thought to consist in adhering to (or rejecting) basic moral laws or ethical precepts that can be found the world over, such as the importance of kindness, nonviolence, and honesty. These moral ideals are grounded in a common sense of civic virtue and what constitutes socially respectable conduct, a shared baseline for what we expect of others in our lives and communities. Indeed, this approach to life is often said to reflect a commitment to universal and timeless “Christian values.”

From this view, an action is wrong when it violates clearly understood, universal moral principles and values that have pervasive social consensus. To be a good person means to comply with the dictates of these abstract laws and values. In most cases, these moral standards are thought to be universal and unchanging. As Richards and O’Brien note:

[Most of us assume that] rules (in the form of laws) must apply 100 percent of the time; otherwise, the rule is “broken.” Likewise, rules (in the form of promises) apply to 100 percent of the people involved and apply equally; otherwise, we consider the rule to be unfair. Since God is both reliable and fair, surely his rules must apply equally to all people. Natural laws, like gravity, are no respecters of persons, after all. When we cannot determine how to apply a biblical law or promise to everyone, we declare it to be “cultural” and thus flexible in application.((Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O’Brien. Misreading scripture with Western eyes: Removing cultural blinders to better understand the Bible. InterVarsity Press, 2012.))

In other words, from this view, for an act be truly and ultimately wrong, the moral code that forbids it must not depend on context or history. Local or situated moral codes might deem an act inappropriate or imprudent, but they cannot define an act as truly wrong, because they vary across time and space. Only a universal (that is, fixed, immutable, or absolute) moral code can do that. If we demonstrate that a moral precept is unique to a particular place and time (rather than universal), we can regard it as a human invention.

For this reason, rules such as not drinking wine or coffee, or watching football on the Sabbath, or having multiple ear-piercings are treated (at best) as fundamentally “less” than rules that are more universal in application, such as the prohibition against violence or lying. Those who live by these more universal principles are “good people,” and anyone who thinks their moral efforts are insufficient are often seen as being pharisaical or puritan. God is not so petty, the argument goes, as to judge people by what they eat or drink, or how they dress and spend their Sundays, so long as they aren’t hurting others or harboring violent fetishes.

For some, the “Golden rule” seems to be the only rule in a moralistic universe: we should only act how we would want others to act towards us. This idea is expressed more precisely in the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s concept of the “categorical imperative.” Kant reasoned that the most fundamental moral dictate was to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Other moral philosophers have taken a more empirical approach, and have sampled the moral intuitions and ethical traditions of cultures across the world (and in history), and have attempted to discover norms that seem to be universal. In either case, the resulting universal moral concepts or ideals are seen as far more important to grounding moral conduct than the more specific, culturally-specific injunctions found in many Abrahamic religions.

It is also possible to represent this assumption through the difference between things that are malum in se (wrong in and of itself) and things that are malum prohibitum (wrong because it is prohibited by authority). Moralism assumes that good people need only avoid things that are malum in se, and that things that are malum prohibitum are inconsequential to our actual moral stature before God. From this point of view, then, the only sexual activities that should be considered genuinely immoral are those that harm others (e.g., nonconsensual sex). And certainly drinking coffee, shopping on Sunday, and other benign activities are morally acceptable. Just as there should be no victimless crimes, there should be no victimless sins.

Those who adopt moralistic therapeutic deism treat God as a sort of cosmic therapist whose primary goal is to help us feel better about ourselves, get us through difficult times by assuring us that He loves us no matter what, to help us to remember to be nice to other people and avoid judging other people who are also trying to be nice and decent citizens. As Smith explains:

Moralistic therapeutic deism is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life. It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one’s health, and doing one’s best to be successful. One 17 year-old white Mormon boy from Utah said this very clearly: “I believe in, well, my whole religion is where you try to be good and, ah, if you’re not good then you should just try to get better, that’s all.” Being moral in this faith means being the kind of person other people will like, fulfilling one’s personal potential, and not being socially disruptive or interpersonally obnoxious.((Smith, C. (2005). Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, p. 163))

While God is a sort of cosmic therapist in this perspective, He is not endlessly permissive. Rather, while God is deeply supportive and understanding, He is someone who will affirm our habits and lifestyles only insofar as we are not hurting others, or otherwise breaking universal laws of basic decency and good will. In other words, moralistic therapeutic deism holds that we should not kill, hurt, lie, cheat, or otherwise demean others — but only because those are crimes with victims and which violate basic human decency. This is a key way in which this view keeps some hold on a basic morality, and thereby avoids the dangers or relativism.

An Alternative: Covenant

There is a difference between becoming good people and becoming a covenant people, and Latter-day Saints aspire to both.

Latter-day Saints share many of the virtuous aspirations of moralists, though we do not see them as exalting virtues. We share the fundamental Christian belief that all mankind are damned without Christ and His grace, and this includes even the best among us. What this means is that all the “goodness” in the world won’t exalt us. In order to return to live with God, we need to become more than good people — we need to become covenant people. In other words, it is not our adherence to universal moral law, or a set of presumably unchanging “Christian values,” that will exalts us in the end, but rather our covenant relationship with God.

Becoming a covenant people, and investing ourselves in a covenant community, can mean becoming a strange and idiosyncratic people. Or, as the Lord says, a “peculiar” people. This is because God has sometimes asked peculiar things of His covenant people. He instructed the ancient Israelites to sacrifice animals on altars, to not eat pork, and to not perform labors on the Sabbath, among many other things. He has instructed His covenant people today (through inspired servants) to abstain from coffee, tea, or alcohol, to dedicate Sundays to service and worship, and to dress in less provocative attire than is common in the world.

This does not mean that we should become judgmental or pharisaical about these instructions. These more idiosyncratic norms are certainly lived out in less than ideal ways, and often levied as excuses to be self-righteous and unkind towards others. We sometimes plant additional and unnecessary hedges about them, and then get judgmental towards those who trespass those hedges. We sometimes give false or unnecessary justifications for them. But participating in a covenant community does means living out norms that cannot be derived using the Golden rule alone. It means embracing rules that forbid not just things that are malum in se, but also malum prohibitum.

Why is this an important distinction to understand? Because sometimes, youth in the Church develop the impression that those who violate the distinctive norms of the LDS community are bad people for it. That their neighbors who drink coffee or get tattoos are bad people, for example. However, Latter-day Saint teaching explicitly holds that good and honorable people live outside the norms of our covenant community, and that those distinctive norms are not what make us good. We are not inherently better person merely because we do not drink coffee or tea, or shop on Sunday. These choices may mark us as part of a covenant community and a peculiar people, but they do not guarantee any level of basic decency.

However, because of this misunderstanding, youth in the Church are sometimes shocked when they encounter people living lifestyles counter to divine teaching, and discover that they are also good people! This can lead them to question their prior assumptions: if otherwise good and wonderful people can drink coffee or have premarital sex or pursue same-sex relationships, then perhaps those things are not really so bad after all. This is because the hidden assumption of moralism teaches us that being a good person is enough. When we understand the distinction between becoming good people (moralism) and becoming a covenant people, we realize that Latter-day Saints aspire to both.

This covenant worldview also has an interesting implication: Covenants can place a moral valence on actions that formerly had none. It is not a sin for someone who has never been baptized to drink coffee. But it is a sin for someone to drink coffee after they have been baptized, and thereby, entered into a covenant to obey the Word of Wisdom. It may be sinful for someone to have premarital sex before baptism (we will argue in a future article that there are some innate moral responsibilities related to sex that we as a society have forgotten). But it’s even more sinful after baptism, and especially so after making covenants in the temple. This also means those who break covenants have a different standing before God than those who never made them — more and different things are expected of them.

Furthermore, the distinctive norms of a covenant community can be historically and culturally situated, in a way that the universal rules of basic human decency (don’t lie, steal, cheat, kill, be kind to others, etc.) are not. Historically, when God invites His people to take upon themselves His name, He has given them instructions that separate them from their geographic neighbors and peers. This means that those instructions are going to vary among different places and different eras. From this view, when we identify rules that seem culturally specific, or which could vary across time, this does not make them invalid.

Of course, this does not mean that every element of Church or LDS culture is inspired or required of participants in the community. But it does mean that they aren’t uninspired merely because they are situated within a particular historical or geographical context. To be LDS is to believe that God has spokesmen on Earth who are judging and leading within a covenant community, and who have authority to enact and promote distinctive norms that advance God’s interests and purposes. And to make and keep covenants with God means investing ourselves in the success of this community.

Christian theologian Albert Mohler has offered some very important insight on this issue, insight that we as Latter-day Saints would be wise to consider.  Mohler (2012) cites the case of a distraught mother who had written to an advice columnist seeking counsel because she could not understand how her teenage daughter had become an atheist, especially given that the girl had been raised with “Christian values.” That, however, Mohler argues, is the very heart of the problem:

Parents who raise their children with nothing more than Christian values should not be surprised when their children abandon those values. If the child or young person does not have a firm commitment to Christ and to the truth of the Christian faith, values will have no binding authority, and we should not expect that they would. Most of our neighbors have some commitment to Christian values, but what they desperately need is salvation from their sins. This does not come by Christian values, no matter how fervently held. Salvation comes only by the gospel of Jesus Christ.((Mohler, A. (2012). Christian Values Cannot Save Anyone. Retrieved July 24, 2018 from

The broader warning here is that no good behavior — of the broader moralistic kind, or the distinctive covenant-keeping kind — will anchor us if we do not have a saving relationship with the Savior. It is He who saves us, not the laws and rules we follow. Mala in se or mala prohibitum, the rules are empty without Christ.

But the central argument we are making in this article is that the kind of covenant keeping that keeps us centered on Christ involves more than the generalized norms of moralism or basic “Christian values,” and can indeed include following culturally situated rules, avoiding even victimless sins, and other distinctive norms of a covenant community. We should ensure that our conversion includes an investment in becoming part of a covenant community, and not merely becoming “good.” And we should not let our efforts to live our covenants lead us to assume those who have not made such covenants are not good, simply because they do not live by those same distinctive norms.

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