My Religious Manifesto

When I was younger I believed that I was the wise (wo)man who built her house upon a rock. I had a sure foundation. I knew that the church was true and that knowledge determined all of the other decisions in my life. No, I would not drink. No, I would not do drugs. Yes, I would study my scriptures every day. Yes, I would pray mightily. Yes, I would get married in the temple. No, I won’t date before 16, or have sex, or even neck or pet (even though I didn’t know what that meant).  No two pair of earrings you say? I can do better. I will not even have one.

As I’ve aged I realized that I actually built my house upon the sand. I founded my testimony on a rigid black and white understanding of the do’s and don’ts of the gospel that when held under the scrutiny of the wind, the rain, and the flood—which in this metaphor is historical reality, eternal principles, and critical thinking—washed away the house that I built. I had been taught and wanted to believe in such a whitewashed version of a complex gospel that I never had to dig through the earth to find the true foundation. Instead I just built right on top of the soil. Let me clarify that there is nothing wrong with soil. It is a wonderful thing that brings life and fecundity. But it also erodes through time and space. It changes with the seasons and when disaster strikes it cannot secure a foundationless house.

What is clear to me now is that I have to start digging. I have to figure out where that foundation is and stop being so foolishly assured of my footing that when the rains come down and the floods come up it nearly destroys me and I’m left exposed, dripping wet, and shelterless. This post is about that journey; my sojourn of finding an immovable foundation to hold onto through the vicissitudes of life.

In true Descarte fashion, I decided to go through all of my beliefs and evaluate if they withstood doubt. I combined my knowledge of the gospel with my knowledge of church history, religious texts, and appeals for the spirit to be with me. I assessed whether my belief surpassed historical, geographic, and cultural relativity. I asked myself “in the face of sacrifice and persecution what would I continue to espouse?”

What remained surprised me. It wasn’t complex or elaborate or even new. Here is my new religious manifesto:

  • Do No Harm.

It is my religious Hippocratic oath of sorts. I’m going to print it out, sign it, and hold myself to it.

Since I’ve been a Mormon my entire life and since I’ve studied philosophical debates of the roots of morality, Kant’s categorical imperative, Nicomachean ethics, and theories of altruism, I am fully aware that other people would have arrived at different foundational principles. I am sure that some would have chosen: Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith, or the modern prophet, etc. I could have gone a million different directions with this thought experiment, but I ended up here and I think that is important to explore.

As an anthropologist, it’s abundantly clear that religions throughout time and across geography have been powerful sources of both extreme good and great damage. Religious ideology has brought us the Good Samaritan, Mother Teresa, and Mahatma Gandhi but it has also contributed to the Inquisition, Jonestown, and religious extremism. Religious adherence is correlated with longer life expectancy and increased happiness but also with higher rates of intolerance and authoritarianism. Can I take the good and leave the bad? Conservative approaches to the church always argue that “you cannot pick and choose what you like in Mormonism” but what if you choose something that is always good? I.e.it is always good to Do No Harm.

Can I hope for the blessings of eternal families but not hold it over the heads of those who do not marry in the temple? Can I support the concepts taught in our religious texts without condemning all who are not Mormons to an existence of limited happiness and eternal regret? Can I see the wisdom in modesty and chastity without viewing them as indicators of someone’s worth? Can I love the church and recognize that it isn’t perfect but also feel it my duty to speak up about the aspects of it that are hurtful? Can I value the teachings in the Word of Wisdom, the For Strength of Youth pamphlet, and the Proclamation to the Family without using them as how-to guides for the dissemination of judgment?

Just to clarify, I do not see my new religious manifesto as an excuse to sin but rather the exact opposite—as an impetus to move from passive religiosity into actionable spirituality, to be better, to do better. Since most sins are harmful to myself or others they are immediately prohibited.

Doing no harm not only necessitates that I refrain from inflicting pain on others, but that I also actively seek to lessen the pain that already exists. It means that I can’t sit quietly when I see injustice, inequality, or intolerance. It means that I have to allow others to have opinions that differ from mine, but that I cannot allow for those opinions to turn into unfettered discrimination, prejudice, or hate speech. It means that in the rare circumstance when two values collide, i.e. obedience and compassion, the empathetic approach always wins.

My religious manifesto is not revolutionary. Some might claim its just a compact version of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (I highly recommend reading it in full here and here) where he talks about doing good, loving others, not judging, helping the poor, being merciful, etc. He concludes his sermon with one last parable saying (Luke 6: 47-49):

“Whosoever cometh to me, and heareth my sayings, and doeth them, I will shew you to whom he is like: He is like a man which built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock. But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built an house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great.”

I may not make it through next Seasons storms unscathed but I feel more secure having decided to build my house upon a new more secure foundation: Do No Harm.

What is your foundation built on? When you have had undulations of doubt what kept you afloat? Can Mormons have a secular humanist or even a non-denominational foundation like: Do No Harm?  If so, what keeps them particularly Mormon? What other bedrocks are there that surpass the scrutiny of our metaphorical wind, rain, and flood?

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32 Responses

  1. spunky says:

    Whoa man, this is excellent. I think it is a brilliant concept to author one’s personal religious manifesto. I have to say that the spiritual side of religion is what draws me in, but I can in no way reconcile that with culture. I think religious culture creates bias, heretics and ignorance, so I want no part of it. To be quite frank, I struggle to tolerate Mormon culture, whereas I tend to bend over backwards to ensure that Hindus, Muslims or other guests of varying denomination are comfortable in my home. In that sense, I am a hypocrite. I suppose if I were to have a creed, it would be “Love one another”- I think that embraces tolerance, support and for me, reconciles my personal spiritual relationship with the Divine. I am not sure if it is my foundation, but I would like it to be.

    • Whoa-man says:

      Spunky that is a really good point about granting your own culture the kind of tolerance and non-judgment you would another. Part of me acknowledges that I am who I am because of the gospel AND Mormon culture and finding the good in that as well. I feel a certain love for and loyalty to my community that I think your manifesto captures: Love one another. Joanna Brooks writes a poem about this in the Exponent II magazine (Winter 2010 Vol. 30, Issue 3) where she concludes “God, make me brave enough to love my people. How wonderful it is to have a people to love.”

      I agree.

  2. Jesse says:

    I did a similar thought experiment a few years back and came up with: “You’re there, do something.” These four words reflect my belief that each person (you) approaches life from a different perspective (there), and that we must act (do) based on our limited knowledge and perspective (something) even though in many cases our actions may be misdirected. Applied iteratively, this creed accepts that each of us, every day moves from where we were before to where we are now and acknowledges the potential for change and growth.

    When someone else does something particularly egregious, I try to remember that they are there doing their something. When my best efforts lead to failure, I try to remember that I have at least tried and that my failed efforts have at least taught me what does not work. I also apply this creed to prophets and even deity who do things I don’t understand. They are there, doing their something. They are also learning and growing.

    My creed grew out of foundational gospel principles like “love one another,” “eternal progression,” and the “Atonement” and reflects my understanding of Christ’s gospel as taught in the LDS church.

    • Whoa-man says:

      oooh. I really like this one. I’m a very action oriented person and hate just talking about things. I always want to “do something about it” so your manifesto is really inspiring and I would argue accurate as well.

  3. Kristen Says No says:

    “Can I take the good and leave the bad?” Yes. I think we can and we must to get to the point of all this. Everyone picks and chooses; some of us are more conscious of the process than others.

    “Can I hope for the blessings of eternal families but not hold it over the heads of those who do not marry in the temple? Can I support the concepts taught in our religious texts without condemning all who are not Mormons to an existence of limited happiness and eternal regret? Can I see the wisdom in modesty and chastity without viewing them as indicators of someone’s worth?…” I do! It may have taken years to get here, but it’s the only thing that makes sense to me anymore and I think it’s what God really expects of us.

    “Do no harm” is concise, but such a challenging and complete code.

  4. Ann says:

    I think this thought process would be incredibly helpful for me. I feel very much the same as you do, and have become more and more interested in the Sermon of the Mount over the past few years, and have made it the very center of my beliefs.
    “Do no harm” is a wonderfully simple yet powerful manifesto. Thank you for this.

  5. I love your analogy of basing your faith on the black and white superficial issues of Mormon culture with building your house on sand.

    Do No Harm is a concise motto and a rock upon which to build your life.
    Thank you for sharing!

  6. Your house analogy perfectly described my spiritual journey. And I’m currently in the dig with you. What is interesting is that the more top soil there is, the deeper you have to dig. And our church has a LOT of soil, for better or worse. For me, I imagine my construction of my house will be on “piles” those deep poles that stick super deep into the ground to find the bedrock. I think this goes along with “taking the good and leaving the bad.”

    I agree with another commenter that everybody does this. It’s not just feminists or liberals. The most orthodox member of the church has to ignore some “doctrine” because there’s certainly enough that conflict over time.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing.

  7. sla421 says:

    After a similar search for what I really believe, my motto has become the Golden Rule or the Ethic of Reciprocity. It’s a basic requirement in every religion and is normally intended to apply to the entire human race. Unfortunately, it is too often applied by some people only to fellow believers.

    The Dalai Lama said,”Every religion emphasizes human improvement, love, respect for others, sharing other people’s suffering. On these lines every religion had more or less the same viewpoint and the same goal.”

  8. Whoa-man says:

    I love the idea of building on “piles” anothermaternityblogger and great quote, sla421.

    I think about this quote by the Dalai Lama all the time. What I’m fully committed to are these basic principles that most religions share. So I often wonder, what keeps me specifically LDS? What about Mormonism in particular helps me to do these things better or worse? etc.

    I have a few ideas, such as, nondenominational religions don’t require the types of commitment necessary for great acts of service in spite of personal and family commitments. Or the structure of LDS wards and visiting teaching forces me into contact with people that I could never meet on my own. Or our complex and unique doctrine facilitates intellectual interest in ways that more general and basic approaches do not, etc. But I’m not sure I’ve fully convinced myself yet. How would you all answer that question?

  9. Lacy says:

    So needed to read this today. Especially the last scripture in Luke you shared. The scripture looming in my head lately has been Matt 12:25: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” I have been so inwardly divided for so long; I think it’s time to get out the shovel and discover a more solid foundation. One that won’t crack me in half.

    In the comments on the Mormon Stories Podcast of Grant & Heather Hardy (faithful LDS scholars), http://mormonstories.org/?p=1547 Grant Hardy said the following:

    “As for historical difficulties, I’ve found that a little skepticism, some understanding of historiography, and a lot of humility go a long way towards making intellectual concerns less of a crisis of faith. It tends to be very rigid belief structures that are most threatened when things turn out to be more complicated and more ambiguous than we originally supposed.”

    I think the above speaks to what you’ve written about a sandy foundation. My zealousness is what has highlighted this major crisis in my life. Maybe if the church encouraged less rigid belief structures, “historical reality, eternal principles, and critical thinking” wouldn’t so utterly wash away our carefully built houses.

    Thanks again for the post.

  10. CatherineWO says:

    I really needed this today too. It is the harm I see that has made me want to distance myself from the LDS Church, the harm that has been done to me personally and that I see perpetuated in some (mostly cultural) LDS practices. I also love the Dalai Lama quote and think I could be happy (maybe happier) with several different religions. However, the LDS Church is the community I was born into, the community in which I raised my children, and the community in which my children are raising their children. For all my ranting and raving about its faults, I cannot ignore the many positive things it has added to my life. So I stay, if only on the fringe, but refuse to be part of the harm. Sometimes that’s a fine line to walk, because just accepting the label of “Mormon” can make be feel guilty by association. So I try to speak out about things that I don’t agree with, so as not to lose my integrity in my silence.

  11. Whoa-man says:

    Lacy, thank you so much for including that quote. I often feel that way but it I cannot explain myself so eloquently. I have this insane integrity which doesn’t allow me to just ignore historical facts so that I feel better about things. However, that also means each new thing I learn really shakes me to the core. I think I’ll treasure Grant Hardy’s quote for awhile.

    CatherineWO, I agree. It is the harm that I find the most repugnant and the only things I really feel compelled to stand up and speak up about. However, in doing so I tend to not express or acknowledge to the same degree or with the same passion all of the good and this is a needed reminder of that.

  12. Caroline says:

    Love this, Whoa-man. Such a thoughtful post.

    I think my motto might be something like “Do Justice and Love Mercy.” I take that from a verse in the Old Testament that I love. I think it encapsulates two ideas that I think are key – embracing and living the principles of equity and justice, while at the same time trying to give the benefit of the doubt to others and hoping that in turn that same mercy will be extended to me.

    • Whoa-man says:

      Caroline, I like that motto. I always tend to think of Justice in terms of punishing the wicked and not in terms of social justice which I am very passionate about. I think your motto is exactly what I agree with.

  13. Corktree says:

    LOVE this!

    I want to print this out and memorize for what I will tell anyone who asks how I feel about religion or the Church. Can I adopt your manifesto?

    I want to write more, but I’m visiting my sister, writing on an iPad, and wrestling a baby in my other arm.

    But this is so great I just had to say so!

  14. Maryly says:

    Wild! That’s been my motto for several years now, after an experience that caused me to pick up each broken piece of my faith and carefully weigh it: keep or toss? I want the real deal, not Jello and nylons and brunettes dying their hair blond at 65. And I don’t want to hurt anybody. Eternity is God’s time, and eternity is now. My job is simply to do what is good and wait on the Lord. I’m a convert of 44 years; if I’d joined the church for the people, I’d have been gone long ago. The bedrock is the truth and truth is all that matters.

  15. Katrina says:

    I love this post so much. I’m in the midst of this digging myself and foundation laying myself. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  16. Hydrangea says:

    I think we all have, at some time, “wanted to believe in such a whitewashed version of a complex gospel.” Well put.
    I used to believe that wearing knee length shorts and consistent temple attendance was insurance from all the nasty things that only happen to other people. Now after a ridiculously painful bought in my temple marriage, I know life is too convoluted to hold out for uber bliss. I’m so over absolutes. I’m more realistic about the energy that I put into church and the expectations of what I will likely get out of my efforts. Christ, through any faith examining trial is still my bedrock and the spirit my motivator.

    • Whoa-man says:

      Thanks for your inspiring words. I think I too felt that if I was totally obedient I wouldn’t have to worry about anything. Interestingly, I’ve never felt closer to my authentic self, peace, or charity than I do now that I ignore most of the platitudes and mental gymnastics people use to justify harmful actions. I’m sorry about the rough things you are going through and I’m glad you mentioned your more accurate expectations in life and religion. That is very helpful.

  17. Gwo Mama says:

    I enjoy your analogy about digging for a sure foundation. But I don’t care for the “Do No Harm” mantra. I much prefer the “You’re There, Do Something” ideology from the later posters.

    “Do No Harm” sounds very passive. In my world, “Do No Harm” would have me end up like the ascetic monks in India, sweeping before I walk to avoid stepping on insects. While this might be a worthy goal for some, I’d rather try and “Do Something Good” rather than “Do No Harm”

    • Whoa-man says:

      Gwo Mama, I can totally see your point. Do no harm does seem a bit passive from the outset, but in my life it has led to more action than I have ever taken in religious settings before. It has inspired me to speak up at church when I would normally be quiet because I felt compelled to defend groups of people or call out harmful speech. It has forced me to share with others my thoughts about the consequences of inequality when I would normally just keep it to myself. It has stirred me to participate in organizations, websites, groups, and causes to right the wrong taking place in the world.

      For me, inaction makes me complicit in the harm that I don’t stop and goes against my manifesto. This has led to many many difficult experiences on my part. I have been called names, labeled unfaithful and disobedient, and my worthiness questioned during Prop 8. I have been called into my bishop and my stake president, given impromptu temple recommend interviews, had large groups of women in my ward spread vicious rumors and lies, I’ve have people walk out of my lessons in protest and refuse to give me callings because of my participation with mormon feminism and WAVE, a faithful organization which seeks to “do something” to right the gender inequalities in the church.

      While Do No Harm might not stir others to action, it does for me and it has altered my life completely and I pay for those consequences (both good and bad) each day.

      • CatherineWO says:

        This is how I interpretted your “do no harm” in the OP, that you would also try to prevent others from doing harm. Thank you for your further explanation and for your actions. It’s good to know that there are women like you willing to speak up, regardless of the consequences.

    • Olive says:

      except for when the justification of doing “whats good for them” ends up harming them. No, doing something “good” isn’t good enough.

  18. SilverRain says:

    “I think religious culture creates bias, heretics and ignorance, so I want no part of it.”

    Spunky, this caught at my mind a little. I think that religious culture does not create bias, heretics, or ignorance, but it is used by those who are all of the above to try to justify themselves.

    When I went through this process, my bedrock was that I felt the truth of it. It doesn’t condense down to a motto, but I knew that Christ really was the Savior, that He did what He did, and that He was involved in the restoration and is involved in the guidance of the Church. Do I believe that every word uttered by a GA is straight from Christ’s mouth? No, but I don’t think it matters.

  19. Conifer says:

    Right now I’m down to this: Become the best person you can be and better the lives of those around you. That’s my foundation I’m trying to build on. Another that goes along with this, and this is a quote I’ve heard attributed to Camila Kimball, is “never suppress a kind thought.” I’ve found a lot of peace in these mottos.

  20. Conifer says:

    I just looked it up and it’s “Never suppress a generous thought”. Bonnie D. Parkin quotes Camilla Kimball as having said it. I heard someone talk about it once and it really stuck with me and is something I try to live my life by.

  21. Jessawhy says:

    I love this! Sorry I’m late to the conversation, but I’d love to see you expand this into a book 🙂

    You are thoughtful and brilliant.
    Thanks for sharing this. I will refer to it often.

  22. Rachel says:

    I am so glad to know that I’m not the only “good little mormon girl” who thought she was building on a rock and then found out later that it was just scaffolding of do’s and dont’s. I hope that our younger generations will be able to have a surer foundation.

  23. Rachel says:

    To address the question you posed at the end of you article. “Can Mormons have a secular humanist or even a non-denominational foundation like: Do No Harm? If so, what keeps them particularly Mormon?”
    Something that Joseph Smith said answers best, “We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up or we will not come out true Mormons.”
    It is the truth of a thing that makes it worth believing in, not the social acceptability of it. True Mormons gather all the truth they can and circumscribe it in to a great complete truth.

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