Friendly Fire on Mormon Scholars

While some corners of the LDS church’s intellectual health have been thriving, including in some aspects of church curriculum, the LDS Newsroom, Church History, the Maxwell Institute, and even BYU Religious Education and Deseret Book, other corners of the Church Educational System and the secretive committee that vets all potential hires, speakers, and academic boards at BYU, have been silently blacklisting, banning, and investigating LDS scholars. The anecdotal evidence is increasingly persuasive that there is a campaign in some quarters of the LDS church’s educational arms to marginalize LDS scholars of religion that are perceived to be too controversial. Some see a silver lining in continuing the trend that the most powerful and influential scholars of Mormonism will continue to exist outside of BYU and CES.  I hope that will not be the case.

It is not my place to recount the details because these are not my stories to tell.  Furthermore, many of those involved remain vulnerable and speaking about specifics may put them at greater risk.  My desire is not to damage either these individuals or the institutions. BYU and CES are certainly free to set standards for their employees beyond the temple recommend.  All employers make judgements about the risks future hires might hold. However, there are two aspects of the particular way that these institutions have been drawing the line in recent years that have me concerned.

First, the standards of orthodoxy that are used are entirely opaque.  Some LDS scholars of religion at BYU and CES are variously warned against evolution, scholarly biblical studies at even the most basic level (including not believing in a literal universal flood), publication in certain venues, publication on certain topics, writing about books published by certain publishers, situating religious figures in their historical time period, and teaching certain classes at other academic institutions.  If those vetting the orthodoxy of various figures believe that there are definitive positions on these topics, these standards should be publicly available rather than secretly decided.  In fact, applicants are frequently told that there are not official positions on these matters, only to find out later that someone higher up the chain has determined that some such aspect about a candidate disqualifies him or her from speaking or teaching at BYU. If there is a creed to which LDS academics must adhere, such a creed should be publicly available so that otherwise fully faithful candidates are not continually surprised to learn of their unorthodoxy.  The unwritten order of things is being zealously applied to write them off.

Second, incentivizing the routes without any risk means bland and boring scholars, ultimately incapable of grappling with serious intellectual issues.  The siege mentality is unnecessarily starving the inhabitants of the sacred city against a foe which is not only not actually attacking them, but also sets the sentinels against the very citizens trying to feed the city!  These institutions have a sacred duty to educate, but in my opinion have abrogated this charge of intellectual engagement for the deceptive safety of the flaxen cord of loyalty.  When only the safest possible candidates are considered, and only the safest possible ground may be covered in scholarship, and only the safest possible judgments may be concluded about certain scholarly questions, the Saints will continue to wander in the darkness of ignorance. Pervasive intellectual apostasy lies squarely at the feet of these institutions who have failed to prepare generations of Mormons to deal with the complexity of faith.  Fortunately, there are some recent exceptions to this trend, but I frankly worry about the pressures they face to conform or be silent.

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