The vast majority of those who leave the LDS Church still take their personal commitments and covenants seriously. People ought to be honest—and (under most conditions) people should keep their promises. Moral behavior is an inherent duty of all rational beings.
An analysis of a member’s ethical duty to their temple covenants is not merely an abstract exercise. For instance, to defend their policy of expelling, firing, and evicting BYU students who leave the faith (see freebyu.org), BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said:
These students make certain covenants and commitments, and a consequence of leaving those covenants and commitments is that they are asked to leave BYU.
And spiritually, members are threatened by Satan himself in the temple ceremony if they do not live up to their promises:
I have a word to say concerning these people. If they do not walk up to every covenant they make at these altars in this temple this day, they will be in my power!
LDS Church institutions impose drastic consequences on former members, and spiritual threats are issued based on the keeping of these promises. Are BYU students who leave the LDS Church breaking promises (e.g., to consecrate everything to the LDS Church)? Should those students be held accountable for making those covenants and commitments? Are former members all dishonest and under Satan’s power for breaking solemn promises?
There are three compelling reasons to think that former members should be excused from these promises:
Critical information involved in making the promise was not adequately disclosed by the LDS Church
Historical analysis suggests that the leaders and the institution have failed to be transparent in at least some ways, and leaders admit that they have not been transparent with many records from their past. For instance, Elder Steven Snow recently stated:
I think in the past there was a tendency to keep a lot of the records closed or at least not give access to information. But the world has changed in the last generation—with the access to information on the Internet, we can’t continue that pattern; I think we need to continue to be more open.
A breach of contract for this reason would fall under the general legal principle of “uberrima fides” (“utmost good faith”) (see section Disclosure and misrepresentation at wikidedia:English Contract Law). When full disclosure is not made of items relevant to the making of the contract, no reasonable person would consider the contract in force, because the party from which information was withheld was acting without all necessary information, and the other party should have provided that information.
The promise was made under totalistically imposed psychological duress
Traditional jurisprudence states that a person is not bound to keep a promise made under duress.
The request for a promise was performed under totalistic conditions. In the LDS worldview, members cannot be married in honor, cannot serve an LDS mission, and members are told that they cannot live with God in eternal happiness unless they go through the ceremony. Faithful members have effectively little choice in the matter of whether or not to go through the temple ceremony.
The opportunity to withdraw is only offered before the conditions of the promises to be made are disclosed.
A participant is—in effect—required to accept the conditions of the covenant before disclosure of those conditions.
The beginning of the endowment ceremony states:
If you proceed and receive your full endowment, you will be required to take upon yourselves sacred obligations, the violation of which will bring upon you the judgments of God, for God will not be mocked. If any of you desire to withdraw rather than accept these obligations of your own free will and choice, you may now make it known by raising your hand.
However, the obligations themselves are not disclosed to the participant until they have already implicitly agreed to accept the obligation. And, once the obligations are presented, no choice is offered the participant to withdraw at that time–the obligation is presented to the participant in command form:
Each of you bring your right arm to the square.
You and each of you covenant and promise before God, angels, and these witnesses at this altar, that you do accept￼ the law of consecration as contained in this, the book of Doctrine and Covenants [he displays the book], in that you do consecrate yourselves, your time, talents, and everything with which the Lord has blessed you, or with which he may bless you, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for the building up of the kingdom of God on the earth and for the establishment of Zion.
Each of you bow your head and say, “Yes.”
The order in which these events occur (i.e., ability to withdraw and the full disclosure of the nature of the covenants) also lend support to both points #1 and #2 above.
What about baptismal covenants?
When we were baptized, we entered into a covenant with God. We promised to take upon ourselves the name of Jesus Christ, always remember Him, keep His commandments, and serve Him to the end. We renew this covenant each time we partake of the sacrament.
- No promises are explicitly made during baptism–the baptismal prayer itself makes no indication that the participant has promised anything.
- (For members baptized as a child): It is nonsensical to suggest that an eight year old is mature enough to make a lifelong committment of that nature.
Either way, a person who undergoes a faith transition is under no obligation:
- If the baptismal covenant is not really explicit, then they actually made no promise.
- If the act of baptism really requires that an 8 year child promise that they will “serve God to the end”, then asking such a promise of an 8 year old child is unethical and nonsensical.