If you have any cursory engagement with the extremely online liberal/progressive Mormon community (or have even read the previous Wheat & Tares blog post from from Dave B), then you will know a bit about the drama from Elder Jeffrey Holland’s address to the BYU staff and faculty, The Second Half of the Second Century.

My devotional practice these days consists of trying not to get wound up in the maelstrom of a religion that I have long accepted is doubling down on a particular path. Instead of the scriptures and conference talks, I find myself more likely to read speculative fiction — especially those that present alternate histories where one or two key changes spiral into drastically different futures.

And yet…I read and listened to this address (Lord, grant me chastity and continence from LDS drama…but not yet), and I was struck by how….contingent…it all was. In the philosophical sense as “not necessary.” And how profoundly saddened I felt from the growing realization that, if the church and its leaders hadn’t decided to double down on this issue, then maybe we too could present an alternate history that spiraled into a drastically different future.

Holland’s talk is based around discussing the future of BYU (and, in a related sense, the future of the church itself) as anchored in its past. Since we have agency, there’s always a sense in which the future could change, but Holland’s talk is laced with the evidences that the leaders see no ground to change on this area.

The core and repeated theme of Holland’s talk is that BYU must be distinguished by a holy mission: two soaring ideals — that of a consecrated university with that of a holy city. Zion.

This is imminently fair. But what strikes me, what saddens me, what disappoints me, what frustrates me, is how when the church and its leaders visualize what will exemplify holiness, it comes again and again to certain topics.

Let’s first begin with the general idea, before our direct observation collapses quantum possibility into a single reality. Holland relays a story he had read through personal correspondence of BYU failing to meet its mission:

“You should know,” the writer says, “that some people in the extended community are feeling abandoned and betrayed by BYU. It seems that some professors (at least the vocal ones in the media) are supporting ideas that many of us feel are contradictory to gospel principles, making it appear to be about like any other university our sons and daughters could have attended. Several parents have said they no longer want to send their children here or donate to the school.

“Please don’t think I’m opposed to people thinking differently about policies and ideas,” the writer continues. “I’m not. But I would hope that BYU professors would be bridging those gaps between faith and intellect and would be sending out students that are ready to do the same in loving, intelligent and articulate ways. Yet, I fear that some faculty are not supportive of the Church’s doctrines and policies and choose to criticize them publicly.

There are consequences to this. After having served a full-time mission and marrying her husband in the temple, a friend of mine recently left the church. In her graduation statement on a social media post, she credited [such and such a BYU program and its faculty] with the radicalizing of her attitudes and the destruction of her faith.”

Personal Correspondence, cited in The Second Half of the Second Century, J. Holland.

When, I read this, I knew that it could apply to any other number of alternate possibilities. Maybe the “vocal [professors] in the media” refers to those like Randy Bott who nearly a decade ago speaking on LDS idea on race? Maybe it applies to BYU professors calling a certain student a Korihor just earlier this year? Those “abandoned and betrayed” could refer to those turned away by BYU or the church’s tepid response to alt-right “DezNat” movement. It could apply to LGBT students who feel abandoned and betrayed by the church’s thoroughgoing and constant re-emphasis of heteronormativity as a sine qua non of Mormonism itself.

But you know — and I know — and Holland knows — and everyone knows that that’s not the type of thing that Holland is speaking about. Though there may be several parents who no longer want to send their children to BYU or donate to the school for these reasons, we know that these are not who Holland has in mind.

Though there may be several who have served full-time missions and married in the temple who have left the church due to the destruction of their faith caused by these issues, you know, and I know, and Holland knows, and everyone knows this is not the vision of the future nor the anchor to the past that Holland is intending.

Why and how do we know this? We know this because Holland and other leaders consistently tell it to us. (This is my frustration with the liberal and progressive Mormons — for they seem to persist in a hope that to me seems repeatedly foreclosed by current church leadership. And I guess revelation can come from the margins so there’s always the possibility for something else, but…)

We know because in this talk, the example that Holland dives into is that of the “doctrine of the family”. And this isn’t new. In this talk, he quote previous address to the faculty and staff by other general authorities who use the same examples:

“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.”[10]

Then Elder Oaks said challengingly, “I would like to hear a little more musket fire from this temple of learning.”[11] He said this in a way that could have applied to a host of topics in various departments, but the one he specifically mentioned was the doctrine of the family and defending marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Little did he know that while many would hear his appeal, especially the School of Family Life who moved quickly and visibly to assist, some others fired their muskets all right, but unfortunately didn’t always aim at those hostile to the Church. A couple of stray rounds even went north of the point of the mountain!

Citation of Dallin H. Oaks It Hasn’t Been Easy BYU Commencement Address

This is the anchor to the past that guides the future Holland sees.

There is a difference between reading and hearing a talk, and the LDS church’s history of making slight or severe modifications to text transcripts of controversial topics usually drives me to listen to the talks as well — at least, when I am breaking my previously mentioned devotional practice of continence from LDS drama.

And that’s the thing that struck me when I listened to the talk. When Holland says the following lines, his emotional investment is clear to me:

We hope it isn’t a surprise to you that your Trustees are not deaf or blind to the feelings that swirl around marriage and the whole same-sex topic on campus. I and many of my Brethren have spent more time and shed more tears on this subject than we could ever adequately convey to you this morning, or any morning. We have spent hours discussing what the doctrine of the Church can and cannot provide the individuals and families struggling over this difficult issue. So, it is with scar tissue of our own that we are trying to avoid — and hope all will try to avoid — language, symbols, and situations that are more divisive than unifying at the very time we want to show love for all of God’s children.

What strikes me, what saddens me, what disappoints me, what frustrates me, is that the leaders of the church sincerely believe that the line which God is directing them to never cross is heteronormativity. That, while the church may certainly speak to other difficult issues, other “language, symbols, and situations that are more divisive than unifying at the very time we want to show love for all of God’s children,” the issue that is called out specifically and repeatedly is not alt-right nationalism, is not racism, is not homophobia, is not any of a number of things, but “marriage and the whole same-sex topic.”

The divisiveness-rather-than-unity could be in taking a stand against homophobia, but of course it isn’t…the divisiveness-rather-than-unity is for the church, for BYU, for its faculty and staff to not seem sufficiently united in upholding heteronormativity.

What if we imagined a future anchored in a past where we treated the advocacy and protection of refugees with such an uncompromising fervor? We know that the church takes opinions that aren’t in lockstep with the contemporary American Republican Party on this, so it is something that could be emphasized. But imagine if that is what we waged immense political campaigns about, if that were the theme of repeated messages to faculty and staff at BYU, the theme or undertone of repeated conference and fireside talks. Imagine if that were the line that we were willing to alienate ourselves from the rest of secular society as our distinctive peculiarity.

Maybe I’m just a terrible person, because I struggle to imagine this. I struggle to imagine it because of the way I have been raised in this present, in this past. I cannot dispute that in this timeline, we are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. But I wonder if in our distraction we even misunderstand what the assignment is — what is the assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord? What are the curriculum standards, and how are they weighted? Are we really so sure that there’s going to be as many questions on our devotion to heteronormativity as our classroom prep seems to imply? That the answers we are taught really are the answers on the test, even?

It’s hard to say if our (or maybe just my?) lack of imagination here simply reflects our utter failure to be “unique” and “special” and “singular” from the rest of society on this point. That from this present, we can see no other way to be distinctive because we have already capitulated in every other regard.

I am not suggesting that there are easy answers here. If, in this church, in this timeline, we are convinced that “proportion and balance in the process” requires that “love and empathy do not get interpreted as condoning and advocacy, or that orthodoxy and loyalty to principle not be interpreted as unkindness or disloyalty to people,” compelled by an exegesis that “Christ never once withheld His love from anyone, but He also never once said to anyone, “Because I love you, you are exempt from keeping my commandments,”” and further constrained by the concept that heteronormativity is a foremost commandment, then certainly, it makes sense that Holland and the church are anchored to this past to move to this future.

But it strikes me, saddens me, disappoints me, and frustrates me that “proportion and balance” places this issue so high, that even when the need to avoid “condoning and advocacy” is weighed against the need to avoid “unkindness and disloyalty to people,” somehow — always — the former comes through stronger in the balance than the latter.

The seeds of a different way are in the very sentence! Yet, we all know how it will actually go.

It strikes me, saddens me, disappoints me, and frustrates me that even if we can speak of Zion as not only a consecrated city but also an “old ship Zion,” that the only prominent ways we can think to be distinct and unique is not in steaming ahead of the pack as vanguard in a world of turbulent seas, but only by being anchored in place, not moving as the rest of the fleet moves beyond us.