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It is possible, some say, to balance faith in divine Truth (with a capital T) and faith in the truths of earthly scholarship.
And that is exactly how Brigham Young University sees its “unique” mission.
All seem to agree that the school owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is — and should be — different from other universities.
The truth-seeking tensions, however, can be difficult to navigate. Trying to maintain professional standards and religious orthodoxy can be challenging. Is it even attainable or could the school lose its footing?
What it takes are teachers who are “bilingual,” former church President Spencer W. Kimball, told BYU faculty in 1975. “You must speak with authority and excellence to your professional colleagues in the language of scholarship, and you must also be literate in the language of spiritual things.”
Mormonism’s flagship university “will not and cannot divorce itself from the big questions of human experience,” religious history professor Spencer Fluhman said in a 2019 address. “Unlike other institutions, there is no secularizing retreat here that permits any discipline or field to imagine itself apart from questions of human flourishing or morality or even holiness.”
That charge was reiterated last week by apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, who reminded teachers that the school “stands unquestionably committed to its unique academic mission and to the church that sponsors it.”
Yet top church authorities have complained at times that the scales were tipping too far toward secularism — on questions about evolution, race, women and, more recently, LGBTQ individuals.
Earlier this year, BYU students lit up the Y on the mountain in rainbow colors and a high percentage of Mormon millennials support same-sex marriage, which the church opposes.
And now Holland, like some of his predecessors, has called for a retrenchment.
Quoting from a recent letter he received, Holland said that “some faculty are not supportive of the church’s doctrines and policies and choose to criticize them publicly.”
They should take up their intellectual “muskets” to defend the church, especially “the doctrine of the family and...marriage as the union of a man and a woman,” the popular 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.”
If maintaining the faith’s policy on LGBTQ members — that it’s no 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.”
The Provo school “must have the will to stand alone, if necessary,” said Holland, BYU’s president from 1980 to 1989, “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.”
Some report the speech already has had a chilling effect on campus, with some professors worrying about what they might teach, write or research.
It might not be an idle threat.
In recent days, BYU’s Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship quietly scrubbed from its website any mention of the work by historian Benjamin Park, a BYU graduate, history professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas, and faithful Latter-day Saint whose work is sold at church-owned Deseret Book. Gone are Park’s podcast interview for the institute, the announcement of his short-term fellowship, even his profile page.
“I was surprised and disappointed to see my content was removed,” says Park, author of the acclaimed “Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier.” “Given BYU and the Maxwell Institute had played a significant role in my own development in general, and this book in particular, their hosting my scholarship was a high point for my career.”
Now, Park says, “I worry I don’t have a place there.”
Questions have swirled through other corners of the school about how much support for their LGBTQ students is OK, what is included in doctrine versus policy, how best to defend the faith without diminishing their academic standards, what would happen if the school loses accreditation — and how best to chart a middle course between the prestigious but religiously free-floating Notre Dame and the lower-ranked but more religiously controlled schools like Oral Roberts University.
“BYU occupies a really important place as a part of a little solar system of faith-based colleges dedicated to excellence in research and teaching,” says Patrick Mason, chair of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, “while also being serious about its religious identity.”
There is an “inherent tension between secular scholarship and religious faith, but BYU tries to bring the two into conversation with each other,” Mason says. For students and faculty, “it is all part of who you are, part of the bigger, integrated world of knowledge.”
By what authority?
A singular aspect of Mormonism is the belief that a divinely appointed prophet ultimately pronounces truth — and members trust him to speak for God.
Beyond that, Latter-day Saints agree to “sustain” all their top leaders known as “general authorities.”
But university professors typically defer to consensus in the field, not to a single individual, which sets up competing authorities. And they feel free to critique their school’s president.
In recent years, two BYU presidents — Merrill Bateman and Cecil Samuelson — were simultaneously serving as general authorities, which gave them extra ecclesiastical protection from criticism.
The current president, Kevin Worthen, has no such shield.
The issue of religious authority came into play in 1981, with a strong exchange over the nature of God between English professor Eugene England and outspoken apostle Bruce R. McConkie.
McConkie vehemently opposed England’s speculation that God might be progressing, saying that the Almighty’s perfection is absolute, and in a letter wrote: “It is my province to teach to the church what the doctrine is. It is your province to echo what I say or to remain silent.”
For believing scholars working at BYU, says Janan Graham-Russell, a graduate research fellow in Mormon studies at the University of Utah, the question becomes: Where does one’s adherence to doctrines end and secularism begin?
Pursuing questions about faith in any field, she says, “can be a spiritual practice in itself.” After all, the church was built on Mormon founder Joseph Smith asking a question about which church is right.
At BYU, Graham-Russell says, the expectations concerning asking questions “is beginning to position the practice as less of an academic exercise and more of a test of one’s faithfulness to the church.”
Parallels from the past
The England-McConkie exchange was not the first time Latter-day Saint leaders came down on BYU faculty for what the former viewed as opposition to church teachings.
In 1910, Horace Cummings, superintendent of church schools, reported to his higher-ups that several BYU professors were teaching evolutionary theory and Darwinism, which was disturbing students’ faith.
Within a year, four professors were fired or pressured to resign over teaching evolution or a more nuanced look at scriptures and, by 1921, up to 30% of the faculty had left, according to researcher Gary Bergera’s history of the school. At issue “was not only the question of a literalistic approach to religion, but the role of a church and its administrators to intervene in the daily curricula of an institution of higher secular learning. If science lost and religion won in 1911, defeat and victory would prove short-lived, even illusory.”
In fact, evolution has been taught at the church-owned school for decades.
Another issue brought BYU into conflict with the federal government and accrediting organizations due to the absence of Blacks on campus.
That was clearly a result of the church’s then-ban on Black members holding the priesthood or entering temples.
In the 1960s, Latter-day Saint leaders declared that the long-standing prohibition, which ended in 1978, was a fundamental doctrine.
“The church has no intention of changing its doctrine on the Negro,” said N. Eldon Tanner of the governing First Presidency in 1967. “...Throughout the history of the original Christian church, the Negro never held the priesthood. There’s really nothing we can do to change this. It’s a law of God.”
That stance got the attention of the U.S. government, which investigated the church school for alleged violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
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Rather than giving into the government’s threat to deny all federal funds to the university unless it recruited Black students and faculty, says Matthew Harris, who is writing a book on the church and race after World War II, then apostle and future church President Harold B. Lee “vowed to shut the school down before allowing Blacks on campus.”
During the tumultuous spring and summer of 1969, several things happened that changed Lee’s mind: Western Athletic Conference officials threatened to kick BYU out of the league; athletic protests continued garnering increased national media coverage; and federal investigators planned another site visit to determine if BYU had, in fact, boosted its “Negro enrollment.”
Still, the school’s board of trustees “dug in its heels,” says Harris, a history professor at Colorado State University in Pueblo. By that fall, however, the trustees — predominantly apostles — changed their minds, allowing coaches to begin recruiting Black student-athletes.
And the next year, he says, federal investigators “backed off BYU when the school hired its first Black faculty member.”
Another issue that makes BYU stand out, says Laurie Maffly-Kipp, professor of religion and politics and Washington University in St. Louis, is the nature of its global faith.
BYU emerged from a church “in the midst of intense external persecution and saw itself in part as a haven from larger cultural-social issues in U.S. society,” says Maffly-Kipp, author of the forthcoming volume “Making Zion: A Global History of Mormonism.” “The school has since seen different eras of academic assimilation and retrenchment, depending on the stance of church leaders vis-a-vis wider social currents.”
The church is “very mission-oriented, more so even than some evangelical churches,” she says. “When a faith community declares every member a missionary, it becomes difficult to separate out the promotion of faith from other kinds of speech and education.”
Given that “centrality of evangelization” is a key purpose of “what it means to be a member,” Maffly-Kipp wonders, “what role does education play? Must it always be about promoting faith? And is agreement with church leadership the only way to promote faith?”
Completely free inquiry “means that you have the latitude to consider all sorts of options,” she says, “to take facts and other data as they come and reinvent the world of understanding.”
This doesn’t mean that the scholarship that comes out of BYU “isn’t outstanding,” Maffly-Kipp says. “But it may, if constrained by limits on speech or inquiry, have to be contained within certain bounds that are previously established.”
The scholar adds that such tensions over a university’s mission are hardly unique to religiously related schools.
“There are plenty of state schools that are facing threats from political factions in their states that want to steer the ways that faculty are teaching (e.g., forbidding the teaching of critical race theory),” Maffly-Kipp says. “The compulsion there might be facing dismissal or not being promoted.”
At BYU, however, the problem “is complicated by the fact that faculty are simultaneously risking job status,” she says, “and ecclesiastical consequences if they do not abide by the guidance of church leadership.”
To Mason, who graduated from BYU and taught at Notre Dame, the Provo school provides a great setting for a community of like-minded but diverse members.
Students agree upon a certain set of shared, behavioral norms — no to smoking, drinking, premarital sex and rooming with the opposite sex, yes to attending church and supporting ecclesiastical leaders — which, he says, can help educate the whole person.
Even so, the school could do a better job of explaining the why of these rules (like no beards for men), he says. “The voice of authority often seems arbitrary and is not as compelling or persuasive, especially to younger church members, as thoughtful explanations. Why can’t BYU students drink coffee, for example, and what does that have to do with getting a degree in engineering?”
Overall, though, Mason hopes the school doesn’t “jettison its core identity.”
The historian appreciates that every student has to take a certain number of religion classes but wishes they would engage contemporary issues more robustly.
Or as Fluhman, executive director of BYU’s Maxwell Institute, said, “A steady diet of religious or intellectual Twinkies — sugary sweet but without real nourishment — as one of my colleagues describes them, has no place in God’s kingdom. The intersection of academic disciplines and [church history’s] grand facts should be electric and, in every sense, rigorous.”
Your religion “can’t be the least sophisticated part of your life,” Mason privately tells his USU students, who are trying to balance their secular learning with faith. “You are developing a more complex view of the world and should bring the same kind of rigor you see in all these other fields to your religious life.”
As to the church school’s unique mission, he says, he wants students to “lean into the tension.”
The church’s prophets and apostles “declare doctrine for the church,” he says, and the university “is a good place to explore what that means in light of all the other ways we gain knowledge about the world.”