Jana Riess: Why the BYU-Idaho disaster is a signal of positive change in the LDS Church

(Jeremy Harmon | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Jana Riess on Oct. 4, 2019.

Brigham Young University-Idaho made the welcome announcement Monday that it has reversed its controversial decision to disallow Medicaid as an acceptable form of health insurance for current students.

The reversal will return the university, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to the previous status quo, in which Medicaid was considered an acceptable form of insurance to satisfy the university’s requirement that all students have health insurance, but was not accepted as a form of payment at the university’s own health center.

I’m not surprised by the reversal. The proposed anti-Medicaid policy was ridiculous and untenable, not to mention abruptly implemented and poorly handled. The additional specter of the university’s administration allegedly attempting to silence student journalists who were investigating the policy’s negative ramifications is sobering.

But two other things do surprise me, and point to positive change. Here is the university’s Monday announcement:

“The well-being of our students and their families is very important to us. We are grateful for the feedback we have received from our campus community and for the input of the local medical community. We apologize for the turmoil caused by our earlier decision.”

First, officials are apologizing. They acknowledge that they created turmoil. If this seems fundamental and basic, compare it to the church’s modus operandi with the November 2015 LGBT exclusion policy. The four-year sequence of that P.R. disaster has been:

I want to be clear that I see revelation as a complex and dialogical process; there’s nothing mutually exclusive about a Latter-day Saint prophet receiving revelation that apparently contradicts earlier revelation. That is precisely the point of continuing revelation — to adapt the gospel to changing circumstances as God’s people come to different understandings. (See this interview with biblical scholar Pete Enns for an example of how the Bible itself models this.) I am not saying the 2015 exclusion policy was truly a revelation from the Lord, which I do not believe, but rather that it is possible — indeed, imperative — for human understandings of the Lord’s will to evolve and grow over time.

In any case, one thing is clear from the exclusion policy timeline: Though the LDS Church acknowledged the “heartache” that stance caused, it did not apologize for it.

It’s good to see BYU-Idaho going in a different direction.

The second hopeful sign from the BYU-Idaho fiasco is that it explicitly acknowledged that it had responded to the critical feedback it had received from students and from the medical community. The institution listened, and the institution learned. It even expressed gratitude for this critical feedback.

Sounds basic, right?

Let’s contrast that to the way the LDS Church has handled incremental change over gender issues. I’ve been both happy and frustrated with the slow movement toward giving women greater responsibilities and visibility in the church, from letting women pray in General Conference to adapting the temple ceremony to limit male mediation between women and God. Latter-day Saint girls now have equal activity budgets to boys; Heavenly Parents are mentioned in the Young Women theme; female missionaries are permitted to wear pants; women can serve as witnesses to temple ordinances. And there have been so many other steps forward.

These are excellent changes. All of them were suggested repeatedly by female writers and activists before they were finally implemented by the church.

And they were all changed without reference to any of that dialogic interaction. Latter-day Saint feminists have been like the persistent widow knocking, knocking, knocking on the door of the judge in Luke 18. They have received no acknowledgment from the church except that eventually, many of their ideas have been adopted as policy, and even cited as holy revelation.

The “we are grateful for the feedback we have received” model could be a fine corrective to that history going forward.

The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.

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