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Even I was never Mormon enough for BYU

March 4, 2009

Over at Equality Time, Equality wrote about judging religions by an idea that one already advocates — by “their fruits.” His methodology was interesting — to see the “fruits” of a particular religion, he says one should look at how that religion governs in an area where it is the majority religion, untempered by too many other influences. His two subjects are Mormonism via the community at Brigham Young University and Islam via the Middle East. I guess I can see how he would use these kinds of communities, but at the same time, it’s kinda a low blow. I *personally* think that the Middle East has problems for entirely different reasons than just Islam (although, theoretically, I guess dogmaticism could exacerbate the issue). I mean, the Middle East has, after all, been an area of cultural excellence in the past.

But when he raises his point about BYU, I…dunno…I have to qualify his ideas, but also, I think that there’s something to it. To qualify, I don’t think that BYU represents pure Mormonism. After all, the BYU Honor Code and culture have several things that aren’t doctrinal (so, I’ve heard many stories of people unfamiliar with the church going to BYU and then going to church and seeing people with facial hair and wondering how these people weren’t shamed. The church doesn’t have quite as much stigma against facial hair as BYU [although I guess it’s nowhere like in olden times when prophets had full beards]).

I would like to say though, that even when I was growing up, I knew I never wanted to go to BYU. A lot of my Mormon peers and friends did, but not me. I wonder why?

I guess if Richard Breitenbeker, a current student at BYU, is to be believed, it’s probably because I, like Equality, am “obviously against Mormonism.” Or, as he says:

I’m a current BYU student. I found my way here via a link unrelated to this issue, and, seeing as this is a site obviously against mormonism, thus I don’t mean to engage your agenda or mine. There are a lot of unpleasant reactions to the honor code, yours and those who might see the honor code as you criticize it, and I acknowledge both exist. The honor code being an agreed upon system though, I don’t think it inherently exhibits those characteristics unless an attitude imbues them. The attitude might as well be this: “If you’re living the standards of the church, then surely you wouldn’t mind doing these things.” Perhaps not so much a method to prevent and punish as a litmus test for those who go in…The Mormon church is, after all, a voluntary religion, not a constitutional government. Radical Islam is unique in its enforcement of standards on those who are not a part of the organization and its belief that not being a part of the organization is so heinously offensive, but again, that’s another discussion.

The first part of the message suggests that if you’re a believing, righteous member, then you should have no problem with the Honor Code. I guess that’s valid up to a point.

Thing is…when I was an active member, I did do all the things I was told. I did the “seminary answers,” magnified my priesthood callings, attended meetings, etc., But still, I did not want to go to BYU and people who weren’t doing these things did.

(Well, I guess part of the answer is because BYU wasn’t offering much money — no matter how cheap BYU can be, it doesn’t beat getting paid to attend — but ignore that).

The issue was, I had a sense of this culture. And I know that for all of the traits of Mormons in the “mission field” (how silly is that?), I think the traits of BYU Mormons would be much more unbearable. I try to stay away from dogma, self-righteousness, etc., I don’t know if I’m making a terribly hypocritical stereotype by presuming that of the Y (after all, I’m just “obviously against Mormonism”) but I get the sense that the school would tend to that direction if it would legislate such an honor code.

Interestingly enough, I seem to take a similar view on marriage. Lots of Mormons want to marry a Mormon, but I would want to stay far away. Stories about girls ditching guys because they aren’t returned missionaries or guys ditching girls who wear multiple earrings are HORROR stories to me.

I cut out a bit of Richard’s stuff (click the link to see the full comment), but I guess I didn’t really get his train of thought. I guess he was trying to suggest that the Mormon church is a voluntary organization, so it’s unfair to use such a metric as what it would do if it were a government.

My problem with this is should be obvious if you’ve been reading me…even as a voluntary organization, the church still pushes a social agenda (cough ban gay marriage, Prop 8 etc.,) that affects nonmembers. And plus, this entire thought experiment was presuming: what happen if the church becomes more than a voluntary organization: the leading influence in a government?

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  1. >>I guess I can see how he would use these kinds of communities, but at the same time, it’s kinda a low blow. I *personally* think that the Middle East has problems for entirely different reasons than just Islam (although, theoretically, I guess dogmaticism could exacerbate the issue).

    I absolutely agree. We’re talking about comparing a first-world, modernized, secularized democracy with no history of subjugation by a foreign power with a bloc that is newly modernized, politically marginalized, and relatively recently independent from foreign domination. In my opinion, these factors have a much greater influence on the respective well-being of Utah and the Middle East than Mormonism or Islam do. Moreover, the fundamentalists dominate Islam largely because of these other factors, whereas moderates dominate Mormonism largely because of the favorable conditions here in the US. There is no need or impetus for radicalism here.

  2. I think I was reading an article earlier about why moderate religions spring up in America, and I think it was saying the same things you were saying (from just the Islamic perspective), but yeah, that’s pretty true.

    I particularly like your analysis of the social and political backgrounds — modern, secularized democracy with no history of subjugation vs. one that has had subjugation, strife, etc., for a long time. I see people making tragically racist arguments, for example, and they fail to take into consideration the poor social conditions. So I guess some of the same thing is happening to religion here.

  3. Lately I’ve been reading Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism. It’s been a fascinating read, and talks a lot about the reasons that fundamentalisms are so successful in some places and less successful in others. You might find it interesting, if you’re into that sort of thing.

  4. I wonder why the author didn’t look at Catholics in Italy, Baptists in Georgia, Anglicans in England…

  5. I’ll have to check Karen’s book. I think I’ve heard the name before….

    MH, I guess it would indeed be interesting to see a comprehensive analysis of things.

  6. How can it be an “honor” code, if it is mandatory and enforced?

  7. (I’d be somewhat surprised if an honor code weren’t mandatory and enforced, but then again I don’t live in a world of trust and honor and chivalry.)

  8. Todd permalink

    I thought the BYU Honor Code (well, the dress and grooming part, at least) was unnecessary, and in some cases actually harmful–some students even came to view men with facial hair as immoral or sinister. One student I knew was so scared when a man with a beard was walking down the street about 20 feet behind her, that she prayed until the man crossed over to the other side of the street, in a clear answer to her prayer. And just to be clear, the reason she was afraid was because he had a beard!

    However, staying away from BYU will not keep you away from silly, immature people who judge by appearances. They’re on every campus.

    BYU attracts a large majority of the top LDS students from around the country. As a National Merit scholar, I was heavily recruited by the University of Utah; BYU, on the other hand, could hardly have cared less–they had more National Merit Scholars than any other private university, despite giving them no special recruitment incentives. The smartest people I knew at BYU are still the smartest people I’ve ever known. And my professors were amazing. Granted, I did a lot of research surveying other students to decide which courses and professors I’d sign up for, but there were a lot of great choices.

    So even though I thought having a dress code was lame, I don’t regret going there one bit. The dress code, and the attitude it represented, was an insignificant part of my BYU experience.

  9. I get your point, Todd. Especially about their being immature people who will judge by appearance on every campus.

    It’s certainly true that BYU attract a large majority of top LDS students (which means they don’t have to work so hard at recruiting…which was a turn-off to me…I’m not going to go to a school that doesn’t really “need” me as BYU’s case was). I guess I have a similar beef with other top level universities, but BYU is a bit different because it’s not exactly a top level university (but it also doesn’t have the pricetag of one)

  10. Joseph permalink

    When college application time came around, I realized I could have gone to almost any school in the country, but still only applied to BYU because it was the best value and my family had no money.

    Even from my first semester I already felt annoyed by many of the cultural phenomena, and predicted I would transfer somewhere. Luckily I quickly found the thriving progressive Provo counter-culture (believe me, it’s there) and realized I would not be left without options for like-minded people. On top of that, I was very happy to find that every single professor in my major (film) was not only brilliant but extremely cool, and did not fit in the perceived BYU mold. Many film students interpreted the grooming code liberally, and none of us ever felt threatened by it. I enjoyed my BYU career, but will definitely be going elsewhere for future degrees.

  11. glad things worked out so well for you, Joseph!

  12. Richard Breitenbeker permalink

    I googled my name the other day as I was talking about it with coworkers and surprisingly this came in pretty high on the results page. Can’t say I particularly appreciate the blatant and intentional lack of discretion, but I also can’t really say it bothers me all that much either. I’m the Richard he quotes in his article by the way. If you look at my argument, you’ll see that the main tenant is this: “The honor code being an agreed upon system though, I don’t think it inherently exhibits those characteristics unless an attitude imbues them.” The attitude I give that is then further exemplified in the litmus test analogy is only one example, but the main point that a negative attitude isn’t a necessary or inherent result of the honor code stands against any number of attitudes. Excellent Mormons could still dislike the honor code for simple teenage rebellion, or from conspiracy theory mindsets, or an appreciation of non-conformity and diversity, but it’s worth noting that these spring from the individual holding the opinion, but aren’t a result of actual features of the honor code. It’s not an attempt to control the irresponsible, or to brainwash religious spies, and it doesn’t make each of us any less of an individual (unless, of course, someone is still thinking their individual differences have to be manifested in their beard or their skinny jeans etc. to be meaningful, in which case again the issue is internal). It is, in actuality, a student-engineered movement of the 70’s to avoid others getting them confused with many long-haired, bearded youths of the day, that the university then adopted to formalize and maintain the integrity of the movement. It’s a bit of a relic, admittedly, but I’m just saying it’s hardly negative or oppressive, and doesn’t serve as a good example of the original thought experiment’s point.

    If you want a good read along similar lines of the original thought experiment (“by their fruits”), but taking a somewhat opposing, and certainly more educated viewpoint, check out Peter van Inwagen’s article Quam Dilecta. Van Inwagen is a well-respected analytic philosopher on many subjects and currently teaches at Notre Dame. If nothing else, it broadens the debate sufficiently to disillusion the common arguments touting the evils religions create while ignoring that that’s not merely a religious issue. To go from the mainstream Christianity that Van Inwagen refers to to Mormonism is not difficult, and then any honest look at mormonism is hard-pressed to find evidence that it will tyrannically enforce belief-standards on unbelievers or has any desire to be more than a voluntary organization. It seems even more innocuous than other commonplace voluntary organizations that overtly seek to be the leading influence in government, like the Republican or Democratic parties. Ultimately I think “Equality” was drumming it up, likely because of some personal agenda or emotion, but as I mentioned originally, I didn’t have much desire to engage that. I hope this makes my position more clear, and I hope this adds somewhat to the discussion of this post. Cheers

  13. Richard,

    Thanks for commenting. I guess it’s cheap consolation in the era of permanent google caching, but if you want me to remove your last name or whatever, then I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Back in 2009, I was pretty stupid on these issues. Not saying that I’m not stupid on these or other issues now, but if I can do anything to help, then I would. Anyway, I liked the counter example in van Inwagen’s Quam Dilecta.

    To playfully challenge something you said though:

    any honest look at mormonism is hard-pressed to find evidence that it will tyrannically enforce belief-standards on unbelievers or has any desire to be more than a voluntary organization.

    I guess I am just sensitive to the lived experience of others who find that in many instances, lack of belief (or even heterodox belief) can come with major relationship damage — divorce or otherwise bad blood, and so forth. And I am aware in a sense that one might say that that is people, rather than anything else. But I mean, I don’t think it would be dishonest for someone to include the Mormon people in a definition of Mormonism, so I do not think that an honest look at mormonism would foreclose the possibility of finding evidence that “it” (where “it” can refer to people) will tyrannically enforce belief-standards on unbelievers.

    And I think it is fair if you don’t have the desire to engage in someone (like Equality’s, for example) “personal agenda or emotion,” but it just seems like the experiences that inform said emotion or said agenda are not diminished.

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