Purity, Rules and AllergiesBy: hawkgrrrl
Childhood allergies like hay fever are linked to an absence of contact with fecal matter in their early years. In other words, their houses were too clean for them to develop immunity. When antibodies have no real threats to fight off, they’ll pick the next best thing – dust, pet dander, and pollen. For some reason, I think it would make my mother proud that my hay fever is a byproduct of her obsessive cleanliness. Perhaps this phenomenon also explains why Mormons are prone to creating extra rules on top of our already high standards. Let me explain.
One of Jonathan Haidt’s 5 moral foundations is Purity. An example of a purity violation from another culture is the use of the left hand. In many Muslim and Hindu cultures, the left hand is considered impure. People do not touch others with their left hand or use their left hand for retrieving food from communal bowls. The left hand is used for washing oneself in the toilet, hence its association with impurity.
Many multi-cultural and multi-religious societies don’t have as many clear cut purity prohibitions that are obvious to us, but we do have them. In fact, Seinfeld plumbs them for comedic effect routinely throughout the series. You may remember a few of these:
- George Costanza takes an art book into the bathroom at a bookstore, he is told he must buy it, and then the store won’t let him return it because it’s been flagged. (“You get your toilet book out of here, and I won’t jump over this counter and punch you in the brain!” yells the cashier.)
- George finishes a half eaten eclair he finds in the top of the garbage at someone else’s house. (“Adjacent to refuse is refuse,” Jerry explains).
- Kramer asks if he can borrow Jerry’s swim suit. (“I don’t want your…your boys down there.” Jerry whines).
- George double-dips a chip. (“That’s like putting your whole mouth right in the dip!” rages Timmy, the younger brother of George’s girlfriend).
- Jerry won’t eat pizza made by restaurateur Poppy because he sees that Poppy has not washed his hands in the restroom. (“Even if you’re not gonna soap up, at least pretend for my benefit. Turn the water on, do something,” Jerry says to George later.)
- Kramer makes a salad in the shower by installing a disposal in the drain.
- Everyone in NYC begins to eat candy and donuts with utensils to keep their hands clean. (“I am eating my dessert,” George sneers when Mr. Morgan asks what he’s doing eating a candy bar with a knife and fork. ”How do you eat it–with your hands?”)
- Elaine returns a babka with an impurity. (“You sold us a hair with a cake around it. We’d like another one.”)
- Elaine is offended that co-worker Peggy uses a seat protector in the bathroom since they are the only two women on their floor. (Jerry defends Peggy while obsessively cleaning up his own place, “Well, maybe she just practices good hygiene.” Elaine eyeballs him: ”Yeah, you’re probably right. She’s probably one of those neurotic clean freaks.”)
We often consider people who are hypersensitive to impurities to be borderline mentally ill. We call them germphobes and say they have OCD. The line between purity and impurity is often personal and may differ. My mother was always a bit of a germphobe like Jerry. She had a strong distaste for drinking from the same glass or eating food someone else (even in the family) had touched or eaten from. She has always locked the bathroom door, and she insists that house guests clean and towel dry the bath tub if they shower in it.
So what are some examples of Mormon impurities? A person is said to be pure when his or her thoughts or actions are “clean” in every way. We talk about no unclean thing being able to enter into God’s presence, and we sing a hymn about our hearts and hands being clean and pure. We also find things morally repugnant that “defile” people. When doing his research on moral foundations, Jonathan Haidt used a few scenarios to help people identify their revulsion towards impurity by removing all of the other moral objections (Harm, Fairness, Loyalty and Authority) from the scenarios. Subjects who were asked to explain why they considered the scenario objectionable had difficulty. Here are scenarios that illustrate a violation of the Purity moral foundation:
- “I have some fresh orange juice, into which I have dipped a sterilised cockroach. The roach was bought from a lab supply company, raised in a clean environment. It has been stored in alcohol, but just to be certain, I sterilised it again in an autoclave, which heats everything so much than no germs can survive. Would you drink the juice?”
- “Julie and Mark are a brother and sister who, one night on a vacation together, decide to make love. Julie is already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. Was it wrong for them to have sex?”
- “A family’s dog is killed by a car in front of their house. They have heard that heard that dog meat is delicious, so they cook it and eat it for dinner. Was it wrong for them to eat the dog?”
- “A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a dead chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he thoroughly cooks it and eats it. Is this morally wrong? Why?”
In Matthew 15, verse 11, the Pharisees have called Jesus on the carpet because his disciples aren’t washing their hands properly according to Jewish law before eating. Jesus says, “Not that which goeth into the mouth adefileth a man; but that which cometh out of the bmouth, this defileth a man.” No wonder Jesus was so popular with all those damn dirty hippies in the 1970s!
Food prohibitions are common purity hallmarks of religious practices. Many of them originated for safety reasons. For example, eating shellfish while wandering in the desert for 40 years with no refrigeration is a sketchy proposition. Joseph Smith introduced the Word of Wisdom in the early days of the church, and Bushman theorizes this is so that members would purge their minds and bodies to make themselves pure vessels ready to receive revelation. During prohibition, women involved in the temperance movement used to say, “Lips that touch wine will not touch mine!” Keeping specific substances out of our bodies creates a feeling of purity even if those substances are not inherently harmful.
In addition to food prohibitions, many religions (including Mormonism) are obsessed with cleanliness. In Balinese Hinduism, menstruating females are prohibited from entering the temple. According to the book Mysteries of Godliness, early Mormon temple worship had a similar prohibition. And in ancient Israel, women who were menstruating were considered unclean and separated until they underwent specific post-menstrual ablutions. Likewise, there were prohibitions that involved post-coital ritual cleansing before participating in spiritual rituals. The rite of baptism, washings & anointing, and foot cleansing all have significance in the LDS faith. Throughout the ancient world, water figures in to ritual temple worship, also creating a purification for those who enter.
The colour white itself is viewed as a symbol of purity, both in and out of the church. White clothing in particular symbolizes purity. White shirts that are clean and pressed are somehow more pure than coloured shirts or those with rolled up sleeves for those who bless and pass the sacrament. White is worn in the temple. And the Book of Mormon conflates white skin with purity.
On the flip side, we run the risk of focusing so much on the outward appearance of purity that we lose our grip on other aspects of morality. This is what Jesus was really cautioning against. He was constantly on the hook for purity violations – hanging out with the outcasts of society, not washing his hands when eating, eating out of the same sop dish at the last supper (alright, maybe not that last one). His willingness to break purity taboos when they conflicted with other more secure moral foundations are a good example for us all.
Do we judge some sinners more harshly than others because we consider some sins more impure than others? Do we have a stronger dislike of sins that have a physical component rather than just a spiritual one? Do we more readily accept impurity that is ideological or unseen than that which is physically apparent?
- Would you be surprised to know that people are not turned away from the temple if they have a valid recommend, regardless of what they are wearing? And yet, how often are people judged harshly in ward meetings for what they wear?
- Do we judge people who smell of alcohol or cigarettes more harshly than we judge those who gossip and backbite or tattle on other members to the bishop? Yet who is doing more harm to others?
- Are sexual sins considered next to murder because they are more “icky” than other sins?
- Are tattoos and piercings associated with making the body impure and therefore considered a visible manifestation of internal sin by some?
My theory is that many Mormons are especially prone to hypersensitivity about ideological impurity because of the sanitized environment in which we intentionally live. We isolate ourselves from not only sin, but even the appearance of sin. We not only censor our own behaviour, but also censor what we watch, listen to, and often the types of people with whom we associate to the point that we have no tolerance for the stuff of life. Art majors at BYU do not use nude models. Some Mormons will go to ridiculous lengths to avoid using profanity. I met engaged Mormon girls who were unfamiliar with the basics of how sex worked. Many members won’t cook with alcohol, eat coffee ice cream, or drink herbal tea (which isn’t even tea – look at the box!). Enterprising Mormons have made a living “cleaning” up the objectionable parts of movies so that members don’t have to witness anything unseemly. In some ways, we’ve created a second Eden, empty of the growth and progress that only comes with exposure to grit – with a knowledge of both good and evil. But we’ve also been able to make sins of things that aren’t inherently sinful, like wearing flip-flops in the chapel and entering the bedroom of a person of the opposite sex.
What do you think? Does lack of exposure to life in all its gritty glory prevent or enable spiritual development? Does self-censorship lead to increased purity or just intolerance for imperfections in ourselves and others? Are Mormons the fussy arms-length Jerry Seinfeld equivalent of obsessive spirituality?