Why? Because Elder Holland addressed BYU faculty and staff yesterday and published the transcript at the LDS Newsroom. There are stories on the address at the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News. Social media is ablaze with rebuttals. Honestly, I’m not eager to tackle the topic. There are a lot of things going on in the world at the moment that have a stronger claim on some attention from my weekly soapbox. Thousands of US military are working hard to get US citizens and some lucky Afghan nationals out of Afghanistan. The latest Covid surge threatens all of us, while millions of Americans defiantly refuse to get vaccinated and a couple of idiot governors do their best to block measures that will slow the spread in their state. Doctors and nurses are increasingly overwhelmed by case loads, exacerbated by frustration that much of this surge could have been avoided. I’m a little miffed that I am going to talk about the annual GA pep talk to BYU faculty and staff rather than other more important stuff. It rained (rather than snowed) in central Greenland for the first time in twenty thousand years. For the second year in a row, I’ve had family members around the West evacuate their homes because of threatening wildfires which get worse every year. The list goes on. But okay, let’s talk about BYU. Nothing like a little friendly fire to cheer up your day.
A nice place to go to college. Let’s start on a positive note. For the average LDS kid, BYU is a great place to go to college, and not just because tuition is fairly affordable. There were about a dozen LDS kids at my high school out of mabye 1500 students. Like any good LDS kid, I avoided high school parties (and drugs and drinking and sex) and did early morning seminary and service projects and church basketball. Going to BYU was great. A safe social environment. You could relax and have a good time without the always-be-on-your-guard feeling. In the decades since I was a student, I know some things have changed. The Honor Code (bad name: it’s about conduct and conformity, not honor, but that’s another post) has been tweaked and the Dress Code (at least an accurate name) is still there, but not that much has changed. I am confident that for tens of thousands of LDS students, BYU is still a great place to go to school. I think the hundred million bucks of our tithing money that goes to BYU every year is well spent.
Whatever happend to “the Harvard of the West”? The same Elder Holland who spoke to BYU faculty and staff yesterday was President of BYU from 1980 to 1989. I think it’s fair to say he continued the efforts of his predecessor, Elder Oaks, to beef up the academics at BYU. Here is a paragraph from a 1983 Ensign article on Elder Holland that catches some of his academic emphasis:
Challenged by President Spencer W. Kimball at his inauguration to help BYU become an “educational Mt. Everest,” President Jeffrey Holland has responded enthusiastically. Striving to make BYU the “Harvard of the West” might be a worthy enough goal for some, but President Holland has gone on record as preferring to see Harvard and Yale fighting “to see who can become the BYU of the East!”
My sense from reading Elder Holland’s address yesterday is that LDS leadership is not so much concerned with BYU’s academic success as a university anymore. That’s almost irrelevant to them. The primary focus has shifted to making sure every naive LDS 18-year-old who enters BYU has a carefully insulated college experience suffused with Mormon cultural, moral, and religious values (with no serious discussion of these values allowed) and exits a few years later as a naive LDS 24-year-old with a college degree. Which isn’t really as bad as it sounds. Plenty of college students across the country end up, after a few years of college, with student debt well into the tens of thousands and nothing to show for it except a working knowledge of designer drugs, premium brew, and the latest video games. Like I said, I do honestly think BYU is a good place for an LDS kid to go to college. I just wish there was more emphasis on academic excellence by both students and faculty. Really, that ought to be job one for any university.
He should have talked about Covid shots, not musket shots. Elder Holland appealed to the faculty (remember, he was addressing the faculty, not the students and not the general Church membership in a Conference talk) to be better defenders of the Church. He chose an unfortunate metaphor to emphasize this, quoting Elder Neal A. Maxwell as follows:
“In a way[,] [Latter-day Saint] scholars at BYU and elsewhere are a little bit like the builders of the temple in Nauvoo, who worked with a trowel in one hand and a musket in the other. Today scholars building the temple of learning must also pause on occasion to defend the kingdom. I personally think,” Elder Maxwell went on to say, “this is one of the reasons the Lord established and maintains this university. The dual role of builder and defender is unique and ongoing. I am grateful we have scholars today who can handle, as it were, both trowels and muskets.”
I’d rather have BYU faculty focus on academics and being good researchers and teachers. Yes, they should also be good models of LDS citizenship for the students and say a nice thing or two about the Church and Mormon beliefs here and there in lectures or office visits when the topic comes up. But let’s leave apologetics to FAIR and FARMS and the Religion Department.
Besides, right here, right now, at BYU in August 2021, with thousands of new students returning to BYU from around the country or arriving for their exciting freshman year, the biggest threat to BYU faculty and students isn’t gay marriage or critiques of LDS history — it’s getting a bad case of Covid. I’m sure BYU faculty, like university faculty and teachers of high school, middle school, and elementary students all over the country, are concerned about exposure to Covid because of close contact with their students. They don’t want to get sick and die because they are around students who don’t get vaccinated or who don’t quarantine when they become Covid-postive. Elder Holland should have been talking about Covid shots, not musket shots. He should have supported a BYU policy that strongly encouraged, if not required, all faculty, staff, and students to get vaccinated. (I don’t know exactly what BYU’s Covid policy is at the moment.) Especially given BYU’s location in Utah County, surrounded by thousands of Mormons who think it’s their patriotic duty and personal right to not get vaccinated, regardless of what the First Presidency tells them.
So why are so many people upset by Elder Holland’s remarks? Let me venture a guess. It’s likely because he spent half his address talking about homosexuality and gay marriage and LGBT issues, more or less laying down a directive that hey, we don’t talk about that at BYU, much less march in a protest or put up banners or drop a paragraph into a valedictorian speech showing support or sympathy for anything along those lines. Look, it’s 2021, not 1961. If that’s the message Elder Holland was directed to deliver to BYU faculty, or the message he personally felt compelled to give, at least mellow the tone. At least give some hope to LGBT students that they haven’t made a colossal mistake by enrolling at BYU or continuing with their LDS membership. He just sounded like an old guy on his porch yelling at the gay kids, “Get off my BYU lawn!”
Any reasonable person has to wonder why any LGBT person remains an active LDS or chooses to attend BYU. It’s certainly not the mixed messages they get from LDS leadership. It must be because of the friendships they have with other LDS and the fellowship and good feelings many (if not all) LDS get from participation in their wards and the nice college environment BYU offers. Any LGBT person who remains active in the Church and at BYU deserves our admiration and support. It’s tough enough for the average LDS to stay active.
Yeah, mixed messages. Here’s a quote from Elder Holland’s talk showing the “Get off my BYU lawn!” part of his message:
If a student commandeers a graduation podium intended to represent everyone getting diplomas in order to announce his personal sexual orientation, what might another speaker feel free to announce the next year until eventually anything goes? What might commencement come to mean — or not mean — if we push individual license over institutional dignity for very long? Do we simply end up with more divisiveness in our culture than we already have — and we already have too much everywhere.
And here’s a quote from Elder Holland’s address professing love, concern, and support:
In that spirit, let me go no farther before declaring unequivocally my love and that of my Brethren for those who live with this same-sex challenge and so much complexity that goes with it. Too often the world has been unkind, in many instances crushingly cruel, to these our brothers and sisters. Like many of you, we have spent hours with them, and wept and prayed and wept again in an effort to offer love and hope while keeping the gospel strong and the obedience to commandments evident in every individual life.
Now I blog about a lot of things, but LBGT issues aren’t really my thing. There are many who could write more personally and more eloquently on that topic. But even I can see that “same-sex challenge” is just the wrong term to use and suggests a much deeper problem with LDS leadership thinking on the issue. If you have cancer, that’s a challenge, and God bless you and your family if that’s the challenge you or someone in your family is facing. If you got an arm or leg blown of by an IED while serving in the military, that’s a challenge, and if that’s you or someone you know, that person deserves every veteran’s benefit and educational benefit and job benefit they get. But being gay is not a challenge. That’s just your life. Pretty much everyone — even LDS leadership! — agrees now that if your are gay, that’s just the way it is, that’s just who you are. It’s only a challenge if you are LDS or at BYU. Instead of saying “we want to help you with your same-sex challenge,” it seems like LDS leadership ought to be saying “why is it such a challenge for LGBT within the Church and how can we change that?” The leadership thinks it’s someone else’s problem, when almost everyone else recognizes that, for LDS LGBT, the Church *is* the problem.
The good news is … The good news is that, like every other BYU faculty pep talk, this one will likely be forgotten within a week or two. In rather glaring contrast to Elder Holland’s remarks, BYU itself just opened an Office of Belonging, and no that’s not a joke. Here’s from the announcement at BYU’s own website: “BYU announces the formation of a new Office of Belonging.” The subheading reads: “President Worthen shares BYU’s Statement of Belonging as a guide for addressing the needs of all marginalized individuals on campus.” The post is dated August 23, 2021, the same day as Elder Holland’s address. Mixed messages. I guess the Board and the BYU are just going to have to work out between them who belongs at BYU and who doesn’t. I’ll end my post with three cheers and a silent prayer for President Worthen, who seems to be the right man for the job but who has his work cut out for him.
UPDATE: Here are two additional posts that offer nice discussions of Elder Holland’s talk. Highly recommended.
By Jana Riess at RNS: Elder Holland’s BYU speech is for a university of yesteryear.
By John C. at BCC: Elder Holland’s university address reflects a failure of moral judgment that is endemic to the Church.