When our kids were young, we lived in an area of Salt Lake that I didn’t think had the best schools. They weren’t awful, but they weren’t great either. The principal recommended that to get our little geniuses into great schools we should either drive them across town every day to an open enrollment school that was a better fit, or that we get them into a magnet program. He said they didn’t have the funding for kids who needed more academic challenge, and if he had extra funding, he would use it for English as second language or for remedial programs, both of which were a greater need in his school district. We briefly toyed with going to a private school option, and one of the private schools in our area was a Mormon religious education format. It sounded mostly all right, but I was concerned about a few things: 1) how small the school was (limited social interaction), and 2) were our kids going to be surrounded by the children of religious fanatics who objected to “secular” education? We didn’t object to our school on secular grounds at all. Would a religious private education cause them to have a stilted education based on religious fears we didn’t share? We ultimately solved this problem by moving to Scottsdale and choosing to live near at A+ school.
When we moved to Singapore, all American curriculum schools were private schools with high tuitions (paid for by my excellent ex-pat gig), and we had to make a choice. SAS (Singapore American School) is an internationally acclaimed private school, one of the ten best globally, and was clearly our first choice. There was another option that was a “Christian” based education. When I looked more closely at it, I was very concerned that they would be teaching things like creationism and that Mormons aren’t Christian. I was very concerned that it would be a fundamentalist education. When we moved into our ward, only one ex-pat family had deliberately chosen that school, and the mother was definitely a young earth creationist. We made the right choice.
In Mary Ann’s excellent post earlier this week, she discussed the rising DezNat movement, and lightly touches on some of the actions at BYU right now with petitions to oppose what some students feel is an erosion of conservative values among the faculty. Some of my good friends have been identified as enemies by these people who seek to expose what they view as a threat to BYU’s vision. As an alum, I don’t agree. Both my sons have attended (albeit briefly) BYU and BYU-I respectively, and when I contrast their experiences with my own, the school is far more conservative now than it was when I attended in the late 80s and early 90s, but then again the country is far more polarized now. As a private institution, BYU is freer than a public university to make choices (hiring, curriculum, housing, religion requirements, ecclesiastical endorsements, HCO) that might raise an eyebrow in a more open environment, but on the whole, it has also maintained a firm commitment to remaining publicly accredited, to providing an education that will not be a disadvantage in the marketplace. This commitment hasn’t always been supported by the best ideas (see my list next to choices), but it has always been an important principle. This is not always the case with religious institutions.
There is a trend among conservative Evangelicals of disdain for public education, usually on the grounds that it is secular and teaches “liberal” values. When Trump put Betsy Devos in charge of Education, this was a strategic strike at the heart of public education on behalf of his Evangelical base, a way to gut the funding for public schools and give it to private, religious institutions that do not follow the same educational guidelines and standards. By threatening to pull federal funding if schools do not reopen (without providing schools the means to reopen safely), the concern is that the administration is positioning itself to be justified in diverting federal education money to private schools or individuals instead.
Asked whether Christian schools should continue to rely on giving—rather than pushing for taxpayer money through vouchers—Betsy DeVos replied, “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.”
Additionally, Trump’s own education proposal aligns with this vision:
Trump’s signature education proposal calls for dedicating $20 billion in federal money to help families move away from what he has called our “failing government schools” and instead choose charter, private, or religious schools.
Several years ago, I listened to a podcast interviewing a former Evangelical. He said that when he went to college, after having received an Evangelical-based education through a mix of private religious and home-schooling, he found that he was totally unprepared for a real university with academic standards. He was very upset to find that he had so much misinformation and gaps in his education, and this led to his embarrassment and disillusionment with his Evangelical faith. Just what are these gaps? Why do they exist? Are there Mormon parallels or are these an example of different priorities between these closely aligned political allies? (I threw up a little in my mouth just typing that last one).
From the Orange Wave (episode 6: Sexless Ed, probably the best podcast title ever), podcaster Brad Onishi who teaches Religion at Skidmore University discusses the basis for Evangelical objection to public education using the acronym REBS:
Let’s take a closer look at each of these and how Evangelical priorities coincide with and diverge from mainstream Mormon thinking.
Before I do that, I think there are a few broad underlying differences in these religious groups that need to be understood. Politically, Mormonism is still very much a Utah-centric religion with aspirations toward being perceived as at least nationally relevant. Conservative Evangelicalism has a west coast (Orange County) political base with strong roots (due to migration) and ties (due to the GOP’s Southern Strategy) in the Deep South. Mormon leaders (Mormons are about 2% of the country) want to be seen as more politically neutral than they are, including among membership, possibly due to concerns about tax exempt status. Conservative Evangelicals (about 25% of the country) are fine with being seen as politically involved and closely aligned with the GOP.
The Southern Strategy in the GOP was a tactic to increase the conservative base by flipping Southerners from Democrats to Conservatives. This was done by winking at segregationalism. Southern whites in particular were very concerned about their own power, influence and privilege being eroded by being forced to give equal opportunities to black people, former slaves. They were afraid of personal economic erosion if the pool was expanded to include all. Segregation was a way for them to pretend to create equality without actually having to allow direct competition for resources like schools, jobs, public transportation and other public goods and services. If there were problems in black communities, they could congratulate themselves on having a superior, separate white society.
Due to the Evangelical home-schooling movement, textbooks designed for Evangelicals even downplayed slavery, referring to it inexplicably as “the African migration.” That’s some racist wishful thinking. Some Evangelicals also opposed any historical education that accurately portrayed figures like Columbus and the founding Fathers as less than heroic, eliding references to slavery, smallpox infection, and genocide.
There was also a religious-fueled fear of miscegenation or mixing of the races. Evangelical doctrine, like Mormon doctrine at the time, was tied to a white supremacist belief (not to be confused with hate groups like the KKK, but instead an assumption that “white” was better than other races, that dark skin was a curse) that marrying between races would lead to negative outcomes. This is a belief that was included in Mormon youth manuals as recently as 2012 (as my son pointed out to me when I said how awful the Church “used to be” on race, but what a long way we’d come–that didn’t go as well as I had hoped); youth were still at that time being discouraged from dating or marrying people of “other races,” theoretically on the grounds of cultural incompatibility. 
Religious universities and other private schools were being opened by Evangelicals in part to avoid social diversity that could lead to the “mixing of the races” through interracial marriage. Was this a concern for Mormon leaders in creating BYU and in migrating to Utah? As Joanna Brooks points out repeatedly in her book Mormonism and White Supremacy, nearly all of the buildings at BYU (not to mention the school itself) are named for leaders with racist, white supremacist views. These were baked into Mormon doctrine probably from the beginning partly through the Book of Mormon, and also due to the racist views Protestant convert Brigham Young brought into the Church and enforced. While Joseph Smith wasn’t perfect on race, he was at least a nominal abolitionist, certainly more inclusive than his successor.
Right up until 1978, Church leaders were defending the racist Priesthood ban with statements that had to be subsequently disavowed as human misunderstanding. Although these beliefs were officially dropped, they doubtless persist among some Church members as reported by current Black student at Church-owned schools. Current racial diversity at BYU is still mostly white:
- 81.9% white
- 5.9% Latinx
- 4.0% “two or more races”
- 1.9% Asian
- 0.7% Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
- 0.5% Black or African American
- 0.3% American Indian or Alaska Native
Additionally, BYU faculty is possibly even less racially diverse with 24 of 39 departments having only white faculty and a Geography department with zero women and zero BIPOC). Within Evangelicalism, a political priority is to uphold and/or restore a white, cishetero patriarchal order. It would seem that when it comes to BYU, they have a similar goal (or at least have recently enough that it will take quite a while to change it).
While I personally doubt that BYU was created to limit social interaction between races, I am less confident that this wasn’t a goal of Brigham Young’s in founding the state of Utah, and it was certainly behind the priesthood and temple ban. Given the Church’s emphasis on temple marriage and priesthood in the home, who would voluntarily marry someone who was barred by their skin color from a temple marriage or a man who was unable to be ordained to the priesthood?
One of the benefits to my daughter being rejected by BYU has been knowing that she will be getting a much more diverse education (still 47.9% white, though). Conservatives don’t want to acknowledge that the systems are stacked against women and non-whites being in a position of authority, but demographic stats don’t lie.
This is a key point for Evangelical families who believe in young earth Creationism. Although this is not all Evangelicals, it is a widespread view among Evangelicals and dates back to the Scopes Trial. If you haven’t seen Inherit the Wind, go watch it. I’ll wait. Did you catch that sly winking Gene Kelly at the end, eating an apple like Adam (or maybe the Serpent)? Not to mention a fantastic pre-Bewitched Dick York, the only true Derwood. The ironic thing about the Scopes Trial is that while schools won the evolution argument, the trial whipped up enough religious fervor that there was an Evangelical backlash under the brilliant orator William Jennings Bryant (who looks totally nutballs by the end of the movie), and basically they’ve never gotten over it.
I posted brilliantly on the topic of Creationism vs. Evolution previously. There are conflicting statements from Church leaders on this topic, and it requires a bit of drilling down into what is meant by “evolution” and what is meant by “creationism.” Evangelicals who are Biblical literalists believe that the simplistic Creation Story is factually accurate as written, meant to be taken literally, and cannot be contradicted by science. There is often a misunderstanding of evolution among creationists who may be wary of science in general and the Bible doesn’t usually hold up well (or at least whatever the human interpretation of it within conservative circles is) in comparison to newly emerging scientific theories. There will always be a gap between a literal interpretation of the Bible (based on older scientific knowledge) and new scientific knowledge.
Joseph F. Smith, not exactly the most progressive Church president we’ve ever had, even gave up on trying to make this work when he said:
“In reaching the conclusion that evolution would be best left out of discussions in our Church schools we are deciding a question of propriety and are not undertaking to say how much of evolution is true, or how much is false. The Church itself has no philosophy about the modus operandi employed by the Lord in His creation of the world.”
There are four facets to evolution that need to be understood to assess the Mormon Church’s stance:
- Genetic adaptation. Species (over time) will develop to genetically adapt to their environments.
- Natural selection. Species not suited to their environments will become extinct, aka survival of the fittest.
- Common descent. All organisms on earth evolved from a common ancestor.
- Origin of life. This is related to the theory of common descent, that all life originated from the first single-celled organism in the “primordial ooze” and developed from there. Darwin did not rule out the role of a creator, or as he said in Origin of Species: “Life with its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one.” This one’s certainly a problem for ex nihilists like Catholics, but not for Mormons as we’ve always maintained that God organized existing elements to create life.
Among Church leaders, Boyd K. Packer was probably the most critical of the theory of evolution, specifically disagreeing that genetic adaptation was possible across species. In his 1984 talk, The Pattern of Parentage, he outlined his views. These views have, however, been debunked by science.
If you’d like to know where the Church sits on evolution, I can’t think of a better example than BYU, both having and eating its cake with two conflicting departments’ teachings in courses that the university requires. The CES-run religion department is reported to take swipes at godless evolution, calling it a secular theory, and preferring to take the Creation Story as literal creationism. I have to think #notallBYUreligionteachers, but they’ve been in hot water on race in the not-too-distant past, as well. The Biology department (Life Sciences) begins its Bio 101 class with the clear instruction to students that evolution will be taught, and if they are there to argue about evolution, they are in the wrong place. What’s the difference between these two views? The Biology department takes science seriously because it’s their professional field, their entire subject, what they got their degree in, and they have to abide by academic standards that allow the university to remain accredited. The Religion department is not accredited, most of its professors have not received any accredited degree in Religion, and most Religion classes you take at BYU are not recognized at other schools if you transfer.
This “one foot on land and one on sea” approach is probably one reason so many Church members think evolution contradicts Mormon doctrine when it does not. There are definitely opponents to evolution among historical Church leaders, who made statements that it opposed scripture (Joseph Field Smith, Bruce R. McConkie) and those who felt it was not in opposition to scripture (B.H. Roberts, James E. Talmage, and John A Widtsoe–whose namesake building is one of the few BYU buildings not named for a racist, go figure).
Evangelicals believe that the “born again” experience is central to a Christian life, that the Bible is God’s revelation to humanity and contains everything humans need to know to make decisions in their lives, and they believe in spreading the Christian message to others. To Evangelicals, the Bible is the authoritative written word of God, meant to be taken completely seriously as such. The Bible’s position for Evangelicals is different than for other conservative faiths.
For an evangelical Christian, the Bible can correct any other authority. . . So the mark of an evangelical is not whether someone claims to have a high view of the Bible, but whether they are prepared to let the Bible challenge and correct their church tradition, their own understanding of what is good or just, their cultural norms, and any other basis they might have for belief or action.
If Mormons were to state our relationship status with the Bible on Facebook, I suspect it would say: “It’s complicated.” We believe that it “many plain and precious teachings” were lost from it. We believe it to be correct but only as it is “translated correctly.”  If we consider what carries “supreme authority” in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it’s not the Bible. It’s not the Book of Mormon, despite having been called “the most correct book.” It would have to be current doctrinal statements made by living Church leaders that have officially been classified as “revelation.” This puts us more in the Catholic camp as described in the linked article above, and yet precious few of our leaders’ statements merit the official term “revelation.” There is a strong reluctance among Church leaders to use this classification, probably because we’ve been burned before. Even when such classification is used, individual exemptions are understood to trump Church dictates as expressed by Pres. Oaks:
“As a General Authority, it is my responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions… I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work out individually between you and the Lord.”
That’s a key distinction between Evangelical thinking and Mormon teaching.
Rather than thinking of this pillar of opposition as strictly about pursuing a curriculum that does not contradict the Bible, we could consider this as a more general interest in keeping religion infused into the school day through things like the Pledge of Allegiance, classroom prayer, and Bible verses on walls. Evangelicals don’t want any competition to their Biblical literalism, and Mormons want the freedom for our young people to live a devout, yet private life. Both movements are concerned about their views being disrespected in public schools, but only a religious majority would benefit from requiring students to pray as a class (as my 3rd grade class in Evangelical Texas did, which made me feel like a fish out of water since their prayers sounded different from those I was used to hearing).
Any way you slice it, though, if you fear contradiction from non-religious sources, whether you rely on the Bible or Church leaders to be the authoritative voice, you may prefer a religious school on these grounds. This is one area, though, where it appears to me that our tiny minority Church has taken a more reasonable stance in allowing for private, pluralistic devotion in public schools rather than fighting for religious preference in these spaces as was the trend a few decades ago (prayer in school).
Within its private schools, the Church does require religious devotion, church attendance, ongoing belief and practice, and mandatory religious education throughout one’s tenure. In public universities, the Church provides easy access to Institute programs that provide religious instruction and social opportunities for Mormons students who may be a tiny minority among the larger student body.
Let’s talk about sex, baby, or more accurately, let’s deliberately avoid talking about sex. One of the key objections Evangelicals have had to public education is a belief, based mostly on lies, fears, and hyperbole, that public schools will provide alarmingly young students with information about sex that will lead to promiscuity and perverse sexual discrimination. Opponents of public schooling spread rumors that elementary school children were being given homework assignments to experiment with sexual positions. Apparently fearful, sexually-repressed Evangelical parents are pretty gullible. Unfortunately, I’ve met a few of their Mormon counterparts.
When I was in High School, our sex ed class included a childbirth film from BYU that caused one of my friends to pass out and hit her head on the radiator. We also discussed prophylactics and other forms of birth control in my school. My assumption was that the Church didn’t oppose sex education since its university was creating and selling sex ed films. I was surprised when I later lived in Utah to discover that the Church wasn’t great on this topic after all, and I encountered many fellow BYU students who literally did not understand the mechanics of sex at all. 
Evangelicals state that they prefer that sex education come from parents (which let’s be honest, means it really comes from the school yard). They also seek to bar any teaching that is not “abstinence only” which unfortunately statistically correlates with higher teen pregnancy. Evangelicals also have a very patriarchal view of female sexuality, that girls owe their purity to their fathers until their fathers hand them over to a husband who then owns their sexuality. This is why Evangelical congregations host purity balls and why teenage girls wear purity rings to symbolize this chastity commitment to their fathers before their husbands take over. Gross.
This is different from Mormon teachings on sexuality, although there are certainly parallels. We don’t have the Trump-Ivanka vibe going on, for one. We do require chastity for both sexes outside of marriage, and the Church opposes homosexual behavior, but not orientation (good luck with that one). We rely on scaring the crap out of teens with routine “worthiness” interviews that require confession  to a bishop for sexual transgression. Honestly, that seems to be working all right for us, until they graduate and realize that they don’t want to do that anymore. If they go to a Church school, they still have to go through routine worthiness interviews, and if they hope to marry in the temple, there’s one final drain trap to keep them from getting through.
As to opposing public education on grounds of abstinence-only education, it appears that the Mormon Church mainly deals with this within the state of Utah where they have and are willing to misuse their power, despite what the stats say about how ineffective this type of sex education is.
That’s a lot of information to consider about why Evangelicals oppose public education (when they do), favoring diverting federal funding to private (religious) options, charter schools and home-schooling. When Trump recently threatened to pull federal funding for schools that didn’t open despite the pandemic, this was an opening salvo to divert this money away from what Evangelicals value less (secular public education) toward what they value more (religious-based education, either at private schools or in homes). As a tax-paying citizen concerned about the already under-funded public education system and the deliberate gaps in religious education (that also seeks the freedom to teach whatever it wants without adhering to academic standards) I consider this to be a serious breach of public trust.
My two cents: religious freedom for students should be preserved within the public school system, but not funded by the government, and private schools (at all levels) should be very limited in what government funding is available to them, if any. My tax dollars shouldn’t be paying to teach creationism, sexism, and denial of slavery. What kind of citizens are we hoping will emerge from that type of educational training? Tax-funded education is an investment in the socio-economic stability of our pluralistic society.
- Do you think private schools and homeschooling parents should have access to tax payer funding if they don’t adhere to rigorous academic guidelines? If so, why?
- Are you concerned about the secularization of education or the infusing of religion into education? Which concerns you more and what do you recommend be done about it?
- Do you think BYU is doing a good job at providing an education that is both academically sound and religiously beneficial? Does it err on one side or the other?
- Do you think Mormons are aligned with this Evangelical political priority or do our interests lie elsewhere?
 Since we know that all of us are part of the same race, the human race, it’s pretty easy to abide by this guideline. I have never dated an extraterrestrial.
 Usually a swipe at celibate medieval clerks (prolly incels and pedos) who deliberately inserted their own opinions in and twisted the plain and precious truths to their own views.
 My favorite was a roommate on the verge of getting married who said she was worried sex would hurt because sometimes when she went to the bathroom it hurt her “doo-doo hole.” That still cracks me up while also irretrievably undermining my faith in my fellow Mormons.
 or lying
Great post, as usual (Seriously, when are you going to write a book?). A lot of the questions and issues you raise constellate around the age-old tension between secular knowledge and received (or sacred) knowledge, which is really nothing more than a question of epistemological prioritizing: Does (should) one value God’s knowledge over human (empirical/rational) knowledge? In this particular cultural moment (and really, sort of ever since the Scientific Revolution), reason, science and secular knowledge have gradually gained more traction while religious epistemologies have, IHO, retreated a bit. That certainly doesn’t mean the battle is over (see the current insanity about people choosing not to wear masks, e.g.), but science is making progress. However, as your post implies, one thing that the religious folks have done is to make the “fight” between science and religion a political one. For all the fact that many people of faith will make noises about “keeping p0litics out of it”, a lot of religious leaders have used conservative political platforms to broadcast and legislate their agendas.
Generally, as someone who is in the field of education, I prefer that schools be as secular as possible and as free from political and religious influence as possible. Rationalism, intellectual rigor and logic are perhaps not the most important things in the universe (love and music are, IMO), but when it comes to growing and developing young minds, it’s the scientists, architects, engineers, poets and artists who are going to save us, not people of faith. Surely, if the current pandemic shows us anything, it’s the limitations (and actual harm) of religious thinking and religious paradigms when anything actually important and serious is involved. Ending poverty, stopping a pandemic, making more potable water available, reversing/slowing down global warming; God and churches aren’t going to help with any of those things. We’ve got to rely on ourselves in order to save ourselves and others, and for that, we need clear, concise and rigorous thinking and actions that aren’t tainted with the stench of religious zealotry. My .02.
Angela: You’ve touched on so many interesting topics here. You probably could have broken this post into 3 or 4 separate posts. I want to address your question about BYU.
First, I think BYU is an excellent university generally with a pretty solid reputation. But I think BYU insiders have an exaggerated view of BYU. They make the mistake of translating high entrance requirements into high academic standards. In other words, they think that because the average BYU student now has a 3.8-3.9 GPA upon entry, BYU must therefore be a top US university. But what they fail to understand is that BYU’s high acceptance standards are based on the relationship between supply and demand. BYU is the flagship LDS university AND is the least expensive national university in the US, and so many many Mormons want to attend. But the number of available spots has not kept up with the demand, thus the 3.9 GPA virtual requirement. But when you assess BYU in other areas (graduate schools, scholarly publishing, etc.) BYU is not exactly Harvard of the West (or Stanford of the Mountain West).
Second, I think BYU runs the risk of creating for itself a brand that is recognized as a little fanatic and narrow-minded. Back in the late 80s when I attended, BYU had its quirks but it seemed fairly mainstream. You had students that weren’t exactly Peter Priesthoods / Molly Mormons and somehow they seemed to integrate into the culture. These days, every student seems to be a seminary grad., every male student has served a mission, and 50% + of the female students is also an RM. That has an effect on the culture of the place. When my kids applied to other colleges, the idea was to portray yourself as unique and different in a way that would add to the diversity of the student body. When my kids applied to BYU the idea seemed to be to check off as many of the required boxes as possible. This leads to a kind of homogeneity that I think damages the BYU experience and reputation. BYU’s student body is 98.5% LDS . What does that tell you?
Finally, BYU seems to have a mission that is different from other universities. Other than educating students in normal disciplines, BYU’s mission is to train the future leaders of the Church and to indoctrinate them in acceptable teachings. Say what you will about politically correct liberal universities but at least at those institutions you know that your kids’ notions and beliefs and world view will be challenged. And hopefully from that come a student with a wide perspective. IN contrast, BYU is the place where a student goes, not to challenge his preconceptions, but to reinforce them. BYU parents, in general, send their kids there in the hope that their conservative world view is legitimized. And of course, BYU parents want their kids to graduate from BYU with a stronger LDS conviction than when they entered (thus the mission too).
In sum, I think BYU does an excellent job for a certain kind of kid from certain kind of parent. It’s all about conservative Mormonism and finding a spouse who feels the same way. But does BYU prepare their students for the real world outside of Utah? That’s debatable. (note: many of you will want to tell your story about how you graduated from BYU and attended graduate school somewhere else and how you were as academically prepared as any of your fellow students. I know because I had that experience too. But did BYU really prepare me for the real world? Debatable).
I graduated from BYU in 2002, so my experience is dated. At the time, I luckily only had one religion professor rail against the physical and social science professors as apostates, but I heard there were others with similar views. My anthropology professors (which was my major) were all very supportive of working with students to maintain their testimonies. I had more experience with the archaeology side, but they were very open about how they personally resolve their professional and spiritual views so as to maintain the integrity of both. They recognized that it was difficult for some people to resolve those secular and religious ideas, so they’d encourage those students to pursue aspects of the field (or a different field entirely) where there wasn’t as much conflict. It was clear that they cared very much about being both intellectually honest and strengthening the student’s testimony.
I appreciate that BYU schools have some unique offerings like the Jerusalem Center. I took a Dead Sea Scrolls class there from a world-reknowned scholar who’d personally worked with them. He also happened to be a devout Latter-day Saint. He gently debunked some common LDS myths about the Dead Sea Scrolls besides giving us a good introduction using the best scholarship available at the time. There is a unique value in having a place where you can see Latter-day Saints accomplished in an academic/secular field and being able to ask them how they personally resolve conflicts between secular and religious ideas. But in order to have that conversation, you need to be aware of the conflicts. That’s where I think some students get tripped up and assume the professors are trying to undermine their faith.
Brother Sky, she did write a book! It was a mission memoir published by BCC press: The Legend of Hermana Plunge. https://wheatandtares.org/2019/03/06/the-legend-of-hermana-plunge-is-here-part-one/
Excellent treatment of the subject, Angela.
Putting in Betsy DeVos as education secretary had the effect of installing a hungry fox as Secretary of Henhouse Security. She has no education cred whatsoever, has probably never seen the inside of a public school in her life, and has sought to undermine American public education at every opportunity. Whoever takes over that department in the next administration is going to be spending most of their time and energy trying to undo the damage DeVos has done.
School voucher programs and charter schools (which are basically a backdoor to voucher programs) have their roots in Southern “segregation academies”, when concerned white parents in Mississippi in the 60s were frightened at the prospect of government-mandated integrated schools, so they found loopholes to get state funding for their new semi-private “traditional” religious schools. They used existing churches as chartering organizations (churches in the South were, and continue to be, de facto segregated) to guarantee their kids wouldn’t have to share classrooms with people who didn’t look like them. So not only do charter schools erode equitable public education, they were born of racist intentions. They are a perfect example of a contributor to systemic racism.
When I was newly married, I lived in an urban area that had invested heavily in charter schools years before. I was called to be a counselor in the ward YM presidency. There were about a dozen active young men in the ward, but they all went to different specialized charter schools, so they barely knew each other and had completely separate social circles. A couple of the boys still went to the regular public high school, which by then had a reputation of being gritty and dangerous. Those boys either came from unstable homes, or they weren’t privileged enough to have a stay-at-home parent who had the time and inclination to shuttle them across town twice each day to attend a charter school. Again, systems of inequality are enabled by charter schools.
Then there are the economic problems. When you privatize a normally public institution (such as with charter schools and private prisons) and put them in the hands of for-profit entities, you set up all kinds of perverse incentives that are designed to make a few people at the top very rich, and significantly degrade the quality of service to the end user. And all with taxpayer dollars. Nobody should be amassing a personal fortune off the backs of taxpayers for performing an essential public service.
Unfortunately, I see Latter-day Saints as a huge part of the overall problem. In my ward, about half of the families with school-age children do homeschool (pre-COVID) using weird LDS-centered curricula (there is a whole cottage industry producing this stuff). Most recently, as our state (not Utah) adopted a new comprehensive sex education curriculum to be implemented statewide, local church members began a grassroots opposition campaign and passed around petitions to try and block it. Many families who were not already doing homeschool threatened to pull their kids out of public school over this. My bishop, an otherwise respectable man, was one of the leading voices in the uproar. I reviewed the curriculum myself and did not find anything too objectionable. It teaches basic non-sexual lessons such as informed consent (“keep your hands to yourself”, etc.) starting at a young age, which I think is great. Starting in middle school, there is a lesson that explains gender on a spectrum rather than binary, that gender and sex are two different things, and that LGBT people actually exist. I’m OK with it but other LDS parents seem to think the world is coming to an end, and that public education as a whole can no longer be trusted.
My feelings about BYU are complicated. My mom attended BYU, and pushed it on me as the ONLY viable option for a good education, spiritual grounding and wholesome social life. Which is why getting rejected by BYU also felt like being rejected by my faith community, not to mention being a disappointment to my family. Nonetheless, I attended west coast public universities for undergrad and grad, and had great experiences there. I attended institute, and became part of a tight-knit group of LDS friends, many of whom I am still in touch with almost 20 years later. Being part of a minority sect banded us together, and we took great pleasure in mocking the stereotypes of BYU students incessantly. I’m still not a fan of BYU and its unique culture, and for this and other reasons I won’t be encouraging my children to apply to BYU when the time comes.
But…many of you speak fondly of your BYU experiences, and learning from faculty members who held nuanced beliefs, and at least by example showed how to live with integrity as both respectable scholars of secular subjects AND members of the Church. Sometimes I wish I got to have that experience. My spiritual and secular educations were separated by a firewall, for better or worse. Most of my institute teachers felt it was their duty to teach in direct opposition to whatever secularism was coming from the university and the Big Bad World (evolution, LGBT rights, gender equality, etc.), while many of my secular professors were openly suspicious of any religious agenda creeping into their classrooms. Again, these aren’t necessarily bad things in themselves, but if in my 20s I had at least one mentor who had a foot comfortably in both worlds I probably would have been better able to handle the faith crisis that I was headed for in my 30s. Nobody in the Church modeled nuance for me in my youth, so I had to (painfully) figure it out on my own later in life.
Part of what I hope to illustrate in several of my latest political posts is the disconnect between Evangelical priorities and Mormon priorities. Mormons seem to have attached themselves remora-like to the shark that is the GOP, and Evangelicals (who have a low opinion of Mormons and have undermined our religion ruthlessly and consistently) are clever and numerous enough to dominate the GOP while using the Mormon political machine and deep pockets to help fund priorities we ultimately don’t share. There’s no outcome to this exercise that benefits Mormons, and it casts us in a terrible light as bigots, sexists, homophobes, anti-science, fundamentalists, and at least since 2016 corrupted, compromised opportunists with no moral compass. Or maybe my opinion of Mormons is too high. Maybe they really are just like the Evangelicals I see as strange bedfellows, willing to do anything to score a win for their cause, figuring that the ends justify whatever means they employ.
Agreed. The Mormon relationship with Evangelicals is an abusive one. For decades they were the ones calling us a cult, spreading misinformation about us, etc. Nowadays they want to join forces with us on a religious freedom (anti-LGBT) crusade, insofar as it benefits them, but they will always jump at the chance to remind us of who is really in charge in the relationship. And like true victims, we keep going back for more.
As someone who was raised by intelligent, educated parents who nevertheless did not believe in evolution (probably because of Joseph Fielding Smith), I was very grateful for my BYU education which helped me to learn about evolution and consider different possibilities without rejecting my religion. I’m not sure how I would have reacted to the overwhelming scientific evidence if I had gone to another college.
I have been very concerned about the members of my extended family who have chosen the homeschool route. Most of them reject a lot of modern science. All of them are anti-vaxxers. They are prone to believe conspiracy theories, and they post untrue, inflammatory things on Facebook regularly. They are very devoted to President Trump like many of their Evangelical peers. Their homeschooled kids are missing a lot of the skills you would expect kids their age to have, both social and academic. I would prefer that they not get taxpayer money when they are teaching their children so poorly. So far the kids have all gone to BYU-I. I hope they will learn some things there that will challenge their upbringing at least a little.
Mary Ann: I know! I should have been more specific. I think Angela’s next book should be about Mormonism, politics and intellectual freedom. That would be a doozy.
Lots of folks are weighing in on their BYU experiences here. I was there in the late 8os/early 90s and I echo josh h’s sentiments. I knew more students who were sort of skeptical believers who didn’t take a lot of BYU stuff (like devotionals, the honor code, etc.) terribly seriously. They obeyed the rules, but the general feeling I got from the people I hung out with was that you did that stuff just because its was the cost of going to a cheap, halfway decent school, not because it was necessary for your salvation or anything. And josh h is also correct that BYU (and those who are eager to attend) mistakes exclusivity for quality. My time there was a mixed bag. As an English major, I did have faculty who were caring and slightly more secular than the usual BYU profs and rigorous and strict teachers (the best kind). I felt well-educated and prepared for grad school when I graduated. I would say, though, that almost without exception, every class I took outside the major (especially the religion classes) felt more like a kind of semi-patronizing seminary class rather than a college course.
Someone above mentioned that BYU is becoming more narrow and I think that’s true. Part of the problem is that old Mormon bugaboo of thinking that the less secular an institution is, the better and more God-like it is, so that when BYU is criticized for not being rigorous or “academic” enough, that’s almost a point of pride with leadership. That kind of thinking, of course, is ridiculous. And it’s my experience that a BYU degree has been slowly devalued over about the past 30 years or so. It really does feel as if BYU is about half seminary and half college these days and that just doesn’t cut it. I’m quite pleased that neither of my children have any desire to attend. They’re smart enough to know that the institution just isn’t for them.
I had direct experience with the duality of BYU. I had religion professors (usually the ones with famous last names) who would ridicule the science departments and teach with a conservative heavy hand. I also had wonderful professors of evolution, cellular biology, and bioethics, who would bear testimony of the gospel and the majesty of evolution and other scientific processes at the same time. In my required Bioethics class, we would spend hours discussing topics such as euthanasia, abortion, capital punishment, birth control, stem cell research, and many other (more or less) controversial topics. The professor would bring in multitudes of statements by church leaders, usually to show that their opinions were not as monolithic as we were often taught growing up, were often proved wrong by scientific research, and often evolved as the specific general authority learned more. We then discussed current hard scientific research as well as the trade offs inherent in every decision in this arena. It was challenging and fascinating. I grew a lot in that class, as well as the many other classes that taught subjects that may be difficult to hear for those desiring a simplistic gospel world.
To second your point on the variety of Religion faculty, I found that only a few professors were outspoken with their anti-specific-science comments. (Again, primarily those with General Authority last names.) The rest of them either taught a heartfelt class on gospel topics or actual interesting and grounded topics. I was fortunate to have a few classes from faculty with PhDs in Near Eastern studies (from other universities) that compared religious beliefs and practices with those in Islam and Judaism. Several of these courses countered the narratives we sometimes still hear in our Old and New Testament Sunday School classes and discussed the power that translation of specific words from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek have on our perception and understanding of gospel concepts. Again, I was fortunate, and I’m sure many other individuals had varied experiences with their own religion faculty.
The ideas behind the recent online petition concern me. Not the desire for anything more Christ-centered, but the vague inferences and even vaguer accusations. My gut feeling is that:
– a significant portion of those supporting this petition would not want the church approved Evolution packet disseminated at BYU
– they would want discussions in the Bioethics class to begin and end with the premise that the comments of prophets and apostles on these sticky scientific questions are correct.
-they wouldn’t want business faculty to present the diversity of experience and thought that exists in the business world to those with a very myopic experience. (My BYU MBA friends still report shocking student comments (often misogynistic and homophobic) from those with a very narrow prior experience
Again, that’s my gut feeling. I had a mostly great time at BYU, and to echo one of the comments, I was usually equally and often much better prepared scientifically than peers from other institutions for my following years of professional training. I really appreciated the variety of professorial experience – from hard science to hard religion. The differing points of view challenged me and ultimately forced ME to solidify my own beliefs and testimony. I can see how that would be scary for parents and students not wanting that challenge.
And Inherit the Wind is on my watch list for tonight. 🙂
I graduated from BYU in 1979. When I was a student we didn’t have Ecclesiastical Endorsements and there was a great mix of people who were all over the spectrum in terms of church activity and beliefs. For example: my home teacher had been inactive for over a year when he moved into my student ward. I got a very bad case of mono the second week of school and he made the personal decision to go and get class assignments and lectures on a cassette recorder for me so that I could stay in school that semester. Talk about a Christ-like guy! Eventually he decided to return to church activity because of helping me and the fact that he felt comfortable enough to talk about his questions and concerns about BYU culture and the Church. We had two very open minded bishops during my time in that ward. This dear friend/HT and the bulk of my ward (including me) wouldn’t have been allowed to go to BYU if it had been the way it is now or else we would’ve had to lie through our teeth in order to be accepted there now because of our legitimate questions and concerns (which none of us would’ve done). I contrast that ward with the one I was a ward mother to in the early 2000’s. (Our bishop’s wife was antisocial, so I took on the job and loved it.) The bishop was a real fundamentalist type who relished his ability to make or break a student’s standing at BYU and in the church. Many of the young people in the ward had the same questions and concerns about the silly and often toxic BYU culture and the Church, but they weren’t allowed to talk about them on campus or with the bishop. This bishop even gave the students permission to tattle to him on who was not obeying the Sabbath day, wearing clothing (off campus) that could be construed as not following the Honor Code, etc. My husband and the other counselor had to call the bishop out on several occasions for his less than Christ-like behavior. Our stake president was a survivalist/second coming prepper who talked utter nonsense in stake conference and stake meetings. My husband and I opened our home to the ward members who needed a place to talk freely about their thoughts and feelings. In talking to other ladies in my family ward who have also been ward moms we all agreed that the kind of bishops and stake presidents being called now are mostly of the strict black and white mentality and that they don’t so much preside over wards and stakes as they rule over them. No wonder a lot of students who go to BYU and who are much more open minded don’t feel like they fit in there!
I trained to become a school teacher. My classes for my major, with the exception of two electives in the education major, were a total waste of time when I got a job teaching at what my faculty referred to as “Abused Child and Juvenile Offender Elementary School”. I had been trained to teach at a white middle to upper class school where there were no problem students or parents and where I had all of the necessary books and materials that I needed to be an effective teacher. My school was the 180 degree opposite. The only thing we were taught about disciplining a student was to “love them into being good”. During my first two months of teaching I had a student go to the district behavior disorders unit because he was an exhibitionist in 4th grade ; another new student who’d just been put in foster care went catatonic (literally) and had to be taken by professionals to the local children’s hospital’s psychiatric ward;; and my other new student who was trying to kill kids on the playground was diagnosed as psychotic ended up at the state mental hospital. You can’t make stuff like this up! When the School of Education called to check up on their graduates I gave them an earful about how woefully unprepared I had been to teach school. Later on the national accreditation agency that was over the School of Education gave it a very bad rating and put it on parole until it had taken care of revamping most of the classes and that mandatory classes on student psychology and discipline were added to the classes for the education majors.
The one thing that has improved at BYU is that they no longer have witch hunts for LGBTQ students. A gay friend from high school was outed by a roommate in the dorms was subjected to all sorts of terrible things to try to make him straight. He had a nervous breakdown, left BYU and the Church because of what he’d experienced. His parents were horrified by the shell of a son who returned home from college. The sad thing was that up until the “Inquisition” he’d had a strong testimony of the church in spite of its teachings about LGBTQ people. At least now our LGBTQ students are no longer publicly hounded and persecuted for being the way that they were born. I pray for the day when a person’s gender or decision to not choose a gender will not be a big deal and a reason for others to shame and persecute them.
My BYU experience was a lot like JD’s–some fantastic biology classes including Evolution and Bioethics, and mostly good religious classes (other than a course from Randy Bott and another from a very dull school administrator). I did have one GE teacher bring up evolution negatively, but other that and Bott, I don’t recall hearing anything else negative from class (and as a bio major, it was definitely on my radar). Instead, I learned about evolution in most of my biology courses, a religion teacher encouraged us to attend a lecture by the noted biologist Paul Cox (who’d formerly taught evolution at BYU), and a chemistry teacher flat out stated that those who try to use the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics to disprove evolution don’t understand the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.
I remember an upper-level biology class where one of the students said that his parents were happy that he’d chosen BYU because he could major in biology without having to learn about evolution there. I’m sure they were disappointed when they learned it was literally required for his major.
I remember one Sunday at BYU when a fast-and-testimony speaker complained about evolution at BYU and the Sunday School teacher put in a comment disagreeing with him before starting her lesson.
I grew up conservative, but a number of experiences turned me liberal before I finished at BYU. Among these were a mission in Germany, meeting close friends at BYU who were both liberal and faithfully Mormon, and, most significantly, the BYU Bioethics course. We had a big lecture class and then smaller “labs” where a TA and a smaller group of students would discuss various ethical issues. I realized pretty quickly that I saw things, ethically, in an entirely different manner than most the pre-dents and pre-meds in the lab. It really was a turning point for me.
More recently, just a few months ago, I attended a lecture at my local museum, several hours from BYU, where a BYU biology professor discussed evolution in a religious context. Those biology professors at BYU are doing good work.
Trumps alignment with Evangelicals is weird. He obviously has never been in the habit of talking about the Bible (he can’t even pronounce 2 Corinthians; google it). Politics makes strange bedfellows.
Which makes his push for vouchers seem not only unconstitutional, but also corrupt. To me, it looks like he is trying to buy Evangelical votes with tax dollars. And it’s working.
I’m not a fan of vouchers either way. I’m not sure if Trumps motives should matter, but it definitely seems wrong to me.
Rockwell: I think you are exactly right that he’s buying Evangelical votes, but another way to put it is that he’s selling the US to the Evangelicals and taking a finder’s fee (elevating his profile, using the office to boost his businesses, putting off lawsuits indefinitely, strengthening the economic outlook for his own businesses and ties with countries where he does business, plus getting the attention and accolades he so desperately requires). The Evangelicals (a shrinking minority, albeit a large one) get supreme court justices and power to fight gay rights, reproductive rights, trans rights, public education, and to maintain the wealth gap that advantages them. Trump was pro-choice, very strongly on record in 1999 as pro-choice, but he will make a deal if that’s what he has to do for his own interests.
If you have been the target of a group that calls itself DezNat, I am scheduling a press conference in Provo on the topic of online bullying at BYU and would be interested to discuss your experiences.