Keith Burns: Is Brigham Young University safeguard or threat to LDS orthodoxy?

Church and BYU should move toward a healthier model of governance that welcomes and embraces rigorous debate, ideological diversity and internal dissent.

(Trevor Christensen | Special to The Tribune) On Friday, August 27th, 2021 around 30-40 protestors gathered on the edge of Brigham Young University campus to demonstrate against remarks by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints apostle Jeffery R. Holland. Holland criticized family members and students who do not support the faith's teachings on same-sex marriage and invoked the metaphor of using muskets to defend the church.

For decades, LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University has been a place where church doctrines have come into conflict with empirical research and secular learning. These conflicts have included scientific issues like evolution and age of the Earth, as well as sociopolitical issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, racism and gender equality. This tension represents a deep struggle that BYU and other conservative religious universities face. In an increasingly scientific and social-justice oriented society, how much longer can these institutions hold on to fundamentalist belief systems, especially those that discriminate against others?

Although this question is not new, LDS leaders have been on high alert in recent years. In 2021, Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland delivered an unforgettably controversial speech at BYU-Provo, lamenting the fading away of BYU’s conservative past and calling on faculty to take up “musket fire” in defense of the church’s teachings around heterosexuality and traditional marriage. He shared portions of letters from concerned parents who felt the university was failing to provide a faith-affirming experience for their children.

“You should know,” one writer said, “that some people in the extended community are feeling abandoned and betrayed by BYU. It seems that some professors (at least the vocal ones in the media) are supporting ideas that many of us feel are contradictory to gospel principles, making it appear to be about like any other university our sons and daughters could have attended.”

The firing of former professor Sue Bergin, coupled with stricter requirements that ensure faculty faithfulness, also demonstrates the church’s increasing angst regarding the political and cultural climate of BYU. In December of 2021, Bergin was fired by the university for reasons she felt had to do with her outspoken advocate of LGBTQ+ individuals, same-sex romance and marriage equality. Shortly after her firing, she expressed awareness of other professors who were being scrutinized by BYU leadership because of their LGBTQ+ affirming views.

BYU administrators and LDS authorities are not the only ones concerned about progressive ideologies creeping into campus culture and academics. A group of unsettled BYU students recently formed an Instagram page called, “Keeping Faith at BYU,” in which students post concerns about professors’ teaching methods and course content that do not align with church doctrine. One student wrote: “I think the biggest problem is not even that there are professors that teach against the church, but that teaching in favor of church doctrine, or with that as a backdrop of absolute truth, is not part of the culture of BYU anymore.”

The late Apostle Boyd K. Packer would frequently warn the church body of the “dangers” of secularism and intellectualism. In a 1981 speech to BYU educators, he cautioned: “I have come to believe that it is the tendency for many members of the church who spend a great deal of time in academic research to begin to judge the church, its doctrine, organization, and leadership, present and past, by the principles of their own profession.” A decade later, he defined what he saw as the three greatest threats to the church: “feminists, homosexuals, and intellectuals.”

I believe Packer was and is still correct. If BYU professors are taking the rigor and ethics of their disciplines seriously, there will inevitably arise conflict between unchanging religious dogma, and an ever-evolving, equity-driven academia. And because the church’s core theology and governance structure are founded on patriarchy, heteronormativity and stifling dissent, academic endeavors at BYU that seek to dismantle these forces by promoting social justice and critical thinking are in fact threats of the current version of the church.

Seeking to silence and root out professors whose voices do not always support the church’s positions is an authoritarian approach that will only hurt BYU’s institutional credibility and hinder the quality of its education and scholarship. Furthermore, stamping out perspectives that affirm LGBTQ+ relationships and identities may bring about continued lawsuits, jeopardize federal funding, and call into question accreditation statuses, similar consequences the church faced for its 20th century prohibition on Black students. Thus, the church and BYU can instead move toward a healthier model of governance that welcomes and embraces rigorous debate, ideological diversity and internal dissent, with a willingness to abandon anachronistic and bigoted belief systems that impede equality and growth.

Keith Burns

Keith Burns, Provo, is a recent Sarah Lawrence College graduate who currently specializes in Mormonism and sexuality.