Matthew Bowman: Faith, not fear, will save BYU

Religious schools should be distinctive, but Latter-day Saint and university leaders need to show more faith and trust in faculty and students.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fall colors begin to appear around a statue of Brigham Young on the BYU campus on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022.

If you were a Latter-day Saint who used social media or went to church 15 years ago or so, you might have heard a story about the halls of heaven at a moment when the dead of centuries past learn that the young people of today lived in the dawn of the 21st century. At the invocation of this most consequential of eras of human history, “a hush will fall over every hall, every corridor in heaven.”

One version told young people they were “the most courageous and the most righteous” sent to earth in history’s wickedest time. It ends with a portentous question: “Are you still?”

The story spread like wildfire, fast enough that leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints felt compelled to refute its validity. It’s not hard to guess why.

Though the story is false, it echoes real sentiments. In a talk in 1981, for instance, apostle Ezra Taft Benson told Brigham Young University students that “the truth of the matter is that you do live in a most exceptional time in the history of the world.” He cited various biblical prophecies. “Wars and rumors of wars, atheism, agnosticism, immorality and dishonesty,” Benson declared. “...Desertions, cruelty, divorce and infidelity.”

But prophecies like these are tricky. Church leaders have invoked the New Testament phrase “wars and rumors of wars” since the faith’s founding. It meant the Civil War, it was World War II, it was, memorably, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

Similarly, church leaders since the 19th century have been convinced that their youths were threatened with corruption at the hands of a secular and anti-religious society. “The spirit of the world had crept in among our young people,” worried Eliza R. Snow in 1878. She warned Latter-day Saint educators that there were “infidels among them.”

What lies near the heart of all of these stories Latter-day Saints have told about their young people in the world is fear. Latter-day Saints have long lived in a sense of opposition to the world around them.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students and patrons walk between classes on the BYU campus on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022.

That brings us to what is happening at BYU today. In recent months, church educational administrators have tightened monitoring of the faculty at the Provo university. BYU has long required Latter-day Saint faculty members to secure an endorsement from their bishops of their worthiness to teach at the school. Now the university requires bishops to ask a longer list of questions that zero in on particular issues of church doctrine and practice. New faculty members have also been asked to waive the confidentiality most Latter-day Saints expect from their conversations with their bishops.

It appears that, like Eliza Snow, some in the church today worry about the rising generations. These policies seem to grow out of worry that BYU is secularizing, that this secularization grows from BYU faculty, and that its inevitable end is that young people will abandon the church.

Why religious schools should be different

Set aside whether this is an accurate assessment of the trajectory of young Americans (though I think the best scholarship on the question of the numerical decline of Christians in the United States indicates that it is not).

We may even set aside the question of whether BYU should implement such policies. Surely, many religious universities in the country have expectations as strict, and that is appropriate. BYU should surely not simply attempt to become a church-run version of Harvard, or even the University of Utah.

Clark Gilbert, the church’s current commissioner of education, argues that religious educational institutions should maintain a distinctive identity. This is absolutely correct.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) General authority Seventy Clark G. Gilbert speaks at General Conference on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. Gilbert is the church's commissioner of education.

We desperately need more robust and vital religious voices in the American public square. The virtues religious people call our attention to and the capacity for community building that religious organizations foster are crucial counterweights to the disintegrating forces at work in our lives today. Consumerism and the media teach us to think of our interactions with one another in terms of branding and self-promotion, and the purpose of our lives in terms of pleasure, economic gain and personal advancement. Religion is one of those forces that can point out to us that what seems normal may in fact be broken and require healing.

So, BYU should claim a religious identity. Gilbert offers intriguing ideas about what a distinctively Latter-day Saint form of education might look like, highlighting concern for community and genealogy. I might add other distinctively Latter-day Saint concepts that can shape how BYU students and faculty study the world around them. What might it mean to think about English literature or sociology or biology through the lens of “restoration,” the need to heal what is broken about our lives and our societies, for instance? The possibilities are inspiring.

But despite the promise of Gilbert’s vision, what draws me short about the new policies at BYU is a phrase from the New Testament. The Second Epistle to Timothy reminds us, “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”

A firm foundation of trust

Gilbert presents us with a sharp distinction between the religious and the secular in the United States today. His essay on the topic opens with an elegiac description of Harvard University’s transition from a school for training ministers to a modern secular university, and it is apparent that Gilbert believes that this decline confronts every religious school in the country.

But I worry the measures implemented at BYU will not heal the wound. They seem to me enacted out of fear. Fear does not build; fear does not last; fear does not heal. Policies enacted out of fear do not produce loyalty or love. They produce only more fear.

Timothy’s counsel calls us to a different way of imagining the relationship between BYU and the secular academy and, more broadly, the relationship between the church and the world — one rooted in hope rather than fear.

Faith is the antidote of fear, and BYU, at its best, generates faith that dispels fear and cures anxiety. We see that faith in graduates who go forth to serve, having learned at BYU how to find in it the desire and skills to change the world for the better. We see it in BYU devotionals from faculty of multiple disciplines who show us endlessly new and surprising ways to illuminate the service to which they believe God has called them.

Faith is not the same thing as belief; rather, faith is confidence. Faith is surety that the long-suffering work of persuasion, trust and hope scripture calls us to can build relationships between faculty and students, administrators and faculty, and human beings and God that will survive the tides of the modern world. Faith can grapple with the changing society around it and grow stronger in the process, because faith finds God’s purposes and God’s goodness in all things.

This is the work that a religious university like Brigham Young University should be engaged in: the building of Zion through engagement with the world in confidence and hope in God. That is the work that will produce generations of faculty and of students who love their faith because they know that its leaders trust rather than fear them. That is the trust that ultimately births faith.

Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith” and “Christian: The Politics of a Word in America.”