For better or worse, religious affiliation remains an important thread in the social fabric of these United States. ‘Better,’ most would say. Political candidates campaign on their religious credentials. Religious leaders are sought out as advisers in business and community affairs.
A large segment of the population assumes that religion provides important moral guidelines for life. The theory is that without religion, there would be no morality.
But what if the opposite were true? What if religion gets in the way of moral behavior?
The assumption has been that highly religious people such as our locally infamous Justin and Marsha Harris are highly moral. They go to church. They ‘witness’ their faith in public. Mr. Harris has used his Christian standing in his successful campaigns for public office. Their religious mission is to ‘grow God’s kingdom’ at their pre-school by indoctrinating children with religious teachings.
In the last year, events have unfolded that cause many to question the morality of the Harrises. Believing that God guided their steps, about four years ago they adopted two little girls. Within a relatively short time, the girls became such as problem that the Harrises gave them away. The six-year-old was subsequently raped by her new ‘father.’ In March 2015, the story became public.
In addressing that horrible outcome, Justin Harris belatedly stated he felt sorry for the little girls’ experience. Aside from that, he has blamed the state’s social services agency for not helping more. That’s it.
The irony is that the Harrises felt free to dispose of their newly adopted young daughters and then, in the public fallout after their ‘rehoming’ came to light, agreed that such a practice should be defined as a felony.
Is such an act wrong only if it breaks a law? Did the act of rehoming change somehow once the law was passed, so that when Justin and Marsha rehomed these girls, it wasn’t wrong?
The moral reality is that if it’s a felony now, it was a felony when it happened.
Unfortunately, this is often how religion works in people’s minds. An act is immoral, wrong, bad only when someone has already written a rule or law about it. Does the religious person have license to ignore (or never bother to understand) a greater responsibility to adhere to an inner moral code that would say, emphatically, that dumping young children you’ve pledged to make your own is wrong, bad, immoral?
It’s the ultimate mea culpa. Throw up the hands. “Nobody said…”
Justin and Marsha found themselves at a loss about how to handle these two troubled young girls. They pulled out all their parenting skills to punish bad behavior—isolating, taking away privileges, removing toys and entertainment. They prayed out demons and perhaps did not spare the rod. Nothing worked. The behavior became worse.
This would have been a rich opportunity for the Harrises to learn some new parenting skills. Perhaps positive reinforcement, or long sessions of hugging and other positive physical contact, or one-on-one time pursuing new and interesting activities would have been useful in breaking down the wall of mistrust and anger that grew between these adults and their two young daughters.
Sympathetic observers point out that the Harrises had successfully raised three sons, concluding that they must be decent parents. It remains to be seen how well the sons turn out. But it’s also worth questioning whether the Harris’ success in raising their own children wasn’t a result of stellar parenting as much as a result of the boys’ adaptation to repressive, authoritarian parenting from Day One.
We know the girls were capable of appropriate behavior. The foster parents who cared for them before the Harris adoption as well as the family who have subsequently become the girls’ parents have remarked on the girls’ loving nature. Neither families have run shrieking in terror from the girls or found them a threat to the stability of their households. It’s not much of a stretch to conclude, based on this evidence, that the problem between the girls and the Harrises was the Harrises.
The rape has dominated discussion of the Harris’ rehoming decision. But a much bigger issue looms in the background. That is, the immorality of legal behavior.
For example, law enforcement beats up an innocent person because he didn’t instantly abide by police orders. A hunter spends $50,000 to kill a trophy animal. Legal. Immoral. A list of other examples would be long.
As far as I’ve heard, the Harrises have never said they did the wrong thing. Justin never admitted that he may have used his legislative seat (as representative for my home district) to push through an adoption against the expressed advice of caseworkers and the girls’ foster parents.
Yet it was a chain of events propelled by the Harrises which led to their custody of the girls in the first place. Where exactly does the responsibility begin?
Were the Harrises wrong to be so arrogant that they ignored advice from experienced caseworkers? Was it immoral to commit to parenting two very troubled young children and then renege?
How is it possible for the Harrises to have engaged in immoral, arrogant behavior and still—after all the exposure and shame—not recognize the depth of their immorality?
I would suggest that their hubris stems directly from pride in their own religiosity.
A recent study found that religious people aren’t more likely to do good than their nonreligious counterparts. This isn’t the first or last evidence that religion does not impart morality. Here’s just one of many comments on this question.
- These studies begin to provide empirical support for the idea that like other psychological faculties of the mind, including language and mathematics, we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong, interacting in interesting ways with the local culture. These intuitions reflect the outcome of millions of years in which our ancestors have lived as social mammals, and are part of our common inheritance as much as our opposable thumbs are.
It makes sense that humans possess innate morality. In the view of those who subscribe to evolution, morality is an evolved necessary component of our continued existence. In the view of those who adhere to beliefs in extraterrestrial interference in human existence, morality would have been a key ingredient in intelligent design. Either way, all investigation points to an innate morality in human consciousness.
Recognition of innate wisdom and individual responsibility should be taught in every pulpit. Instead, especially in fundamentalist religions, individuals are taught to be afraid of their instincts. They’re taught to follow rules laid out in religious texts and nothing else matters.
Inevitably, a person’s avid embrace of institutionalized religion can and does interfere with the application of inborn human morality. The person trusts the religion, not himself. The religion’s rules or lack thereof in any given application supersedes any instinctive understanding of right action.
Assuming that the fundamental element of morality in human nature is not somehow missing in the genetic code of Justin and Marsha Harris, an interested observer would be forced to conclude that it was their religion that got them into this mess. Religion is the reason why, even months after their poor judgment became front page news, they still have not said they made a mistake, have not said they regret what they did. Have not apologized to the state agencies they maligned. Have not asked forgiveness of the public they supposedly served.
They did what they believed their religion and the law allowed. They parented according to a model condoned by the church, perhaps modeled after how they themselves were raised. What they did wasn’t a felony when they did it, therefore they did nothing wrong.
Harris has announced he won’t run for another term in office but stopped short of resigning from a seat he’ll hold another eighteen months. He continues to wield regulatory and fiscal power over the same state agency which he says forced him and Marsha to dump the little girls. He and his wife continue to operate their pre-school where they pass on their questionable religious teachings to innocent children.
As an embarrassed constituent who never voted for this man in the first place, I’ve given up hoping for a Harris epiphany any time soon. Even more regrettably, I doubt we’ll ever hear a word of censure from his equally-religious legislative colleagues and governor.
Perhaps the most we can salvage from this unsavory affair is to recognize the broader lessons. Religion doesn’t confer morality. Worse, an individual’s duty to pursue moral behavior is easily abdicated in favor of going to church.
We need more morality and less religion.