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Apostle Jeffrey Holland to BYU: Stop aiming ‘friendly fire’ at LDS teachings

Church leader questions why valedictorian came out as gay during his 2019 commencement speech, but the former student says he’s proud of what he did.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speaks to faculty at Brigham Young University on Aug. 23, 2021.

On the same day that Brigham Young University announced the creation of an “Office of Belonging” to combat “prejudice of any kind, including that based on race...and sexual orientation,” Latter-day Saint apostle Jeffrey R. Holland sharply criticized faculty members and students who challenge the faith’s teachings on same-sex marriage.

He also questioned why a BYU valedictorian would choose his 2019 commencement address to come out as gay.

During Monday’s annual University Conference for faculty and staff in the Provo school’s Marriott Center, Holland quoted from a recent letter he received, which said that “some faculty are not supportive of the church’s doctrines and policies and choose to criticize them publicly.”

[Read the transcript of Holland’s talk.]

BYU faculty and staff should take up their intellectual “muskets” to defend The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, especially “the doctrine of the family and...marriage as the union of a man and a woman,” the apostle said, but some choose to aim “‘friendly fire’ — and from time to time the church, its leaders and some of our colleagues within the university community have taken such fire on this campus. And sometimes it isn’t friendly — wounding students and the parents of students who are confused about what so much recent flag-waving and parade-holding on this issue means.”

Holland brought up the time a student “commandeer[ed] a graduation podium intended to represent everyone getting diplomas to announce his personal sexual orientation.

“What might commencement come to mean or not mean if we push individual license over institutional dignity for very long?” he asked. “Do we simply end up with more divisiveness in our culture than we already have? And we already have too much everywhere.”

(Rick Bowmer | The Associated Press) Matt Easton, shown in April 2019, came out during a valedictorian speech Brigham Young University. He expressed disappointment in apostle Jeffrey R. Holland's address at the Provo school on Monday.

Matt Easton, the gay valedictorian, was surprised and disappointed by Holland’s mention of his action.

“I am proud of what I did two years ago,” he responded Monday, “and I stand by what I said.”

His speech, including the mention of his sexual orientation, was approved by his dean two weeks in advance, Easton said from his home in Berkeley, Calif, where he is about to begin graduate school. “I wasn’t trying to grandstand or ‘commandeer’ the event. I drew on my personal experiences because they shaped my time at BYU — authenticity is not the same as ‘agenda pushing.’”

His intention was not to divide his listeners “but to empower people like myself,” he said. “I hope BYU will continue to be a place where LGBTQ students can feel safe and respected.”

‘Have the will to stand alone’

If maintaining the faith’s policy on LGBTQ members — that it’s not a sin to have same-sex attraction but acting on it is — costs the school some “professional associations and certifications,” Holland said, “then so be it.”

[Listen to the “Mormon Land” podcast: How Jeffrey Holland’s talk on LGBTQ issues could have consequences for BYU.]

The church-owned school “must have the will to stand alone, if necessary,” he said, “being a university second to none in its role primarily as an undergraduate teaching institution that is unequivocally true to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in the process.”

No one wants it “to come to that,” said Holland, who worked as BYU’s president from 1980 to 1989, “but, if it does, we will pursue our own destiny.”

To be clear, “let me go no farther before declaring unequivocally my love and that of my brethren for those who live with this same-sex challenge and so much complexity that goes with it,” he said. “Too often the world has been unkind, in many instances crushingly cruel, to these our brothers and sisters. Like many of you, we have spent hours with them, and wept and prayed and wept again in an effort to offer love and hope while keeping the gospel strong and the obedience to commandments evident in every individual life.”

Even so, Holland urged his listeners to “be careful that love and empathy do not get interpreted as condoning and advocacy, or that orthodoxy and loyalty to principle not be interpreted as unkindness or disloyalty to people.”

Earlier in the session, BYU President Kevin Worthen said the new Office of Belonging will be led by “a vice president level official who will be a member of the President’s Council.” Its creation follows an in-depth report from BYU’s Committee on Race, Equity and Belonging released in February.

The 64-page report exposed widespread and significant concerns about the mistreatment of minority students who attend the faith’s flagship campus.

“These experiences have left many disillusioned, brokenhearted, and struggling,” according to the report. “Current systems at the university are inadequate for coordinating services for students seeking assistance with challenges related to race.”

‘A disastrous message’

Holland’s remarks ignited hundreds of responses Monday on social media.

“It is a disastrous message to give to a university faculty,” Michael Austin, a BYU alumnus and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Evansville, a Methodist school in Indiana, wrote on Facebook. “It is exactly the opposite of the norms of academic inquiry that most universities operate under.”

The canons that “govern scholarly activity and research stipulate that the research be conducted without bias, and the results published, regardless of whether they confirm any particular hypothesis or doctrine,” Austin wrote. “What this talk seems to be saying is that academic research should begin with the desired conclusion in mind and either reach that conclusion or be dismissed. That is not scholarship; it is propaganda.”

It seems that leaders of the Utah-based faith want to “have it both ways. They want to be considered a world-class university, by the standards of universities. They want the academic honors that come with having faculty who do world-class research,” he wrote. “But they want to attack those standards as worldly and apostate. There is nothing wrong with a church having a think tank with Ph.D. researchers paid to defend its positions. But that isn’t how universities work.”

Some argued that Holland’s message seemed to echo the concerns of some conservative Latter-day Saints who fear that BYU is getting “too liberal.”

Daniel Ellsworth, a business consultant in Charlottesville, Va., a BYU alum and one of the organizers of the Radical Orthodoxy movement in the church, sees the church school as “ground zero” for what they worry about with Mormon liberals — that they have adopted such allegiance to the LGBTQ movement, for example, that it is “the lens through which they view the church and not the other way around.”

There is “a wave of faculty” hired who “really do view the restored gospel as their secondary allegiance,” Ellsworth told The Salt Lake Tribune in March.

Ellsworth took heart and hope this week in Holland’s message.

“What Elder Holland envisioned for BYU in his address is something that has never been done: helping LGBT and other minorities feel real belonging, while also clearly upholding both the church’s doctrines on gender and sexuality, and the church’s teachings on identity,” he said. “This might feel like a superhuman undertaking, but I share Elder Holland’s hope and I encourage the BYU community and alumni like myself to give the most charitable and generous possible interpretation to his remarks, and be willing to get outside our comfort zones to realize his vision.”

[Get more content like this in the Mormon Land newsletter, a weekly highlight reel of developments in and about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To receive the free newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.]

‘Embodied the best of Mormonism’

Jacob Newman, another BYU graduate, who lives with his husband in Millcreek, said it’s too late to scale back support for LGBTQ students and faculty.

“My freshman ward in 2008 was full of gays. Like, I’m shocked even looking back at the sheer number of gay men we had in our ward,” said Newman, who earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the school. “And as I went through my BYU education, it was deeply traumatic, but there were so many bright spots. Many of my closest friends viewed homophobia as antithetical to Mormon teachings. And I think that most current BYU faculty, students and staff agree.”

What makes the institution distinct isn’t homophobia, transphobia or any other ‘ism,’” Newman said. “BYU is distinct because of its emphasis on bringing religious insight to secular learning. I still cherish the spiritual experiences that I had on campus, including professors who shared heartfelt love for people different from us (the ‘other’) and people suffering in the world. BYU embodied the best of Mormonism.”

Holland is “beating a drum that is out of rhythm with current BYU attitudes,” he said. “The Gen Z folks at BYU are scratching their heads saying, ‘Why is this an issue?’ and the faculty and staff are like, ‘The church is out of touch with the realities of BYU.’”

Newman has heard a lot of these kinds of speeches at BYU, he said, “yet things only keep getting better.”

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