Good morals break bad when they’re fueled by the wrong motivations. Jesus lived a different kind of morality, something Franciscan author Richard Rohr calls “beautiful morality” — and we need it now more than ever.

Good morals and religious identity are very different things.

Earlier this week, The Pew Research Center released the latest statistics about the U.S. religious landscape and the numbers weren’t good.

Since 2007, the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian has dropped from 78.4% to 70.6%. More than one in five Americans now fall into the agnostic, atheist or “nothing in particular” category.

A person can have good morals without believing in God or participating in religious activities. 

Even so, there is clearly a relationship between morality and religion, and at least part of the decline in religious affiliation can be attributed to the behaviors and attitudes of Christians who have turned their morality into something ugly and divisive.

When good morality breaks bad:

  • It feels smug, angry, pushy and inconsistent with the gospel message.
  • It puts dogma and doctrine above people and relationships.
  • It becomes self-centered, self-defensive and lifeless.

If you’re wondering how Christianity in the U.S. can decline almost 8 percent in less than a decade, maybe it’s time to ask yourself whether the answer is staring back at you when you look in the mirror.

The morality of Jesus is “beautiful morality.”

In Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, Richard Rohr describes the morality of Jesus, something he calls “beautiful morality.”

While good morals gone bad repel people, beautiful morality draws people in because it has the “aroma” and “fragrance” of Christ (2 Cor. 2:14-16).

Beautiful morality sees beyond itself.

Good morals go bad when they are held from a position of self-importance and ego-centrism. Too often, faith-based morality is used as a dividing line between us and them, rather than a catalyst for changing who we are and the way we view the world.

Beautiful morality constantly looks beyond itself to a larger presence. Instead of becoming a justification for our politics or personal biases or group identity, this kind of morality is about living our beliefs in a way that connects us with other people and the world itself.

Beautiful morality treads lightly.

In the wrong hands, good morals function as weapons. Unfortunately, there are too many examples of people who are committed to moral beliefs and actions, but then use their morality as a cudgel for bludgeoning friends and strangers into submission.

Beautiful morality — Jesus’ morality — is never pushy or aggressive. It treads lightly and presents itself as an invitation, not a threat. Although this type of morality is no less certain than its ugly cousin, those of us who embrace it recognize that we don’t have all the answers and we allow for the possibility that we could be wrong.

Beautiful morality gives people hope and joy.

Good morals go bad when they are reduced a list of do’s and don’ts — a menu of prescribed behaviors that carry an implicit threat of punishment for disobedience.

One of the easiest ways to spot beautiful morality is that it gives people joy and hope. In essence, the beautiful morality of Jesus brings life and vitality to us and to the world around us.

Now here’s the scary part: Rohr warns that beautiful morality can be painful because it opens you up to the judgment and criticisms of those who have been consumed by their own good morals.

It’s the “vulnerability of the faith position,” Rohr says and he’s spot on. When you follow Francis’ advice and give people reasons to experience spiritual joy, it’s inevitable that you will eventually find yourself in the crosshairs.

But you’re not alone. Jesus has been there, too. And in a way, that makes his morality even more beautiful.