The Insufficiency of Obedience Discourse
Recently my husband decided to start subscribing to the paper versions of all the church magazines. Out of curiosity I took a look, and I’m happy to report that the Liahona and Friend did a good job of featuring inclusive stories of Latter-day Saints from around the world. I was less enthused by the January 2021 For the Strenth of Youth magazine, which was less global in its scope and had an article called “Hear, Hearken, and Heed.”
Now it could be that I’m just automatically turned off by the word “hearken.” As someone who went through the temple twenty years ago, I had been wounded by that word and the way it was used against women. So I read this very short article about hearing, hearkening, and heeding the teachings of the Lord and the Lord’s servants with my hackles slightly raised. And this focus on obedience — because, really, those three H words when used together are ultimately centering on the idea of obedience — left me feeling disappointed.
Mormonism has various rhetorics of morality, but obedience rhetoric is certainly strong in these latter days: obey the prophets, obey the Lord, obey church leaders. Be blessed if you do.
But obedience messages don’t inspire me. They don’t lead to spiritual maturity, to moral maturity. They don’t help me to think bigger and more expansively. They don’t help me to reach beyond myself and love more generously. They don’t help me to become a stronger, more centered person. They don’t encourage me to thoughtfully tackle difficult issues and dig deep for my best self. Doing good things just because you’ve been commanded to by prophets — and because you’ll get blessed if you do and get punished if you don’t — isn’t sufficient moral development for me.
In my ideal world, my church community would deemphasize obedience rhetoric. I especially want this for my children, who are young teens and tweens. I hope my kids will become deeply moral people, guided by conscience, principle, and their best selves — not by facile directives to obey church leaders. Obedience rhetoric largely locates moral decision making outside the self. It’s external. It’s the “when the brethren have spoken, the thinking has been done” kind of approach. I’m more attracted to Joseph Smith’s ideas about teaching correct principles and letting people rule themselves. I want my kids’ moral centers to be located internally within them, centered on core understandings of good principles like fairness, compassion, love, and equality that they embrace and believe in.
One possible discourse that could steer us away from an incessant focus on obedience is that of virtue ethics. When one employs a virtue ethics lens on a situation, one doesn’t ask, “What’s the rule?” (which is what obedience discourse bends people towards). Rather, one asks, “What kind of person do I want to become?” When a person embraces virtue ethics, rules become far less important and developing virtues like courage, compassion, and love take center stage. In the musical Les Miserables, Jean Val Jean’s song, “Who am I?” is grounded in virtue ethics. He makes his decision to turn himself in based on his determination to be a certain kind of moral person. Javert, on the other hand, has a moral viewpoint grounded in rules and obedience.*
One important aspect of virtue ethics is its focus on process, development, and practice. One becomes a courageous person by practicing courage. One becomes a person of integrity by practicing integrity. Habituation and conscious effort to develop oneself are key. Elder Uchtdorf has hit on virtue ethics when he emphasizes the importance of practice, development, and process in our quest to become compassionate and kind people who are disciples of Christ.
Another possible moral discourse I would love to see supersede obedience rhetoric is the rhetoric of integrity. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife has articulated this idea beautifully (and with great nuance), arguing that what we should want for our kids and for ourselves is the development of integrity, which involves making moral decisions based on one’s own sense of right and wrong and correct principles, even if it puts a person in opposition to her community. Finlayson-Fife points out that obedience discourse can put up important guardrails, but it cannot foster sufficient moral development. “You can’t obey your way into adulthood or selfhood,” she says.
Ultimately, for me, a focus on obedience is fundamentally insufficient. We don’t become our best selves when we are trained to export our moral decision making to others, when being good and doing good is located in docility to rules and leaders. I prefer moral decision making to arise from core values and principles, from determinations to be people of kindness, courage, and integrity . This may mean that people ultimately go in different directions with their moral decision making. Principles guide people as they work through issues, but they don’t always point to one exact behavior or destination. Certainly, if homogenous behavior is what you want, obedience discourse will be more effective. But in the end, growth, development, and moral and spiritual maturity are better facilitated when we allow people to work through competing goods and various principles and come to decisions that resonate with their own senses of godliness.
*While I critique a focus on rules and obedience, I want to acknowledge that many rules can be pretty good. I’ve always been impressed by Kant’s categorical imperative to never treat another person as a means to an end, but to instead treat them as an end in and of themselves.