In 2012 a BYU religion professor named Randy Bott created a firestorm when he made fairly racist comments justifying the priesthood ban to blacks in an interview with the Washington Post. Many called for Bott’s firing. Shortly thereafter Bott took retirement from BYU. Sadly the comments weren’t that surprising and most of us have known people with similar views.
Fast forward to this week. Ruthie Robertson, an adjunct professor at BYU Idaho is told that she won’t be retained after the summer semester. (She had been contracted through fall) This is after putting a fairly controversial post on Facebook saying that,
“Most Christian faiths label homosexuality as a sin based on archaic writings. A few hateful verses in the Old Testament have led to hundreds of years of prejudice, hatred, violence, and pain” “This is my official announcement and declaration that I believe heterosexuality and homosexuality are both natural and neither is sinful. I will never support the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” because that “sin” is part of who that person is.”
Again most us know people with exactly the same beliefs. But what is the difference between the cases? In both situations employees of the Church were expressing strong doctrinal views that the Church rejects.
To my eyes this is largely orthogonal to LGBT issues in the Church, although I can completely understand why people will make that the prime issue. I also don’t think it is an issue of religious freedom since in this case we’re talking about employees of the Church at a Church school promoting doctrinal views in opposition to official Church teaching. This isn’t a Jew at a secular job being told not to wear a kippah. Rather this is someone functioning as a religious employee not fulfilling their job.
We want to have religious pluralism, yet the issue of Church employees in some sense reflecting and representing the Church matters a great deal as well. Many parents, whether you agree with them or not, send their children to BYU thinking it’ll be intellectually “safe.” I disagree with that view for a variety of reasons, but they put a ton of pressure on people associated with BYU. Yet this has the unfortunate effect of BYU professors fearing to say anything at all. I can think of excellent professors I had who were very careful not to say anything remotely controversial. Yet, on the other hand, I remember the infamous “English Department Wars” when I was at BYU over certain social and political issues and what got taught in the classroom. Conservatives, with some justification, are concerned over a mono-culture at most secular universities with a de facto political and social dogma. Yet in a real sense BYU is offering the same thing. The usual justification is that by providing a place like BYU you are creating the diversity the academy is missing.
All that is true, yet I keep turning back to the fundamental issue of hypocrisy. Many of the people up in arms about Robertson’s firing were glad Bott left BYU. I suspect many of those who had called for Bott’s firing are more conflicted with Robertson. Yet Robertson’s position at BYU-I was already tentative. (She was just a temporary adjunct professor rather than a long term full professor with quasi-tenure) Also Robertson was condemning recent comments and actions of Apostles whereas Bott was unfortunately propagating teachings that had been repudiated decades earlier. The responses were different as well. It appears Bott followed what University authorities asked of him. The same opportunity was given to Robertson but she refused.
For pluralism to be pluralism it has to be an agreed upon set of practices and rules that don’t depend upon the beliefs in question. If you want people like Robertson to be able to teach at BYU don’t you also have to want people like Bott to be able to teach and hold their own beliefs?
1. This post really isn’t about LGBT issues but how we view representatives of the Church. We’ve discussed LGBT issues here in the past. It’s a much more complicated issue than I think people on both sides of the matter tend to want to admit. I think in particular I think people downplay too much the reasons for the Church’s position. That is caught up with the very ideas of pre-mortal life and post-mortal exaltation which are tied up with an idea of eternal gender. That is Mormons have a fairly different basis for engagement with LGBT issues than most Jews or Christians do.
2. We can of course debate whether non-religion teachers at BYU should be seen as religious teachers. As a practical matter though BYU seems to see all professors as mentors and thus their religious views mattering a great deal. Thinking back to my own BYU experience most of the mentors I had were not in religion departments yet I learned a tremendous amount from them that shaped my religious convictions and perspectives. Having first gone to school at a non-Mormon university the biggest strength of BYU from my eyes was just how approachable all the professors were. They really were teachers in the full sense of the word rather than mere lecturers.