Recent events highlight the tug of war on campus and in the LDS Church.
Three stories over the past week have cast Brigham Young University in an unflattering light.
A school administrator has removed thousands of LGBTQ resource brochures from welcome bags for new students. The university added language explicitly requiring new hires to waive clergy confidentiality on employment standards issues. And, finally, an investigation continued into reports that a Cougar fan hurled racial slurs at a visiting Duke volleyball player.
In the Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast, Patrick Mason, a BYU alumnus and chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University, and Duke graduate LaShawn Williams and a social work faculty member at Salt Lake Community College, discussed how these developments have affected the reputation of the Provo School and what they may portend for the future of the flagship Jesus Church university. -Christ of the Latter Day Saints.
Here are excerpts:
Which of these three stories is most damaging to BYU’s reputation?
williams • The sports play contributes to that really negative reputation that Utah has as having the most or one of the most racist fanbases. It does us no favors. … But there is local damage, and there is national damage. Locally throwing away the brochures is the most damaging because we live and see that every day we have the ability to rationalize it and isolate it as a single thing. It’s much easier for us to sweep it under the rug and ignore it. … We live in a space of skyrocketing mental health and safety issues for LGBTQ populations here in the state.
Patrick, you attended and taught at Notre Dame, the largest Catholic university in the country. Did he have anything like BYU ecclesiastical endorsement for faculty or students?
Mason • No, it’s definitely not the same thing. Notre-Dame is one of a handful of religious institutions of higher learning that really want to be elite university schools. So how do you balance that with your religious identity? At Notre-Dame, this is played out in different ways. Should we, for example, invite Barack Obama to speak on campus when he is in favor of abortion? In terms of hiring faculty, it doesn’t have the same sort of thing as BYU’s ecclesiastical endorsement. [BYU’s practice] might be more similar to what they do in some evangelical schools, where there is a declaration of faith that teachers must sign. They don’t always have to be members of a particular church, but they have to say, “Yes, we believe these things. And if they no longer believe in these things, their status as teachers may be in question.
Given what has happened over the past two weeks and over the past year at BYU and other church institutions, do you see them moving in a new direction?
williams • I don’t know if it’s a new direction as much as it’s a stronger direction. There have been undercurrents of this for as long as I can remember as a young woman in my own journey in the church. But [now] it translates into policy and practice. What I think we’re seeing is this assertion of dominance. The whole “in the world, but not of the world” is really embodied in some of these practices and policies. And I don’t know if it works well for us. She leans towards this elitism that makes us inaccessible, unreachable and then untenable in our relationships with others.
Mason • I think there is a constant fear of cultural slippage or decay within the church that the world will be with us too much. The question is: does the church want to be part of the mainstream? They want BYU in the news for good reasons, not bad reasons. They want their graduates to come out and do very well. The church wants to be an actor on the national and international scene. How to do without being like everyone else? How do you maintain your uniqueness? And that pendulum has swung over the decades. We seem to be at a time of wondering if this is secularization or a loss of identity, perhaps a loss of rights and privileges of religious organizations, whether perceived or real . I think that leads to some of these political decisions where the church is just going to say, we’re going to emphasize our distinctiveness.
How do these episodes fit with Latter-day Saint theology?
Mason • I hope and pray that LDS theology will be absolutely unequivocal in denouncing all forms of racism. We have heard good messages in this direction. Will this theology be institutionalized? Now it’s a bit more complex than that when you look at the [church’s] scriptures and history. But I think I hope we’ve come to a point in the 21st century where theology itself is unequivocal. The theological issues around gender and sexuality are simply extremely complex. And, frankly, tradition hasn’t figured that out yet. This is one of the projects with which tradition has to struggle in this century. And then there’s this question of authority versus conscience, obedience versus individual freedom and freedom. These are paradoxes. Finally, there is the question of the confidentiality of interviews. Is a person employed by a church or a university giving up certain kinds of freedom of speech or even conscience? Mormon theology encompasses these tensions, but it does not necessarily resolve them all.
williams • We really have to wrestle with the limits and expansions of free will. And we have to be able to sit down and say, “OK, how can I walk with you and talk to you through this?” Because “I will walk with you, I will talk with you. That’s how I’ll show you my love” is what we teach children to sing. So why would we stop acting this way when it comes to living our lives and actually practicing? Give them correct principles, let them govern themselves. That may not mean making sure they’re doing it right.
To listen to the full podcast, go to sltrib.com/podcasts/mormonland. To read a full transcript and receive other exclusive “Mormon Land” content, go to Patreon.com/mormonland.