Can a ‘unique’ BYU really be true to its two missions: faith and scholarship?

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It is possible, some say, to balance faith in divine Truth (with a capital T) and faith in the truths of earthly scholarship.

And that is exactly how Brigham Young University sees its “unique” mission.

All seem to agree that the school owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is — and should be — different from other universities.

The truth-seeking tensions, however, can be difficult to navigate. Trying to maintain professional standards and religious orthodoxy can be challenging. Is it even attainable or could the school lose its footing?

What it takes are teachers who are “bilingual,” former church President Spencer W. Kimball, told BYU faculty in 1975. “You must speak with authority and excellence to your professional colleagues in the language of scholarship, and you must also be literate in the language of spiritual things.”

Mormonism’s flagship university “will not and cannot divorce itself from the big questions of human experience,” religious history professor Spencer Fluhman said in a 2019 address. “Unlike other institutions, there is no secularizing retreat here that permits any discipline or field to imagine itself apart from questions of human flourishing or morality or even holiness.”

That charge was reiterated last week by apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, who reminded teachers that the school “stands unquestionably committed to its unique academic mission and to the church that sponsors it.”

Yet top church authorities have complained at times that the scales were tipping too far toward secularism — on questions about evolution, race, women and, more recently, LGBTQ individuals.

Earlier this year, BYU students lit up the Y on the mountain in rainbow colors and a high percentage of Mormon millennials support same-sex marriage, which the church opposes.

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) The Y on the mountain east of Provo is lit in rainbow-flag colors to show support for the LGBTQ community on Thursday, March 4, 2021.

And now Holland, like some of his predecessors, has called for a retrenchment.

Quoting from a recent letter he received, Holland said that “some faculty are not supportive of the church’s doctrines and policies and choose to criticize them publicly.”

They should take up their intellectual “muskets” to defend the church, especially “the doctrine of the family and…marriage as the union of a man and a woman,” the popular apostle said, but some choose to aim “‘friendly fire’ — and from time to time the church, its leaders and some of our colleagues within the university community have taken such fire on this campus. And sometimes it isn’t friendly — wounding students and the parents of students who are confused about what so much recent flag-waving and parade-holding on this issue means.”

If maintaining the faith’s policy on LGBTQ members — that it’s no sin to have same-sex attraction but acting on it is — costs the school some “professional associations and certifications,” Holland said, “then so be it.”

The Provo school “must have the will to stand alone, if necessary,” said Holland, BYU’s president from 1980 to 1989, “being a university second to none in its role primarily as an undergraduate teaching institution that is unequivocally true to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in the process.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speaks to faculty at Brigham Young University on Aug. 23, 2021.

Some report the speech already has had a chilling effect on campus, with some professors worrying about what they might teach, write or research.

It might not be an idle threat.

In recent days, BYU’s Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship quietly scrubbed from its website any mention of the work by historian Benjamin Park, a BYU graduate, history professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas, and faithful Latter-day Saint whose work is sold at church-owned Deseret Book. Gone are Park’s podcast interview for the institute, the announcement of his short-term fellowship, even his profile page.

“I was surprised and disappointed to see my content was removed,” says Park, author of the acclaimed “Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier.” “Given BYU and the Maxwell Institute had played a significant role in my own development in general, and this book in particular, their hosting my scholarship was a high point for my career.”

Now, Park says, “I worry I don’t have a place there.”

(Photo by Mike Hoogterp)
Benjamin Park, assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University, and the author of “Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier.” In the wake of Jeffrey Holland’s speech, his posts have been removed from BYU’s Maxwell Institute.

Questions have swirled through other corners of the school about how much support for their LGBTQ students is OK, what is included in doctrine versus policy, how best to defend the faith without diminishing their academic standards, what would happen if the school loses accreditation — and how best to chart a middle course between the prestigious but religiously free-floating Notre Dame and the lower-ranked but more religiously controlled schools like Oral Roberts University.

“BYU occupies a really important place as a part of a little solar system of faith-based colleges dedicated to excellence in research and teaching,” says Patrick Mason, chair of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, “while also being serious about its religious identity.”

There is an “inherent tension between secular scholarship and religious faith, but BYU tries to bring the two into conversation with each other,” Mason says. For students and faculty, “it is all part of who you are, part of the bigger, integrated world of knowledge.”

By what authority?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The 2021 fall semester gets underway at Brigham Young University, Aug. 30, 2021, in Provo.

A singular aspect of Mormonism is the belief that a divinely appointed prophet ultimately pronounces truth — and members trust him to speak for God.

Beyond that, Latter-day Saints agree to “sustain” all their top leaders known as “general authorities.”

But university professors typically defer to consensus in the field, not to a single individual, which sets up competing authorities. And they feel free to critique their school’s president.

In recent years, two BYU presidents — Merrill Bateman and Cecil Samuelson — were simultaneously serving as general authorities, which gave them extra ecclesiastical protection from criticism.

The current president, Kevin Worthen, has no such shield.

The issue of religious authority came into play in 1981, with a strong exchange over the nature of God between English professor Eugene England and outspoken apostle Bruce R. McConkie.

McConkie vehemently opposed England’s speculation that God might be progressing, saying that the Almighty’s perfection is absolute, and in a letter wrote: “It is my province to teach to the church what the doctrine is. It is your province to echo what I say or to remain silent.”

(Courtesy Janan Graham-Russell)

Latter-day Saint scholar Janan Graham-Russell

For believing scholars working at BYU, says Janan Graham-Russell, a graduate research fellow in Mormon studies at the University of Utah, the question becomes: Where does one’s adherence to doctrines end and secularism begin?

Pursuing questions about faith in any field, she says, “can be a spiritual practice in itself.” After all, the church was built on Mormon founder Joseph Smith asking a question about which church is right.

At BYU, Graham-Russell says, the expectations concerning…

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