It has been only one week since the initial Washington Post article quoting BYU Professor Randy Bott’s controversial statements was published. [See Kent’s very helpful ongoing chronology of events and published stories.] But a week is a lifetime online. While official and unofficial reactions will continue to play out over coming weeks and months, we can already see who the winners and losers are among the main players. Briefly, the winners are the LDS Church, LDS Public Affairs, LDS bloggers and columnists, the mainstream media, and the rank and file members of the Church. The losers are BYU and the BYU College of Religious Education. Professor Bott gets a category of his own.
The LDS Church: Winner. Amazingly, almost no published commentary on the affair has portrayed Bott’s statements as evidence of current or ongoing LDS racism. Instead, stories have framed this as an opportunity for the LDS Church to more forcefully denounce residual racism among the membership. References in published stories indicate this is due in no small part to quick and highly critical responses published in the first 24 hours by BYU students (largely on Twitter) and by LDS bloggers and online columnists (at blogs and online media sites). In crisis management mode, the Church itself quickly published two statements at the LDS Newsroom site expressly rejecting the statements attributed to Prof. Bott (tactfully wording that pointed rejection) and reaffirming the post-1978 inclusive LDS position on race and priesthood.
It is clear, however, that it will take more than just these two statements for the Church to permanently disavow the opinions expressed by Professor Bott, which are also found scattered among the general membership and even within some dated LDS curriculum materials. Note that both LDS statements speak of racist attitudes as a problem of individuals, not as an institutional problem or as a legacy of prior LDS doctrinal positions. While the Church has not yet publicly addressed the root of the problem, it’s still early in the game. The upcoming April General Conference is a prime opportunity to do so.
LDS Public Affairs: Winner. The two LDS statements issued in response to the Washington Post article were posted at the LDS Newsroom, the Public Affairs site. While its activities and statements are no doubt subject to close supervision and approval by senior LDS leaders, Public Affairs now plays a key institutional role in formulating and publicizing the LDS response to these sorts of events.
The LDS Newsroom site, however, is aimed at the media and the general public. There is, at this point, nothing at the LDS.org site reporting on or even linking to the statements at the the LDS Newsroom. The two statements thus appear to be a response aimed at the media, not at the membership of the Church. This is a little disturbing, almost suggesting that the leadership sees this episode as someone else’s problem (Professor Bott’s problem or BYU’s problem or the media’s problem) rather than as an institutional problem of the LDS Church that must be clearly and directly confronted. Clearly, if the general membership of the Church (including BYU religion teachers, it seems) is to understand that justifications for the priesthood ban that were once commonly cited are no longer valid, some sort of direct and unequivocal statement by the First Presidency or an apostle speaking in General Conference needs to be made. I am confident this will occur in coming weeks and months.
BYU Religious Education: Loser. I know there are talented teachers and capable scholars in BYU’s College of Religious Education. It’s too bad some of their work has now been compromised. The problem isn’t just that Professor Bott offered disfavored doctrine or personal speculation to a journalist or to BYU students in class. It’s that he has apparently been offering similar material to his classes from time to time for decades and, worse, that repeated student complaints to various faculty members and officials at BYU have been ignored. As McKay Coppins noted, “students and faculty alike have long complained that he has a tendency to mingle official Mormon doctrines and his own personal opinions — without distinguishing between the two.” To put it bluntly, the problem is that the people running Religious Education apparently don’t care what students are being taught in religion class. The only response BYU or Religious Education has offered so far is a one-sentence press release being issued to the media by the office of the Assistant to the President for University Communications. It reads, in its entirety:
“The comments attributed to Professor Bott do not reflect the teachings in the classroom at Brigham Young University.”–Terry Ball, dean of Religious Education at BYU
That response seems inadequate to address the concerns noted above, not to mention that the response does not appear to be factually accurate (student comments circulating online and in the media suggest that Professor Bott’s comments do indeed reflect what he sometimes teaches in the classroom). So a lot more work needs to be done to clean up the tarnished reputation of Religious Education.
BYU as a University: Loser. Why do students go to BYU? Why do parents support their kids attending BYU? Because it offers a good undergraduate education at reasonable fees in a gospel-friendly environment. The religion classes are part of that gospel-friendliness and are viewed by most students and parents as a positive feature of attending BYU. But would you want your kid in Professor Bott’s class? How many Professor Botts (faculty offering personal opinions or pet theories rather than accurate history and doctrine) are presently teaching religion at BYU? Better, perhaps, to have a student attend a secular university with a helpful and supportive but largely peripheral Institute teacher across the street than to have a student attending BYU religion classes taught by faculty who are allowed to freelance their own doctrine in class. So if BYU wants to protect its uniquely successful brand, it better get Religious Education to clean up its act.
LDS Bloggers and Columnists: Winners. As noted above, the quick and critical online response on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and media sites contributed to a general perception of this as an opportunity to tie up loose ends from the 1978 revelation rather than as evidence of pervasive racism within the LDS Church. Good work, team. It should also be noted that Daniel Peterson, a BYU faculty member, publicly posted sharp criticism of the comment attributed to Professor Bott just 13 hours after the Washington Post story broke. If other faculty members feel likewise, they had better let their voice be heard, either individually or through a more detailed official statement. [Update: BYU faculty member Ralph Hancock has posted his criticism of Bott’s remarks here.]
The Mainstream Media: Winner. While the media doesn’t always give the LDS Church and its views a fair shake, it did this time. The original story was, on the whole, fairly balanced. There’s no objective evidence that Professor Bott was misquoted in the article. As noted in the prior paragraph, media sites and newspapers have not jumped on this story as evidence of Mormon racism. They seem to view the two LDS statements posted at the LDS Newsroom as more or less adequate responses. The attitude seems to be that this is a problem for Mormons and Mormon leaders to deal with, and now it the time to deal with it. I think we’re fortunate this story has not been sensationalized by the press, although that could still happen.
Rank and File Mormons: Winners. Assuming, of course, that further actions and statements are forthcoming from senior LDS leaders that make it unmistakably clear that similar opinions are now entirely unwelcome at BYU, in CES, in LDS classrooms in our wards and stakes, and in LDS curriculum materials.
Professor Bott: Not a Winner, But Not a Loser. Let’s be honest: He’s not going to be terminated or have his pension threatened. His bishop isn’t going to get a packet in the mail with quotes in the Washington Post article highlighted in yellow. He’ll probably spend his retirement accepting paid speaking engagements at Especially For Youth events and headlining LDS cruises (I hear the food is pretty good). So you don’t have to feel bad for Professor Bott. He’ll be sipping non-alcoholic drinks at poolside on the upper deck while you and I and everyone else are still dealing with the unfinished business of the 1978 revelation.
Any other winners or losers come to mind? Are there any public statements I missed, particularly from BYU or the College of Religious Education?