Dissent and Sexuality in the University

Following up on my last entry, there is more news about the discussion of religious ideals in the university. This time the university in question is Brigham Young University. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsors BYU, came out in support of a republican-led effort to amend the constitution to limit marriage to “a man and a woman”. The church sees this as being consistent with its The Family: A Proclamation to the World. It has in the past lobbied for legislation prohibiting same-sex marriage in California, Hawaii and other states, so its support of the amendment is nothing new. What is new is that the support was tied explicitly to a partisan political effort. The amendment was widely seen as being unlikely to pass, and in fact it fell well short of the 60 votes needed.

An adjunct professor of philosophy at BYU, Jeffrey Nielsen (no relation to me) wrote in the Salt Lake Tribune about his objection to the church’s support of the republican bill. He considers himself a loyal and supportive member of the LDS church, but supports gay marriage. Four days after his opinion was published, he learned that he would no longer be teaching philosophy at BYU. His department chair wrote that Nielsen’s public opposition to a church policy makes him ineligible to teach at BYU.

What are the limits of discussion in a university? This is a question that has affected even liberal, secular universities such as Columbia, as this story describes. The scholar’s effort to learn requires an assumption of doubt, the belief that we do not yet know all that is to be known about a subject. Most religious institutions , in contrast, require the assumption that certain core ideas are known and not subject to question. Nope, you don't need binoculars to see the potential for conflict here.

This is is not something unique to BYU. Notre Dame recently has been dealing with the issue, as it has tried to reconcile its Catholic teachings with explorations of sexuality and gender. The President of Notre Dame, John Jenkins, earlier this year gave an address on the subject that makes good reading for people trying to understand how institutions and individuals balance the competing demands of faith-based belief with scholarly inquiry. Whether you agree with Jenkins or disagree with him, it is useful to understand the issues from his perspective because he makes explicit the competing values. The scholar is obligated to question the existing knowledge base, while religion expects devotion to an existing belief system. Ultimately, the two simply may be too incompatible to coexist fully in a religious university. Religious belief systems seldom (if ever?) allow one to question basic tenets of one's understanding the way that scholarly inquiry obliges one to do.

I find it interesting that in both the BYU and the Notre Dame cases, the issue is sexuality or gender. Would it be too facile to say that we are passionate about passions? Perhaps so, but it is true nevertheless that sexuality seems to raise a religious community’s ire like few other subjects can.

An example of this is found in the excommunication of the owner of the website www.lds-mormon.com. On his website is a treasure trove of history and opinion regarding Mormonism, much of which runs counter to the more rose-colored version of its story conveyed in the church’s own materials. Eventually he was excommunicated for the material on his site. But it wasn’t his criticisms of LDS doctrine, history, or even his belief that the Book of Mormon was the product of Joseph Smith's creative imagination that led to his excommunication, it was his critique of the church's proclamation on the family. Public disagreement about the role of gender is apparently worse than apostasy over issues such as LDS priesthood authority or pointing out inconsistencies in the Book of Mormon.

Yes, there is something uniquely powerful in sexuality, and religions seek to control that power. This is an area that deserves further study. But for now, it appears that such studies shall not be done at BYU.


Michael Nielsen said...

News of this has begun to find its way around the internet. You can find a few hundred webpages and bulletin boards by searching at google. Use something like:
Jeffrey Nielsen BYU marriage amendment

One blog with a very well-informed viewpoint is:

It has even merited note at Time magazine:

It will be interesting to see whether the broader questions are discussed there and elsewhere.

RTC said...

Good write up. I just heard that he was "not renewed" today. I have to admit I'm not surprised. I read his opinion piece and really liked it (which must mean it was critical of Mormonism). Typical BYU. I hope this is another black mark on their record with the AAUP.

Michael Nielsen said...

Hmm, the issue must be on my mind because I have seen several related items in the news. The most interesting comes from the Southern Baptist Convention, which is expecting a committee report encouraging its members to withdraw their children from public education. They don't want their children exposed to ideas that they disagree with, so they are encouraging parents to enroll their children in private schools or to home school their children.

Of course there is a big difference between university education and elementary school. But this difference may be lost on members of conservative religious groups, where literalism and narrow interpretations of scripture are valued. As soon as the summer semester ends, I need to dig in to Hood, Hill & Williamson's Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism. It has been waiting on my shelf too long already, and it surely has relevance to this issue.

Todd said...

Hi Michaell,

Wow, a great run-down of the issues on your blog, stated with more compassion and patience for the tensions at religious universities than I can muster. Being a BYU survivor, but also having taught at a Catholic university as an adjunct for a year, I've seen how religious institutions can really work to balance their missions in contrast with how BYU works actively to stifle inquiry. As Nielsen said in his letter, the university is set up to direct inquiry to a pre-determined outcome, which necessarily distorts the process.

Todd said...

One more thing (sorry for so many small comments), I definitely agree with you that something is really going on in the area of gender and sexuality, at least at BYU. Most of the professors who've been dismissed over the past 15 years have been because they were feminists or wrote about sexuality and gender in some way. In his most recent book "The Sins of Scripture," Bishop Spong argues that religions have been concerned with controling sexuality from the beginning and religion has been one of the primary places where sexually energy has been harnessed and channeled in society. I wonder if there's a part of this that's linked to the church's declining power and role in society. If I'm not mistaken, an increasing number of Americans describe themselves as "spiritual, but not religious" (I myself have often described myself that way.) The great shifts in the way we talk about ethics and morality and the increasing choice and control of women over their own bodies and reproductive destinies has dramatically reduced the power of the church. It seems that part of the religious obsession with sex and gender in the U.S. has to be about the slipping status of institutional religion.

Michael Nielsen said...

A friend replied with these thoughts worth sharing:

Thanks for sharing this, Mike. I feel about the same way on this issue as Jeffrey Nielsen does. However, if he is guilty of anything, it is extreme naivete. Unless he has been living in a cave, he should have known the history of "academic freedom" at BYU in recent years. As an adjunct professor, he has no claim whatever on any position there. He serves entirely at the pleasure of the administration. In that respect, he is in the same position as Darron Smith, who recently got the same treatment. Every occupation has its realities. In academia, we learn that one does not violate the canons of political correctness with impunity if one does not have tenure (and maybe not even then!). When you rely on the goodwill of your employer for a job (term-to-term yet!), you simply don't have all the privileges of permanent employees. Anyone working for BYU should understand that going in. I'm not surprised at what happened to Jeffrey. I'm surprised only that he apparently couldn't have predicted it!

Michael Nielsen said...

For more on the BYU - Stephen Nielsen case I highly recommend this interview with him on KUER radio. He explains his reasoning in developing his position, and why he felt that he needed to write the piece that resulted in his dismissal. The interview is wide-ranging and deals with the material quite constructively.