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.