I Walk Imperfectly

The Gospel of Jonathan Haidt

Sat 05 December 2015 |

I first heard about Jonathan Haidt through his TED talk on The moral roots of liberals and conservatives. This would have been in the first couple years after I graduated law school. California's Prop 8 was a big deal at the time. I was torn on that issue. On one side was my compassion and reason, making me want my gay friends to be able to marry, and on the other side was my Mormon identity and loyalty, which made me resent the accusations that all Prop 8 supporters were driven by "hate".

It was at this time that I first learned, from Haidt's talk, the idea that the development of morality could be traced through the evolution of humanity and civilization. I was attracted to the idea that the foundations of morality could be thought about systematically. I was persuaded by his description of the 5 moral foundations:

  1. Care/Harm
  2. Fairness/Cheating
  3. Loyalty/Betrayal
  4. Authority/Subversion
  5. Sanctity/Degradation

I was flattered, I'll admit, by Haidt's assertion that the reason liberals could not understand conservatives was because liberals tended to think in terms of the Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating foundations of morality, while conservatives tended to draw from all 5 foundations. Haidt's theory helped me understand why it was so hard for Prop 8 opponents to understand where its supporters were coming from.

I read Haidt's book, The Righteous Mind. It was more or less an extension of the TED talk, equally well-reasoned and persuasive. I remember enjoying some new insights that the TED talk hadn't covered, but I don't remember what they were.

Most recently I saw a talk that Haidt gave at Yale entitled Strengthen U. vs Coddle U.. The gimmick of the talk is that Haidt takes on the role of two college admissions officers making pitches to potential applicants. As the representative from Strengthen University, he says that the single sacred value at Strengthen is truth, and that they'll prioritize it at all times. As the representative from Coddle University he says their sacred value is inclusion, so they create safe spaces where no one will feel challenged.

I'm more ambivalent about this talk than the TED one. On one hand, I think he's generally right. A university is a place to have your beliefs challenged, not to be protected from conflicting views. On the other hand it's obvious that he's stacking the deck in favor of the outcome he wants. He gives one side an admirable name, and the other side an insulting one. Likewise with the imaginary universities' logos (Coddle U's logo is the face of a crying baby with a pacifier in its mouth). For Strengthen's side he gives carefully nuanced and reasoned arguments. For Coddle's side he too often presents straw men that few academics or administrators would defend.

Though Haidt's target audience is academia, his points hit home for me in the realm of religion. I wish that LDS Church meetings looked a bit more like Strengthen and a bit less like Coddle. Years ago when having my first concerns about Joseph Smith's marital and sexual behavior, I had two separate lines of thought. The less significant one was purely historical. It was kind of a problem if the church's founder was marrying 14 year olds and other men's wives. I could probably deal with it though; he wouldn't be the first fallen prophet. The more troublesome line of thought was that I had gone over three decades in the church without any conference or sacrament meeting talk, Sunday lesson, Ensign article, Seminary/Institute class, or even casual conversation ever mentioning the issue.

I know that the blame for this omission is not evenly spread. Most of my local church friends and leaders were just as ignorant as I was. Some probably knew the truth but either were too afraid to share it, or thought I was better off not hearing it. But at the highest levels of the church, the truth has to have been known. The Community of Christ church (formerly "RLDS") came clean about Joseph's polygamy decades ago, when newly-discovered historical documents brought it to light. My church took the opposite approach. Faced with truths that they worried would be damaging to members' faith, they decided to omit any mention of them in the church's teachings. The church took this approach not just with Joseph Smith's polygamy, but with dozens of issues. Instead of learning these truths, I grew up with silence about them, and warnings of the dangers of looking at "anti-Mormon literature".

I cannot count the number of talks and lessons I have heard in the years since I learned the truth, where I've sat outwardly placid but inwardly raging at the audacity of the omissions. Sometimes I would try to think of some way I could diplomatically raise the issues without scandalizing the other class members to the point that the lesson turned into a shouting match. I never could think of a way to do that. Once or twice I even fantasized about just stating the truth undiplomatically, with a question like "We've been discussing Joseph's dedication to his wife Emma, but how can we reconcile that with the number of women he married behind her back?" I never did have the guts. I knew that whether I attempted to raise the issue diplomatically or confrontationally, the result would be to mark me as an outsider that people shouldn't get too close to, for fear that my apostate thoughts might be infectious. Instead I sat silent, angry, and frustrated. With each such lesson, my resentment grew.

And that's the danger of the church coddling members' faith to the extent that they do. By creating an environment where the only acceptable comments and questions are faith-promoting ones, the church nurtures faith that is ill equipped to confront difficult truths.

Which brings me to where I am today. Like the guy from Strengthen U., truth is a sacred value to me. I will no longer accept commands from religious authorities telling me to only read church-approved materials. I will not teach church lessons that are dishonest or harmful. I no longer feel a duty to sit through lessons that proclaim the church's perfection and make it a taboo to mention its serious problems.

But unlike the guy from Strengthen U., I am building a family, not a university. My wife was raised in the church, and still believes in it. She wants our sons to receive the same value that she has found in it (and if I knew how to separate that value from the church's dishonesty, I'd want that too). Our extended families believe in it, and it remains a central, guiding feature of their cultures.

Truth is one of my sacred values, but so is love, and sometimes love will be prioritized over truth. Today I participated in a nephew's baptism service, playing the piano accompaniment for a song, and standing in the circle of priesthood holders when he was confirmed. This evening I attended our ward Christmas party. I tried to fight the inner gremlin telling me that if these people knew what I really believed, they'd want nothing to do with me. Sometimes I win those fights, and sometimes it's the gremlin. But in the moments when I'm winning, and able to let my guard down, I have some hope that I may be able to make friends with someone who could accept even the doubting, angry, taboo parts of me.