In Defense of BYU

My alma mater, Brigham Young University, has received a lot bad press and criticism over its treatment of gay students and faculty over a number of years. So, it surprised me when a friend sent me a link to a ranting attack on BYU from “Standard of Liberty,” a “Christ-centered educational foundation which exists to raise awareness of radical sexual movements overrunning America’s Christian-moral-cultural life and to inspire the public will, families, and individuals to counteract these trends.”

I should note that the “standard of liberty” refers to a Book of Mormon episode wherein a righteously indignant Captain Moroni raises “the title of liberty” to rally the people around defending righteousness:

And it came to pass that he rent his coat; and he took a piece thereof, and wrote upon it—In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children—and he fastened it upon the end of a pole.

And he fastened on his head-plate, and his breastplate, and his shields, and girded on his armor about his loins; and he took the pole, which had on the end thereof his rent coat, (and he called it the title of liberty) and he bowed himself to the earth, and he prayed mightily unto his God for the blessings of liberty to rest upon his brethren, so long as there should a band of Christians remain to possess the land …

And he did raise the standard of liberty in whatsoever place he did enter, and gained whatsoever force he could in all his march towards the land of Gideon. (Book of Mormon, Alma 46:12-13; 62:4)

The authors of the article are Stephen and Janice Graham, who apparently maintain the website. Why are these righteous standard-bearers upset with BYU? They tell us that they have “have tried to refrain from reporting anything too negative about BYU or any other Church-affiliated organization or business.” But apparently, BYU has crossed a line:

If you think BYU upholds traditional family values, think again. Certain department heads, professors, guest lecturers, and students have become a law unto themselves, regularly preaching all manner of progressivism including socialism, radical feminism, anti-Americanism, revisionist history, outdated Darwinism, and popular homosexualism, and continue to be supported, employed, and welcomed.

There is much to comment on here, but there have always been “progressives” at BYU. And when I was in school back in the late 80s and early 90s, we studied Marxism, feminism, Darwinism, and other such heresies regularly. A university is supposed to welcome a diversity of viewpoints and disciplines, and BYU does that while simultaneously upholding a religious mission and promoting its values, which, not surprisingly, are what most people would consider “traditional family values.”

If such teachings have been commonplace at BYU for years, why are they suddenly condemning “The Lord’s University”?

The issue of homosexuality is a prime example. Incredible and exasperating as it is, we must face the fact that our beloved and trusted BYU has made concessions, step by step, for homosexuality as an alternative sexual identity to be accepted and respected. This is reflected in the change BYU made to its Honor Code in 2007 (with input from gay activist students) which approved the accepting of openly gay instructors and students. Individuals acting out, however, is still prohibited, although the definition of acting out is open to interpretation, rationalization, and can easily be covered in secrecy. Even though the honor code still prohibits the advocating of homosexuality, advocating homosexuality is definitely happening. Of course all these problems are born of the compromising and soul-killing inconsistency of allowing homosexuality in principle but not in practice.

In summary, they want the university to condemn homosexual behavior (“acting out”) and reject those who have homosexual desires as inherently evil. BYU is right to recognize that there are gay students and faculty members who are willing to conform to the university’ honor code and refrain from acting on their desires. That the university understands this reality is a positive sign. I have seen church leaders and members deal with their LGBT brothers and sisters with respect, compassion, and even acceptance. It cannot be easy to be a gay Mormon, and I am grateful that there are so many good people who can get beyond dogma and deal with people as individuals.

In recent years, the LDS church has consistently taught that it is not sinful to have homosexual desires; it only becomes sinful when those desires are acted upon. Again, this puts tremendous pressure on gay members to remain lifelong celibates, which to me sounds miserable. But this isn’t enough for the “Standard of Liberty” folks. What the church calls policy they call “the compromising and soul-killing inconsistency of allowing homosexuality in principle but not in practice.”

I could go through their laundry list of complaints about the “intrusion of the lawless traveling gay advocacy group[s]” and a BYU-sponsored group “Understanding Same-Gender Attraction,” which they hyperbolically say is “really about affirming out-of-bounds sexual lust.” But the problem with these people is that they have set themselves up as a righteous corrective to the moral decline of BYU and, by extension, its sponsoring institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is, of course, dangerous ground for an otherwise faithful Mormon to occupy.

In the LDS church, revelation and inspiration flow in one direction: from the leadership downward to those under their “stewardship.” President Boyd K. Packer has said, “You must decide now which way you face.” He said that even well-intentioned church members may “be turned about without realizing that it has happened…. Unwittingly we may turn about and face the wrong way. Then the channels of revelation are reversed.” He went on to say

There is the need now to be united with everyone facing the same way. Then the sunlight of truth, coming over our shoulders, will mark the path ahead. If we perchance turn the wrong way, we will shade our eyes from that light and we will fail in our ministries.

The Grahams and their fellows have clearly turned about and have begun challenging the leadership of the church. I have seen this all through my years in the LDS church: Members get upset when the church doesn’t support their pet belief, so they become convinced that the church is wrong for having compromised or abandoned their position. A good example of this is the proliferation of polygamous offshoots of the LDS church when polygyny was officially abandoned between 1890 and 1904. I’ve also known people who became convinced that the church was in apostasy because it did not publicly support Birch Society politics (I knew two men who stashed automatic weapons at Temple Square because they were convinced that President Benson was being silenced by evil and conspiring men).

But such people are no different from liberal dissenters from the church. There is little difference between saying that the church is wrong in not accepting homosexuality and saying that the church is wrong for being too accepting of homosexuality. Both reflect the belief that the church member knows better than his or her church. And if you know anything about Mormonism, you understand that such a belief is rightly considered the “spirit of apostasy” within the church.

The LDS church is in a difficult position regarding LGBT members. In Mormonism, one must be married in a heterosexual union that is sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise to attain exaltation and godhood. Thus, there is no place in LDS theology for homosexuality. But the church understands that same-gender attraction is a part of many members’ lives, and it cannot be ignored or wished away. If anything, BYU ought to be applauded for making changes that recognize the reality of gay members’ lives. Faithful members who are upset that the church isn’t sticking to their rigidly held beliefs ought to take some time to think through their position.

On a personal note, I cannot imagine being as cold-hearted as the Grahams. Where I see people struggling to make their way through difficult circumstances, they see only deviance and debauchery. While the church rightly distinguishes between thought and action, they insist that “homosexuality should still be officially, courageously, and correctly shown as sinful and harmful in both thought and deed in every ward, stake, and Church-owned or endorsed group, business, or education entity.” I don’t know what has motivated their obsessive intolerance of homosexuality, but I sincerely hope they have no gay children.

If nothing else, they aren’t any different from me in preferring their own judgment over the church’s teachings. But, unlike them, I acknowledge my apostasy.

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6 Responses to In Defense of BYU

  1. For years the Church has condemned members who step to the left of official policy and doctrine. This couple and the fairly large group of Utahns taking an active stance against the humane stand on immigration by the Church present a new problem for leaders.

    Will we hear a conference address from BKP railing against the new right-wing threat to the Church?

    • runtu says:

      I think the church has spoken about this kind of apostasy. Here’s Quentin Cook in 2003:

      Gospel Extremism

      Another sign of spiritual immaturity and sometimes apostasy is when one focuses on certain gospel principles or pursues “gospel hobbies” with excess zeal. Almost any virtue taken to excess can become a vice.

      Certain members have wanted to add substantially to various doctrines. An example might be when one advocates additions to the Word of Wisdom that are not authorized by the Brethren and proselytes others to adopt these interpretations. If we turn a health law or any other principle into a form of religious fanaticism, we are looking beyond the mark.

      Some who are not authorized want to speak for the Brethren and imply that their message contains the “meat” the Brethren would teach if they were not constrained to teach only the “milk.” Others want to counsel the Brethren and are critical of all teachings that do not comply with their version of what should be taught.

      The Lord said regarding important doctrine, “Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me” (D&C 10:68) and “That which is more or less than this cometh of evil” (D&C 124:120). We are looking beyond the mark when we elevate any one principle, no matter how worthwhile it may be, to a prominence that lessens our commitment to other equally important principles or when we take a position that is contrary to the teachings of the Brethren.

  2. ff42 says:

    I wonder if the fall is great from their rather high horse?

  3. Cherilyn Eagar says:

    I found your blog and would like to comment in defense of the Grahams. The reason they are so passionate and prolific about defending the LDS church’s Proclamation on the Family and its support of the natural family is that they have had a homosexual son who was able, through their love and support, to overcome his same-gender attraction. They and he have written books about their experience to provide help to others who face the same circumstances.

    • runtu says:

      What exactly does it mean to “overcome” one’s same-gender attraction? From what I can see, you most likely mean that he’s been able to suppress his sexual desires such that he doesn’t act out on them. Sounds like a miserable life to me.

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