The Episcopal Baptismal Covenant and Moral Foundations Theory


I had a revelation while listening to a sermon recently – a preacher’s dream for his or her congregants, no? Our rector mentioned Bryan Owen’s (2008) statement that liberal Episcopalians tend to limit their application of the Baptismal Covenant in their daily lives to those questions about loving our neighbors and striving for justice and peace.

The Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church, used at Easter, baptisms, and other occasions, was designed as a mini catechism and first appears in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It asks for affirmative answers to three promises about belief in God and to five other questions about foundational behaviors, such as striving for justice and peace (see the entire Baptismal Covenant below).

My revelation came as I thought about the connection between Jon Haidt’s (and others’) Moral Foundations Theory research and their findings about political liberals and conservatives.

As described at (where you can learn everything you want to know about Moral Foundations Theory), “…the theory proposes that several innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Moral Foundations Theory describes six foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression.

Haidt and Graham (2007) found that liberals’ construction of a morality relies most strongly on just two of the foundations, while conservatives, especially religious conservatives, are more likely to use all six foundations.

Take a moment to look at the last two questions of the Baptismal Covenant, and then see again the six foundations of Moral Foundations Theory. Which of the foundations would you guess liberals depend upon most?

That’s right – care/harm and fairness/cheating. And wouldn’t you know…the Baptismal Covenant questions and the Moral Foundations that are adhered to most strongly by liberals (both Christian and otherwise) address just about the same values.

If we take a look at the entire Baptismal Covenant and all six Moral Foundations Theory foundations, it seems rather effortless to make the following connections:

Believe in God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) – authority/subversion

Apostles’ teaching/breaking of bread – loyalty/betrayal

Resist evil – sanctity/degradation

Serve Christ/love neighbors – care/harm

Strive for justice and peace – fairness/cheating

And incorporating the 6th Foundation, one can also make a case for:
Proclaim the Good News – liberty/oppression

The Baptismal Covenant is a formal declaration of foundational beliefs by an institution, while Moral Foundations Theory approaches morality from a secular standpoint and is developed from moral intuitions of individuals from the ground up. But the parallels between the Episcopal Baptismal Covenant and Moral Foundations Theory are striking.

This is pretty interesting, but what should we do with this information? After all, do liberals do so badly by focusing primarily on care and justice? Maybe this is just an academic exercise that could be noted and then ignored. But caring for our neighbors and striving for peace and justice are not the entirety of The Episcopal Baptismal Covenant, and care/harm and fairness/cheating aren’t the only foundations that emerge from Moral Foundations Theory research. So, couldn’t we all be even better – more complete – citizens by embracing and acting on a whole Covenant, and an entire morality, and in the process become more understanding of our conservative neighbors? We have a complete set of tools to make a positive impact in the world – we should use them all.

Thanks to Charlie DeKay, Rector, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Evanston, IL who quoted Bryan Owen in his sermon on March 16, 2014, creating the impetus for this writing, and to Sonya Sachdeva for her invaluable insights and editorial comments.

And thank you to Jon Haidt for linking this posting to his site,

The Baptismal Covenant
(as found at

Celebrant: Do you believe in God the Father?
People: I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

Celebrant: Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
People: I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Celebrant: Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
People: I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

Celebrant: Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
People: I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant: Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People: I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant: Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?
People: I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People: I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant: Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People: I will, with God’s help.

(Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304-305)

Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2007). When morality opposes justice: Conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals may not recognize. Social Justice Research, 20(1), 98-116.

Bryan Owen (2008) Creedal Christian (


Jennie Woodring works in Northwestern University’s Department of Psychology and is a member of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Evanston, IL.