Recent events highlight the tug of war at BYU and in the LDS Church

A big question for the university: Can it be mainstream and still be “not of the world”?

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Brigham Young statue at BYU in Provo. "The question is," says Latter-day Saint scholar, "does the church [and BYU] want to be part of the mainstream?"

Three stories in the past week showed Brigham Young University in a less-than-flattering light.

A school administrator removed thousands of LGBTQ resource pamphlets from welcome bags intended to go to new students. The university added language explicitly requiring new hires to waive clergy confidentiality on matters related to employment standards. And, finally, an investigation continued of reports that a Cougar fan hurled racist slurs at a visiting Duke volleyball player.

On The Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast, Patrick Mason, a BYU alum and chair of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, and LaShawn Williams, a Duke graduate and faculty member in social work at Salt Lake Community College, discussed how these developments have affected the Provo school’s reputation, and what they may portend for the future of the flagship university of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Here are excerpts:

Which of these three stories is the most damaging to BYU’s reputation?

Williams • The sports piece contributes to that really negative reputation that Utah has as having the most or one of the most racist fan bases. It does us no favors. … But there’s a local damaging, and there’s a national damaging. Locally, discarding the pamphlets is the most damaging because we live and see that every single day we have the ability to rationalize and isolate it as a one-time thing. It’s much easier for us to sweep it under the rug and ignore it. …We live in the space of skyrocketing mental health and safety issues for LGBTQ populations here in the state.

Mason • Nationally, of course, the volleyball story is one that picked up traction on ESPN and it was in national newspapers…. But there’s been so many mixed messages [about LGBTQ] students. You get whiplash in terms of the messages of welcome and inclusion and acceptance and then signals like this [discarding pamphlets]. And so I think there’s a lot of confusion. Still, the policy about the confidentiality of [clergy] interviews may, in the long term, really shape the character of the university moving forward.

Patrick, You attended and taught at Notre Dame, the most prominent Catholic university in the country. Did it have anything like BYU’s ecclesiastical endorsement for faculty or students?

Mason • No, it’s certainly not the same. Notre Dame is among a handful of religious institutions of higher learning that really want to be elite academic schools. So how do you balance that with your religious identity? At Notre Dame, it plays out in different ways. For instance, should they invite Barack Obama to speak on campus when he is in favor of of abortion? In terms of hiring faculty, it doesn’t have the same kind of thing as BYU’s ecclesiastical endorsement. [BYU’s practice] might be more similar to what they do at some evangelical schools, where there’s a statement of faith that the faculty have to sign. They don’t always have to be a member of a particular church, but they have to say, “Yeah, we believe these things.” And if they no longer believe those things, then their faculty status can be called into question.

Given what’s happened in the past couple of weeks and in the past year at BYU and other church institutions, do you see them heading in a new direction?

Williams • I don’t know if it’s a new direction so much as it is a louder 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 is being solidified in policy and practice. What I think we’re seeing is this asserting of dominance. The whole “in the world, but not of the world” thing is really being embodied by some of these practices and policies. And I don’t know that that works well for us. It bends towards this elitism that makes us inaccessible, unreachable and then untenable in our relationships with others.

Mason • I do think there is a constant fear of a cultural slide or decay within the church that the world will be too much with us. The question is: Does the church want to be part of the mainstream? They want BYU to be in the news for good reasons, not for bad reasons. They want their graduates to go out and be very successful. The church wants to be a player on the national and international stage. How do you do that without being just like everybody else? How do you retain your distinctiveness? And this pendulum has swung back and forth over the decades. It does seem like we’re in a moment where there’s concern over whether it’s secularization or a loss of identity, maybe a loss of rights and privileges that religious organizations have, whether that’s perceived or real. I think it’s leading to some of these policy decisions where the church is just going to say, we’re going to emphasize our distinctiveness.

How do these episodes square with Latter-day Saint theology?

Mason • I hope and pray that LDS theology is absolutely unequivocal on denouncing all forms of racism. We’ve heard good messages along those lines. Will that theology be institutionalized? Now it’s a little more complex than that when you look at the [church’s] scriptures and the history. But I think hopefully we’ve arrived at a place in the 21st century where the theology itself is unequivocal. The theological questions around gender and sexuality are just extremely complex. And, frankly, the tradition has not figured it out yet. It’s one of the projects that the tradition has to wrestle with in this century. And then, there’s this question of authority versus conscience, obedience versus individual freedom and liberty. These are paradoxes. Finally, there’s the question of the confidentiality of interviews. Does a person employed by a church or a university give up certain kinds of freedom of speech or even conscience? Mormon theology embraces those tensions, but it doesn’t necessarily solve all of them.

Williams • We’ve really got to wrestle with the limits and the expansions of agency. And we’ve got to be able to sit down and say, “OK, how do I walk with you and talk with you through this?” Because “I’ll walk with you, I’ll talk with you. That’s how I’ll show my love for you” is what we teach the kids to sing. Then why would we stop acting in that way when it comes to living our lives and actually doing the practice? Give them correct principles, let them govern themselves. That might not mean make sure they get it right.

To hear 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.